The Captain and The Enemy by Graham Greene (1988)

Of the Captain I have heard nothing for years, and Liza, whom I left of my own accord, I see only from time to time, always with a sense of guilt. It’s not because of any love I feel for them. It is as though I had taken them quite coldbloodedly as fictional characters to satisfy this passionate desire of mine to write. (p.51)

Part one

12-year-old Victor Baxter is in the playground at his boarding school (sounding suspiciously similar to Greene’s own boarding school, Berkhamsted) when a man arrives with a letter from his father, giving him permission to take Victor out for the afternoon. The man asks to be called ‘the Captain’ and they stroll down towards what sounds like Berkhamsted castle to a pub beside what sounds like Berkhamsted canal, where the Captain wangles lunch and a few drinks off the publican before leaving without paying. Aha. He is a swindler, a con man. And instead of taking Victor back to school the Captain takes him to Berkhamsted train station where they catch the next train to London. ‘You see, Victor,’ he explains, ‘I won you from your father over a game of backgammon.’ Oh,’ thinks Victor.

In London the Captain takes him along to a rundown house which is managed by young Liza. The Captain asks Victor to call her ‘Mum’. Liza and the Captain decide to call him Jim, a much nicer name. Jim is taking all this in his stride, chooses an empty room in the rackety old house to be his bedroom, then settles into life being fed and watered by Liza and getting used to the Captain’s long disappearances and mysterious reappearances.

One day the Captain hands a newspaper to Liza, highlighting an article. Later Jim reads it and it describes how a smartly dressed con man entered a jewellers shop after it was closed and, while the door was open, a gang barged in and stole the man’s stock. It gives the con man’s name as one the Captain has mentioned. Aha. That’s what he does for a living. Jim is sublimely untroubled by being removed from school: he hated it, he was bullied by the other boys, his mother died years previously and his father rarely came to see him; outside of term time he had to stay with an aunt who he hated. He nicknames his father the Devil.

A few weeks later his father in fact knocks on the door. ‘Tut tut,’ says the Devil, ‘so this is where you are’ – not at all outraged or upset by his abduction. We gather from his conversation with Liza that the two were once lovers, but he got her pregnant and paid for a back-street abortion which was bungled, leaving her ill for a long time and unable to have children. That’s when the Captain met her, looked after her and nursed her back to health, hence their connection. After some chat, the Devil leaves, making no effort to take Jim with him.

On another occasion the Devil arrives with the awful aunt, Muriel, who complains about the boy’s lack of schooling. This prompts the Captain to make an effort at home schooling, though this mainly takes the form of telling the impressionable boy tall tales about being shot down and taken prisoner in Germany during the war, before escaping across occupied France into neutral Spain.

The Captain’s absences get longer and longer, and during these long periods Victor finds himself forced to go to the local state school, and growing more independent of the increasingly sad Liza.

Part two

Greene was always interested in time shifts in a narrative. Sometimes a section of text embeds not one but several flashbacks, sometimes reverting from one period to another with next to no warning. Part two opens by announcing that all of part one is a fragment (of autobiography? of fiction?) which the older, mature Victor found among the boxes of Liza’s flat, when he came to go through it, after – years later – she was seriously injured in a car accident. Now – we learn – he is a journalist with years of experience behind, him, a grown adult.

He finds the fragment in a box of old letters in the basement of the house which is now identified as being in Camden. He reads old letters the Captain wrote to Liza, vague promises that he’ll make his fortune, latterly from south America. In fact one arrives during these days, post-marked Panama, including a check ‘payable to bearer’ and details of the flight Liza should catch to go out and join the Captain. This prompts Victor to contact his dad, who invites him to lunch at the Reform Club (posh) where they discuss the morality of cashing a check obviously intended for Liza. Jim discusses it at length, then does it anyway, packs in his journalism job and makes arrangements to fly to Panama. Oh and he brings the fragment up to date, thus writing the text we have seen in the previous two sections…

Part three

Victor flies to Panama and is met by Mr Quigly, a tall, thin man who claims to be a British journalist but speaks with an American twang. He takes him to the stylish hotel where the Captain has arranged a room and a bodyguard for Jim. A bodyguard? Apparently arranged by a certain Colonel Martínez who ‘looks after’ the Captain. If this seems vague that is because it is left deliberately vague: right to the end of the book we (and Jim) are not sure whether the Captain is working for the Colonel, or just given some kind of protection, just as we never completely learn what Quigly is doing. But it does lend the narrative a spurious sense of threat and edge.

After a few days, the Captain appears and Victor, when it comes to it, can’t bring himself to reveal that Liza is dead. This leads him into a series of lies, explaining her lack of letters etc with evermore elaborate excuses. To me, this simply seemed a pretext to allow the narrator to feel Guilt about his Betrayal of the Captain, or Liza, or both.

At various points the bodyguard or Quigly or the Captain take Victor out for drinks and meals. On one occasion the Captain – whose birth name, we learn, is Brown, but who is currently calling himself Smith – takes Victor out to the second hand airplane he keeps. He was a flyer during the war, remember. Maybe the dodgy activities he’s involved in include drug smuggling. It is striking how boring Greene manages to make the description of a small plane flight over the south American jungle. It’s mostly an opportunity for Victor to feel Guilty.

Finally, provoked after too many drinks, Victor tells the Captain that Liza is dead. Obviously I don’t give a damn about these shallow puppets, but I was interested in the choice of words, in the description of the scene:

He took a step towards me and I thought he was preparing to strike me. I backed towards the door and threw the truth at him like a glass of vitriol. ‘There’s no one to go back to. Liza’s dead.’ (p.153)

Isn’t this a scene from a Victorian melodrama? Isn’t ‘vitriol’ an old, almost obsolete word. Why not ‘acid’? And ‘strike’ – the Captain could have been advancing to hit, slap or punch Victor; but no, Greene chooses the most generic term, the one with literary or even biblical overtones, also, somehow, the emptiest.

Jim walks straight out and goes to see Mr Quigly who, based on Jim’s experience as a journalist back in England, offers him a job as a stringer ie a freelance journalist, providing ‘information’. But Jim is savvy enough to realise Quigly is some kinds of agent, probably for the Americans who run the American Zone and the Panama Canal.

Having done this deal, Jim goes back to the hotel room to sleep but is woken and requested to attend a meeting with the sinister Colonel Martínez. In fact the Colonel – something in the National Guard – turns out to be a tubby affable man. He asks Jim if he knows his father’s whereabouts? Jim says no. The Colonel tells him to avoid Quigly and ends the interview. He doesn’t tell us what the relationship is between him and the Captain nor what Quigly’s role is. It is all left deliberately vague and menacing.

Back at the hotel room Jim finds a last letter the Captain has written him, upset that he didn’t tell him Liza was dead immediately on arriving, saying Jim has Betrayed him, telling him to go back to England, and declaring that, now he (the Captain) is free of all duties and responsibility, he can do what he wants. Funnily enough a letter had arrived just today addressed to the Captain at the hotel and Jim had pocketed it. Now he opens it to discovers it is from Liza, written just before she died, knowing she’s dying, telling the Captain how much she Loved him. Ie it is created and positioned in the narrative to create the maximum sense of pathos in the reader, and the maximum sense of Guilt in Jim.

Then comes the sudden ending of the whole Captain narrative. Quigly phones, then comes to the hotel in person to tell Jim the Captain is dead. He uses an odd phrase – he Captain flew ‘in the wrong direction’ – a phrase repeated half a dozen times, as if it will gain symbolism or pathos, but doesn’t really. Soon afterwards the Colonel requests another meeting, and sends Pablo the bodyguard to fetch him. The Colonel informs Jim that the Captain flew his plane packed with explosives into the mountainside home of the Nicaraguan dictator Somosa. But Somosa wasn’t there, so all the Captain managed was to kill himself and shatter windows in a nearby hotel. It is a typically Greene ending for a character and a final image of complete futility.

Jim/Victor announces he is concluding this narrative, a failed attempt to create sense or meaning out of his lifelong association with a man and his beloved for whom, in the end, he felt nothing at all. He’s throwing it in the waste bin and drawing a line under this whole part of his life. He’s taking the money and setting off to start anew.

Part four

This last short section marks a complete departure in the text. It is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who describes the scene where Colonel Martínez calls in Quigly and asks him about Jim’s whereabouts and the meaning of this long mysterious narrative they found in the waste paper basket in his hotel room.

(They are discussing the long narrative Jim had written about his association with the Captain and which we saw/heard/read him planning to throw in the hotel waste paper basket. It is grimly, blackly funny that the Panama intelligence are taking Jim’s completely personal text as some kind of set of instructions or hidden messages).

The Colonel asks Quigly: what does it mean? Is it written in code? Obviously Quigly doesn’t know so then the Colonel tells Quigly that Jim has caught a plane to Chile: has he been sent by his masters to spy on Pinochet? Does he work for the Americans? Again, we get no answers to these questions but they powerfully suggest the milieu the Captain inhabited in this country, somehow involved in running, what? guns, munitions, in his plane, though we never learn why or for who.

Martinez tells Quigly to pack in his espionage activities and quietly go to the American Zone before an ‘accident’ befalls him.

Then, in the last few pages, the Colonel orders Jim’s narrative to be translated into Spanish so he can read it and puzzle out its meaning and the light it sheds on the murky espionage activities of the man they called the Captain. Who knows, one day it might even be published and win literary prizes, ha ha ha. The phone rings, the Colonel listens then replaces the handset, turning to tell the translator, Alas the son has gone the same way as the father, killed in an ‘accident’ on the way to the airport.

Greene’s epilogues

At the end of two of his greatest novels, The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, the point of view pulls away in the last few pages to reveal the point of view of people previously outside the magic circle of the Greene’s fraught narrative: to describe bystanders in a hotel near the prison where the whisky priest is being executed in Power and – devastatingly, in Heart – to reveal that Scobie’s wife and colleagues knew he was having an affair all along; his agonised decisions, his terrible suicide, were pointless.

Greene creates a similar effect here – the last few pages pull the rug out from everything which had gone before, making the Captain and his suburban devotion to the uneducated Liza look pathetic, and strangely pointless Jim’s efforts, revived at various points, to write his and their story in the preceding narrative, knowing it will all end up in a waste bin, and then be retrieved to be pawed over by army officers with no sympathy or understanding for what Jim was trying to achieve.

It’s a kind of knickerbocker glory of futility – adding to the futility of the Captain’s death and the futility of Jim’s death, an added layer of futility by explaining how Jim’s carefully worked narrative has fallen into the hands of people uniquely qualified never to understand a word of it. A bright red cherry of pointlessness sitting on top of the whole depressed concoction.


Style

The story is told in Greene’s later style, which is settled and formal and old-fashioned. These last books often feel as if the prose is tired out after the hysterical scenes of the middle period. It feels drained, calm, resigned, the morning after a wild party or a big emotional scene.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was free from school. Liza was out buying bread and for once she left me alone with my lesson books. Then the bell rang. It wasn’t the Captain’s code, nor was it my father’s. This was a ring, quiet, reassuring, even friendly. The ringer waited what seemed to be a polite time before he rang again, and the ring still remained unurgent, undemanding. (p.75)

It is always well-behaved and minds its manners, after all he went to a good public school and Oxford, you know. If it does go on a bit about despair and guilt, at least it’s wearing the right tie and knows which knife and fork to use for the fish course.

