I have wanted to read Green’s work for such a long time, and for some reason unbeknownst to me, I have never before got around to it. As a nudge in the right direction, I decided to add a couple of his books to my Classics Club list, and Living was the first of these which I began. Rosamond Lehmann, herself a successful author, wrote that Living was ‘the masterpiece of this disciplined, poetic and grimly realistic, witty and melancholy, amorous and austere voluptuary’, and W.H. Auden proclaimed that Green was ‘the finest living English novelist’.
Set during the 1920s, and first published in 1929, the novel focuses upon the Duprets, the upper-class owners of an iron foundry in Birmingham, who are struggling to keep the business going. A young woman named Lily Gates is one of the protagonists too; she keeps house for three of the men who are employed there, including ‘stalwart Jim, who is bashfully courting her’. Lily’s head is soon turned by a rival suitor named Bert, who promises big things but ultimately fails her, leaving her to return to the house from whence she came.
Living was inspired by the work which Green himself partook in within his family’s business. Jeremy Treglown’s introduction to the lovely Harvill Secker volume which I read is informative, and sets out the main points of Green’s life without making it sound like a dull fact-finding exercise. He writes: ‘Both Green’s autobiography… and some passages in Blindness show the intensity of his guilt about inherited wealth at a time of deep aristocratic recession’. He goes on to say that ‘Living, after all, is about a bewilderingly big business in an enormous town, and about the people who are dependent on that business: how they get their living, how their lives are run, how far they are free to live for themselves: what, if anything, their being alive amounts to’. Living, Treglown believes, is ‘a book about how people really live: their hopes, but also their compromises and defeats, and the way those defeats may not be so bad after all’.
The stream of consciousness narrative within Living causes Treglown to draw comparisons between the novel and such works as Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930) and Virginia Woolf’s stunning To the Lighthouse (1927). The interesting prose style does not make use of many articles – ‘a’ and ‘the’ are often purposefully omitted, for example – unless they are spoken by one of the more well-to-do characters. I was surprised as to how quickly I was able to get used to this style, an example of which is as follows: ‘They went through engineer’s shop. Sparrows flew by belts that ran from lathes on floor up to shafting above by skylights. The men had thrown crumbs for them on floor’.
To conclude, Living is a fascinating novel of times gone by, and it has made me want to go and seek out the rest of Green’s novels sooner rather than later.