Henry Green

I recently read Living (1929) by the fairly obscure author Henry Green. Green fits into a general current in British fiction at the time of upper-class authors attempting to approach working-class life on its own level (or going slumming, if we’re being less charitable). Green took this project more literally than authors like George Orwell who attempted something similar – Green, a member of the aristocracy, actually went to work in his father’s factory out of what he later described as class guilt – and he took an idiosyncratic approach to prose that’s apparent from the beginning. On the second page:

“‘Tis ‘im, who was works manager, and Mr Dupret’s son were going about this factory. 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.”

The most easily pinned-down of this style’s many peculiarities is the use of articles. The narrator usually omits ‘the’ and ‘a,’ but uses ‘this’ and ‘that’ as determiners a lot more often than they would typically be used. (There can be something disturbing about unusual uses of ‘this’ and ‘that,’ a lot more disturbing than you would think syntax could be.) The Wikipedia article claims, without a citation, that this styles is meant to mimic Arabic. Certainly, at times the narrator’s voice sounds like it’s not entirely fluent in English, but there’s more to it than that. Again and again the narrator conspicuously does things that omniscient narrators do not do, like make comments that do not seem to attach to any character and seemingly lose track of the story. It resembles more than anything else an oral storyteller who is ad-libbing from memory. The narrator is incompetent. It is certainly not an imitation of the voices of the blue-collar characters, who speak in a colorful but competent English, but it seems to be a mockery of someone, though it’s not clear whom.

The reason Green chose to use an unusual style is that he felt the need to distance himself from his subjects, to avoid coming off as condescending. I don’t think that it’s meant as a mockery of the less-educated, but there certainly is something off-putting about it. If it really is an imitation of an Arabic speaker’s English, then I could call it insulting or at least fetishistic, but I can’t come up with any particular reason to think that. There’s no reference to Arabic in the novel that I recall. The style was probably just an arbitrary choice, but I can’t help but wonder why he did it how he did.


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