Loser Takes All by Graham Greene (1955)

Greene refers to this long short story as a ‘frivolity’ in the dedication. It is short and surprisingly funny.

Plot summary

Loser Takes All is narrated in the first person by Bertram, an accountant in a large industrial concern. Called in by the Chief Executive, the ‘Grand Old Man’ (Mr Dreuther), to fix an accounting error, he lets slip that he is due to be married soon, whereupon the not-to-be-disobeyed Boss invites him to get married in Monte Carlo before joining him on his yacht. His secretary will see to the details.

So Bertram and his beloved Cary travel to Monte Carlo, put up in the best hotel in town, and settle down to await Dreuther’s yacht. But it doesn’t show up. As the days pass their money runs low, they economise by skipping meals or eating coffee and rolls at a little café, waiting for Dreuther to arrive, until the money runs out and they start running up bills at the hotel which they can’t pay – now they’re trapped.

Eventually, Bertram – an accountant by training, a mathematician by instinct – wonders if he can devise a ‘system’ to beat the roulette tables at the Casino. Slowly he is sucked in, gambling all their money, then borrowing more, then losing the borrowed cash, as the couple sink into unhappiness, bicker and argue. Until he wins. Massively. His system works!

But it is too late: he has lost his girl. Cary is at first sarcastic about his daily ‘commute’ to the Casino, about his long hours ‘at work’ and wonders when he will ‘retire’. Bertram insists it’s for their good as a couple, ‘I’m working for both of us, darling’. Their arguments escalate and eventually she spends an evening with a poor but handsome gambler they met on their first night.

Meanwhile, Bertram’s luck takes a further leap upwards when he meets the old boy who owns the controlling shares in the company he works for and who is losing heavily at the tables. The old boy asks him for a loan. There follows some hard bargaining, which concludes with Bertam offering him the money to gamble with, on condition that he is repaid and gets the controlling shares. He will hold the balance of power at his firm. He will be able to shaft old Dreuther for getting them into all this trouble.

Thus this once-unassuming accountant reaches a pinnacle of wealth and success – and loses the only thing he cares for in the world, his wife. At this opportune moment, the Grand Old Man’s yacht hoves into view in the marina. Bertram meets him in the casino and is angered to realise Dreuther has completely forgotten who he is and what their arrangement was. But he is not the Grand Old Man for nothing. Dreuther soothes Bertram, plies him with champagne and wine, and eventually the sad accountant breaks down and tells him the whole story. Aha. Dreuther helps him cook up a plan to recover his wife.

Later that night Bertram goes to the little bistro where his wife now dines with the poor gambler and confronts them. He offers all his money to the gambler for just half an hour to talk to his wife. The gambler hesitates, then takes the opportunity to take the money and try out his system, in preference to staying with Cary. Off he goes to the Casino leaving Cary in tears. Men.

Bertram takes his crying wife out to Dreuther’s yacht, where she is wined and dined and soothed by Dreuther. When they retire to their cabin, Bertram explains he has given away all the money he won. They are now back to where they began, untainted by wealth. In fact, Dreuther has, maybe from guilt, offered Bertram a promotion, so they will be a little better off. Maybe they’ll be able to afford a holiday in Eastbourne next year! Cary is reconciled. Their love revives. But what about your deal with the rich shareholder? his wife asks. Bertram tears it up and throws it out the porthole. Let’s start over again.

Happy ending. And for once a Graham Greene story allows you to draw your own conclusions about money, gambling, big business, love and so on.

Computers and Original Sin

At the start of the story, when Bertram is called in to find and correct the mistake in the accounts, he realises it was caused by a glitch in the computers the firm uses. 1. It’s interesting that computers are familiar enough to be used in a fiction from 1955. 2. It’s funny that as soon as they’re being used, they are a by-word for error. 3. But most revealingly, it’s typical of Greene that, when writing a little paragraph summing up how pleased with himself Bertram feels, he slips in a bit of Catholic theology. Very possibly he’s making a joke at his own expense, but it does seem typical of the technique of most of his fiction that at every point he is looking to slip in Catholic theology because it adds a (spurious) depth and intellectual coherence to what are otherwise often trivial incidents.

I sat back on the sofa with a gasp of triumph. I felt the equal of any man. It had really been a very neat piece of detection. So simple when you knew, but everyone before me had accepted the perfection of the machine and no machine is perfect; in every joint, rivet, screw lies original sin. (Penguin paperback edition, p.23)

Maybe it’s not even that calculating. Maybe Greene himself genuinely saw Original Sin all around him, in every aspect of human lives, and it therefore appears naturally in his fictions.

JRR Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. Tom Shippey’s book about him explains that when Tolkien had finished The Lord of The Rings, he went back through it and carefully cut anything which even hinted at a spiritual or religious dimension. The less religion, the greater the imaginative impact. As if he trusted the liberated imagination to lead towards belief.

Greene has no such trust. Apart from the explicitly Catholic novels, where religion plays a crucial part in the plot (The Power and The Glory, The Heart of The Matter, The End of The Affair), many of his other novels would benefit from pruning the casual references to God, Original Sin and so on which distract and even irritate the reader. It would focus our attention more on the story and less on the author’s editorialising, giving them greater artistic integrity, making them more imaginatively effective.

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The movie

With the unerring luck Greene enjoyed with the cinema, he himself had the opportunity to adapt this slender tale into a glamorous comedy-drama starring Italian screen idol Rossano Brazzi, along with Glynis Johns and Robert Morley, released just a year after the novella.

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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