Joined: 19 Nov 2008
Location: Cambridge, UK
|Posted: Tue Aug 13, 2013 9:02 pm Post subject: Graham Greene
|I've been on a Graham Green spree so far this month. That's because of book blogger Simon Savidge's 'Greene for Gran' project. You can read about it here: http://savidgereads.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/greene-for-gran/ Simon's grandmother, an avid reader of Graham Greene, died recently, and a bunch of people (myself included) are reading Graham Greene in August in her memory. I love Graham Greene, but hadn't read much - Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and a couple of novellas. So this was a good excuse to get acquainted with some new ones.
I thought Our Man in Havana would be a good place to start. The thing about Graham Greene is, he's good at disquieting you. Love him though I do, I don't often feel like opening his books, because I have a preconception that they won't be much fun. So a book I imagined to be a fairly light comic novel seemed a sensible first resort. It did turn out to be comic, but dark rather than light.
Wormold is an English seller of vacuum cleaners living in Havana. He has been sent a new model called the Atomic Pile that he imagines will be difficult to shift because of the overtones of nuclear war in its name. He has a German friend, Dr Hasselbacher, who may have a shady past, and a 17-year-old daughter, Milly, who has taken to going out with the presumably corrupt Chief of Police, Captain Segura. One night Wormold is approached in a bar by a man from the British Secret Service and enlisted, somewhat against his will, as their Cuban agent. Wormold doesn't know how you go about being a spy, but he's rather down on his luck and needs the money. He names a number of people more or less at random as his agents, and sends diagrams of vacuum cleaner components and attachments to his masters in Britain claiming that they are weapons blueprints. Then, one by one, Wormold's agents begin to meet with accidents, and before long he is in much too deep.
Greene's novels can be difficult to grasp (not physically; I suspect they are of below average length). I find it very difficult to write about them after I've read them, and that is probably partly because so much of what takes place in them is internal, happening in the minds of their characters and involving things that are not tangible. Reading a Greene novel is equivalent to inhabiting someone else's mind. I felt like I knew Wormold quite well as I read it, and yet I can't pin him down now I sit down to write. Perhaps Greene favoured characters who are more than usually blank, or who become blanker as the novel progresses. (Scobie in The Heart of the Matter might conform to this pattern.) Certainly I sympathised with Wormold's plight. We've all had nightmares where the unbearable thing is that things are beyond our control.
In the absence of anything else to say, I think the best policy might be to post an excerpt from the novel. What really impressed me as I began it was how Greene communicates so much to the reader indirectly. These are the first couple of pages:
‘That nigger going down the street,’ said Dr Hasselbacher standing in the Wonder Bar,
‘he reminds me of you, Mr Wormold.’ It was typical of Dr Hasselbacher that after
fifteen years of friendship he still used the prefix Mr. -- friendship proceeded with the
slowness and assurance of a careful diagnosis. On Wormold’s deathbed, when Dr
Hasselbacher came to feel his failing pulse, he would perhaps become Jim.
The Negro was blind in one eye and one leg was shorter than the other; he wore an
ancient felt hat and his ribs showed through his torn shirt like a ship’s under
demolition. He walked at the edge of the pavement, beyond the yellow and pink pillars
of a colonnade, in the hot January sun, and he counted every step as he went. As he
passed the Wonder Bar, going up Virdudes, he had reached ‘1,369’. He had to move
slowly to give time for so long a numeral. ‘One thousand three hundred and seventy.’
He was a familiar figure near the National Square, where he would sometimes linger
and stop his counting long enough to sell a packet of pornographic photographs to a
tourist. Then he would take up his count where he had left it. At the end of the day,
like an energetic passenger on a trans-Atlantic liner, he must have known to a yard
how far he had walked.
‘Joe?’ Wormold asked. ‘I don’t see any resemblance. Except the limp, of course,’ but
instinctively he took a quick look at himself in the mirror marked Cerveza Tropical, as
though he might really have been so broken down and darkened during his walk from
the store in the old town. But the face which looked back at him was only a little
discoloured by the dust from the harbour-works; it was still the same, anxious and
crisscrossed and fortyish: much younger than Dr Hasselbacher’s, yet a stranger
might have felt certain it would be extinguished sooner -- the shadow was there
already, the anxieties which are beyond the reach of a tranquilliser. The Negro limped
out of sight, round the corner of the Paseo. The day was full of bootblacks.
‘I didn’t mean the limp. You don’t see the likeness?’
‘He’s got two ideas in his head,’ Dr Hasselbacher explained, ‘to do his job and to keep
count. And, of course, he’s British.’
‘I still don’t see …’ Wormold cooled his mouth with his morning daiquiri. Seven
minutes to get to the Wonder Bar: seven minutes back to the store: six minutes for
companionship. He looked at his watch. He remembered that it was one minute slow.
