It would seem I have my work cut out for me with my March NYRB subscription book, Henry Green's second novel Living, which was published in 1929. I have long wanted to read him and knew he wrote during the interwar years, but I had no idea that he was a 'modernist'. (Why does an author having that label scare me just a little bit?). If I could just print the entire introduction to Living here, I would be tempted to do so. I have read it and have marked, underlined and starred so much of it that I am not sure I can possibly sum it up in a nice tidy and concise manner. It begins:
"There is really no appropriate way to introduce a novel by Henry Green," which also sounds a little scary until you get to, "His novels require no interpretation; they mean what they say."
Relief on my part, thank you! "Everything is there, on the surface." Sounds easy, right? But this surface, or flatness, is also "an elaborate illusion". So essentially while it is all just there on the surface, Green's novels "are also unusual for their difficulty." Henry Green was an aristocrat and words like "modernist" and "prodigy" pepper the introduction to this novel written when Green was only twenty-three. He studied English literature at Oxford but then served as an apprentice at his family's factory starting on the shop floor, working a full day and then living with the other workers in the factory lodgings. So, this story, also set in a factory comes from practical experience.
So what is it about this novel that makes it difficult? That makes it modern and so very unusual or 'new'? Language! Evelyn Waugh was influenced by Henry Green and writes about his work with obvious admiration.
"Technically, Living is without exception the most interesting book I have read . . . The effects which Mr. Green wishes to make and the information he wishes to give are so accurately and subtly conceived that it becomes necessary to take language a step further than its grammatical limits allow."
Green's prose has been likened to poetry, but not, I think, in the way I think of poetry (cue T.S. Eliot's narrative poems as an example). It is a "style of absences--of pasts, of plots--of which the absent definite articles are simply the most obvious. The reader, therefore, is forced to interrogate the sentences for clues--which becomes a long training in revising and rereading." Along with a lack of definite articles, Green also liked to give different characters the same name, some characters have more than one name, but then there are so many characters that maybe names don't matter in the long run.
So, you see, I really do have my work cut out for me. It's best not to agonize too much over what I have read in the introduction and simply press on with it. If I think too hard I might never start reading. Shall we dive in together? Here is how Living begins:
Two o'clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets.
"What we want is go, push," said works manager to son of Mr. Dupret. "What I say to them is--let's get on with it, let's get the stuff out."
Thousands came back to factories they worked in from their dinners.
"I'm always at them but they know me. They know I'm a father and mother to them. If they're in trouble they've but to come to me. And they turn out beautiful work, beautiful work. I'd do anything for 'em and they know it."
Noise of lathes working began again in this factory. Hundreds went along road outside, men and girls. Some turned into Dupret factory.
Okay, I can do this. It's all on the surface, it's all on the surface. I'm glad I read the introduction (twice). Needless to say this is going to call for attention and concentration and regular reading, so I have pulled Virginia Woolf off the nightstand (temporarily) and she waits on the bedside pile once again. I think I can only manage one modernist at a time right now. If anyone has read Henry Green--advice and insight would be most welcome.