There is really no appropriate way to write about a novel by Henry Green. His novels require no interpretation; they mean what they say. Reading them, you want to borrow unlikely critical terms—Roland Barthes’s “neutral,” maybe, or Clement Greenberg’s “flatness”—or describe him the way John Cage described Stravinsky, the composer he loved for having no ideas to express: “It is seeing life close and loving it so. There are no whirring magical mystifications. It is all clear and precisely a dance.” In the same way, Green himself once wrote that “literature is not a subject to write essays about,” and of course he is right, in the way that nature is not a subject to write essays about, either. It needs no decoration. Everything is there, on the surface.

But this neutral clarity and flatness is also an elaborate illusion. Flatness is an effect. And so it is not without its complications. For Green’s novels are not just unusual for their attention to the literal; they are also unusual for their difficulty. The reader of Living, for instance, may well feel disconcerted by its opening pages, as if they have stumbled into a conversation between friends: There are at once too many names and not enough. A literal surface, it turns out, is almost incomprehensible. In one of his notebooks, Green once copied out this observation from Henry James’s preface to What Maisie Knew: “the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities.” That oxymoronic state, the sharp muddle, is Green’s territory. And while, sure, it resists interpretation, it is also so beguilingly strange that it does invite some kind of wary analysis: not meaning, maybe, but at least a genealogy.

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One way of thinking about Green is to consider what an anomaly he represents in literary history. To be an aristocrat novelist is strange enough. That this aristocrat novelist was the last British modernist—well, this is super-crazy. And also, he was a prodigy.

Green grew up in the atmosphere of absolute nobility. His mother, Maud Wyndham, was the daughter of the second Baron Leconfield—who owned Petworth House, one of the grandest houses in Britain. His first novel, Blindness, was published in 1926, when he was only 21. In the same year he left Oxford, where he was studying English literature, and began a drifting novel called Mood, which he never finished. Meanwhile, he served an apprenticeship on the shop floor of his family’s Birmingham factory, working eight and a half hours a day and living in workmen’s lodgings. He finished Living, his second novel, in 1928. He was just 23. The novel appeared a year later, in the early summer of 1929—and in July he married Adelaide Mary Biddulph, the eldest daughter of the second Baron Biddulph.

He was an aristocrat who had married another aristocrat—and had also written one of the most radical novels of his era. It was Evelyn Waugh who most quickly identified what Green had done. Writing in Vogue, Waugh observed that it was the book which, “if properly read, is likely to have the most influence on the author’s contemporaries.” A year later, this time in The Graphic, Waugh wrote a second, even more insistent piece:

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 one step further than its grammatical limits allow.

It was a novel, in Waugh’s argument, that had inherited the lessons of early modernism. According to these lessons, in giving form to the disregarded everyday, a novel must dislocate language into meaning, with the same kind of attention to sentence effects more usually found in poetry:

Modern novelists taught by Mr James Joyce are at last realising the importance of re-echoing and remodifying the same themes…. I see in Living very much the same technical apparatus at work as in many of Mr T.S. Eliot’s poems—particularly in the narrative passages of The Waste Land and the two Fragments of an Agon.

Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot! It should have been Green’s era—this modernist prodigy. But he did not publish another novel for a decade—Party Going, which came out in 1939. Instead, it became the era of Evelyn Waugh—whose early novels, like Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, avidly ingested Green’s inventions in the art of surface.

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The first strangeness of Living is its material. Living takes place in and around a factory in Birmingham, in Britain’s working-class Midlands—just like the factory belonging to Green’s family, where he had served his two-year apprenticeship. As Green recalled in his memoir, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait, “at the university I was to court the rich while doubting whether there should be great inequalities between incomes. I had a sense of guilt whenever I spoke to someone who did manual work. As was said in those days I had a complex and in the end it drove me to go to work in a factory with my wet podgy hands.”

Living observes with impassive authority the full social panorama: from the Dupret family, which owns the factory, to the men who work in it and their wives and girlfriends. And so it seems, unusually, like a political novel, a radical disturbance of the usual literary cast list. It dissolves the limited bourgeois circle. It was so convincing that Harold Heslop, a left-wing British novelist, speaking at the Second International Conference of Revolutionary Writers held in Kharkov in October 1930, could argue that while “British bourgeois literature” had “sunk to a depth that is truly astonishing,” there was at least a “new school of writers…especially James Hanley and Henry Green,” who came from “proletarian stock”; while Christopher Isherwood, whose first novel came out around the same time as Living, would call it “the best proletarian novel ever written.” Green, however, rightly demurred in a Paris Review interview many years later: “I just wrote what I heard and saw, and, as I’ve told you, the workers in my factory thought it rotten. It was my very good friend Christopher Isherwood [who] used that phrase you’ve just quoted, and I don’t know that he ever worked in a factory.”