I had heard of Liza’s grave state in hospital from the police and so I came to what I still reluctantly called my home to do all the tiresome things which are required when one prepares for the death of a parent. There was no real next of kin to whom I could pass the disagreeable task. (p.83)

‘when one prepares…’ ‘to whom I could pass’. You can almost hear the knees creaking, see the liver spots on the hands of this prose, nice old gent prose, prose from a bygone era. Safe, correct, dull as ditchwater.

A message came. I went to the hospital. Liza had lapsed into a coma and she died the next day. There was nothing left to do but bury her. She had left no will: if she had money it was in some unknown account. (p.105)

Greene was never a prose stylist: Evelyn Waugh said it best when he commented that Greene’s prose treats words as if they have no history or overtones. He writes with a complete lack of poetry or colour. Greene’s prose is as cold and fishlike as his pale eyes in the countless black and white photos of him.

When they told me at the hospital that she was dead I felt no more emotion than when I had left her behind after a weekly visit to go to my bed-sitting room in Soho. If there was any emotion it was the emotion of relief, of duty finished. (p.133)

‘passionate desire’ – he would rather use clichés than colour. Greene’s prose makes its impact in his entertainments and the Catholic thrillers, not by his stylish deployment of language, but by the obsessive repetition of a handful of key ideas and key words – sin, fear, despair, doubt, betrayal etc, a shopping list of teenage angst dressed up – in the ‘serious’ novels – in Catholic voodoo. Mercifully, Catholic melodrama is mostly absent from this work of his old age but his buzz words, his weasel words, still litter the text:

I refuse to feel guilt at leaving her (79)… a letter which… near her death gave me a passing sense of guilt at having left her (83)… I had no sense of guilt (87)… I had a certain sense of guilt [about cashing someone else’s check] (102)… I was afraid of him, but I felt no guilt at all (153)…

Having just read his first novel, The Man Within, an over-the-top historical melodrama, the word ‘fear’ is still ringing in my ears, as it appears on every page of that novel, conveying the panic-stricken cowardice of the protagonist – so I was surprised to find it cropping up here, 60 years later, to describe the relationship between the Captain and Liza, and then increasingly throughout the text:

What remained afterwards was shyness in both of them and a kind of fear. (p.38)

Love and fear – fear and love – I know now how inextricably they are linked, but they were both beyond my understanding at the age I was then, and how can I be sure that I really understand them even now? (p.39)

Love, it was quite clear to me now, meant fear, and I suppose it was the same fear which made Liza go out every Thursday morning… (p.51)

(Are love and fear really inextricably linked? It sounds good, it sounds profound: but I think that’s all it is, empty rhetoric, part of the pretentious rhetoric of Greeneland which, on closer examination, evaporates.)

In my experience love was like an attack of flu and one recovered as quickly. Each love affair was like a vaccine. It helped you to get through the next attack more easily. (p.105)

In previous reviews I’ve suspected Greene had a notebook in which he wrote down these ‘wonderful’ aperçus and insights, and then waited to insert them into appropriate places in his stories which, since they are always about betrayal guilt and despair, was easy to do.

A closely observed world captured in careful and deft phrases is what you do NOT get in Greene. What you get is incidents, often pretty banal and mundane incidents, just enough to justify his mind leaping to his comfort zone – to large, portentous abstract nouns, to flights of pseudo-profundity, to bucket psychology; to the same mental slums, the unhealthy territory the wretched man inhabited all his life, of fear and despair and futility.

I could remember… how she once told me with a kind of despair, ‘He writes such a lot of rubbish.’ (p.88)

Despair? Really? Is that the appropriate description of such an everyday remark? How about ‘a kind of affection’ or ‘exasperation’ or ‘impatience’ or ‘indignation’ or ‘peevishness’ or ‘pique’? No? No, because these are wide-ranging words, words which would open the text up to the chaotic diversity of the real world and to real unpredictable people and would require a completely different, wide-ranging and open imagination, and an open, adventurous and interesting vocabulary to match it.

Whereas, in Greeneland, there are always only three or four people, trapped in doomed relationships, who think love is cognate with fear because being in love is always followed by harming the one you love, and who only have a clutch of the same negative dull emotions – fear, despair, guilt.

I get frightened when I think that one day I may harm you too like I’ve harmed the others. (p.92)

Despite the mellow story and the old man style, a surprising number of these sentiments could have come from Greene’s preposterous first novel: the sense of self pity, the claustrophobic feeling of a tiny emotional world, above all the fundamentally unhappy, grey, depressed and negative view of life, is never far below the surface.

‘Where’s the Captain?’ I asked.
‘How would I know?’ Liza said in a tone which, when I think of it now, comes back to me as almost a cry of despair. (p.68)

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

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.

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene (1982)

‘Your glass, monsignor.’
‘I have asked you not to call me monsignor.’
‘Then why not call me comrade – I prefer it to Sancho.’
‘In recent history, Sancho, too many comrades have been killed by comrades. I don’t mind calling you friend. Friends are less apt to kill each other.’
‘Isn’t friend going a little bit far between a Catholic priest and a Marxist?’
‘You said a few hours back that we must have something in common.’
‘Perhaps what we have in common is this manchegan wine, friend.’
They both had a sense of growing comfort as the dark deepened and they teased each other. (p.51)

Father Quixote is a good-natured Catholic priest in the sleepy town of El Toboso in the sleepy province of La Mancha in south-central Spain, jokily aware of his fictional predecessor, the great Don Quixote, who was supposed to have lived in the same area 400 years earlier.

One day he helps out an Italian bishop whose car has broken down on the main road to Madrid, giving him lunch and wine before sending him on his way. A few weeks later he is astonished to receive a letter declaring that the same bishop (back in Rome) has recommended Quixote be promoted to monsignor. His own Spanish bishop (who has never liked him much) is taking advantage of this surprise development to suggest the new monsignor Quixote is despatched to preach to a wider congregation (ie to get rid of him).

Around the same time the communist mayor of El Toboso is voted out of office and rendered unemployed. Though named Enrique Zancas, Father Quixote jokingly calls him Sancho. Over a drink or two they commiserate being ejected from their respective cosy jobs and hit on the idea of taking a prolonged holiday and going touring in Quixote’s battered old Seat 600 which he jokingly refers to as ‘Rocinante’ (after the fictional Don Quixote’s donkey).

Thus this unlikely pair find themselves motoring around rural Spain, bickering about Catholicism and communism (‘What about Stalin?’ ‘What about the Inquisition?’) and quite closely echoing the adventures of their famous fictional forebears.

Spain as land of archetypes

Greene wasn’t the first or last writer to come from a complex, industrialised, north European country and fall in love with the ‘simplicity’ of arid, backward Spain. The novel was published seven years after General Franco – the Fascist dictator who devoted his life to preserving Spain’s peasant Catholic culture – had died and little had changed. The ideological opposites of communism and Catholicism still had the kind of primeval power they enjoyed during the Civil War (1936-39) and Greene’s novel is appropriately simplistic, pitching the two mid-century ideologies against each other in a terrain denuded of most other people (apart from monks and religious processions) and almost every indication of messy, mundane 20th century life – reminiscent sometimes of the stripped-back landscapes of a Samuel Beckett play.

The impact of the modern world with its package holidays, tourist buses, industrial estates, roaring 747s, flashy sports cars, with its schools and offices and newspapers – none of that is in evidence here. Instead Sancho and Quixote drive around a Spain of the mind, visiting shrines, sleeping in the fields or cheap hotels or monasteries, all the time carrying out a kind of fifth form debate about the rights and wrongs of communism and Catholicism:

Is it better to live with faith or doubt? Is honest disbelief better than shallow faith – or vice versa? Was Torquemada worse than Stalin? Is Das Kapital a better guide to living than The Dark Night of The Soul? Is it better to read Lenin or Marx? Was it insulting of Our Lord to refer to his human flock as ‘sheep’? Was Marx a prophet like Isaiah? And, because it’s a novel about Catholicism, there are, inevitably, some rather sordid conversations about Catholic teaching on birth control (coitus interruptus versus the Rhythm Method… God these Catholics and their genitals, what a lifelong obsession: who knew there were so many activities which come under the category of ‘onanism’?) And so, charmingly, ramblingly, on…

‘Oh, you can’t beat those moral theologians. They get the better of you every time with their quibbles.’  -Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas (p.84)

‘Among the reflections and resolutions it is good to make use of colloquies, and speak sometimes to our Lord, sometimes to the Angels, to the Saints and to oneself, to one’s own heart, to sinners, and even to inanimate creatures…’ -St Francis de Sale, as read by Monsignor Quixote just before he goes to sleep.  (p.106)

‘How happy you must be with your complete belief. There’s only one thing you will ever lack – the dignity of despair.’ -Quixote (p.112)

‘”There is a muffled voice, a voice of uncertainty which whispers in the ears of the believer. Who knows? Without this uncertainty how could we live?”‘ -Sancho, quoting Unamuno (p.112)

Occasionally Quixote in particular is prey to the kind of religiose self-pity which Greene made his own throughout his career:

‘I don’t pity him. I never pity the dead. I envy them.’ -Quixote (p.120)

Sometimes he envied the certitude of those who were able to lay down clear rules – [the theologian] Father Heribert Jone, his bishop, even the Pope. Himself he lived in a mist, unable to see a path, stumbling… (p.134) -Quixote

How can I pray to resist evil when I am not even tempted? There is no virtue in such a prayer… O God, make me human, let me feel temptation. Save me from my indifference. (p.141) -Quixote

He felt as though he had been touched by the wing-tip of the worst sin of all, despair. (p.182)

I believe what I told her… I believe it, of course, but how is it that when I speak of belief, I become aware always of a shadow, the shadow of disbelief haunting my belief? (p.197) -Quixote

The true voice of the most depressive of English writers, the poet laureate of failed suicides, ruminating on his imperfect faith at interminable length.

Part one

Sancho and Quixote’s peregrinations are modelled on those of their fictional forebears. The book is in two parts: in part one, after being introduced to the couple, we motor off with them towards Madrid, then visit:

  • General Franco’s extraordinary tomb at Valle de los Caídos
  • the city of Valladolid
  • the city of Salamanca and the tomb of Unamuno

But as they do so a snowball of trouble grows around them. They are parked by the roadside enjoying cheese and wine and, for a joke, Quixote passes Sancho his clerical collar to try on at the precise moment some officious Guardia approach and note that the monsignor is lending a communist his Clothes. Later, at a loss while they wait for old Rocinante to be fixed at a garage, Sancho takes the innocent Quixote to the cinema for the first time. Quixote chooses to see The Maiden’s Dream, neither of them realising it is a porn film. As they emerge Sancho cracks a joke and Quixote is seen laughing and joking emerging from a porn cinema. Lastly and by far the worst, the pair are stopped again by a Guardia who warns them about a robber who’s just done a bank robbery with a gun and is in the neighbourhood. Quixote is oddly shifty and when the Guardia is gone, shows Sancho that he had encountered the robber five minutes earlier who assured him it was all a mistake. Now the robber does in fact pull a gun, makes Quixote give him his shoes and forces them to drive him to the nearby town where he disappears into the crowd. Sancho takes Quixote to a shoe shop to buy new shoes where the shop assistant notices his clerical garb and, it turns out, informs the police. By this time they have captured the robber who tells them he was helped to get away by Quixote. Late that night, after they have drunk a lot of wine and fallen asleep under the stars after their usual bicker about Stalin or Torquemada, or Faith versus Doubt, Sancho wakes up to find Quixote gone.

