Archive for September 2013

Two novels and a novella by Graham Greene

September 2, 2013

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty . . . .
–Robert Lowell, “Memories of West Street and Lepke”

1. The Third Man

In the Preface, Greene writes, “The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen.” This is really his novelization of his screenplay for the Carol Reed film. This might be a case of protesting too much, especially where Greene writes, “The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture.” Those who enjoy the film will also enjoy the story, which seems to stand on its own–I say seems because the film, with those dark alleys and dutch angles, is so familiar that it takes over the story when read, as if the story were illustrated. One little detail–Harry Lime’s friend is named Rollo Martins in the book and original screenplay; when he was changed to an American for the film, the actor Joseph Cotten objected to the name (which objection Greene found no fault with), and he became Holly Martins. The story is just over 100 pages, and in the Penguin edition is paired with the very short story “The Fallen Idol,” which also became a Carol Reed film, starring Ralph Richardson.

2. England Made Me

This early novel is full of little details that make it fun, if less than satisfying by the end. It takes place in Stockholm, where Kate Farrant works as assistant to successful businessman Erik Krogh. Kate’s brother Anthony, a long-time exaggerator once again down-and-out, follows her there at her suggestion and takes up a job with Krogh’s. We soon find out that Krogh’s business is on the brink, and he hopes to avoid disaster by papering over some embarrassing details. Anthony would seem to be the man for the job, if he is totally without scruple; but this is a Greene novel, so the rub is there. The relationship between Kate and Anthony is extremely close and intimate, but never blurs into Siegmund-Sieglinde territory. Kate has her own moral compromises in her relationship with Erik. An English journalist, Minty, is a minor character whose little foibles are so numerous that he threatens to tip the story out of balance. He has hung on for twenty years in his assignment in Sweden without doing much and observes all Anglican requirements with scrupulous attention to detail. There are some amusing scenes where Anthony’s assumed identity as a Harrow man meets the unfortunate coincidence that Minty actually attended the school and recalls it as the highlight of his life:

“It’s good to have a fellow-countryman to talk to. And what a coincidence that you were at the old place, too.”

“The old place?”

“The old school,” Minty said, stirring his coffee, squinting upwards with sudden malicious amusement. “Kicking a fug about, eh. What a life. Were you a fez?”

Anthony hesitated. “No,” he said.

“And whose house did you say–“

Anthony looked at his watch. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to be off. I have to be round at Krogh’s this morning.”

The narrative is largely third-person, with some chapters thrown in seemingly at random in the first person of one character or another. England Made Me became a 1973 film with Michael York and Peter Finch, though set in 1930s Germany.

Harrow Crest

3. The Quiet American

The narrative of The Quiet American is told in a straight first-person by the English journalist Thomas Fowler, though the respect to Modernism is paid by jumbling the narrative out of sequence–the novel begins with the death of American Alden Pyle in 1950s Vietnam and then goes back over events of the previous months, then jumping forward again to events after Pyle’s death.

Pyle and Fowler compete for the affections of the young Vietnamese Phuong (“which means Phoenix, but nothing nowadays is fabulous and nothing rises from its ashes”), who would seem an obvious symbol for the nation itself. Phuong is always portrayed as an empty-headed plaything, with interests no higher than the latest glamor shots of Princess Margaret.

Pyle is not much better–a naive Yankee (Alden for the pilgrims, Pyle for the famous WWII correspondent) whose expertise has its source in a single book that he’s read shortly before the trip over and whose theory of a “third force” has unpleasant and unintended results when Pyle tries to put them into practice. The pleasure of The Quiet American is in its detail–a section set at the temple of the Caodaists, a syncretistic sect, could only have arisen from the author’s own observations.

Because Fowler is the narrator, his unpleasant aspects can’t help but color the book itself:

“I began–almost unconsciously–to run down everything that was American. My conversation was full of the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics, the beastliness of American children. It was as though she were being taken away from me by a nation rather than by a man. Nothing that America could do was right. I became a bore on the subject of America, even with my French friends who were ready enough to share my antipathies. It was as if I had been betrayed, but one is not betrayed by an enemy.”

The novel has come to be seen as a bit of anti-American or at least anti-imperialist propaganda, and perhaps can be enjoyed by those of that bent. But to do so requires that one wave away all the sordid details about Fowler himself, who neither in his own eyes nor in others’ is anything heroic or even admirable. This mixture of ginger and mint with the chili, if you will, gives the novel its character, but may not be for every appetite.