The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene (1939)

In the introduction to the Collected Works edition of this, his seventh novel, Greene explains that he was still desperately hard up in 1938 and so, while he ground on with writing The Power and The Glory in the afternoons, he rented an apartment in Mecklenburgh Square and knocked out The Confidential Agent in a benzedrine-fuelled six weeks. Every evening he returned to his wife burnt-out and bad tempered and even when he’d finished writing he had to slowly lower the dose over the following weeks to shake the addiction he’d developed. He candidly says the whole experience probably helped the break-up of his marriage. Is the Confidential Agent worth it?

Plot

Part One – The Hunted
D. is from a European country undergoing a civil war. He has come to London to secure coal supplies from an English coal merchant. He arrives on a ferry from France, is delayed at Customs and so misses the London train, falls in with a young woman who’s also late and just happens to be the daughter of the coal magnate he’s come all this way to see, Rose Cullen (!). They hire a car which breaks down on the way to London so they stop in at an inn where D. sees the agent from the opposing side in the civil war, L., is nearly attacked by L.s chauffeur, steals the car and drives off but is overtkane by L. and chauffeur who this time badly beats him up before driving off. He hitches to London where he checks into a seedy hotel and finds himself hero-worshipped by a 14 year-old girl, wise beyond her years in the ways of prostitutes and their clients, before he keeps an appointment at an office teaching a new international language, Entrenationo, where he meets up with a fellow agent of his Side. Walking in London he is accosted by a beggar who lures him into a side street where he is shot at, then meets the young lady and they go to the cinema (cue cynical dismissal of the cheap emotions of the ‘flickers’). Back in the boarding house the man from the Entrenationo office reveals that the manageress is a fellow agent and their govt doesn’t trust him any more and they want him to give her the papers but he doesn’t trust them and so doesn’t hand the papers over. Next morning he arises in a mild hysteria of paranoia, imagining everyone is out to get him including the inconsequential lady on the tube, and in the thick fog bumps into Colonel Currie from the Dover road inn who tries to get him to shake hands with the chauffeur but he wriggles free and makes it to his appointment with Lord Benditch only to discover someone has pickpocketed his credentials from him without which the deal can’t go through! One of the associates, Forbes, has a soft spot for Rose and suggests they go to the — embassy to get D.’s credentials but this rebounds as the First Secretary there is on the Other Side and not only tries to show D. doesn’t exist but calls the cops. D. punches him, seizes the gun he had been holding and forces his way out of the embassy. In the extreme London fog he gets away from the police and breaks into a nearby basement flat.

Part Two – The Hunter
D. has failed. His rival L. has sealed the deal to import coal to the civil war-torn European country. And in the embassy the police accused him of murdering the little girl at the boarding house who had been so devoted. Now the worm turns. Disgusted with his failure and being pushed around, he goes to the boarding house, sees the Mr K. and – in a bizarre scene – takes him to a party at the Entrenationo office in Oxford Street. Then takes him back to the basement flat and nerves himself to murder him, fires the gun but misses and at that moment Rose Cullen knocks at the door. They debate what to do and realise Mr K. has died anyway of a heart attack. She realises she loves him. They stumble on the notion of going to the mining district and somehow appealing to the mineworkers direct not to dig coal for the fascist regime.

Part Three – The Last Shot
Opens in a Midlands railway station where D. is waiting for a train to the Benditch coal fields. Long inconsequential conversation with the station-master as dawn comes and then some vivid description of the desolate mining district before D. arrives at the toen hall just as Benditch’s agent is announcing to hastily assembled miners that the pit will re-open and they will have work, to general rejoicing. L. is there smirking. D. has comprehensively lost. His enemies call the police and he goes running out of the hall and – in a risible sequence – is rescued by a gang of boys. they extract his gun from him on a promise they’ll blow up the mine. All day he hides in the shed at the bottom of mrs Bennett’s garden coveting a piece of dried coconut put out for the birds. At ightfall he makes his way to the chapel where the Gang tell him he’ll be collected and helped to escape but a) the cops are waiting and arrest him b) the Gang’s attempt to blow up the mine is a pitiful failure.

