It’s A Battlefield by Graham Greene (1934)

‘It’s the flattest joke,’ Milly said, ‘that I’ve ever heard.’ (p124)

Greene’s fifth published novel but, as he repudiated numbers two and three, his third ‘official’ one, written at a time of great financial stress: he’d left his safe job on the Times, none of his other books had made any money, and the publishers renewed his contract reluctantly and only to pay him once the losses from the previous books had been paid off. With a wife and a child on the way he was looking at limitless debts. In this tense personal situation he decided to complete a novel whose theme is the depressing, trite and unpopular notion that man’s justice is no justice. It failed to sell and is the least-read of his novels.

Characters

  • the Assistant Commissioner (presumably of the Metropolitan Police), a hesitant man, permanently reminiscing about his time in the police force in some tropical British colony
  • Jim Drover, a slow-witted bus driver and communist party member, condemned to death for murdering a policeman
  • Conrad Drover, Jim’s brother, trying to raise a petition for his life, with his ‘thin melancholy irritable face’, unhappy as a chief clerk, obsessed with everyone ridiculing him, he buys a gun
  • Conder, a middle-aged journalist who pretends to a wife and six children but in fact lives in a bed-sit in Soho, collects foreign coins and attends communist meetings, ‘short, shabby, with a bald head and ink-stained fingers, and nails blunt from a typewriter’
  • Bennett, his rival in the CP, who spies on him and frightens him
  • Milly Rimmer, Jim Drover’s pathetic wife, always convinced their happiness was doomed
  • Kay Rimmer, gay young sister of Drover’s wife, Milly, works in Battersea match factory, sleeps with Mr Surrogate one night, then Jules Briton the next
  • Mrs Coney, wife of the murdered policeman, a ‘small grey woman’ with a stuffed bear in her hallway
  • Mr Surrogate, ludicrously-named plump pompous communist party leader, fond of the old Fabian days when it was easy to chat up idealistic young women, beds Kay Rimmer, feels guilty re. his deceased painter wife who he couldn’t satisfy sexually
  • Davis, Mr Surrogate’s man; thinks him a ‘dirty old bastard’
  • Jules Briton, son of a deceased English mother and an absent French father; dejectedly works in a café till news of his father’s death and a legacy makes him go on a wild spree, buying a car, driving Kay out to Berkhampstead planning to propose but, once he’s unsatisfyingly bedded her, recants and says nothing

Plot

If there is a plot it rotates around all the characters’ relationship to the man on death row, examining in minute detail their damp dreary thoughts and sad encounters. There’s a feeble communist party meeting. Resentment and rivalry in various offices. Dull conversations in rented rooms. Briton’s car trip to the Chilterns ending in failure and deceit etc.

Theme

The world-shattering revelation that human justice is flawed. Who knew? To be charitable you might argue that this trite truism is just a convenient peg on which to hang an exploration of a varied cast of characters. Nonetheless, it is trite and it is rammed home with great unsubtlety throughout the text.

A journalist was supposed to understand the working of the world, but Conder had spent his life learning the incomprehensibility of those who judged and pardoned, rewarded and punished. The world he thought, as they walked between the coffee-stalls, past the lit restaurants, the foreign newspaper shops, and the open doorways, was run by the whims of a few men, the whims of a politician, a journalist, a bishop and a policeman. They hanged this man and pardoned that; one embezzler was in prison, but other men of the same kind were sent to Parliament. (p.36)

Fancy that.

Greene’s worldview

Is cold. Men are unfeeling, isolated monads, incapable of warmth or sympathy. They observe each other coldly, puzzled by each others’ impenetrable motives and actions, puzzled, confused and stifled by their lives.

‘I don’t understand,’ the Assistant Commissioner began. It was one of his favourite expressions; extraordinary the number of occasions on which he could apply it… (p.8, GG Collected Edition)

Conrad was taken by surprise. All his life he had been taken by surprise. People had promoted him when he expected dismissal; they had praised him when he expected blame. (p.113)

His nerves were in a shocking condition. Ever since he had rapped the skull of the wooden bear in Mrs Coney’s passage he had lost control of the present and of the past… All the familiar world was being snatched from himand sent tumbling over the Schaffhausen falls… What he remembers only too distinctly were despair, shame, tears. (p.145)

People are described from the outside, like robots. Observed like animals. Maybe this was new and with-it in the 1930s but it has a terribly dispiriting affect.