Part two

Quixote wakes up back in his priest’s house in El Tobaso. He has been kidnapped by the town doctor, acting under the instructions of his officious young replacement Father Herrera, himself acting under orders from Quixote’s bishop. All of them are trying to contain the scandal of a priest seen coming out of a porn cinema then helping a bank robber. Quixote is so indignant at being kidnapped then held prisoner he gets angry and insulting which confirms the priest and doctor’s belief he has gone mad. They lock him in his room. Soon Sancho turns up and with the help of Quixote’s outraged housekeeper liberate him, they clamber into Rocinante and set off on part two of their adventures.

The highlight of this is coming to a region in Galicia inhabited by lots of natives who emigrated to Mexico, made a lot of money, and have come back to dominate the countryside. Quixote is outraged at the money-grabbing corruption they have introduced to the region and interrupts a Catholic procession where the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been covered in dollar, franc and peseta bills, pulling it crashing to the ground. Sancho drags him away, bundles him into Rocinante and they drive full pelt for the Trappist monastery of Osera.

Just as they arrive some Guardias ambush them, pulling guns and shooting the tyres of Rocinante so she skids and crashes into the monastery wall. Sancho is mildly injured but Quixote is concussed. He is carried to bed by the outraged monks and treated by a local doctor who turn on the poor Guardias who were only obeying orders to stop the now-thought-to-be-deranged escaped priest, bank robber-protector, and religious processions attacker.

In the final scene Quixote rises from his bed in a dream, sleepwalks to the altar of the cathedral and carries out a sleepwalking Mass, witnessed by a devout monk, a sceptical visiting American academic, and Sancho, torn between love and respect for his old friend and his ancient disbelief.

Quixote places a dream Host on Sancho’s tongue, followed by dream wine, then collapses and dies. The last words describe Sancho, left haunted by his experience and (Greene the Catholic makes sure) oppressed by the dawning of the True, Deep and Terrible idea of Faith.

Why is it that the hate of man – even of a man like Franco – dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue? And to what end? (p.256)

None of this rings true for me. Greene’s popularity seems to come out of the murk of the late 1930s, then the film noir 1940s and on into the Cold War of the 1950s, and his stricken landscape of flawed men aspiring to nobility and religious faith, only to be clawed down by their own weakness or the fickle hand of fate, seem very much part of the black-and-white existentialist 1940s and 50s. He is from the world of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux, an intensely serious world which can’t take a joke. To his fans he was one of the great writers of the 20th century who described the angst of the human condition in a world threatened with annihilation.

In fact the agonising over the stereotypical alternatives of Doubt or Faith which take centre stage in almost every Greene novel make me think of him as the Last Victorian, carrying the earnestness of his father, the headmaster’s, sermons forward from his Edwardian childhood into the twentieth century. ‘Doubt’ is the great Victorian theme, the core, for example, of that age’s poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Greene is his sex-obsessed, adulterous, despairing heir.

Looking back

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the Eastern bloc countries 25 years ago, almost everything written about Marx, Lenin and their great achievements became irrelevant overnight. Bang goes Sancho’s part of the couple’s numerous discussions… And almost all the Catholic side of the conversations boils down to one question, repeated in a thousand variations: Is it alright to be a bit of a doubting Catholic? Seen from 2015, both ‘sides’ of this 250-page long debate seem dustily irrelevant.

In fact, looking back from 2015 – with the planet threatened by global warming, Europe racked by what might become a permanent refugee crisis, the Middle East collapsing into chaos and spawning an endless threat of terrorist atrocities, worried by the end of the 20-year-long China boom, anxious about the fragility of the global banking system, and uneasy that everything we say, write and do is being recorded on vast, secret databanks, while the seas are poisoned, the coral reefs die out and infectious diseases develop immunity to antibiotics – these undemanding chats about two almost vanished value systems seem as remote as a pamphlet about repealing the Corn Laws. A charming memento of a lost age.

It is an odd, distinctively Greene affect that he has to put a stab or sting into even his most charming novels (as he did, unnecessarily with the equally entertaining Travels With My Aunt) as if aware of his Time magazine status as ‘writer of the century’, as if afraid of providing simple entertainment, as if conscious his fans expect some ‘deep’, ‘religious’, ‘philosophical’ message. It mars all his books. Now that the Victorian earnestness of that whole existentialist world has disappeared, it is like having a gang rape at the end of an episode of Dad’s Army. It seems wilful and inappropriate.

The movie

Greene collaborated on turning the novel into a TV movie, directed by Rodney Bennett, starring Sir Alec Guinness and Leo McKern and broadcast in 1985. This clip, from YouTube, appears to be from a VHS copy of a version dubbed into gutteral Spanish.

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.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene (1980)

They all drank. I could tell they were more than a little intoxicated – it was only I who seemed hopelessly condemned to the sadness of sobriety however much I drank. I left my glass empty. I was determined to drink no more before I was at home alone and I could drink myself to death if I chose. (p.123)

A novella (140 pages) from Greene’s old age (he was 76 when it was published) showing he was just as miserable and suicidal in his seventies as in his teens.

The plot

A first-person narrative by Alfred Jones, fifty-something clerk and translator who works for a chocolate company in Geneva and who, despite having only one hand (having lost his left one as an air raid warden in London during the Blitz) falls in love with beautiful, young, high-spirited Anna-Luise Fischer. She is the daughter of the notorious Dr Fischer, a self-made millionaire whose fortune is based on a phenomenally successful toothpaste (Dentophil Bouquet).

A miserly misanthrope Dr F domineered over his wife, ridiculing her love of music and, when he discovered she was spending time with a lowly clerk who shared her love of classical music, he got the clerk sacked and his wife went into a decline. Anna-Luise tells Alfred how her mother told her all this, emphasising what a swine her father is. No love lost.

Compelled by good manners, Jones reluctantly goes along to tell Dr F that he’s marrying his daughter, experiencing the millionaire’s big house by the lake, his rude and surly butler, and encountering one of his regular guests in the waiting room. Dr F himself is abrupt and rude and not remotely interested in his daughter’s marriage, grateful to have her off his hands.

Shopping for records in a record store, Alfred and Anna-Luise encounter her mother’s confidente, the one who got into trouble and was sacked for playing classical music with her at their secret trysts, a sad man named Steiner. In fact Steiner faints at the sight of Anna-Luise so much does she look like her mother. They see him restored to health, at which point he fills in a bit more detail about what a swine Fischer is…

Back in their love nest, Anna-Luise explains to Alfred that Dr F has gathered round him a motley crew of sycophants and toadies. In her imperfect English she calls them the Toads. Funny thing is they’re not poor, they’re rich. But Dr F believes it’s only the rich who are truly greedy, and so he invites them to parties to ritually humiliate them before handing out (luxurious) presents.

The Toads

When a card arrives inviting Alfred to one of these parties he and Anna-Luise argue about it, she warning him off, he saying he’s curious. In the event he witnesses Dr Fischer’s guests more or less grovelling in order to earn their luxury gifts, on this occasion being forced to eat cold porridge while the Doctor enjoys fine caviar. Alfred alone refuses to eat and is not to be bought, unlike the other Toads: wealthy blue-rinse Mrs Montgomery, alcoholic movie star Richard Deane, the Divisionnaire – a retired Swiss military officer – Belmont a lugubrious tax accountant, and Mr Kips, a wizened old man bent almost double.

Anna-Luisa recounts how her father humiliated Kips by commissioning a children’s story writer to write a story about Mr Kips in Search of A Dollar with plenty of illustrations showing Mr Kips as he actually appears, and which Fischer got placed in every bookshop in Geneva at Christmas. Since he had just made Kips his lawyer on a healthy retainer the deformed old man had to put up with this appalling humiliation.

Anna-Luisa dies

Christmas approaches and Alfred takes Anna-Luisa to one of her favourite skiiing locations for her to have a morning’s exercise while he – too old and never learned to ski – waits in the cafe below. When an ambulance is called and a figure brought down on a stretcher he has a bad feeling and indeed it is Anna-Luise who swerved to avoid a boy on the piste and went head-first into a tree. Ambulance to hospital. Kindly doctors. Emergency operation. She dies under anaesthetic. Alfred goes back to their flat numbed.

Jones’s suicide attempts

Greene, the patron saint of suicides, lets rip. Alfred mixes all the aspirin he owns into half a bottle of whiskey and drinks it all. Wakes 18 hours later with a hangover. Goes to work and considers jumping off the top of his building. Driving his car off the road. Throwing himself into Lake Leman, letting the freezing water numb him till he drowns. Gas from the cooker. Fumes from the car. Starvation? Yes, he will set out to starve himself to death.

Dr Fischer

Fischer invites Alfred to visit him and tells him he despises humanity and he enjoys humiliating the Toads. Alfred asks why he didn’t come to his own daughter’s funeral and tells him he hates him. ‘But you must come to my final party,’ says Dr F. It will be a very special party with very valuable gifts for those who endure and submit. Disgusted with himself, but with nothing to live for, a few days later Alfred posts an RSVP saying ‘Yes, he’ll come’.

The bomb party

Dr Fischer gives his grotesque parties names. Alfred (and we) witness the Porridge Party. (We hear about the Lobster Party and the Grouse Party). When the Toads and Alfred are assembled for the final party, to be held outside in the snow by the light of flares at a luxuriously appointed table, waited on by the butler, Dr F tells us it is to be a bomb party. In the tombola barrel are six little crackers. Five contain cheques for 2 million francs; one contains a small explosive, big enough to kill.

In the following few pages the various guests at first think he is joking then rush and push others out of the way to get at the barrel. Mrs Montgomery opens her first with no explosion: the very drunk actor Deane opens his ditto; Kips walks away refusing to play; Belmont swiftly opens his. At last it comes down to the military man who has picked his sachet but is standing paralysed with fear. Impatiently Alfred seizes and rips open his, the final, sachet – but there is no explosion, there was no bomb. They’ve all been fooled and humiliated. Again.

Dr Fischer commits suicide

Alfred walks down to the lakeside in a daze of disappointment and has only been there a few moments when Steiner comes sidling along the waterfront. He must have broken into the grounds somehow. He reaffirms his hatred of Fischer and there are some Greene-ish maxims and quotable thoughts about hate and spite and so on.

‘You hate him and I suppose I hate him too. But hate – it isn’t important. Hate isn’t contagious. It doesn’t spread. One can hate one man and leave it there. But when you begin to despise like Doctor Fischer, you end by despising the whole world.’ (p.141)

Steiner says he has come because he wants to spit in Fischer’s face for causing the death of the beautiful wife. Almost immediately this becomes possible as Dr Fischer walks down the pitch-black night-time lawn to join them at the lakeside. He complains to Alfred that he really has spoiled the party; he particularly wanted to see the cowardly Divisionnaire pull his own cracker. Oh well. ‘And you, Steiner, I shouldn’t have got you sacked, I should have got you a pay rise and left you and Anna to play all the Mozart records you wanted to.’ To the last casually toying with people’s lives… Oh well, ‘Time to sleep’, he says and strolls off along the lakeside. A minute later there is a loud report. Fischer has shot himself in the head.

That’s it.


Thoughts

This is a way to spend 3 hours or so as long as you suspend everything you know about human nature or behaviour and as long as you enjoy a simplified mental world full of extreme abstractions like Love, Hate, Guilt, Despair, Suicide, Nothingness and so on.

Like all Greene’s entertainments it seems to me cranky and wilful. Supposedly a satire on the Euro-rich it is in fact far too tame and simplistic. One suspects the Euro-rich are much more clever, complex and corrupt than this fairy story portrays. And the suicidal thoughts which follow the death of his lover and which also, it turns out, plague Dr F, are the same suicidal thoughts which followed Greene throughout his life and recur in the minds of so many, too many, of his protagonists.

