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Living (1929)

by Henry Green

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2115114,079 (3.4)45
LIVING, as an early novel, marks the beginning of Henry Green's career as a writer who made his name by exploring class distinctions through the medium of love. Set in an iron foundry in Birmingham, LIVING grittily and entertainingly contrasts the lives of the workers and the owners

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Living by Henry Green is a 1929 novel that explores factory life in 1920s Birmingham. The author was only 24 when this novel was published. He had dropped out of Oxford University and worked in an iron foundry in order to experience a working class life. His resulting novel is one of social observation that brings the lives of workers, their families and their managers into sharp focus.

The author’s writing style makes this a reading experience as right from the first page you are set down amidst a group of Birmingham factory workers and their lives, jobs and conversations carry on as though you have been with them for some time. As you become immersed in their lives, you quickly figure out who everyone is and you start to focus on the story line. All through the book, there are characters that just come along, say their piece and then leave again, but you are able to build a picture of this world, one of mind-numbing labour, poor pay, and few expectations of betterment. These people are simply staying alive not enjoying much variety or pleasure.

Some of the characters made quite an impression on me. Lily Gates who wants to wed Bert Jones, a factory worker. Lily would like to get a job as well but her guardian is against women working. She and Bert dream of emigrating and starting a new life somewhere else. There are some characters from the upper class as well, in particular, the Dupret family who own the factory, and we learn of the constraints upon them and their way of life as well.

I started off confused and not really liking this book, but after 50 pages or so, I was totally drawn into this world of class boundaries and under-appreciated workers. Living is a rather short novel, but it is broad in scope, and as the reader becomes adjusted to author’s unusual writing style they can then appreciate the narrative. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Nov 5, 2020 |
I wavered between 3.5 and 4 stars for this book. I had not read anything by Henry Green before and found that it took a while to get used to his writing style which could be described as telegraphic, I suppose. Articles and even some nouns are omitted in the narrative, though when it comes to dialogue, they are present.

The look at life of working men in the late 1920s Birmingham was quite vivid. One aspect that irritated me but was probably accurate was the way the various men didn't seem to communicate with each other well at all. For example, one of the engineers at the iron foundry was unhappy that the draftsman he had been working with was sacked; the manager of the works knew he was unhappy so took the engineer and his wife out to dinner with his wife. He seemed to feel that made everything OK but of course it didn't address the main issue causing the engineer to be unhappy! ( )
  leslie.98 | Jan 12, 2020 |
This book was hard to get into. While I started to enjoy the plot halfway, or maybe a little more, through the book- the journey was essentially over by then. Overall, a mired and distracted sort of book that meanders and (I feel) loses itself in the process of being read.

Not recommended- barely 2 stars. ( )
  DanielSTJ | Jan 10, 2020 |
Living at first seemed a novel of contrasts and opposites. In reality, it is a carefully worked story of parallels between two disparate groups: factory workers, and the factory ownership and management. Most of the book is in dialogue form rather than narrative. The reader hears the story directly from the characters involved.

Like most conversations at home and at work, the characters speak mainly of the everyday often completely mundane details of their lives. In Birmingham, site of the iron foundry, a worker sat down to dinner:
Mrs Eames put cold new potato into her mouth.
"Ain't they good?" said she.
"They are" he said.
"Better'n what you could get up the road or if you took a tram up into town."
"There's none like your own."
So for a time they ate supper.

Meanwhile, in London, the owner's wife was having dinner with her son:
They went in to dinner. Mrs Dupret and her son. Butler and footman brought soup to them.
"James" said Mrs Dupret after searching "I left my handkerchief upstairs" and footman went to get this.

It is not all back and forth however, [Living] was written in 1929, a time of crisis for many, workers and owners alike. The two worlds necessarily overlap. Here are the workers caught up in attempts by management to modernize production methods and shop floor procedures. Here are the workers concerned about jobs, injury and old age. Dupret, the owner, is ill and elderly, and the workers, while grumbling about the familiar present, fear for the future when Dupret's son takes over. Craigan, the best moulder, actually has a small house where he lets out rooms to other workers. Lily Gates, the daughter of one of them, runs the household in the absence of any other female. It was a time of upheaval for women too. Lily would have like to go out to work in a factory or shop, but the men were adamant that she should stay at home. They felt they were perfectly capable of providing for her.

Green skilfully blends the two worlds. Making a living can be living itself, but living itself is a job.

As I read this, I thought it seemed an unusual novel for the times. Admittedly, it's not a period I've read much, but it occurred to me that most of what I had read was by female writers favoured by publishers like Virago and Persephone. These writers offer a completely different, though equally valid take on the time, albeit more skewed to the middle and upper classes. Workers are few and far between in their novels. Perhaps it was time to read more men from this time and place. Who were they?

Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood and Graham Greene were contemporaries. Henry Green was not the man of the people his writing suggested. He was actually Henry Vincent Yorke, onetime Chair of the British Chemical Plant Manufacturers' Association, and managing director of the family owned H Pontifex and Sons Ltd. He had attended Oxford where his tutor was[C S Lewis, but dropped out to work in his father's factory after two years, living with workingmen.

Green had published Blindness, his first novel in 1926. It, and the 1929 Living, were well received by the critics, among them Evelyn Waugh. However, he didn't publish another novel until 1939, by which time Waugh himself had eclipsed Green in the public eye. He was a "writer's writer", not a bestselling author, possibly because his writing was difficult to pigeonhole, and he himself was aloof. Today, however, his works are enjoying a resurgence, with eight of them currently published or forthcoming from NYRB, and another two from New Directions.
2 vote SassyLassy | Jul 8, 2018 |
At first it is hard to settle into this book which is unique for its structure (lack of conjunctives and articles). I thought, oh no, this is going to take forever to read but after a bit I was used to the rhythm and the story began to take shape. It is a story set in the between war years in Birmingham industrial area of England and features the social structure of labor, middle management and owners of the steel factories. There is also the two characters; Lily and Mr Dupret both unsuccessful in their search for marriage. In addition there is the struggle of the old and young in the factories and a third theme of women's emancipation. This is the second of Green's novels that I read for the buddy read and while both books were very good they were also very different from each other. ( )
  Kristelh | Mar 25, 2015 |
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Bridesley, Birmingham. Two o'clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets.
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LIVING, as an early novel, marks the beginning of Henry Green's career as a writer who made his name by exploring class distinctions through the medium of love. Set in an iron foundry in Birmingham, LIVING grittily and entertainingly contrasts the lives of the workers and the owners

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