Stamboul Train and It’s A Battlefield were ensemble pieces with eight or so characters in each. The differing characters gave a merciful bit of variety to Greene’s treatment of his core themes of futility, faithlessness, betrayal. England Made Me is longer than his previous novels but narrower: it focuses on twin brother and sister, Kate and Anthony Farrant who have an unnaturally close relationship. He is a posh loser who tags along with her to her new job working for the eminent financier Krogh in Sweden. They’re all spied on by the creepy (and, I think, gay) journalist, Minty. Not much happens. Page after page is filled with the characters feeling a bit lost, reminiscing in a confused way about their earlier lives – umpteen sackings and swindles in the East for Anthony, their joint childhood for Kate, his poor origins for the now-wealthy Krogh. They go to the opera, the pleasure gardens, meet in cafes or bars.
The opportunity had gone, leaving a sense of guilt, of melancholy, of opportunities lost, as if, hearing the limping music of the lame band round the corner of the street, one had to admit want of charity and indecision. (p.94)
This sentence with its guilt, depression, failure could be inserted into any novel about any Greene character.
Greene’s technique is to establish three or four memories for each character, and then have them reappear in that character’s internal monologue for the rest of the text. For example, in Battlefield Conrad Drover remembers his brother’s wedding and his sister-in-law Milly speaking her vows as pneumatic drills were tearing up the road outside, and that depressing anti-romantic image returns again and again in his memory, then just as isolated sentences in the text, like a Wagnerian leitmotif, evoking a mood.
Maybe it was bold and novel in the 1930s but this technique quickly becomes tiresome and factitious. Contrived. So, in this novel, there’s a memory of Anthony running away from his hated school but meeting Kate in a nearby barn first and she persuades him to return – once set up, this memory-motif crops up again and again. Ditto Anthony skinning a rabbit as a boy, the knife slipping and him cutting just below his eye, everyone scared he’d lose his sight. Ditto Krogh and memories of his early poor days in Barcelona, or one vivid memory of his poor times in America, eating a hamburger under a windswept archway or Minty who appears to have been beaten up and ‘ragged’ at his school. These image-themes recur in the text, sometimes as paragraphs, sometimes sentences, sometimes just a few words, designed to evoke a mood, colour the scene.
The odd thing is that although this approach is presumably intended to quickly seperate and identify each character, it has the opposite affect. Because he’s using the same technique or structure for all the characters it has the effect of making them all read the same; they are all given to lengthy introspection in which fragments of their past continually intrude into their present consciousness, and so they all end up seeming like they have the same kind of mind, the same circular mental processes, the same way of being trapped in fragments of their own pasts.
Greene’s books are stuffed with coldly observed detail on every page, pages are filled with the views from the Stamboul Train or what the Assistant Commissioner sees as he walks round central London in Battlefield, or, here, what the views are from various locations around Stockholm. This abundance of detail should make them bright and clourful, but it is the narrowness of this motif technique which, I think, partly accounts for these novels’ monotony, their lack of light and shade. Althought the details change they are presented from within the same mood 0f solipsistic misery on every page.
Because all the characters share the fundamental Greene outlook – which is feeling confused, stymied, blocked and scared of life. Anthony
Then at the sound of a key turning in the hall door he momentarily lost his confidence. This was the price he paid for his freshness, his schooloy air of knowing a thing or two; he lived in the moment and was never prepared for th sudden crisis, the stranger’s face, the new job. Before he followed Kate into the drawing-room he looked hopelessly round, plumbing the possibilities of the bed, the wardrobe and the door beyond. (p.62 Collected Edition)
Just like Myatt and Czinner and Mabel in Stamboul or almost all the characters in Battlefield, both Anthony and Krogh in England are routinely confused and scared and terrified of being alone. Early on in the book we get a portrait of the financier Krogh walking alone through his up-to-date glass-and-steel office block. Krogh
Again he was obscurely troubled by the feeling that he had nelected something. The statue in the court came back to worry him. On this building he had employed men whom he had been told were the best architects, sculptors, interior decorators in Sweden. He looked from the carved tuiya wood desk to the glass walls, from the clock without numerals to the statuette between the windows of a pregnant woman. He understood nothing. These things gave him no pleasure. He had been forced to take everything on trust. (p.38)
‘No,’ Krogh said,’ no. I don’t understand it.’ He was embarrassed… A tiredness touched him at manners he could not understand and words he did not appreciate… (p.46)
But after twenty years of prosperity he was still uneasy, still afraid of a slip in manner which would betray his peasant birth. (p.51)
Kate is more focused, mature, ambitious than her brother – though even her ‘success’ is tainted by the fact she is not only Krogh’s PA (impressive) but, alas (and wildly improbably) his lover (tacky). But she still suffers some sense of incompletion without her brother. Apparently, they are meant to have incestuous feelings for each other which makes the book rather risqué. Ooh. To me, they are just variations on Greene’s monotone theme of failure, unfulfilment, the seedy disappointment of life.