If one were feeling harsh, one could describe it as melodramatic twaddle.


The movie

In 1985 the novel was made into a TV film, Dr. Fischer of Geneva, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring James Mason (in his last role) as Dr. Fischer, Alan Bates as Alfred Jones, and Greta Scacchi as Anna-Luise. Doesn’t look like it’s available on DVD. A glance at this crude trailer, cut from the VHS version, suggests why.

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.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)

He told himself that he was a free man, that he had no duties any longer and no obligations, but he had never felt such an extreme solitude as he felt now. (p.215)

Greene was 74 the year this novel was published. The pace of the book is slow and steady and unhurried, the opposite of, say, the helter-skelter of violent incidents in a thriller like Len Deighton’s SS-GB, published the same year. And the prose of this, Greene’s later period or style, is similarly cool and clear and unhurried, lucidly unfolding descriptions, events, thoughts, dialogue, in a measured, stately pace. You can open it at almost any page and immediately start enjoying the clear, declarative sentences, arranged in a logically advancing order in beautifully weighted and judged paragraphs.

Sample quote

Colonel Daintry had a two-roomed flat in St James’s Street which he had found through the agency of another member of the firm. During the war it had been used by MI6 as a rendezvous for interviewing possible recruits. There were only three apartments in the building, which was looked after by an old housekeeper, who lived in a room somewhere out of sight under the roof. Daintry was on the first floor above a restaurant (the noise of hilarity kept him awake until the small hours when the last taxi ground away). Over his head were a retired businessman who had once been connected with the rival wartime service SOE, and a retired general who had fought in the Western Desert. The general was too old now to be seen often on the stairs, but the businessman, who suffered from gout, used to get as far as the Carlton Club across the road. Daintry was no cook and he usually economised for one meal by buying cold chipolatas at Fortnum’s. He had never liked clubs; if he felt hungry, a rare event, there was Overton’s just below. His bedroom and his bathroom looked out on a tiny court containing a sundial and a silversmith. Few people who walked down St James’s Street knew of the court’s existence. It was a very discreet flat and not unsuitable for a lonely man. (pp.84-85 of the Penguin paperback edition)

Textual analysis

This, the opening paragraph of Part Three, Chapter 1, Section 2, is packed with information:

  • There is no physical description of Dainty. His physical appearance is of little or no concern.
  • Instead noscitur a socio – one is known by the company one keeps – and Daintry is firmly situated in a web of relationships which place him very solidly in the security wing of the military establishment. His flat was previously used by MI6; was passed on by a fellow security officer; his neighbours are an ex-SOE officer and ex-Army officer.
  • Geographically, he is located in the heart of London’s Establishment clubland, in St James’s Street, opposite the Carlton Club If you consult a map you’ll see this is just behind The Ritz, on the way down to St James’s Palace, and just round the corner from the Reform Club and the Travellers Club, which both feature in the novel.
  • An upper-class mindset which extends to his shopping habits: not Sainsbury’s, not Waitrose – Fortnum’s.
  • The one glimpse of what you might call real life – the noisy restaurant downstairs – is mostly there to emphasise his solitary, unclubbable nature, and to highlight the contrast with the sad final words of the paragraph – ‘a lonely man’.
  • But in among this litany of loneliness is a sliver of winter sunlight: the view from the bedroom onto the (inevitably small, this is central London) court which contains ‘a sundial and a silversmith’. This is an unusual splash of (admittedly wintry) alliteration from so cold and uncolourful a writer as Greene. And it has a subtle symbolism: the sundial evoking the inflexible passage of time and, by implication, the withered, near-retirement mentality of the unhappy Colonel, and somehow the second-rate, silver nature of his existence. (Elsewhere Greene describes the gold-rimmed glasses of his main South African interrogator and the gold ring the second, thuggish, interrogator has on his punching hand – from which he extrapolates that South Africa itself is a virile, sun-filled, golden country. But not cold, cramped England. The best we can hope for a thin parings of silver…)
  • Because the whole passage feels very English and Londony and cramped and confined and claustrophobic:
    • In terms of Daintry the man, we are told of his appallingly limited diet: he is rarely hungry and then only buys cold chipolatas, symbolising the notorious absence of gastronomic savoir faire in the public school-educated British upper classes so satirised by the French and Italians. (In other scenes there are a number of discussions about food, especially Lady Hargreaves’ famous steak and kidney pudding; the characters spend half a page contrasting steak and kidney pudding with steak and kidney pie.)
    • And the flat itself is such a cramped, inconvenient space: the noise of the restaurant below keeps him awake, the view is into a tiny court. Can you imagine an American security officer putting up with these Dickensian conditions for a minute?
  • Finally, if we reread the paragraph we can admire the logic and clarity with which the information unfolds, is set down in an orderly manner almost like an intelligence report except that, unlike a report, it has dots of imagery which convey the information in a different sort of way: the cold chipolatas sum up a lifetime of bad food; the noisy restaurant symbolises everything Daintry excludes himself from; the tiny courtyard offers a bleak, superficially impressive, but ultimately empty recompense for the life of secrets and evasions which Daintry has chosen, and which – we later learn – has resulted in his divorce and all-but-estrangement from his only child, a grown-up daughter.

There are similar amounts of precise information and imaginative wealth on almost every page of the novel, which is why I think it is so good.

The plot

Maurice Castle is an anxious, middle-aged man, living in a suburban house in Berkhampsted, commuting every day to his office in St James’s, bantering with his younger colleague Davis, wryly amused by the latter’s frustrated lust for their uninterested secretary, Cynthia. What makes him different is he works for MI6, in a department known as 6, his section is 6A, and he and Davis receive encrypted messages from a network of agents in southern Africa. Slowly, in his stately late-period prose, Greene paints a very realistic portrait of the little office with its daily frustrations, lunch at the pub, drinks after work at one of the London clubs.

Castle is called in to meet ‘C’, the head of the organisation, who we also see at his large country house, entertaining various other officers on ‘the firm’ on a pheasant shoot: Watson, Castle’s section chief, Percival, the sinister ‘doctor’ and senior adviser, and Daintry, who’s been called in to do a security review of Castle’s section. Because there is a leak. Some of the information about situations in south African nations is getting to the other side. We witness conversations between Daintry and C and between C and Percival where they speculate who the leak is; on the flimsy basis that Daintry caught Davis taking an office file in his briefcase out to read over lunch, and that Davis told Castle a white lie – that he was going to the dentist when he was in fact taking Cynthia on a lunch date – the finger of suspicion, in a very amateurish way, points towards Davis. Castle contributes his pennyworth by describing to C the way Davis is restless, unhappy and wants a foreign posting. Aha. Chap wants an easy escape once we rumble him, eh?

Indeed, the whole story is set in the world of ‘chaps’. They all went to public school, then knew each other or of each other, at Oxford or Cambridge, before going on to eminent careers in the law, medicine, in the Army, in government, in Whitehall – running the country. Daintry, a little outside these circles, provides an uneasy contrast when he attends the shooting weekend at C’s, finding it hard to read the code and manners of the English upper classes. The (completely innocent) suspect, Davis, is outside the magic circle altogether, having gone to a grammar school and Reading university, the poor fellow, part of the reason it’s so easy to dispense with him…

While this is going on, Castle reflects anxiously on his past, on his time as an MI6 agent in South Africa, how falling in love with a black woman broke SA’s race laws, resulting in him being called in for interrogation by South Africa’s police, and the oblique threats made by the intimidating BOSS interrogator against, not him, but his lover, Sarah. Released from questioning, Castle used his contacts in the anti-apartheid underground to spirit him and Sarah across the border to Mozambique, and on to England, where he married Sarah and, when she had her baby (by another, black, lover) was happy to adopt the boy – Sam – as his own son. She is the (colourful, foreign) love of  his life.

Now, in a grand irony, the very same BOSS officer who interrogated him seven years ago, has flown to England to be liaison between BOSS and MI6 on a new project, Operation Uncle Remus. It is explained to Castle (and the reader) that a capitalist South Africa is vital to Western interests, as the free world’s largest supplier of gold, diamonds and uranium. Threatened by Soviet-backed communist guerrilla forces in Namibia and Mozambique, Operation Uncle Remus plans to bring together intelligence from SA, the CIA, MI6 and other western agencies, to guarantee SA’s government. At its heart is the plan to develop tactical battlefield nuclear weapons which would be deployed against any communist forces invading from those countries… with obviously devastating consequences not only for the force targeted but all the nearby civilians.

Half way through the slow unfurling of this story, with its multiple characters, settings, strands and dynamics, two major events take place.

  1. We had previously witnessed the sinister Dr Percival discussing in a speculative way with Hargreaves and Daintry the various ways to poison or kill a man so as to leave no trace. To this reader’s surprise, he goes ahead and poisons Davis (one of their own operatives) with a natural fungal toxin, designed to build up, make someone ill and slowly die over a period of time with symptoms identical to liver failure. In fact, Davis dies unexpectedly quickly, within 24 hours. C flies back from Washington for the funeral, knows Percival murdered one of their own men, but is merely irritated. Colonel Daintry remembers the creepy conversations he’d had with Dr Percival and strongly suspects Percival murdered a man on little or no evidence and silently disapproves. Castle keeps his suspicions about Davis’s death to himself. But they all accept this murder of one of their own men which I find completely extraordinary.
  2. Not least because, in the major revelation of the book, we learn that Davis was completely innocent because it is the protagonist of the novel – Castle himself – who is the spy leaking information. Having been merely a harassed middle-aged office worked in part one, in the second half of the novel – once his secret is revealed – we delved deeper into the psychological motivation and and experience of being a double agent, a traitor. We witness Castle going to a safe house to meet his control, a Russian named Boris, and Greene fascinatingly explores the psychological dependency of the agent on his master. For Boris is the only person in the world who knows the complete truth about Castle and to whom he can be completely honest. Not to his wife, not to anyone else can he pour out his burdened soul. Their conversations are like therapy or (of course, this being Greene) like the Catholic confessional, from which he emerges purged and lighter in heart. In these scenes it is revealed that Castle’s treachery is not ideological – he liked some communists he met in SA but is not himself a believer – but due to simple gratitude: it was a communist, Carson, who was instrumental in smuggling Sarah to freedom when she was in danger of being arrested by BOSS. Castle owes him/the Party her life and all his subsequent happiness. His betrayal is based on love. Aha… It is the same psychodrama as fuels so many other Greene novels where it is the ‘finer feelings’ which lead us into squalid betrayals (cf Scobie’s pity for Helen Rolt which leads him into a love affair with her and then to break various police rules in order to help her, in The Heart of The Matter).

Greeneland

1. Apothegms This is a very familiar Greene trope, one of his favourite paradoxes – love is more dangerous than hate – up there alongside ‘pity is more fatal than anger’ and ‘betrayal is the greatest form of fidelity’, and so on. There are typically grand-sounding Greene apothegms scattered through this text:

‘We are grateful to you, Maurice, but gratitude like love needs to be renewed daily or it’s liable to die away.’ (p.260)

I guess many of his devotees like these wise sayings and ‘profound insights into human nature’ which are always inserted at the appropriate moment in the appropriate place – but I don’t. They come too easy, they are too glib for my taste and, on examination, most of them turn out to be empty rhetoric – but in this novel there are not too many of them. There is more of the slow steady encrustation-of-detail type writing that I quoted above, writing which embodies its meaning via literary techniques – assonance, imagery, rhythm – rather than proclaims it in sound bites like t-shirt slogans.

