A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene (1960)

‘At the end you find you haven’t even got a self to express. I have no interest in anything any more , Doctor.’…
‘When a man comes here too late the disease has to burn itself out.’ (p.46)

‘Querry may be also a burnt-out case,’ the doctor said… [Burnt-out cases are] the lepers who lose everything that can be eaten away before they are cured.’ (p.110)

Plot – part one

A mysterious figure trying to escape his past life has taken the river boat as far as it will go into the heart of Congo. He gets out at the end of the line, where there is a leper colony. It is Querry, a (supposedly) world-famous religious architect, whose picture was on the cover of Time, and who built a number of churches in the modern style. Now he gets permission to stay at the local Catholic seminary and gets to know the Superior, the various fathers, and Dr Colin who runs the leproserie – a clinic for the many local lepers.

It quickly emerges that Querry is at the end of his tether, having left both his mistress and his architectural practice. He no longer feels a vocation, he no longer feels desire, he feels nothing, he wants nothing. He sits around and chats about the meaning of life and how to get the generators working, with the Superior, with the various priests and with Dr Colin, who he develops a wary friendship with. They are both lapsed Catholics.

Catholicism

Of course, this being Greene, almost all the characters are Catholics who, therefore, all start talking at the drop of a hat about divine and earthly love, who worry about their rosaries or whether God is watching or whether they should or shouldn’t attend mass, etc. The immediate earnestness with which they debate these ‘Big Questions’ seems so remote and alien in the age of sexting and 50 Shades of Grey. I think of black and white TV programmes from the early 1960s with Malcolm Muggeridge and a bishop earnestly debating the Question of Faith, or some such. At one point, the exchange:

‘Remorse is a kind of belief.’
‘Oh no, it isn’t.’ (p.76)

made me laugh out loud. He’s behind you. Yah boo. Love is hate and God is pity but pity kills and man killed God but God kills man every day, but man kills God in  his image every day, blah blah blah. Along with much harping on Greene’s favourite theme that love is dangerous, it demands victims, that pity can kill, that all the supposed virtues lead to their opposites. Well – if you read Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, you see that they often did for Mr G, forever entangled in the tortuous affairs with numerous women he ‘loved’ and wounded. But not necessarily for everyone else…

‘Liking is a great deal safer than love. It doesn’t demand victims.’ (p.82)

Etc. I’ve written elsewhere about Greene the preacherman. As I read the leisurely discussions about ‘the vocation of saints’ and ‘the true meaning of love’ between Querry and the Superior, Dr Colin and Querry, and the Superior and the priests, and the priests and Querry, it occurred to me that Greene might have liked the Catholic church, apart from all the other reasons (like being saved and going to Heaven) because it gives you endless opportunities to pontificate.

The scope for preaching is vast and the system much larger and more coherent than the inadequate Anglicanism he was raised in. Much larger, much more intense, much more blood and pain and suffering and sacrifice, very appealing to a suicidal adolescent or a depressive young man. And, once you’re in, there is literally endless scope to ravel out vast skeins of verbiage and rhetoric, scores of pages, entire books, from its infinitely varied, easily disputable and garish theology.

From a purely practical point of view, if you are a writer struggling to support a family (and various mistresses and prostitutes) and are paid by the word, then having troubled characters explore the voluminous entrails of Catholic theology is an extremely attractive and practical strategy for generating copy. Is extreme humility just, in fact, an inverted form of extreme pride? Aha, good for a short story. Is the truest love the one which denies its own expression? Aha, might work up into a full novel. Repeat ad infinitum

‘You are a man of humility.’ ‘If you knew the extent of my pride…’ (p.91)

‘If you feel in pain because you doubt, it is obvious you are feeling the pain of faith…’ (p.92)

‘Perhaps a man can be judged by his rashness.’ (p.99)

‘Behind all of us in various ways lies a spoilt priest.’ (p.110)

‘We none of us really know ourselves.’ (p.111)

‘Perhaps it’s true that you can’t believe in a god without loving a human being or love a human being without believing in a god.’ (p.114)

‘Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition.’ (p.122)

‘Love is planted in man now… Sometimes, of course, people call it hate.’ (p.124)

Suburban

This might have blossomed into some kind of existential meditation on life and death, on the developed and undeveloped world, on psychological illness (ennui) juxtaposed with the appalling symptoms of the physical ailment, leprosy, on the nature of colonialism in Africa.