Waugh had been more accurate in his mention of Joyce. Green’s subject wasn’t only working-class life but the universal, unavoidable minuteness of living. (“I did not read Ulysses until Living was finished,” Green claimed, but I find this simply unbelievable.) There’s something admirably distributed and egalitarian about the way Green writes this novel; he rotates his various characters with calm regularity, like a Robert Altman ensemble movie (and Green was thinking in terms of montage: The novel, he wrote, was a “kind of very disconnected cinema film”). Its elements are offered in sequential arrangements: “At the club they said ‘Dupret has fallen on his shoulder, that sort of thing is a perpetual nuisance at our age’: at the works they said, ‘the gaffer’s fallen on ’is shoulder so they say, at ’is time of life you don’t get over it so easy as that’….” And it means that the true originality of the novel is its depiction of life as habit.

Late in the novel, Dupret considers his probable future, “how he would sit in office chairs for another forty years, gradually taking to golf at the week-ends or the cultivation of gardenias,” a future identical in its structure to the future of his employees: “they had really only marriage and growing old. Every day in the year, every year, if they were lucky they went to work all through daylight.” But the novel has shown this already in its careful system of repetition—trips to the pub, feeding babies, work, eating—and sudden lurid exceptions: injury, death, love. “This constant battling with a pattern which is almost geometrical brings me to a finer point…than dealing with people,” wrote Green. Living, in Living, is a grid of constraint and occasional bright escape—like a Mondrian—of which the most violent is a smuggled story of elopement. Just as in Joyce’s fiction, the everyday is striped with bands of romantic thinking, the way Eveline in Dubliners dreams of going away to Buenos Aires.

Living! Such a deadly business… It was the first of Green’s process titles—Party Going, Loving, Concluding, and Doting would follow—and the word spreads like lichen throughout the text. (“It’s a funny thing to get a living by ain’t it?” “Mr. Bridges in his thinking and in most of his living was all theatre.” “But us workin’ people, we got to work for our living, yes we have….” Etc.) For how should we understand the title? It hovers between a participle and a gerund and a noun. And while this novel is very British in its accent, its title seems a shy ironic gesture toward a Continental, decadent tradition—the era of late French Romanticism. “True life is absent,” Rimbaud observed in A Season in Hell, while in Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s studio drama Axël, there was the famous epigram: “Living? The servants will do that for us.” True life was elsewhere—in the mirages of imagination. That aristocratic decadence, I think, must be lurking, a luxuriant joke, behind the title of Green’s novel—where both the poor and the rich are forced to do the living equally. No one, sadly, is immune from the business of living.

This novel is not so much political as biological. In 1944, Erwin Schrödinger would define living matter as “that which avoids the decay into equilibrium”—by delaying inevitable entropy through metabolic activity. Maybe those terms are more useful than aesthetic ones when reading Green’s experiment in fiction. Instead of plot or character, it might be more accurate to talk in terms of environment and organism. It might be useful to invoke the second law of thermodynamics.

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Living’s second strangeness, of course, is the style. The novel was Green’s most sustained version of what he called his “experiments with the definite article.” The innocent reader of this novel will be struck immediately by the absence in his sentences of the usual connective material: “Noise of lathes working began again in this factory. Hundreds went along road outside, men and girls. Some turned in to Dupret factory.”

In the Paris Review interview, Green offered a retrospective rationale for this decision: “I wanted to make that book as taut and spare as possible, to fit the proletarian life I was then leading. So I hit on leaving out the articles. I still think it effective, but would not do it again.” There are moments when you have sympathy for Green’s later self. There can seem something robotic about this method, the way e.e. cummings’s method can seem too voulu and superficial: “Mr. Gibbon said after he had done the Holy Roman Empire he felt great relief and then sadness at old companion done with.”

But, like his montage method, the linguistic strangeness of Living is a way for Green of insisting on his novel as a made linguistic surface. His fiction is all exterior—a collage of dialogue logged by the dazzlingly vast surveillance network of his prose. A work reduced to such surface at once hints at vast wounds and simultaneously anesthetizes them. It implies a terrible depth without ever describing it directly—the way English life in its elegance and evasion conceals (sometimes) a terrible passion. Green’s word for this was “shyness,” and he praises shyness in Pack My Bag: “surely shyness is the saving grace in all relationships, the not speaking out, not sharing confidences, the avoidance of intimacy in important things which makes living, if you can find friends to play it that way, of so much greater interest even if it does involve a lot of lying.”

