Posts Tagged ‘1929 club’


October 30, 2022

Eton and Oxford educated Henry Green seems an unlikely candidate when it comes to the best novels of working-class experience written during the 20th century, yet his second novel, Living, published in 1929, falls exactly into that category. Green ‘researched’ the novel while working in his father’s factory, but this alone does not explain his ability to articulate the lives of the workers with such unpatronizing detail. Partly it is a choice of style, deliberately avoiding conjunctions and articles and instead echoing the speech of his characters – disconcerting at first but developing into a rhythm uniquely suited to world he is describing.

The novel has an extensive cast but focuses mainly on the experiences Lily Gates, the daughter of one of the workers, and Dick Dupret, the son of the owner. Both, in their own way, are attempting to establish themselves as individuals and also find someone to love. Lily lives with her father, Joe, and her father’s friend and work partner, Craigan, whom she calls ‘grandad’. It is Craigan’s house, and he is the head of the household, as we discover when Lily talks to a neighbour about getting a job:

“Then she said to Mrs Eames… how the old man would not let her try for a job at Waley’s though she knew her father would not think twice about that if it was for him to decide, who thought only of money.”

The fourth member of the household, Jim Dale, is a younger man, and the three men hope Lily will marry him in order to preserve their way of life (i.e. with Lily doing all the cooking and housework) but Lily has her eye set on another factory worker, Bert, with whom she intends to elope to Canada. Green conveys Lily and Jim’s contrasting characters on a visit to the cinema when Lily cannot “understand what he came to the pictures for, to listen to the band and not watch the picture, she liked the stories.” Lily is a dreamer who want to improve her lot. Dupret is also something of a dreamer:

“Standing in foundry shop son of Mr Dupret thought in mind and it seemed to him that these iron castings were beautiful and he reached out fingers to them, he touched them…”

He intends to succeed his father in running the factory, and the novel opens with him being shown round the works. He, too, flirts with the idea of marriage, but the woman in question only has eyes for another, and when that other isn’t interested, she still does not turn to Dupret: “though each day she circled further from Mr Tyler yet she did not draw any nearer to where Dick lay.” Lily seems more successful, and, after much pressing, she heads to Liverpool by train with Bert to stay with his parents and borrow the money which will allow them to go to Canada. What Bert hasn’t told her, however, is that he has lost touch with his parents. In one of the novel’s most famous sequences, the couple head into poorer and poorer parts of the city on their search.

In Green’s hands, all of his characters are sympathetic though none are entirely admirable. Dupret not only has minor faults such as nose-picking, but he makes the decision to sack all the older workers (like Craigan and Gates) as he regards them as too slow. Craigan is looked up to by many of the men, but we see in his treatment of Lily that, though he is a kind man, he has little time for her plans to better herself. Her father, Joe, on the other hand, is bad-tempered, prone to drink, and at one point hits his daughter. Yet we can see that this bluster disguises a fear of poverty and homelessness (it is Lily Craigan wishes to remain in the house rather than Joe). Sebastian Faulks has written of his characters, “So real were they, so grand yet so fragile, that one felt protective of them – protective even against the plotting of the author.” This is not because Green takes the time to flesh out their back story but just the opposite, revealing them always in the moment. As Adam Thirwell has put it:

“Green’s subject wasn’t only working-class life but the universal, unavoidable minuteness of living.”

Living is a novel which does, indeed, live and breath. Green is not a writer like Dickens who revels in describing his city, but you will feel you have walked the streets and factory floors of Birmingham because you have walked them in the footsteps of his characters.

Barbarian Stories

October 28, 2022

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific Scottish author of more than forty novels. Barbarian Stories, published in 1929, was her fourth collection of stories in five years (two novels had also been published) and her writing at that time tended to focus on the historical, though she would later stray happily into any genre, including fantasy and science fiction. Her first novel, The Conquered, was set among the Gauls during the time of Julius Caesar; her second, Cloud Cuckoo Land, focused on the rivalry of Athens and Sparta. Barbarian Stories is a collection of stories which centres on peoples regarded as ‘barbarian’, beginning in the early bronze age and moving through time until 1045 – with one final story set in the volume’s future, 1935.