But in Greene’s hands it becomes strangely suburban. The nearest town, Luc, is meant to be hundreds of miles away along disintegrating roads and yet we are quickly introduced to small-town, gossipy colonial life there, complete with raffish Monsignor (‘you may kiss my ring’), the insufferably self-centered Rycker – owner of a palm oil factory – and his poor young wife who he alternately tyrannises and wheedles into bed with him, the short, pompous governor and his wife, fussing about drinks at their cocktail parties. Before he knows it, Querry, who had hoped to find peace and anonymity in the depths of the jungle, is the nearest thing to a ‘celebrity’, his every move reported in the tiny world of unhappy colonists.

George Orwell notoriously pointed out that the basic plot of The Heart of the Matter (police inspector has affair with younger woman) could have taken place in Surrey, not Sierra Leone. Here, also, although it is very hot and there are ‘boy’ servants (and lepers) everywhere, the plot could actually be reset in any remote part of the British Isles where a jaded man goes to escape his success but ends up becoming the subject of local gossip. Viewed from another angle, it could almost have been an Ealing comedy, starring Alec Guinness as the unassuming architect.

Comedy

In fact, there are numerous moments of quiet comedy scattered through the text. Loser Takes All and Our Man In Havana marked a new ability for comedy in Greene’s work, a new maturity – if we define maturity as the ability to laugh at the world’s absurdity rather than be adolescently tortured by it.

Father Jean was tall, pale, and concave with a beard which struggled like an unpruned hedge. He had once been a brilliant theologian before he joined the Order and now he carefully nurtured the character of a film-fan, as though it would help him to wipe out an ugly past. (p.83)

And there’s a tension in this text between the melodramatic finale Greene forces on it and the numerous small ironies he quietly records between the characters, along the way.

Descriptions

The pace of the first half of the novel is as slow as the wide, muddy river which flows past the leproserie, allowing plenty of time for some wonderful descriptions.

On the other shore the great trees, with roots above the ground like the ribs of a half-built ship, stood out over the green jungle wall, brown at the top like stale cauliflowers. The cold grey trunks, unbroken by branches, curved a little this way and a little that, giving them a kind of reptilian life Porcelain-white birds stood on the backs of coffee-coloured cows, and once for a whole hour he watched a family who sat in a pirogue by the bank doing nothing; the mother wore a bright yellow dress, the man, wrinkled like bark, sat bent over a paddle he never used, and a girl with a baby on her lap smiled and smiled like an open piano. (p.27)

The plot – part two

I don’t know why critics say Greene is political when he is entirely personal. Congo, where this novel is set, achieved independence in the year the novel was published, 1960. The lead-up to this momentous achievement must have been intricate and fascinating. None of this appears in the novel, only a few passing references to ‘riots in the capital’, which could be any capital, anywhere.

No, alas, after the slow amiable conversations of part one, part two descends quickly into a bedroom farce which Greene then forces to become some kind of tragedy.

Part two (the novel is actually divided into six parts, but very clearly falls into two halves) begins with the arrival of a fatuous (and fat) journalist named Montagu Parkinson, who has been alerted to Querry’s presence by the histrionic, self-dramatising Catholic factory owner, Rycker, back in Luc. Parkinson has looked Querry up in the files of his magazine and uncovered some dirt, mainly about past affairs and mistresses. Like Greene himself.

After a week or so he departs but a month or so later Querry hears that Parkinson has published the first of a sensational series about the successful architect who gave it all up to minister to lepers in the jungle, a Saint, a Figure For Our Times etc. Disgusted, Querry drives the long distance to give Rycker a piece of his mind, in fact to thump him. But he finds him ill in bed and his pretty young wife quickly confides how unhappy she is and she fears she is pregnant. Somehow Querry finds himself driving her off into Luc that night with a view to visiting a doctor the next day to get a confirmation, or not, of the pregnancy. He gets them seperate hotel rooms. She can’t sleep so he tells her a long parable about a young man who believes in an invisible king (a transparent allegory of his own Catholic faith). Next day they bump into the ubiquitous Parkinson, but Rycker turns up, enraged, histrionically convinced his wife has run off to have an affair with Querry. This is such rubbish, Querry simply walks away.