2. Downbeat And, skimming back through the novel now, I realise a lot of the sections end on a miserable downbeat: Castle thinks that Davis, in death, is finally ‘free’; Sarah wonders if Castle will ever be ‘free’ to tell her the complete truth; Castle dreams of drifting down an African river to a mythical place called Peace of Mind; Castle’s secret sorrow is that he failed to protect his first wife, killed by a buzz bomb during the Blitz; steady drip-drip of images of misery…

He took the glasses to the kitchen and washed them carefully. It was as though he were removing the fingerprints of his despair. (p.211)

It sometimes seems as if books like this are written to make their middle-aged, menopausal, miserable male readers feel less wretchedly alone. Feminists of my generation talk glibly about how the world is run by men, by the worldwide Patriarchy who own, run and control everything. Why, then, are the older male characters in the novels of Greene, Le Carré, Len Deighton or the contemporaneous ‘comedies’ of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge or Tom Sharpe, so bloody miserable?

[Daintry] felt guilty of failure – a man in late middle age near to retirement – retirement from what? He would exchange one loneliness for another. (p.169)

[Halliday said] ‘It’s been a lonely life, I have to admit that.’ (p.219)

But what makes this one of Greene’s best novels – for me – is that he doesn’t belabour these points: there aren’t entire sections lecturing the reader about love and hate and betrayal and guilt and all the rest of Greene’s miserabilist worldview. The tangle of motivations are embodied in the story which, because of its slow, convincing accumulation of the details of the lived life of its numerous interlocking characters, are more emotionally and imaginatively powerful than the blunt lectures and fancy aphorisms which disfigure so many earlier Greene novels.

More plot

After Davis’s death, Castle writes his Russian control a letter saying he daren’t send any more information. If they now adopt radio silence it will persuade his firm that the innocent Davis was the leak and guarantee his – Castle’s – safety. However… He then has the interview with Muller, the man from South African security, who tells him about Operation Uncle Remus, including the possible use of atomic weapons which would, of course, slaughter large numbers of black civilians as well as any invading forces, were they to be deployed… And so, in a typical Greeneism, it is pity and concern which betray Castle into betraying himself, which prompt him to make one last communication with a control who might, for all he knows, have left the country, with a word-for-word copy of Muller’s notes which the BOSS man left for him at their meeting. Except that the BOSS man’s report was a trap, deliberately filled with standout phrases different from all other versions; if this one is leaked, the case against Castle will be conclusive.

And now Castle gives way to paranoia and the final 80 pages or so of the novel successfully convey his increasingly sickening feeling that his superiors are onto him. He sends Sarah and Sam to his mother’s house, telling her to tell some cock-and-bull story that they’ve had a big row – but in fact because he wants to face whatever happens next alone. After waiting a tense day in the empty house he is visited by Daintry, himself a disillusioned loner, who chats about Davis’s death and his marital problems. Castle unwisely assures him Davis was innocent. Of course, he could only be sure of this if he knew someone else was guilty, and only be 100% certain of it if the guilty man was himself. Daintry drives off, stops at a pub and phones in a report to Percival and C, saying he strongly suspects Castle is the leak. Muller has already driven out to Sir Hargreaves’ country pile to tell him the same thing, based on his meeting with Castle. Ports and airports are alerted with copies of Castle’s photo. The net is closing in.

Then, as he sits sweating and panicking in his house, one of Castle’s contacts unexpectedly knocks on the door – not at all the man he was expecting  – an English communist party member of long standing, who drives him to a hotel near Heathrow while they debate the rights and wrongs of Soviet communism a bit half-heartedly. Here Castle is to wait for the next link in the escape chain but, most unfortunately, bumps into an acquaintance from America who insists on making a date for a drink at the bar. Once safe in his hotel room Castle has barely settled before another stranger knocks, identifies himself as the next link in the escape route, trims Castle’s hair and eyebrows, applies a thin fake moustache and gives him a white cane and fake passport. Castle is to pretend to be blind and catch the next bus to the airport and the next flight to Paris. In the lobby the American he met earlier runs up to castle as he walks by, recognising Castle’s outline – but then thrown by the strange face and white stick… He stands staring as Castle enters the bus…Will he call the authorities…?

The narrative switches to Sarah’s point of view as she arrives and stays with Castle’s unfriendly mother, and the unfriendly days pass and Sam doesn’t like his new school and Sarah has no-one to talk to and the reader is wondering whether the Yank tipped off the authorities and Castle is being held and interrogated.

None of Greene’s novels really strike me as thrillers because a thriller must grip and thrill with the excitement of fast-moving action. I’m not sure any of Greene’s novels do that; what he excels at is creating an atmosphere of dreadful anxiety and unease, with a growing feeling of suicidal despair.

The reader’s anxiety is laid to rest when the narrative switches back to Castle in Moscow. He has escaped. He is safe. We see him being introduced to his ‘luxury’ flat by a grumpy KGB officer (jealous because it has furniture), and to other exile English spies, a uniformly sad bunch. But all Castle wants is for Sarah and Sam to be brought out to him, to be reunited with his only love.

But history never repeats itself; there is no Carson to arrange her escape as in South Africa. And Greene twists the knife deep into the heart because Sam, the beloved son who he unquestioningly adopted and raised as his own, turns out to be the stumbling block. Sam is too young to have been put on Sarah’s passport. She could be smuggled out somehow, but neither officially nor unofficially would she make it with a young boy in tow, too obvious.

And so the novel ends with a heart-breaking phone call when, after weeks of frustration, Castle finally gets through to his mother’s number, Sarah answers the phone and they have a page declaring their love for each other and stuttering over how and when they will ever see each other again. Then, receiver still in hand, she realises the line to Moscow has been cut. It isn’t stated explicitly, but the strong implication is that they will never be reunited. All his secret work and betrayal was motivated by the one desire to keep them together and it has, instead, forever torn them apart. I, for one, had tears streaming down my face.

Related links

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

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.

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene (1973)

‘Contrary to common belief the truth is nearly always funny. It’s only tragedy which people bother to imagine or invent.’ (p.21)

Greene in the 1970s

Greene was 69 when this novel was published, entering his fifth decade of astonishing productivity – an output which included prize-winning novels, short stories, Oscar-winning film scripts and plays – and was widely seen as the greatest living English writer of the day.

He had done this in part by mining a narrow vein of themes with obsessive repetitiveness until they were completely identified with him and the phrase ‘Greeneland’ had been coined to describe the imaginary landscape where they met:

  • a gloomy despairing Roman Catholic faith which tortures its believers more than it consoles or uplifts
  • a nihilistic view of human life which leads the protagonists in his most famous novels to kill themselves or seek out death
  • adultery, ideally of the kind that makes the lovers miserable as sin
  • an unerring eye for the seedy or squalid or shabby details of failed lives and disappointed souls
  • a fondness for poverty-stricken war-torn foreign locations such as Mexico, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Cuba, Congo and – in this novel – Argentina run by a military dictatorship

Therefore, part of the pleasure of reading Greene is not only for the prose and story, but in greeting all the familiar tropes which dominate his narratives: it is like saying hello to a gang of old lags: hello to the comfortably familiar pessimism, hello to the reassuringly predictable focus on the seedy side of life, a negativity so relentless that it risks becoming comic despite itself, a bit like Fraser’s cry, ‘We’re doomed, we’re doomed,’ in Dad’s Army.

Hope creaked in his throat like a piece of rusty machinery. (p.23)

The Honorary Consul part 1

The Honorary Consul does not disappoint in its heartless depiction of disappointment. It is set in a remote city in northern Argentina, near the river border with Paraguay (still under the military rule of General Stroessner). The Latin American location immediately is painted vividly: from the horribleness of the military government – one of the characters has three fingers missing, cut off by his torturers under the eye of CIA ‘supervisors’, and the narrator casually mentions the bodies of political murderees washed up on the Argentine side of the river – to the heat which makes everyone sweaty and weary, the ubiquitous atmosphere of Latino slackness and corruption.

‘Assassinations, kidnapping, the torture of prisoners – these things belong to our decade.’ (p.57)

It opens with middle-aged Dr Plarr looking across the wide river at sunset and remembering how he was abandoned by his English father, who shipped him and his mother off to Buenos Aires while staying on in Paraguay to fight the junta. Failure disappointment disillusion. His mother has, of course, not worn well, instead becoming a querulous old lady fussing about her lost estates –

He felt the same sense of wasted time as when he visited his mother and she complained of headaches and loneliness while she sat before a plate heaped up with éclairs in the best teashop of Buenos Aires. (p.51)

– and it was partly to escape her that he chose to take up the medical appointment here at this remote outpost near the border. (How 1930s it sounds.)

Dr Plarr goes to meet the only other Brit in town, Humphries, at the local hotel where, of course, the food is disgusting, produced by a depressed Hungarian chef, the restaurant is empty, the solitary waiter can barely summon up the life to serve them. Plarr, inevitably, notices that the nicotine stains in Humphries’ thin white hair are the same colour as the goulash stains on his napkin. The entire sequence is a showroom display of Greene’s eagle eye for the seedy, shabby, dispiriting and defeated in human existence.

Almost the only institution the narrator mentions with enthusiasm is the brothel, whose madam, we are assured (twice) and with heavy irony, is the wealthiest woman in town.

Señora Sanchez was a very stout lady with a dimpled face and a welcoming smile from which kindliness was oddly lacking, as though it had been mislaid accidentally a moment before like a pair of spectacles. (p.55)

‘like a pair of spectacles’ – it is a characteristically crisp and effective simile, but also characteristically detached and with the note of slightly lofty Edwardian gentility which is the tone of the whole book.

The general air of incompetence, failure and collapse is racked up as the plot is now disclosed to us: the American ambassador has been visiting the city and a gang of ‘rebels’ and ‘freedom fighters’ has used information which Dr Plarr provided them with to ambush his car. Except that, through a sequence of mistakes, they pull over the wrong car and stop the one carrying Dr Plarr’s friend, the ageing, fat British alcoholic Charley Fortnum. Some while ago Fortnum was made Britain’s ‘honorary consul’ in the city and he had been roped in at the last minute to translate from the local Spanish for the US ambassador – and now finds himself ambushed, kidnapped, drugged and carried off to a mud hut in one of the city’s poorest barrios. Plarr is rung up by the rebels in the middle of the night to be informed of this disastrous mistake.

Adultery 1 It wouldn’t be a Greene novel without adultery, his favourite subject and one he was an enthusiastic practitioner of in real life (see the numerous biographies). Dr Plarr is, inevitably, having an affair with ‘his friend’ Charley Fortnum’s wife, Clara. As Plarr tells the police inspector:

‘Charley Fortnum is a friend of mine.’
‘Oh, a friend… It is usually a friend one betrays, isn’t it, in these cases?’ (p.89)

In fact, he was first attracted to her when he saw her working in Señora Sanchez’ brothel – she is a prostitute who Fortnum, with his own kind of ageing white male condescension, fancies he has ‘rescued’. Some time after the marriage, Plarr meets Clara at a chemists shop where she’s buying fancy sunglasses, one thing leads to another and she goes back to his apartment to sleep with him. He’s not very enthusiastic about the situation but keeps on seeing and sleeping with her until he eventually gets her pregnant – she claims she knows for certain, since Fortnum rarely has sex with her – thus creating numerous ‘ironic’ situations where Plarr has to congratulate Fortnum on the old chap’s good fortune ha ha.