‘He’s reliable, you can depend on him, that’s all I meant,’ said Dr Hasselbacher with
impatience. ‘How’s Milly?’
‘Wonderful,’ Wormold said. It was his invariable answer, but he meant it.
‘Seventeen on the seventeenth, eh?’
‘That’s right.’ He looked quickly over his shoulder as though somebody were hunting
him and then at his watch again. ‘You’ll be coming to split a bottle with us?’
‘I’ve never failed yet, Mr Wormold. Who else will be there?’
‘Well, I thought just the three of us. You see, Cooper’s gone home, and poor
Marlowe’s in hospital still, and Milly doesn’t seem to care for any of this new crowd at
the Consulate. So I thought we’d keep it quiet, in the family.’
‘I’m honoured to be one of the family, Mr Wormold.’
‘Perhaps a table at the Nacional -- or would you say that wasn’t quite -- well, suitable?’
‘This isn’t England or Germany, Mr Wormold. Girls grow up quickly in the tropics.’
A shutter across the way creaked open and then regularly blew to in the slight breeze
from the sea, click clack like an ancient clock.
I followed that up with The End of the Affair, a book I knew nothing of. This one I fell in love with entirely. It's narrated by Maurice Bendrix, a disenchanted novelist. The titular affair is one between him and Sarah Miles, the wife of his friend Henry, a dull civil servant. Exactly when the affair ends isn't clear. That's because the novel jumps around in time (brilliantly), and because it shows signs of being revived after one has assumed it to have ended, and because maybe the affair isn't Sarah and Bendrix's at all. There is another party involved, and we're often unsure of who it is. Could it be Henry's colleague Dunstan? or the atheist preacher Smythe? or indeed God, who usually seems the most likely candidate. The intrusion of God is fascinating, and changes the focus of the story. The perverse paradox of being angry at a being you don't believe in is the tip of the iceberg.
Henry suspects his wife of infidelity and ponders the validity of having her followed. Bendrix takes it upon himself to have Sarah tracked. The private eye assigned to his case is Parkis, a hapless figure. Here, Bendrix, having lunch with Sarah, spots Parkis for the first time, with his boy:
Perhaps we were looking strained in our manner, because I noticed we had attracted
the attention of a little man who sat on a sofa not far off. I tried to outstare him and that
was easy. He had a long moustache and fawn-like eyes and he looked hurriedly away:
his elbow caught his glass of beer and spun it on to the floor, so that he was overcome
with confusion. I was sorry then because it occurred to me that he might have recognized
me from my photographs: he might even be one of my few readers. He had a small boy
sitting with him, and what a cruel thing it is to humiliate a father in the presence of his
son. The boy blushed scarlet when the waiter hurried forward, and his father began to
apologize with unnecessary vehemence.
There is such tenderness and pathos in this portrait of Parkis, but he's forever putting his foot in it. In his first report to Bendrix, he outlines Sarah's lunch engagement with a mystery man, not realising that the man is Bendrix himself. Bendrix then enlists the help of Parkis's son to help him meet the man with whom he suspects Sarah of having a liaison:
I said, ‘Would you lend me your boy?’
‘If you assure me there’ll be nothing unpleasant, sir,’ he said doubtfully.
‘I don’t want to call when Mrs Miles is there. This scene will have a Universal certificate.’
‘But why the boy, sir?’
‘I’ll say he’s feeling ill. We’ve come to the wrong address. They couldn’t help letting him
sit down for a while.’
‘It’s in the boy’s capacity,’ Mr Parkis said with pride, ‘and nobody can resist Lance.’
‘He’s called Lance, is he?’
‘After Sir Lancelot, sir. Of the Round Table.’
‘I’m surprised. That was a rather unpleasant episode, surely.’
‘He found the Holy Grail,’ Mr Parkis said.
‘That was Galahad. Lancelot was found in bed with Guinevere.’ Why do we have this
desire to tease the innocent? Is it envy? Mr Parkis said sadly, looking across at his boy
as though he had betrayed him, ‘I hadn’t heard.’
I loved Parkis. But I loved all the characters, for their frailties, even Bendrix, who is quite unsympathetic at times. I marvel at Greene's abilities. I think it's good to read his books in a single sitting if possible. It's hard to put this one down anyway, but his writing seems a juggling act. Reading it certainly is. In this one there are a lot of balls in the air at once, and if you put the book down for a day or two before returning to it, they fall to the ground, and you have a lot of work to do before you get back into the rhythm.
As a study of love and hatred, this is preternaturally brilliant. He has such understanding of the subject, and his treatment of it is razor-sharp. I am running out of superlatives. It's a book that has been mentioned on these pages before, briefly, and it would be an excellent book to read closely and discuss in depth. As it is, my brain is sort of whirring. Another passage I loved, which reminded me of The Go-Between:
It was a few days afterwards that I pulled open a cupboard in my bedroom and found a
pile of old children's books. Henry must have looted this cupboard for Parkis's boy. There
were several of Andrew Lang's fairy books in their coloured covers, many Beatrix Potters,
The Children of the New Forest, The Golliwog at the North Pole, and also one or two
older books -- Captain Scott's Last Expedition and the Poems of Thomas Hood, the last
bound in school leather with a label saying that it had been awarded to Sarah Bertram for
proficiency in Algebra. Algebra! How one changes.