Several days later the priests at the seminary have a little party to celebrate putting the roof-tree onto the new school building Querry has designed for them. There is a heavy rainstorm with (Gothic) thunder and lightning. In the middle of all the bangs and flashes, the priests get a call from the convent down the road that Rycker’s wife, Marie, has arrived there, exhausted, after 3 days on the road alone. She is insisting not only that Querry is her lover, but that she is pregnant by him!

Ridiculous! Querry goes to talk to her but realises she is quite ready to lie her pants off because it will get her away from the husband she hates and, ultimately, back to Europe where she longs to return.

As the thunder and lightning crash around the seminary, the priests are discussing whether Querry can be allowed to stay with them – since there will inevitably be scandal, boosted by the vile journalist Parkinson – and Querry is brushing it off and discussing divine and earthly love and which building they need to build next with Dr Colin – when the infuriated, histrionically Catholic, ‘wronged husband’ Rycker arrives, blundering about in the tropical rainstorm shouting Querry’s name and waving a gun around.

Farce or tragedy

Go on. Guess what happens next. Rycker shoots Querry dead. How did you guess? Oh yes, because it was crashingly inevitable. — Greene is so aware that a novel which could have offered fascinating insights into Congo on the eve of independence or about the treatment of leprosy and medicine in the developing world or about one man’s quest to escape the world – has turned into yet another novel about adultery, just like The Heart of the Matter and The End of The Affair, and a rather ludicrous one at that, that he has one of the priests point out that it’s all a bit like a French farce.

Rycker made for the door. He stood there for a moment as though he were on stage and had forgotten his exit line. ‘There isn’t a jury that would convict me,’ he said and went out again into the dark and rain…
[Father Jean said] ‘…It’s a little like one of those Palais Royal farces that one has read… The injured husband pops in and out.’ (p.190)

Quite. Greene visited some amazing places at just the right historical moment – London during the Blitz, Freetown 1942, Vienna 1948, Vietnam 1952, Cuba 1955, Congo 1959 – and sets novels in each of them. But novels of adventure? Novels of profound political insight? Novels which shed light on the great movement of post-colonial independence which swept the world in the decades after World War Two? Nope. Novels about unhappy upper-middle class professional men who steal other men’s women or have their women stolen by other men. The key characters are always Greene-proxy – woman – other man.

If only Greene could have devised a comic resolution to what is in so many ways a straightforward comic situation. But no. Bang bang. ‘The horror the horror,’ Querry dies quoting Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness… actually he doesn’t, his dying word is the 1950s existentialist buzzword, ‘absurd’. But just quoting the buzzword of fashionable existentialism doesn’t make your entire work an existentialist novel. It is too urbane, too relaxed, right up till the end too untroubled for that.

Envoi

With crashing inevitability there is a final conversation between the Superior and sad Dr Colin designed to make us empathise even more with the tragic hero.

‘They would never have left him alone.’
‘Who do you mean by “they”?’
‘The fools, the interfering fools, they exist everywhere, don’t they? He had been cured of all but his success; but you can’t cure success, any more than I can give my mutilés back their fingers and toes. I return them to the town, and people look at them in the stores and watch them in the street and draw the attention of others to them as they pass. Success is like that too – a mutilation of the natural man.’ (p.197)

Poor Graham. Rich, successful, famous. Wives, mistresses and lovers coming out of his ears. Still so unhappy. Still such a grievance against the world.

In the end the plot boils down to a farcical joke: middle-aged philanderer is shot down by the jealous husband of the one woman he hasn’t bedded. Bitter irony. Life isn’t fair. The world is absurd. Geddit?

Style

All that said in criticism of the plot and the bucket theology, the novel is very pleasurable to read. His style, though not flashy or ostentatious, is dry and suave. Greene had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. He knows how to achieve a host of little effects by juxtaposing people’s thoughts or words with their opposite in reality or other people’s minds, sly little dramatic ironies to be found on every page.

You almost feel the bucket Catholicism is part of a contractual obligation he feels required to deliver in each novel; whereas it is the ‘wisdom’ embodied by these small verbal strategies, the sense they give of listening to a man of the world, who is alert to all the little comedies of social life, of being alive and alert to human ironies, which is the real pleasures of the text. Not even the characters, as such, but the words that create the characters, and the way they move and dance against each other.

After reading Modesty Blaise and the Quiller spy novels, it was an enormous relief to read a text which is so sophisticated, urbane, reflective, mature.

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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