Betrayal And not only has Plarr betrayed Fortnum by impregnating his wife, but now – albeit inadvertently – he finds himself instrumental in the absurd mistake of kidnapping him. It all came about because Plarr was approached one day at his surgery by the rebel leader, who he was at school with decades ago, and who persuades Plarr to pass on the timetable of the ambassador’s trip. The plan is to kidnap the American ambassador and hold him hostage until the General, ruler of Paraguay, releases 10 political prisoners there, including Plarr’s own long-separated father – that’s Plarr’s motivation for agreeing. But nobody knew Fortnum would be going along to interpret for the ambassador, and so the rebels intercept the first car driving the agreed route and it turns out to be the one Fortnum is travelling in, since the ambassador’s one was full and following a little way behind.

The plot 2

In the first half the plot is meandering and leisurely with loads of flashbacks to earlier encounters and conversations, which makes it occasionally confusing. From about page 180 the pace picks up as Plarr finds himself agreeing to go out to the mud hut where the rebels are hiding to treat Fortnum, who they injured when he made an escape attempt.

Once he is there, however, they refuse to let him leave. And for the remaining 50 pages of the novel the rebel leader-cum-failed priest and his common law wife Marta, loverboy Plarr, injured drunk Fortnum, and three other rebels, are all trapped in the two rooms of the mud hut, a setting which quickly becomes a kind of pressure cooker or incubator for a whole stream of increasingly programmatic discussions about Greene’s favourite things: adultery, sex, God, sin, despair, the meaning of life.

Presumably these final 50 pages are meant to be nerve-racking – a small cast of characters trapped in a static and hermetic setting, they read as if cannibalised from a particularly claustrophobic play – all with the looming threat of an army attack closing in even as the victims squabble among themselves.

I suppose in 1973 it was new territory to describe what it’s like to be kidnapped by revolutionary terrorists, and it is immensely to Greene’s credit that he escaped the parochial Aga sagas of middle class English fiction to set his novels in such a wide variety of exotic settings.

It is unfortunate, then, that what the squabbling and discussions feel so sixth-formish, like sessions at a theological college, a rather lurid rehash of the usual Greene themes. Maybe if this was the first Greene novel you ever read it would hit you like a thunderbolt, the dramatic setting, the life and death debates. But if you’ve read more than three or four, the effect is more like a rather weary sense of déjà lu.

Meandering

The first 180 pages or so have a very slow leisurely meandering pace. After the revelation in the first 20 pages or so that the rebels have got the wrong man, the text switches to a long series of flashbacks describing Plarr’s first encounter with Fortnum, companionable trips to the brothel, dinners with the tiresome local novelist, visits to his mother in Buenos Aires. Each scene has a point in illuminating the characters, but they are described in a languid easygoing manner which, more than the meaning of the words, convey a certain Latin American laziness to the whole text.

Greene’s novels generally have complex time schemes which allow for plenty of hindsight and memory: The End of The Affair in particular has a cunning interweaving of scenes from multiple moments in the past, and this – for me – is the most impressive aspect of many of his novels, the construction of narratives which work at multiple moments, simultaneously.

But this one feels significantly slower than the others, more leisurely, the interweaving more of a meandering, most of the action having the quality almost of a dream.

There is no feeling that Dr Plarr – supposedly in his thirties – actually does any work. He wanders around the town, reading novels and chatting with the small group of characters in a supremely relaxed easygoing way. These first two-thirds of the novel have a pleasantly soporific effect.

Middle-aged male fantasy

This is not unconnected to the way it is tempting to read the whole novel as a kind of middle-aged male fantasy: you don’t do any work; you lie around all day reading; meet up with friends in the evening to enjoy a meal and a drink and a chat; nobody minds if you stroll round to the whorehouse which is full of attractive and compliant women; which one tonight, you wonder, as you puff on your cigar; or you may prefer to dally with one of your three or four mistresses. And all the time you can be mulling over your own sinfulness, tutting at the way you manipulate your women, elegantly toying with the psychology of sex and adultery and relationships and more sex.

Plarr looks at his devout secretary and wonders why he hasn’t slept with her yet. On the plane back from Buenos Aires he is buttonholed by one of his mistresses, a patient, which leads him to remember having sex with her at her home while her husband was in the room, though drunkenly asleep. He remembers bumping into this woman’s husband at the brothel where the husband was entertaining no fewer than four prostitutes. He remembers a number of other patients who became lovers. He wanders along to the brothel and has a girl and sizes up several others, including the future Mrs Fortnum. It’s in the same lazy inconsequential way that he starts the affair with Fortnum’s wife. After Fortnum is kidnapped he drives out to his house to comfort her, and again they have sex. When he chats to the chief of police they laugh and joke about the women they have both had affairs with. Ha ha ha. Everyone appears to be having sex with everyone else…

Apart from the descriptions of sex (on the whole mercifully brief) these many sexual situations allow Greene to write a lot about the psychology of sex in a man-of-the-world tone which many a modern woman might find offensive and I find rather complacent, but which appears to have appealed to lots of his male reviewers back in the 1970s. All his books contain these quotable quotes, sub-Wildean aphorisms, without the wit or the heart.

Secrecy, he thought, is part of the attraction in a sexual affair. An open affair has always a touch of absurdity. (p.90)

In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains? One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself – everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger. Her body has been scrawled over by so many men that you can never decipher your own signature there. (p.90)

He began to comfort her with his hand as he would have comforted a frightened dog, and gently, without intention, they came together. He felt no lust, and when she moaned and tightened, he felt no sense of triumph. He wondered with sadness, why did I ever want this to happen? Why did I think it would be a victory? There seemed to be no point in playing the game since now he knew what moves he had to make to win. (p.97)

‘A husband is of great importance in a love affair. He is a way of escape when an affair begins to get boring.’ (p.174)

‘I’ve often noticed,’ Dr Plarr said, ‘when a man leaves a woman he begins to hate her. Or is it that he hates his own failures? Perhaps we want to destroy the only witness who knows exactly what we are like when we drop the comedy.’ (p.216)

And much, much more in the same worldly-wise, one man-of-the-world to another, vein. Maybe this depiction of characters with a very un-English, unashamed and liberal attitude to sex explains his popularity in the 1960s and 70s.

Catholicism In a move which should surprise nobody it turns out the alcoholic honorary consul is a lapsed Catholic, much given to maudlin, drunken, religiose self-pity. Just, in fact, like scores of other Greene characters. To double the dose, the leader of the ‘rebels’ is a lapsed Catholic priest, too. And Plarr was of course raised a Catholic: a trinity of religion-obsessed characters! Which enables them, in the final 50 pages of the book, to have numerous discussions of Catholic ‘issues’ ie for Greene to drop into the text numerous Catholic one liners or paragraphs of bumf, of which he seems able to spin a literally endless amount.

Plarr said, ‘I doubt if her Confession will take very long.’
‘Those who have nothing to confess always take the longest,’ Léon Rivas said. ‘They want to please the priest and give him something to do.’ (p.102)

They always treated him with great courtesy, he noticed… Or was it perhaps the habitual courtesy which a prison warder is said to show even the most brutal murderer before his execution? People have the same awed respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger, however unwelcome he may be, who visits their town. (p.119)

‘People have the same respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger… who visits their town.’ That’s gibberish, isn’t it?

‘It is one of the duties of a father to provide.’
‘And God the Father, Léon? He doesn’t seem to provide much. I asked last night if you still believed in him. To me he has always seemed a bit of a swine. I would rather believe in Apollo. At least he was beautiful.’
‘The trouble is we have lost the power to believe in Apollo, Father Rivas said. ‘We have Jehovah in our blood. We can’t help it. After all these centuries Jehovah lives in our darkness like a worm in the intestines.’ (p.216)

It seems to me that Greene has the same attitude of amused complacency towards the Catholic faith as he does to sex, prostitution and infidelity: there is nothing genuinely threatening or disruptive in his description of either: you get the impression he could write hundreds and hundreds of pages of smoothly expressed truisms and bromides about sex or about religion, none of which are really true, none of which ever really making the reader sit up and think. They’re a sort of rhetorical accompaniment, pseudo-philosophical tinsel hung on the melodrama of the plot.

By the end the rebels, after much arguing, convince themselves they need to kill Fortnum if their demands are not met by the deadline they’ve set, otherwise this kind of kidnap will never be taken seriously, the revolution will never happen, justice will never be secured. Specifically, this leads to a series of debates between Plarr and the priest-turned-rebel, Father Rivas, which easily segue into colourful conversations about the character of God, which casually go off in all kinds of wild and imaginative directions.

‘When you shoot Fortnum in the back of the head, are you sure you won’t have a moment’s fear of old Jehovah and his anger? “Thou shalt not commit murder.”‘
‘If I kill it will be God’s fault as much as mine’
‘God’s fault.’
‘He made me what I am now. He will have loaded the gun and steadied my hand.’
‘I thought the Church teaches that he’s love.’
‘Was it love which sent six million Jews to the gas ovens? You are a doctor, you must often have seen intolerable pain – a child dying of meningitis – is that love? It was not love which cut off Aquino’s fingers. The police station where such things happen… He created them.’
‘I have never heard a priest blame God for things like that before.’
‘I don’t blame Him. I pity Him,’ Father Rivas said. (p.219)

Rubbing it in

In case anyone hadn’t realised Greene’s ultimately despairing view of the world, he rubs it in at the climax of the novel by having Dr Plarr killed as he tries to parley a truce with the surrounding military.

Fortnum is returned to his wife in one piece but, having discovered during his ordeal that the child she is carrying is really Plarr’s, his love, his happiness, is destroyed.

And, in a final bitter twist, the British ambassador in Buenos Aires, in a hurry to get Fortnum off the payroll but keen to ensure his acquiescence, tells him they’re relieving him of the position of honorary consul but will be offering compensation in the form of a medal for services rendered to Queen and country, in fact the Order of the British Empire.

Ha, the futility. Oh the humanity.

The movie

The Honorary Consul was made into a British movie, released in 1983, directed by John Mackenzie and starring Michael Caine in sweaty, middle-aged alcoholic mode, along with Richard Gere, Bob Hoskins and Elpidia Carrillo.

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.

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene (1969)

I was sunk deep in my middle age. All the same I laid my head against aunt Agatha’s breast. ‘I have been happy,’ I said, ‘but I have been so bored for so long.’ (p.256)

This is quite a long (260 pages), slow, calm, easy-going comedy, very relaxed, very funny, very enjoyable.

Greene’s periods

Looking back over Greene’s career to date, it falls into roughly three periods:

  • the hyper-production of rackety thrillers and entertainments in the 1930s
  • the classic period from the Blitz to the mid-1950s when his tortuous private life and the refinement of his writing and structuring skills helped him write the Big Three: The Power and The Glory, The Heart of The Matter, The End of The Affair (and his most successful films eg The Third Man)
  • and then, from the mid-1950s, a less intense, more comic tone begins to emerge: in the outright comedies Our Man In Havana and Loser Takes All, or mingled with tragic elements in A Burnt-Out Case and The Comedians

In this book you have the sense that the intense emotion and unhappiness and Catholic guilt which produced the tragedies of Matter and Affair have burnt themselves out leaving a kind of calmness and equableness, an acceptance of life’s absurdity and that – new for Greene – life might actually be for enjoying rather than an arena for tormenting oneself and others.