Part Four – The End
D. is taken back to London by the police, interviewed, put in a line-up etc. Finally goes on trial and an expensive QC paid for by Forbes gets him off on bail. Forbes drives him to Devon explaining he’s helping him to flee the country. He drops him at a kind of Butlins, a new-style holiday camp, all chrome and floodlighting. Almost immediately D. bumps into Captain Currie from the Dover inn who makes a citizens’ arrest and holds him until the police arrive and take him away. Only they aren’t the police, they are Forbes’s agents, and he is taken by motorboat out to the steamer which will take him back to his country. And waiting for him is Rose who loves him.

Thus it opens with D. on a boat arriving in England and ends with D. on a boat departing England. Neat.

How to create a character on the cheap

Give him or her two or three memories or turns of thought which you can then milk to death. D. is made an academic who discovered a variant manuscript of Le Chanson de Roland, the medieval poem about loyalty, bravery etc, which allows Greene to spin pages of prose about loyalty, bravery etc in the context of a modern war. He also has memories of: his wife being shot by the opposition (by mistake); his house being bombed and lying for 56 hours in the wreckage before being rescued; and he is obsessed with the melodramatic and self-pitying idea that he is infected with violence he takes violence everywhere with him.

She’s given me the sack, [Else said]. He thought: the infection’s still on me after all. I come into this place, breaking up God knows what lives. (p.49)

The nightmare was back. He was an infected man. Violence went with him everywhere. Like a typhoid-carrier he was responsible for the deaths of strangers. (p.116)

D. felt as a typhoid-carrier must feel when he finds himself among the safe and inoculated: these he couldn’t infect. They were secured from the violence and horror he carried with him. (p.190)

Far out at sea a light burned. Perhaps that was the ship in which he was supposed to leave – leave this country free from his infection and his friends free from embarrassment. (p.203)

Plausibility

Zero. As usual with Greene the bulk of the novel is taken up with the lengthy thoughts and meditations of the lead character which all boil down to generalisations: war is horrid, these people in England don’t know how lucky they are, I suppose everyone will betray their side for a price, I carry violence everywhere, and other truisms. I found it impossible to believe this is how the agent of a foreign power would think or behave.

Also the conspiracy against him has no reality. If they wanted him dead they could have killed him easily on the ferry. Or by the foggy road. Or in his boarding house. Instead the Enemy don’t act decisively but loom just enough to create a spurious sense of tension and insecurity – pretty much the same atmosphere created in Stamboul Train and It’s A Battlefield and Brighton Rock – the same kind of schoolboy frisson of spies on every corner which you find in Auden’s 1930s poems.

D.s lucubrations about civil war tend to circulate around the fictional memories and feelings Greene has given him – bombed house, shot wife, burned manuscript – memories which are entirely personal and bourgeois. He feels sorry for himself because he takes war around wherever he goes, the poor dear. He is drowning in self-pity.

It had not been an unexpected day: this was the atmosphere in which he had lived for two years. If he had found himself on a desert island, he would have expected to infect even the loneliness somehow with violence. You couldn’t escape a war by changing your country; you only changed the technique – fists instead of bombs, the sneak thief instead of the artillery bombardment. Only in sleep did he evade violence… (p.37)

The sense of civil war never gets beyond the level of newspaper photos. The book completely fails to convey any understanding of the cause or reality of this conflict. Considering how political the 1930s were there is not an interesting political thought in this book. No-one in their right minds would read it to find out what a civil war feels like – read Homage to Catalonia.

Greeneland

Instead, it is to be read as a variation on a theme, a reshuffling of the well-loved features of Greeneland, human squalor and futility.