Mitchison’s key aim is to capture the sense of otherness of those distant times. In the opening story, ‘The Barley Field’ we recognise the central character Three-Red’s jealousy of his neighbour, Ash-in-the-Air’s, crop of barley – “the barley shoots were even and thick and very green” – but Three-Red can only offer supernatural explanations of the crop’s superiority to his own, just as Ash-in-the-Air does:

“…the Gods must be, very properly pleased with him… also perhaps also it had been useful to dig deep… a hand deeper than any of the others.”

Here, Mitchison includes a scientific explanation for the modern reader, but this is not always the case. In ‘Niempsor Kar’ Tibar and Lallek go to a magician’s house in search of their father. Even using their swords to nick the doorways as they go through does not allow them to outwit the magic:

“Another door, and this time Tibar was uneasy. ‘I don’t remember that curtain.’ Another door; they were back in the grey room.”

It is only when Lallek agrees to stay behind that Tibar and his father are allowed to leave. In denying the reader a rational explanation, Mitchison prioritizes the story which reads more like a legend and foretells her later fantasy writing such as Travel Light.

Unsurprisingly, many of the stories centre on the experience of women. In ‘Neimpsor Kar’ Lallek goes with her brother to rescue their father – when her long lost sister sees her, she asks, “Why are you dressed like a boy…when your eyes are so much a girl’s?” It is as a ‘girl’ she persuades the magician to release her father: women have their own kind of power. In ‘Steague Fort’ Blackbird, the woman belonging to the tribe’s leader, Mot, is disliked by the other women, and when Mot is captured, her own existence is in danger. She allows herself to ‘passed around’ one drunken night, all the while collecting gold for his ransom, before escaping from the fort. Once ransomed, Mot is able to return to the fort with men borrowed from his captor and wreak revenge. Mitchison does not disguise that women must, at times, use their sex as power – the stories feature strong female characters but they are not modernised as is often the way today.  

But for most women and girls, life is simply dangerous. In ‘A Little Girl Lost’ a child encounters a group of men preparing to attack her settlement:

“There were men standing together, more of them than the finger of both hands three times over. They had swords and spears and wicker shields, the blue war-stain in their faces, and crows’ feathers in their hair…”

Similarly, in ‘Laeta’:

“One of the neighbours’ wives ran out and caught hold of me; she pulled me in behind their door and whispered that the soldiers had come and taken father and mother….”

Overall the stories create an impression of the world as a violent, threatening place, sometimes seen through the lens of ‘civilisation’, that is the Romans, for example in ‘Mascaret’ where a human sacrifice is prevented:

“He faced the crowd, the hate of the Druids who dared not attack, the savage, insane eyes of the worshippers, whose God had failed them.”

Or ‘Maiden Castle’ where impressive fortifications protect only livestock:

“One expects streets of houses and one finds nothing but sheep.”

But there are noble feelings too, such as when, in ‘A Matter of No Importance’, Marcus Trebius returns to Rome with a British slave. Forced to give him to his future wife, he is furious when she sells him and attempts all in his power to find him again. In ‘I’m a Business Man’, the captured title character offers to pay the ransom of another man who has been taken by the same pirates and also offers him a post in his business. The man, however, declines – perhaps a wise decision as, when released, the businessman immediately captures the pirate leader’s sister in order to ransom her. This story is not alone in containing an element of satire.

Satire comes to the fore in the final story, set in the future (at the time the collection was published) – a reminder that Mitchison would later be famous for Memoirs of a Spacewoman. The story tells of a time when one of the ‘owners’ (i.e. the wealthy) is sacrificed in a barbaric form of social justice:

“It came, I expect, of the growing conviction that the rich had really too good a time of it, too much protection, too slow a death-rate.”