The plot

Henry Pulling is a middle-aged, retired bank manager. He never married, he has no children. He lives in a nice suburban house in Southwood, grows dahlias and attends the Conservative club every Tuesday night. At the funeral of  his agèd mother, into his life sweeps the powerhouse which is his unconventional Aunt Augusta. Immediately she reveals that Henry is not his mother’s son, he is the son of a woman his father impregnated but wouldn’t marry, but his ‘mother’ stepped in to marry his father and raise him. This shocking revelation is still sinking in as aunt Augusta takes Henry to her flat above a pub and introduces him to a large, virile black from Sierra Leone named Wordsworth, who he slowly realises is his aunt’s lover. How unconventional, how 1969, how very unlike the dull life of his own parents.

But aunt Augusta is bored and restless, subjecting Henry to an unstoppable torrent of stories about her outrageous escapades during a long eventful life. She drags him down to Brighton to look up an old friend Hatty with whom she proceeds to reminisce at length about their days in a traveling circus and then working for a fraudster who set up a church for dogs (!)

Aunt Agatha then conceives a grander scheme and commands Henry to accompany her on a trip on the Orient Express to Istanbul. They meet a young American woman who bemoans her rich, indifferent parents and introduces Henry to the pleasures of ‘pot’. At the Italian stop aunt Augusta meets the son of the one great love of her life, Mr Visconti, before they continue on to Turkey where, to his astonishment, Henry realises his aunt has been smuggling gold bullion in her luggage, with a view to investing with crooks. Their hotel room is visited and searched by the ageing Colonel Hakim (maybe it’s a common name, but maybe this is an affectionate nod to the Colonel Hakim who appears in several of Eric Ambler’s classic pre-war thrillers). The police have uncovered the whole plan and are prosecuting the Turkish end but have no evidence against Agatha who stands up to their search and questioning with old-fashioned British sang-froid.

The Turkish authorities do, however, deport them on the next flight back to London. Henry doesn’t hear from his aunt for several months and settles back down into the peacefully watering his dahlias, chatting to the colonel next door, and wistfully remembering the one possible love of his life – Miss Keene, daughter of one of his best customers at the bank, who he came within an ace of proposing to 25 years earlier, and who still writes wanful letters to him from South Africa where she emigrated, with a permanent undertow of sadness at what might have been.

It’s as if he faces two alternative futures: replying to Miss Keene’s sad letters, inviting her to return to Southwood, to the sound of the bells of the local church, the dahlias, the annual fete; or his aunt’s amoral world of adventures, of foreign lovers, smuggling and criminal exploits, con-men, fraudsters and fun.

In Part Two of the novel he receives a letter from his aunt informing him she is in South America and never plans to return to England, commanding him to sell her flat and all its contents, apart from a handful of items including a framed picture, and fly to Buenos Aires. After a little hesitation he obeys, then finds a message to take a boat up the river to Asunçion in Paraguay.

All kinds of sinister characters are aboard the boat and Henry is astonished to meet Wordsworth, his aunt’s black lover, in the middle of nowhere: he is loyally following aunt Agatha but heart-broken that she has abandoned him for the Italian. For at Asunçion, Henry discovers that aunt Augusta has been reunited with the famous Signor Visconti, the great love of her life of whom she has told so many stories. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen on hard times and Agatha has spent all her money bailing him out. Initially Henry thinks this is a colossal mistake and that the crook Visconti has absconded with the money and left his aunt impoverished.

There is a flicker of trouble from an American named Tooley (who it slowly emerges is CIA) and who points out that Visconti was a war criminal, and a burst of definite trouble when Henry blows his nose on a scarf aunt Augusta lent him, a red scarf she’d given him to wear on the Paraguay national day, and it turns out he’s just blown his nose on a scarf of the national colour of the ruling party outside their party headquarters. He starts a small riot, is beaten up and is lucky to escape with his life, ending up in gaol. The CIA man Tooley visits Henry in gaol and fixes his release, in exchange for which he wants Henry to broker a meeting with aunt Augusta and Visconti.

At this meeting Visconti hands over a priceless sketch by Leonardo da Vinci which he nabbed during the War when he was working closely with the Gestapo to ‘export’ Italy’s art treasures. In exchange Tooley agrees to drop US harassment of him. At first deeply sceptical of Visconti, who is not at all the tall elegant man he’d imagined but a short fat bald man with bad teeth, Henry slowly comes to like him and, after his aunt and Visconti hold a grand party for everyone who is anyone in Asunçion – the chief of police, the head of customs, leaders of all the poliical parties – Henry realises that, with the right bribes to the right people, they can probably make a real success of the ‘export-import’ business they’ve been discussing ie smuggling whiskey and cigarettes at a massive profit.

The big house they’ve bought is now grandly furnished, aunt Augusta is happily in love, the money starts rolling in and Henry takes his place using his bank manager expertise as head accountant for the new crime syndicate. It is only a detail or afterthought that he finds the body of poor Wordsworth, Augusta’s abandoned black lover, in the large gardens, where he had (presumably) been bumped off by Visconti’s bodyguard. His death is unlamented, there is no mention of a funeral, even.

Right up to the end Henry has been hankering after returning to Southwood and domesticity. But in an abrupt paragraph on the last page we leap 6 months into the future, after the Grand Party, to discover that Henry has made his decision, choosing his aunt, adventure and Life!

Style

The hippy girl they meet on the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul and then on the hippy trail to Kathmandu, introduces Henry to pot and mentions acid. Back in England he hears Beatles songs drifting through open windows from radios.

But in fact the style of the first-person narrator, Henry Pulling, sets its face against 1969, and is deliberately staid, old fashioned and conventional.

Greene’s prose style is not great: it is nearly always concise and efficient but, if it occasionally rises to sudden aperçus, descriptive or psychological insights, it just as often appears a bit slapdash and clunky. His OK style of the 30s and 40s has lived on into another age, and I wonder if the germ of the plot came as much from the insight that his style was out of date, as the notion that his character was; as if the lead character is less a human being than an embodiment of old-fashioned grammar, syntax and vocabulary come to life.

Related links

The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 1972 and dominated by an over-the-top performance from Maggie Smith, for some reason pretending to be Winston Churchill.

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.

The Comedians by Graham Greene (1966)

She laughed and held me still and kissed me. I responded as well as I could, but the corpse in the pool seemed to turn our preoccupations into comedy. The corpse of Dr Philipot belonged to a more tragic theme; we were only a sub-plot affording a little light relief. (p.57)

The Comedians is Greene’s longest novel (287 pages in the Penguin edition) and among his most enjoyable. The tone is equable, the style concise and expressive, the text relatively unblemished by the Catholic despair and bucket theology of his other novels, and there is a steady flow of deft descriptions and urbane ironies which, although they intertwine with some gruesome scenes, on the whole keep a slight smile permanently hovering on the reader’s lips.

Plot

It’s narrated in the first person by  a middle-aged Englishman, Brown, the owner of a hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He’s been in the States for three months and the novel opens with him aboard a tramp steamer puffing to Haiti, accompanied by a handful of other guests: Mr and Mrs Smith the American evangelists for vegetarianism; the loud and probably fake Englishman ‘Major’ Jones; a travelling pharmaceutical salesman; and a mournful black man named Mr Fernandez. Brown, Smith and Jones – the narrator comments on the comic unlikelihood of these notorious aliases appearing together, and that sets the tone…

As soon as he arrives in Port-au-Prince, Brown re-enters the adulterous relationship with Martha, wife of a South American ambassador. And he returns to the hotel, the Trianon, which he had built up into a 5-star operation and compulsory stop on every well-heeled tourist’s itinerary – until, that is, Papa Doc’s reign of terror destroyed the tourist trade, until his staff were roughed up by the thuggish Tontons Macoute, until he himself abandoned it to flee to the States a few months earlier.

Haiti, Papa Doc Duvalier and the Tonton Macoutes

Dr Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier was elected president of Haiti in 1957 on a populist and black nationalist platform. After a coup attempt against him in 1959 he sacked senior Army staff and created an alternative police-cum-militia, the terrifyingly ill-disciplined, cruel and sadistic Tonton Macoute. They routinely raped and beat to death anyone who got in their way. As he got older Papa Doc went mad. He turned against the head of the Tontons who went on the run. When Papa Doc was told the fugitive Tonton had turned himself into a black dog, Duvalier ordered all black dogs in Haiti be put to death. Duvalier ordered the head of an executed rebel to be packed in ice and brought to him so he could commune with the dead man’s spirit. Peep holes were carved into the walls of the interrogation chambers, through which Duvalier personally observed Haitian detainees being tortured and submerged in baths of sulphuric acid.

Haiti under this grotesque regime is the macabre setting of the novel. It is not so much a country as a nightmare come to life, a place of perpetual fear.

Comedians

Despite – or because of – all this, the central idea of the novel is that we are all comedians on the great stage of life. In very appealing chapters the narrator tells us about his early life being educated at a Catholic boarding school in Monte Carlo. He had a flair for theatre and it was while made-up for a play that he absconded to gamble in the famous Casino and drew the attention of a middle-aged woman who seduced him and took his virginity. When the Fathers discovered it all, he was expelled. His mother was a great self-dramatist and liar, who routinely changed her name and image and had sent him away to school to free herself for her numerous roles. On the rare occasions he sees her leading up to her death, she is permanently on stage.

I knew very little of her, but enough to recognise an accomplished comedian. (p.76)

So he is an actor, from a line of actors, inclined to think we are all just passing players caught up in the great farce of Life. This theme was strongly present in Greene’s previous novel, A Burnt-Out Case, which descended, at its climax, into absurd farce; here the theme is brought home repeatedly as we witness various characters acting out roles on the grim stage of Papa Doc’s theatre of the absurd. And commenting on it.

‘I remember looking at him one night on the boat from America – it was after the ship’s concert – and wondering, are you and I both comedians?’ (p.133)

‘They can say that of most of us. Wasn’t I a comedian with my verses smelling of Les Fleurs du Mal, published in hand-made paper at my own expense?’ (p.133)

The ambassador said, ‘Come on, cheer up, let us all be comedians together. Take one of my cigars. Help yourself at the bar. My Scotch is good. Perhaps even Papa Doc is a comedian.’ (p.134)

The ambassador said, ‘We mustn’t complain too much about being comedians – it’s an honourable profession. If only we could be good ones the world might gain at least a sense of style. We have failed – that’s all. We are bad comedians.’ (p.134)

‘For Christ’s sake,’ Martha said in English as though she were addressing me directly, ‘I’m no comedian.’ (p.134)

There was not a false note in her voice; she was perfectly at ease, and I thought of her anger when we talked of comedians, although now she proved to be the best comedian of us all. (p.140)

Adultery

I’ve recently read novels by Eric Ambler, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Len Deighton, Peter O’Donnell and Adam Hall, and the novels by Greene are the only ones which feature adultery – not only feature it, but make it a central strand of the plot. I mentioned to my son that the plot of the novel I’m reading is about a middle-aged man having an affair which makes him unhappy, and he said, ‘Not another Graham Greene?’ Quite.

It is his signature tune. Adultery – miserable adultery – is the motor of The Heart of The Matter, The End of the Affair, The Unquiet American and A Burnt-Out Case. From Norman Sherry’s exhaustive biography of Greene we learn that miserable adultery was the almost permanent condition of his private life after about 1940. And so here, in this novel, there are numerous scenes where the lovers (Brown the narrator and Martha, the ambassador’s wife) meet and torment each other with recriminations, guilt, or shabby sex. And the narrator generously shares with us his many insights into the wretched nature of affairs – though thankfully not nearly as intensely, or so drenched in the Catholic guilt, as those which overflow The Heart of The Matter and The End of The Affair.

