Born in 1904, public school, Oxford, The Times, this was Greene’s fourth novel (he later suppressed numbers two and three so this became his second ‘official’ novel), written when he was 27, a young man’s book, flashily written, showily cynical, larded with would-be worldly wisdom.
Having read a number of thrillers recently I’ve gotten used to everything in a novel – characterisation, description, thoughts & reflections – being subjugated to the speed and excitement of the (sensational) plot. Here it’s the opposite: the pace is extremely slow, almost dreamlike and the emphasis is on poetic descriptions for their own sake and on characterisation – though not done directly, done by sideways approaches, the same characters seen objectively by the 3rd person narrator, then through each others’ eyes, the overall impression a slow building up of layers and (often false) insights.
In another blog post I compared Raymond Chandler and F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels about Hollywood and concluded that the multiple viewpoints and multi-layering of The Last Tycoon is a large part of what makes it ‘literature’ ie a fictional text with more than just the story on its mind.
The characters are:
- Coral Musker – a thin girl, a dancer on her way to join a troupe in Istanbul, poor, a scared virgin
- Coleman Myatt – wealthy young partner of a raisin import company, worried about corporate rivalries, his Jewishness heavily emphasised
- Dr John with his long shabby moustache turns out to be a political exile, Dr Czinner, from Serbia, returning to head a revolution which goes off half-cocked without him
- Mr Opie the clergyman, obtusely buttonholing everyone about cricket
- a lesbian couple – Mabel Warren the alcoholic woman journalist and the slender pretty Janet Pardoe – Warren’s fierce journalistic ‘attitude’ revealed as being a continual war on the men she thinks despise her unnatural loves
- popular Cockney author Quin Savory who is heavily satirised as a populist vulgarian
- Josef Grünlich, a thief in Vienna who has chatted up an ageing maid in order to smuggle himself into her master’s apartment and is in the middle of breaking into his safe when he returns and Josef shoots him dead, socks the maid, and flees onto the Express, nicking Mabel Warren’s handbag in the process
The novel reeks a bogus sense of secrecy and furtiveness – Mr Czinner the political exile who Mabel Warren spots and bullies, the novelist traveling incognito, the thief on the run, Warren with her secretive despatches by phone back to her newspaper, the general idea is that everyone has their secrets (and delusions), but this cloak-and-dagger vibe feels contrived, bogus, melodramatic, unconvincing, cartoonish.
And only exists, really, to point up their failures. Typical of Greene’s cynicism and pessimism that the big Socialist revolution Czinner had intended to spearhead kicks off without him and is easily defeated by the Belgrade police rendering his train journey utterly pointless. Typical again, that the past five years in exile have been spent as languages teacher at a public school. (Very 1930s that the snapshots of public schoolboy life are among the most vivid strands of description. That generation never outgrew their schoolboy mentality, think of Auden and the schoolboy agents in his 1930s poems masquerading as adult commentary on the age.)
Into his grandiloquent dream obtruded the memory of long rows of malicious adolescent faces, the hidden mockery, the nicknames, the caricatures, the notes passed in grammars, under desks, the ubiquitous whispers imposible to place and punish. (Penguin edition p.102)
Typical that Grünlich thinks himself a big shot criminal but in fact fails to crack the safe and likes to think the cops are after him when all along they’re seeking Czinner. Typical that when Czinner needs to make a confession, seeks some kind of absolution and stops into Mr Opie’s compartment, the clergyman completely fails him and starts talking about school sports.
The novel shows a marked preference for seediness: when Myatt first sees Coral she is asleep on a bench next to a man sitting opposite his wife, and the man is furtively running his hand up her leg. Greene quite openly describes women’s breasts and thighs. Myatt has a dream which is half recollection of sampling the young women on Hampstead Heath who hang round waiting to be bought a drink, taken for a ride in a posh motor then screwed in the bushes. The drunk lady journalist’s track record includes covering a disproportionate number of rapes. Coral worries whether she needs to repay Myatt’s kindness in looking after her after she faints, with sex; she is a virgin with only the confused voices of older women and numerous seedy encounters backstage to guide her.
He thinks I want him to make love to me, she thought, and wondered, do I? Do I? It would complete the resemblance to other men she had known if he rumpled her hair a bit and pulled her dress open in getting his lips against her breast. (Part 2, 2)
And the act of sex between Myatt and Coral, in the hurried uncomfortable railway compartment, is described in a way that emphasises her painful loss of virginity and the seediness of the setting, but with a puzzling lack of intimacy or sensuousness. In the same squalid way Greene enjoys describing the sad old maid who’s taken her skirt off in anticipation of sex with the burglar Grünlich who slowly realises how he’s conned her. After he shoots the flat-owner Grünlich momentarily considers blinding this maid, Anna, with one of his chisels so she can’t identify him, Greene going beyond a fondness for squalor into sadism and horror.
It could charitably be argued this disgust with people is a result of a great idealism horribly disappointed with reality, and that one should feel sympathetic for Greene’s conversion to Roman Catholicism as a logical response to his horror of the squalor of merely human realities.
Or it could be argued that his attitude is a repellent one of young-man superiority and that the book amounts to one long sneer at poor, sorry, sordid, futile humanity and ‘his shabby waiting fate’.