I couldn’t work that evening. I lay on the floor with the books and tried to trace at least a
few features in the blank spaces of Sarah’s life. There are times when a lover longs to be
also a father and a brother: he is jealous of the years he hasn’t shared. The Golliwog at
the North Pole was probably the earliest of Sarah’s books because it had been scrawled
all over, this way and that way, meaninglessly, destructively, with coloured chalks. In
one of the Beatrix Potters her name had been spelt in pencil, one big capital letter
arranged wrongly so that what appeared was SAЯAH. In The Children of the New Forest
she said written very tidily and minutely ‘Sarah Bertram Her Book. Please ask
permission to borrow. And if you steal it will be to your sorrow’. They were the marks of
every child who has ever lived: traces as anonymous as the claw marks of birds that one
sees in winter. When I closed the book they were covered at once by the drift of time.
I doubt whether she had ever read Hood’s poems: the pages were as clean as when the
book was handed to her by the headmistress or the distinguished visitor. Indeed as I was
about to put it back in the cupboard a leaf of print dropped on the floor - the programme
probably of that very prize-giving. In a handwriting I could recognize (but even our
handwriting begins young and takes on the tired arabesques of time) was a phrase:
‘What utter piffle’. I could imagine Sarah writing it down and showing it to her neighbour
as the headmistress resumed her seat, applauded respectfully by parents. I don’t know
why another line of hers came into my head when I saw that schoolgirl phrase with all its
impatience, its incomprehension and its assurance: ‘I’m a phoney and a fake.’ Here
under my hand was innocence. It seemed such a pity that she had lived another twenty
years only to feel that about herself. A phoney and a fake. Was it a description I had
used of her in a moment of anger? She always harboured my criticism: it was only praise
that slid from her like the snow.
I turned the leaf over and read the programme of 23 July 1926: the Water Music of
Handel played by Miss Duncan, R.C.M.: a recitation of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud'
by Beatrice Collins: Tudor Ayres by the School Glee Society: Violin Recital of Chopin’s
Waltz in A flat by Mary Pippitt. The long summer afternoon of twenty years ago
stretched out its shadows towards me, and I hated life that so alters us for the worse. I
thought, that summer I had just begun my first novel: there was so much excitement,
ambition, hope, when I sat down to work: I wasn’t bitter, I was happy. I put the leaf back
in the unread book and thrust the volume to the back of the cupboard under the Golliwog
and the Beatrix Potters. We were both happy with only ten years and a few counties
between us, who were later to come together for no apparent purpose but to give each
other so much pain. I took up Scott’s Last Expedition.
That had been one of my own favourite books. It seemed curiously dated now, this
heroism with only the ice for enemy, self-sacrifice that involved no deaths beyond one’s
own. Two wars stood between us and them. I looked at the photographs: the beards and
goggles, the little cairns of snow, the Union Jack, the ponies with their long manes like
out-dated hair-dressings among the striped rocks. Even the deaths were ‘period’, and
‘period’ too was the school girl who marked the pages with lines, exclamation marks,
who wrote neatly in the margin of Scott’s last letter home: ‘And what comes next? Is it
God? Robert Browning.’ Even then, I thought, He came into her mind. He was as
underhand as a lover, taking advantage of a passing mood, like a hero seducing us with
his improbabilities and his legends. I put the last book back and turned the key in the
Today, Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party. This was the first Greene I ever read. It was foisted on me by my doting mother when I was sixteen or so. She thought I'd enjoy it, having just read it herself, and probably guessed that the photo of James Mason on the cover would pique my imagination (which I suppose it did; Mason played Doctor Fischer in a BBC adaptation, one of his final screen roles).
I'd quite forgotten the premise. Dr Fischer is a powerful man who enjoys entertaining his rich, grasping acquaintances (never 'friends') to see how low he can persuade them to stoop for his amusement. His famous dinners invariably end with presents for the attendees - valuable watches, jewellery - but they have to earn the presents by, for instance, indulging his whim for cold porridge. Into this circle of 'Toads' is introduced Alfred Jones, the book's narrator, who marries Dr Fischer's daughter. Fischer doesn't appear to care for his daughter, and Jones is repulsed by Fischer, but he feels compelled to attend one dinner in spite of himself. What transpires is a wicked, bitter satire of greed and indignity. It's a jewel, a punchy novella that might have been written by Muriel Spark. Really very good indeed. It's barely 30 years old, but who is there writing today who would produce something this good?
Anyway, this is somewhere to post stuff about Graham Greene.