As with the rest of the rest of stories, it demonstrates Mitchison’s restless mind and penetrating imagination. Although this volume is unlikely to be reprinted, Mitchison herself is an author worth exploring.

The Time of Indifference

October 25, 2022

The Time of Indifference was Alberto Moravia’s first novel, published in 1929, and translated by his usual translator into English, Angus Davidson, in 1953 (a later translation was produced in 2000 but that, too, is out of print). The product of a cynical young man, its younger characters, brother and sister, Michele and Carla, find themselves trapped in the corrupt world of their mother, Mariagrazia, her lover, Leo, and her friend, Lisa, uncertain how to react or whether to react at all. The novel takes place over only a few days, much its tension originating in the question of whether Leo will be successful in seducing Carla and replacing the mother with the daughter. The attraction is purely physical, as Moravia makes clear, drawing an explicit link between Leo’s desire for Mariagrazia, already satisfied, and Carla:

“The lust he thought had been assuaged for that afternoon reawoke, the blood mounted to his cheeks, and he wanted to cry aloud from desire.”

Of course, Carla objects, but as she pushes him away “a kind of resignation seemed to have taken possession of her…

“…why should she refuse Leo? Virtue would merely throw her back into the arms of boredom and the distasteful trivialities of everyday habit…”

She sees sleeping with Leo as “the only epilogue her old life deserved” as she looks to break free from her mother and “her unchanging quality of life.” Neither character convinces themselves that they are in love but both continue towards the moment they will sleep together (Leo enthusiastically, Carla almost despondently) with a desperate inevitability for entirely selfish reasons, and with little thought for Mariagrazia, who is already a neurotic, jealous woman, allowing Leo to trick her out of the villa she lives in in order to retain his affection (which she has already lost). Only Michele is aware that, while Leo wants them to hand over the house as payment for the mortgage he has loaned them, they would be better putting it on the market, but he, too, is in a state resignation:

“He made an effort to appear cold and tense although he felt nothing but indifference.”

More than once in the novel he thinks he should show anger towards Leo but the sentiment is abstract and it tails off quickly if he demonstrates it at all. (At one point it is compared to “seeing someone drowning, and looking on without moving a finger.”) He remains similarly unmoved by Lisa’s attraction to him, a parallel to Leo’s seduction of Carla:

“…she allowed her imagination to depict Michele as being madly in love but shy, an inexpert youth to whom she would give herself with expert joy.”

The scene where she attempts to seduce him is one of many in the novel where one character completely misreads another. For example, when she tells Michele that Leo is his mother’s lover he reacts with “a look of assumed horror” which she takes at face value. At one point Michele has to bite his lip so as not to laugh.

Moravia accomplishes an almost constant irony by revealing the thoughts of his characters throughout – often he will precede what they say with what they want to say. This creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy by highlighting their frequent dishonesty, as well as undermining them by revealing their delusions – Mariagrazia, for example, believes Lisa to be her rival in Leo’s affections. Michele begins the novel with his ideals to some extent intact but paralysed by a feeling of powerlessness, telling Lisa:

“You’re all like that… Mean, sordid. Love, for you, just means going to bed.”

But by the novel’s end he, too, has been corrupted, as he considers how he can use first Lisa, then Carla, to extort money from Leo:

“Leo would give the money as before, but, in consideration of Carla’s untouched youth and beauty, he would be asked for a sum twice or three times as much as would have sufficed for the middle-aged, corrupt Lisa. Every article has its price.”

While indifference may be the defining feature of its youthful characters, the novel does not feel like the work of an indifferent author. The domestic corruption on show is a condemnation of the previous generation who think only of themselves and leave their children with little choice but to assert themselves in a similar manner.  Its rage can be felt in the fact that Maragrazia is as ignorant on the final page as she was on the first.