It is odd and boring how much writers are drawn to write about other writers. Thus one strand of the book is sneering satire on the popular novelist Quin Savory who complacently gives an interview to the lesbian journalist Mabel Warren who a) despises him b) all the time is trying to figure the angles of the exile Czinner. He is satirised for dismissing contemporary fiction (summarised in journalistic shorthand as ‘Joyce, Lawrence’) and for his ludicrous aim of restoring a healthy attitude to fiction, of bringing back Chaucer.
But it is a cheap victory and exposes Greene to a similar satirical approach: What is your attitude to life? Oh it is a sorry futile panorama of squalor and failure. What would you like to bring to the English novel? A sustained focus on the seedy and sordid aspects of modern life, rejecting all glamour and ‘goodness’ [knowing, dismissive chortle] presenting absolutely all human effort as doomed to pitiful failure.
All the characters are shown failing in their intentions.
- Myatt is honourably inclined to Coral but she is arrested along with Czinner when, on a kindly impulse she goes to help him walk by the train when the soldiers stop it.
- Grünlich escapes from arrest by the soldiers and ends up being rescued by Myatt who had come back for Coral, ling fluently to him that she isn’t there.
- Coral wants Myatt but ends up being rescued by the predatory lesbian Warren.
- Czinna wants to start a revolution, and we are treated to pages of his experiences as a doctor among the Serb poor which inspired his socialism, and he ends up dying in a farm shed in the middle of nowhere in the dark.
It is lyrically written and full of intensely imagined scenes but this superior, knowing, cynical attitude of the oh-so-worldly young author makes it a very depressing book.
Greene is supposed to be a great stylist but I’ve never understood this. The most noticeable aspects of his style here are his poetic metaphors, which are nice –
The sparks from the express became visible, like hordes of scarlet beetles tempted into the air by night; they fell and smouldered by the track, touched leaves and twigs and cabbage-stalks and turned to soot. (p.16)
A lamp-lit bridge across the Danube gleamed like the buckle of a garter. (p.134)
Below them, between a tall bare tenement and a telegraph-pole, the domes of the Blue Mosque floated up like a cluster of azure soap bubbles. (p.204)
– his frequently clumsy word order, and the portrayal of thoughts in a wordy, mealy-mouthed way which is often confusing.
Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the approach or technique is the very immediate focusing on characters’ perceptions rather than intentions or actions. In the thrillers I’ve been reading recently the (male) characters are decisive and act. In this novel characters rarely act but drift, their minds generally portrayed as confused and clouded. Thus they are regularly falling asleep, waking up, passing out, drunk, hungover, startled by a woman sitting down opposite them and starting to interview them, dreaming and so on – giving Greene the opportunity on every page to portray them as uncertain, hesitant, unclear and confused, and reinforcing his worldview about the inability of feeble humans to achieve anything.
Coral sort of thinks she might owe Myatt something for him buying her a sleeper car for the journey, but she’s not sure if he expects her to offer to sleep with him, and when she tentatively suggests it he himself is not sure if it’s what he wants. The rather sordid offer is made but neither side is happy about it. Typical Greene.
These words did not at first reach her. She was too confused by her relief, even by the shame of being desirable only in a dream, above all by her gratitude. And then pursuing her out of the silence came the final words with their hint of humility – this was unfamiliar. She faced her terror of the bargain, putting out her hand and touching Myatt’s face with a gratitude which had borrowed its gesture from an unknown love. ‘If you want me to,’ she said. ‘I thought that you were bored with me. Shall I come tonight?’ (p.77)
Confusion about themselves, their lives, what to do next, is the dominant note:
He was back in familiar territory, he was at home, no longer puzzled by the inconsistency of human behaviour. (p. 98)
Dr Czinner, thrusting both hands into the pockets of his mackintosh, swayed backwards and forwards upon his toes. He appeared the master of the situation, but he was uncertain how to speak, for his mind was still full of grandiloquent phrases, of socialist rhetoric. (p.109)
She stared at him, bewildered by the flood of his explanation and the strength of his conviction, without understanding a word he said. (p.110)
The sense of unfamiliarity deepened around him. (p.122)
For a moment everyone sat still as though they were at a concert and a movement had ended and they were uncertain whether to applaud. (p.167)
The sudden terror of strangeness on the quay at Ostend. (p.191)
There are actually quite a few troubled, confused and confusing dreams which haunt and disorientate the characters –
Before the spill had flickered to its end, his sight had dimmed, and the great shed with its cargo of sacks floated away from him into the darkness. He had no sense that he was within it; he thought that he was left behind, watching it disappear. His mind became confused; and soon he was falling through endless space, breathless, with a windy vacancy in head and chest, because he had been unable to retain his foothold on what was sometimes a ship and at othet times a comet, the world itself, or only a fast train from Ostend to Istanbul. (p.186)
– and Quin, Opie and Czinner have a brief conversation about Dr Freud and psycho-analysis in the scene which is mostly about Czinner’s frustrated wish for some kind of confession and atonement. Freud, Catholicism, communism, anti-semitism, lesbianism, sex, virginity, revolution, crime, murder – Greene threw everything and the kitchen sink at this one with the result that it sold well and helped establish his name.
The book was adapted into a movie in 1934, titled Orient Express, directed by Paul Martin and starring Heather Angel as Coral Musker.
- 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.