Dr Bellows stood in the little tiny room, all leather and walnut stain and smell of dry ink, and held out both hands. He had smooth white hair and a look of timid hope. (p.45)

[Mr K.] a little shabby an ink-stained, he was any under-paid language master in a commercial school. He wore steel spectacles and economised on razor blades. (p.44)

He looked curiously round at the den – that was the best word for it. It wasn’t a woman’s room at all… Even the pictures were of a masculine kind. Cheap colour pictures of women, all silk stockings and lingerie. It seemed to him the room of an inhibited bachelor. It was dimly horrifying, like timid secret desires for unattainable intimacies. (p.70)

[The long and ludicrous scene in the Entrenationo offices]

[The pitiful poverty of the coal-mining district, its men, women and children]

Catholic melodrama

Catholicism is the cloak under which Greene smuggles in great purple swathes of melodrama. His characters overreact to everything (not in actions, nothing much happens in a Greene novel; in their extreme and hyperactive thoughts.) The 14 year-old girl tells him she’s been offered a place as maid to a prostitute, just opening the door and tidying up etc.

He exclaimed ‘No. No.’ It was as if he had been given a glimpse of the guilt which clings to all of us without our knowing it. None of us knows how much innocence we have betrayed. (p.49)

He discovers someone’s been through the stuff in his room while he was out, maybe the girl, maybe the manageress of the boarding house. A calm man would decide to move boarding house. A hysterical man thinks:

His room had been booked; everything had been arranged for him, so that they could never lose contact. But that, of course, might all have been arranged by whoever it was gave information to L. – if anybody had. There was no end to the circles in hell. (p.50)

All his thoughts are like that mounting in intensity and hysteria. These are the standard Greene thoughts. The Greene challenge is to think up situations which justify the Greene style. This isn’t a spy book written by Graham Green, it is Graham Greene prose and worldview which are using spy clichés to find new ways to deploy themselves.

A few street cries  came up through the cold air… Those cries were an agony. He buried his head in the pillow as a young man might have done. they brought back the years before his marriage with intensity. They had listened to them together. He felt like a young man who had given all his trust and found himself mocked, cuckolded, betrayed. Or who has himself in a minute of lust spoilt a whole life together. To live was like perjury. How often had they declared that they would die within a week of each other, but he hadn’t died: he had survived prison, the shattered house. the bomb which had wrecked four floors and killed a cat had left him alive… Was this what London – a foreign peaceful city – had in store for him, the return of feeling, despair? (p.56)

No, not London. This is what being trapped in a Graham Greene novel holds in store for him: countless long self-pitying monologues mixing spurious memories about his dead wife, about being bombed or about the Song of Roland, with truisms about being caught in a civil war, plus some Catholic ruminations about sin, damnation, betrayal and the circles of hell. When the young woman tells him his father is trying to marry her off to a businessman who she knows already keeps a mistress, D., a man supposedly hardened by loss and war, reels melodramatically at this revelation of the world’s beastly nastiness.

He gave it up; this wasn’t peace. When he landed in England… he had imagined that the suspicion which was the atmosphere of his own life was due to civil war, but he began to believe that it existed everywhere: it was part of human life. People were united only by their vices; there was honour among adulterers and thieves… It was as if the whole world lay in the shadow of abandonment. Perhaps it was still propped up by ten just men – that was a pity. Better scrap it and start again with newts. (p.64)

See how the commentary, the thought process, escalates in hysteria and wild sweeping generalisation. See how utterly unjustified it is by the revelation the girl’s father is trying to get her to marry a man with a mistress. See how it escalates out of control into a sweeping adolescent condemnation of all human nature. See how this has got absolutely nothing to do with the politics of a European civil war, how completely it is a personal vision of humanity’s fallen, futile nature: how bourgeois; how completely it is another slice of Greeneland.

‘This is crazy. You are D. I know you are D. If you aren’t honest then the whole putrid world…’ (p.99)

D. sat with his hands hanging down and his eyes on the secretary’s face. Treachery darkened the whole world. He thought, this is the end. (p.104)

If you believed in God, you could also believe that it had been saved from much misery and had a finer future. You could leave punishments, then, to God… But he hadn’t that particular faith. Unless people received their deserts, the world to him was chaos, he was faced with despair. (p.117)

Related links

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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