He was cocky, but he was sullen. He stood there pluming himself in her mirror, waiting for her to guess what he had been at. His was the weakeness which should have been hers, the uncertainty, the vanity, the charm of something rash and unpremeditated. It was the nearest she could get to completion, having him here in the same room, arguing, bullying, retreating. She bitterly envied lovers their more complete alliance. (p.166)… He was hopeless; he couldn’t see her point. (p.168)… She thought with a sense of hopeless ennui. (p.169) Is this how one feels after the abortion has been successful? No more pain, no more movement, nothing to fear and nothing to hope for, a stillness indistinguishable from despair. (p.170)
Stream of consciousness
Linked to the use of motifs is the deployment of stream-of-consciousness internal monologies. But what was astonishing in Joyce’s Ulysses and in some Virginia Woolf in the 1920s, has become a cliché, a stock-in-trade by the mid-1930s. Another handy way to cram together a handful of verbal motifs and call it a character’s personality. Scattered through the text are (mercifully) short chapters devoted to the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of Anthony and Kate.
I awake and Erik sleeping and his hand cold on my side. He said to me, ‘Laurin’s ill,’ but I knew it was not that. So tired he was. Never seen so tired now asleep so cold his hand. Anthony asleep now, the scar below the eye, the knife slipping upwards suddenly through the rabbit’s fur, the scream, he went on screaming, no control the matron said. I woke in the middle of the night hearing him fifty miles away. Knew he was in pain. Father ill. They wouldn’t let me go. the French exam all that day long the irregular verbs and twice the supervisor went out with me to the lavatory. I spoke to her and she said to me: ‘You mustn’t speak until you have handed in your paper.’ Like an old married couple after thirty years. A silver copper what d’ye call it golden wedding ring. (pp.71-2)
Joyce was a genuine genius, a writer with an amazing feel for the English language, a master of English prose, a deeply lyrical ability to conjure sensuous phrases and rhythms in from the language. Greene is not in the same league, he wrote imperfectly, in a tremendous hurry, up against tight deadlines. So much so that he repressed two of his earliest novels and dismissed the others as ‘entertainments’. In his hands modernist techniques feel hurried, forced and thin.
Up the long flight of stairs to the fourth floor, treading upwards form Purgatory (left behind on the other bank the public lavatories with the smutty jokes, envy, and the editor’s dislike, mistrust, the nudist magazines) to Paradise (the house groups, the familiar face flannel, the hard ascetic bed), mounted unscathed, I, Minty. (p.135)
Reminiscent of ‘Stately plump Buck Mulligan’ but without the genuine feel for the language, or the freshness or clarity of discovery you find throughout Ulysses. Instead the obsession with ambience of smut and porn mags and human squalor which you can rely on Greene to find everywhere, overrides the quality of the writing, which is thorough and perfunctory.
The following is meant to be an insight into Minty’s mind, after he has caught the Military Attaché at the British Legation (Gullie) looking at a German nudist magazine (porn). But it could stand for the anti-romantic, pro-disgust attitude of almost all the characters in these early novels.
Yes, it was ugly, the human figure. Man or woman, it made no difference to Minty. The body’s shape, the running nose, excrement, the stupid postures of passion, these beat like a bird’s heart in Minty’s brain. Nothing could have more stirred his malice than the sight of Gullie poring over the photographs of naked breasts and thighs. A gang of schoolboys raced through Minty’s mind, breaking up his pictures of Madonna and Child, jeering, belching, breaking wind. (p.102)
This passage centres on repugnance for the human body, but brings in Minty’s twopenny-halfpenny Catholicism (a Catholic upbringin connected to disgust at the human body! who knew?) and the beastliness of beastly beastly boys at one’s ghastly public school. I’ve read numerous essays about Greene where these are taken to be interesting and fascinating ‘themes’ to be expanded and chewed over (Greene and Catholicism, Greene and public school). To me they seem more like symptoms of the man’s enormous disgust at himself and sneering contempt for everyone else.
Old school tie
And that’s another recurring obsession – with ‘the old school’. Of all covers, the political exile Czinner in Stamboul Train has been a teacher in a private school while awaiting return to his native Serbia: cue umpteen reminiscences of beastly boys playing beastly tricks. Here, Anthony fatefully pretends to have gone to Harrow (just one of his many lies and confidence tricks) but has the bad luck to stumble into Minty, the disreputable journalist – who genuinely did go to Harrow, though he appears to have mostly bad memories of beastly boys beastly tormenting him. Possibly the tiresome complications that arise from this are meant to be funny but, like everything else in Green, just contribute to the ambience of failed jaded men deceiving each other and – worse – to the sense that adult life is just a continuation of schoolboy pranks, schoolboy cruelty, schoolboy plots. Maybe for this generation, it was.
This Greene novel took longer than usual to make it to the screen, being released in 1973 and starring Michael York and Hildegarde Neil as the twins and Michael Horden as the seedy journalist, Minty.
- The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished) Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
- Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
- It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
- England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
- A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
- Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
- The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
- The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
- The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
- The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
- The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
- The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
- The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
- Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
- The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
- Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
- Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
- A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
- The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
- Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
- The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
- The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
- Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
- The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.