Green, after all, was a novelist who defined prose as “a gathering web of insinuations.” And his novels proceed through a certain aesthetic reticence. 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. Just consider Green’s malicious way with names. In Living, there are characters with the same or similar names, or who for inexplicable reasons are known by another name: Bert Jones and Arthur Jones and Arthur Bridges (who seems to be known as Phil). A name, in other words, is unstable—no one has a single name, and everyone can share a name with someone else. But then, in this world there are so many names, most of which we will never remember, just as there are so many people with the same name. In Green’s novels, what seems like the hyper-artificial is in fact a dutiful fidelity to the impossible real.

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But maybe that idea of fidelity is too crude in its philosophy. There’s another way of understanding Green’s title, which is to see it as an aesthetic boast. Many years later, he would state that his aesthetic aim was “to set something living.” And his way of achieving this was his elliptical method: It was less out of descriptive accuracy than as a way of forcing the reader into activity.

In A Novelist to His Readers, broadcast by the BBC in November 1950, Green describes the writing of a novel as the attempt “to create a life which is not.” What makes a work of literary artifice alive, he contends, what makes this zombie get up and move, is an emphasis on silence and conversation. To be alive is to be mysterious: This is true of humans, he argues (his philosophy would be called existential were he not so resolutely Mayfair: “do we know, in life, what other people are really like? I very much doubt it”)—and so this must be true of literary works as well.

What follows from this philosophy is an aesthetics of reduction. His art tends toward pure dialogue and physical notation—a refusal of narrative explanation. “To create life in the reader, it will be necessary for the dialogue to mean different things to different readers at one and the same time.” So the novelist should not write “he hesitated” (this is Green’s example), she should instead write “seemed to hesitate”: “If you have ‘he hesitated,’ this seems like a stage direction, and is a too-direct communication from the author.” Like the best kind of servant, the novelist should remove herself from the picture: “if you are trying to write something which has a life of its own, which is alive, of course the author must keep completely out of the picture. I hate the portraits of donors in medieval triptychs.”

Now I happen to think that this philosophy is dangerously sentimental, just as its theory is sentimental, too—for how can the narrator be removed? It is there in the fact of a novel existing at all. But it is based on a savage knowledge of a certain type of social horror: “two people temporarily islanded by their exchanges,” as he described it in Pack My Bag, “lying no doubt but always with half-truths like truffles just under the surface for one or the other to turn up to find the inkling of what human beings treasure, rather than what they think they know of themselves.” And it gave Green permission to write works of such tender strangeness as Living. “To me the purpose of art is to produce something alive, in my case, in print, but with a separate, and of course one hopes, with an everlasting life on its own.”

And it also serves as a way of electrifying a certain overlooked circuit of literary history—a haphazard, fleeting, frivolous line of English modernism. It’s a line that maybe begins with the dialogue novels of Thomas Love Peacock—Headlong Hall, Melincourt, and Nightmare Abbey—where romantic feeling is subjected to malign pastiche: an absolute, sternly comical surface. But its true origin is James’s screenplay novels like The Awkward Age and What Maisie Knew, which are almost entirely dialogue, with all interiority withheld, which lead to the wack­ier experiments of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett, along with Waugh and Green themselves—while its transatlantic mutation is present in Gertrude Stein, and then in the New York School. John Ashbery wrote a master’s dissertation on Green, and his comparison of Stein to the later works of James seems relevant to Green, too:

If these works are highly complex and, for some, unreadable, it is not only because of the complicatedness of life, the subject, but also because they actually imitate its rhythm, its way of happening, in an attempt to draw our attention to another aspect of its true nature. Just as life seems to alter the whole of what has gone before, so the endless process of elaboration which gives the work of these two writers a texture of bewildering luxuriance—that of a tropical rain-forest of ideas—seems to obey some rhythmic impulse at the heart of all happening.

Green’s emphasis on surface, on texture, represents a new moment in the history of the novel—and the fact that it can seem so inscrutable may only mean that a certain, more grave tradition of modernism acquired a greater charisma. So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that one of his most admiring critics was Nathalie Sarraute, the nouvelle romancière. The nouveau roman, with its disdain of psychology, is a French version of the same aesthetic. In 1956, Sarraute wrote an essay—reprinted a few years later in L’ère du soupçon—which used that 1950 BBC broadcast by Green to illustrate her general argument: that the old forms of Stendhal and Balzac were outmoded. Green, she added, was one of the best living novelists. And, of course, according to the terms of Green’s argument, Sarraute is still right, even though he is dead.