Jules Briton dried his hands on the towel which hung behind the counter and warmed them close to the great copper urn. A French prostitute leant on the counter and talked to him; she had left her beat in Lisle Street to swallow some coffee. (p.33)

‘Swallow’. Not drink, and there is no further reference to her. If she had been drinking it, her hands cupped round it for warmth, the steam rising into her face, anything! would have humanised her and the scene. Instead of which Greene goes out of his way to be detached and clinical.

Style

Sentences jump from one cold perception to another (with admittedly clever similes and metaphots dropped in) but often making it difficult to figure out quite what’s happening. For example, in the opening pages the AC meets the Permanent Secretary (presumably to the Home Office?) at a restaurant, then they proceed to Wandsworth prison, the AC having suggested they go by bus, the Secretary saying, I have a car outside. But there is no mention of getting into the car and no mention of the driver, the noise, the ambience of a car journey, just a succession of smart observations of London scenes along the route. It wouldn’t have taken much to say, We got into the car, He opened the door to the car, The noise of the engine increased, or anything which indicated their location, which fully set the scene, but Greene doesn’t. He takes the same frustratingly under-explained approach to every scene. The effect isn’t artistic, it’s just puzzling and frustrating. No amount of smart similes or crisp descriptions can recompense this basic reluctance to explain what’s happening.

Then the bell stopped and the light went out, and after its brilliance the lamps at every corner, the lamps over every doorway lost for a moment their harshness. Shadows fell like earth from a tilted spade. (p.14)

Seedy

Because we are in the mind of a policemen, visiting prisons, we are also reminded not only of Drover’s murder but of the case the AC is working on, namely a rape and murder on Streatham Common. Jules and Mr Surrogate live in Soho where, unsurprisingly, all their comings and goings are past prostitutes loitering in doorways. In the heat and noise of the match factory Kay signs to her neightbour:

‘Hunting tonight?’
‘No, the curse.’ (p.23)

All sex is sad and sordid. All men are running to fat, bald, disappointed. All characters are  confused. London is grey, misty, rainy. Tawdry exploitative newspaper headlines distract the great unwashed from their tawdry exploited lives. Kay Rimmer, the tarty younger sister, tells Milly about being picked up and taken home by Mr Surrogate.

‘Darling, such a bed. But it took ages to bring him to the point.’ (p.130)

By contrast, when Conrad gives in to pity, and goes to bed with his condemned brother’s skinny pitiful wife, the act brings both of them nothing but sadness and shame.

When he felt her shudder, he had a dull sense of an irrevocable injury which one of them had done to the other. (p.133)

He wakes in the night to hear her crying, inconsolably. In fact, as the novel progresses it leaves behind the nominal subject of the condemned man and repeats again and again the pitifulness of sex, its fumblings and failure.

‘Jules, Jules, can’t you wait?’ but she had no wish to wait, she welcomed him: she only regretted the promptitude of the embrace when it was so quickly finished that it might have been no more than the gesture he had made her in the park, a salutation across the street. He was with her, he was in her, he was away from her, brushing his hair before the glass, whistling a tune. (p.162)

After sleeping with his condemned brother’s wife, Conrad wakes later that night to hear her weeping. He is alone. She is alone. They both feel dreadful. On a (very tired and clichéd impulse) Conrad uses his position to get hold of a revolver, feeling it will make man of him, that’s show those clerks in the office, his boss, the judge who condemned his brother etc.

[The pawnbroker’s] large soft trustless eyes swept Conrad like a couple of arc lamps, picking out his misery and loneliness. (p.168)

But, after trailing the Assistant Commissioner across London for 40 pages of tediously despairing inner monologue, when the chance comes and he steps forward to pull the trigger, nothing happens. the pawnbroker sold him blanks and in that moment a car knocks him down. that night he dies from his injuries in hospital, leaving Milly abandoned.

Humourless & depressed

There is nowhere in this novel (or the previous one) the slightest flicker of humour or comedy. There are sustained bursts of bitter irony. But no warmth or humanity or love or compassion.

He watched with pain and tenderness her white hopeless face, her shoulders a little bent with the weight of five happy years. He became aware with sudden clarity how injustice did not belong to an old tired judge… it was as much a part of the body as age and inevitable disease. There was no such thing as justice in the air we breathed… Death could not hurt them, it could only hurt those who were happy. Intolerable the weight of those happy years… of the shared bed and the shared meal and the shared misery. (p.62)

The Morrissey of novelists.

Related links

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of It's A Battlefield

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of It’s A Battlefield

Greene’s books

  • 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.
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