If a husband is notoriously blind to infidelity, I suppose a lover has the opposite fault – he sees it everywhere. (p.48)

Time was needed for a home as time was needed to turn a mistress into a wife. (p.49)

This is one of the pains of illicit love: even your mistress’s most extreme embrace is a proof the more that love doesn’t last. (p.49)

Sooner or later one always feels the need of a weapon against a mistress. (p.130)

Maybe Greene acquired a reputation for being cosmopolitan, a sophisticate, a man of the world, because a) he travelled widely, and confidently set his novels in a fascinating variety of countries b) he emigrated and lived in the south of France, then Switzerland c) but maybe most of all because he displayed what was then, in the late 50s and 60s, a Continental openness about sex and adultery.

In which case the pose has dated. There is something not liberating but coercive about his continual assumption that adultery is the common condition of all marriages, that infidelity is inevitable.

The Society of Jesus is used to unsettled bills; it works assiduously on the fringes of the aristocracy where returned cheques are almost as common as adulteries. (p.59)

Brown’s affair with Martha dominates this long novel. It provides a central spine to a text which also includes observations about political dissidents and comic sub-plots about Mr and Mrs Smith, the American vegetarians, and the misadventures of the mysterious ‘major’ Jones. The affair is brought under the aegis of the central conceit that we are all ‘comedians’ by being routinely presented as farcical – Brown and the ambassador’s wife drive all round the city trying to find somewhere safe and discreet to have sex and are continually interrupted, by her son, by the Americans, by the Tontons.

It is nonetheless lowering that a great writer can devote such a large percentage of his pages to describing pretty much the same the kind of squalid, hopeless, miserably unhappy affairs which made such a wreck of his own life.

Everything was just as before. After ten minutes we had made love, and after half an hour we had begun to quarrel. (p.50)

Sex

From the start of his career Greene was unsqueamish about / very interested in, writing about sex. I was surprised by the reference in one of the 1930s novels to young couples masturbating each other under the protection of raincoats on park benches or deckchairs. Or by the crudeness of a phrase in The End of The Affair where Bendrix describes his feeling when he is with Sarah, with her ‘or in her’. Or him casually referring to her crying out at orgasm. Same here. It is 1966 and London is swinging but there is no joy whatsoever in Greene’s description of a black woman getting down on her knees, her head on the ground, pulling up her skirts to be taken by a Tonton thug. Or the queue at Mère Catherine’s brothel. Or the protagonist Brown screwing the ambassador’s wife in the cramped back seat of her Peugeot.

Once I had looked out of my window at two in the morning. There was a great yellow moon and a girl was making love in the pool. She had her breasts pressed against the side and I couldn’t see the man behind her. She didn’t notice me watching her; she didn’t notice anything. (p.51)

Some of the younger writers emerging in the 1960s seem to have enjoyed sex. Not Greene, for whom it is a pitiful physical urge, to be sated with illiterate whores in the stable-like brothel or in cramped rooms above a Syrian grocer’s shop.

Hamit watched me, ironic and comprehending. I remembered the stains we had left on his sheets, and I wondered whether he had changed them himself. He knew as many intimate things as a prostitute’s dog. (p.134)

Depth and description

Tedious though the affair with a married woman which forms a major thread of the novel may be, there is much pleasure to be gained from the rest of the book: in his account of his boyhood, of his escapades at the Monte Carlo Casino, how he was thrown out of the Catholic seminary and then made his way in the world, first bluffing his way through a variety of kitchen jobs then selling bogus art for the gullible to invest in. It is a rich, interesting and amusing backstory.

Similarly, his distant relationship with his grande dame of a faking mother is urbane and entertaining, as his brief acquaintance with his mother’s young black lover, Marcel, is urbane and upsetting (Marcel hangs himself after the narrator’s mother dies – it is a first, I think, for a Greene narrator to have to admit that someone else is more despairing and unhappy than he is). Away from the boring affair, the protagonist’s character is one of the most imaginative and filled-in of any Greene hero.

The detailed infilling of his biography is matched by the depth and thoroughness of Greene’s depiction of Papa Doc’s terrifying Haiti: the electricity failing, the demoralising poverty, the appalling physical disfigurements of the beggars, the casual beatings-up or rapes, the pomposity of the smoothly lying Ministers, the trip to the ruins of the new capital, Duvalierville, being built high up and pointlessly in the dry mountains, the dark sunglasses of the moody and violent Tontons.

As travelogue, capturing the grim atmosphere of a weird time and place, the novel is a triumph.

Greene the lecturer

A regrettable but central element in Greene’s style is the wish to lecture and pontificate. His novels are full of would-be quotes and ‘insights’ into human nature, which are nearly crisp enough to adorn a teenage t-shirt or a coffee mug in the office kitchen. They sound good, they have a plausible rhetoric of wisdom but, in my opinion, evaporate as soon as you reflect on them.

Cynicism is cheap – you can buy it at any Monoprix store – it’s built into all poor-quality goods. (p21)

Cruelty’s like a searchlight. It sweeps from one spot to another. We only escape it for a time. (p.162)

I read the message again now; I thought it movingly phrased… And he had died for her, so perhaps he was no comédien after all. Death is a proof of sincerity. (p.253)

What the manic-depressive Greene means by this last phrase is that suicide is a proof of sincerity. The Norman Sherry biography shows that he was obsessed with suicide and on various occasions threatened to kill himself unless his mistresses did what he wanted. The whining tone of the jealous lover comes to the fore in the last 50 pages of the novel when the narrator becomes irrationally consumed with jealousy, suspecting his mistress is sleeping with the con-man Jones who he has helped find political asylum in the embassy.

This drives the dénouement of the novel: the conman ‘Major’ Jones is caught out trying to hoodwink the régime, and comes to Brown’s hotel for asylum. Brown drives him down to the boat they arrived on and there is a comic scene when the Tontons arrive, Jones hides, and the captain in his nightgown has to face up to them. When the captain refuses to let him stay on board, Brown has to smuggle him off the boat again and has the bright idea of driving him to his mistress’s embassy.

Not only is Jones made welcome there, but he becomes the life and the soul of the party, becoming friends with the ambassador, his little boy, and even Brown’s mistress. –Earlier in the novel one of the former guests at Brown’s hotel, disgusted by the régime, says he is heading into the hills to set up an armed resistance. The narrator makes it perfectly clear he thinks this is a ridiculous waste of time which can only end badly. The so-called resistance are one more set of comedians, jokers on a gruesome stage.

Now Brown conceives the rather nasty idea of taking ‘Major’ Jones at his own word (he’s always bragging about his heroics in the War) and smuggling him up to the resistance in the hills – thus conveniently removing him from the embassy and from what his silly jealousy imagines to be the arms of his mistress.

The journey itself involves lying to the Tontons, who have already beaten him up once – and capture would lead to a bad beating or worse. The rendezvous with the resistance is arranged for an isolated cemetery, among the voodoo gravestones – a gruesomely atmospheric setting – but, inevitably, goes wrong.

Unusually for Greene – and an indication of the just-about comic intention of the novel – the major protagonist does not die (unlike the key figures in Heart of The Matter, The Third Man, End of The Affair, The Quiet American, A Burnt-Out Case). Instead, although the Tontons do intercept them, the scene cuts suddenly and unexpectedly to the Dominican Republic across the border a few weeks later. Turns out the resistance saved him and Jones and then smuggled them across the border. The nine-day journey was quite an ordeal – twenty-five years earlier Greene might have described it in excruciating detail rather in the style of The Power and The Glory, which amounts to a 200-page-long gruelling journey.

But instead, we jump to the lightly comic scenes of Brown safe and sound in the Dominican republic where he has the good fortune to bump into Mr Smith the American evangelist for vegetarianism and even his mistress, whose ambassador husband has been expelled from Haiti. After desultory end-of-the-affair conversations with the mistress, the kindly American fixes him up with a job as assistant to the monosyllabic funeral director we first met on the ferry to Haiti, in the opening pages, and that’s that.

Everything: Papa Doc’s Haiti with its absurd new capital built of concrete; Brown’s dreams of running the best hotel in the Caribbean; his affair; Jones’s lies about his military record; the resistance (12 men and three rusty machine guns)’s fantasies about overthrowing the regime. All bitter farce. We are all comedians.

Verbal felicities

The text is a rich interweaving of themes and ideas, some of which (the local description) I prefer to others (the preaching, the adultery). But the thing I really enjoy about Greene is the small verbal affects which crop up throughout the text. Greene is no Chandler, he is not a flashy stylist. Most of his prose is limpid, clear and uncoloured. Concisely effective, occasionally clumsy. But that makes the metaphors and similes, the moments of colour, when they do occur, all the more vivid. A lot of the pleasure of the novel comes from the sharp asides, ironic touches and deft comparisons it displays on almost every page.

[Petit Pierre] giggled up at me, standing on his pointed toe-caps, for he was a tiny figure of a man. He was just  as I remembered him, hilarious. Even the time of day was humorous to him. He had the quick movements of a monkey, and he seemed to swing from wall to wall on ropes of laughter. (p.44)

A man in a torn shirt and a grey pair of trousers and an old soft hat which someone must have discarded in a dustbin came trailing his rifle by its muzzle to the door. (p.47)

‘I have known your mother many years. I have a great respect…’ He gave me the kind of bow with which a Roman emperor might have brought an audience to an end. He was in no way condescending. He knew his exact value. (p.69)

We quarreled. I told her [her son] was a spoilt child, and she admitted it, but when I said that he spied on her, she was angry, and when I said he was getting as fat as his father, she tried to slap my face. I caught her wrist and she accused me of striking her. Then we laughed nervously, but the quarrel simmered on, like stock for tomorrow’s soup. (p.91)

The sun was almost vertically above us now: splinters of light darted here and there from the glass of the hearse and the bright brass-work of the coffin. The driver turned off his engine and we could hear the sudden silence extending a long long way to where a dog whined on the fringes of the capital. (p.122)

The Duponts were sitting on the verandah with the little boy, and all three were eating vanilla ices with chocolate sauce. Their top hats stood beside them like expensive ash-trays. (p.126)

‘Good-night.’ I put a false friendly hand on his head and ruffled his tough dry hair. My hand smelt afterwards like a mouse. (p.137)

On my right were a line of wooden huts in little fenced saucers of earth where a few palm trees grew and slithers of water gleamed between, like scrap-iron on a dump. An occasional candle burned over a small group bowed above their rum like mourners over a coffin. (p.141)

He handed the revolver to the second officer. ‘You will give it him,’ he said, ‘at the foot of the gangway.’ He turned his back and left the officer’s black hand floating in mid-air like a catfish in an aquarium. (p.216)

For me, this is what a writer should do – not the quotable quotes about love and faith and sin and despair – nor the rather heavy-handed deployment of a dominant theme (we are all comedians on the great stage of life) – but this, the skilful deployment of language to uplift reality and illuminate the reading mind. It is in these apt and expert turns of phrase that Greene, for me, is truly religious, taking the water of mundane life and transforming it into the wine of literature.


The movie

Greene, who had seen about a dozen of his novels turned into movies by this stage, and who famously wrote the screenplay for the classic film The Third Man, himself adapted this novel for the big screen. Directed by Peter Glenville and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness, it should have been brilliant – but it looks rather bad, and can’t have been helped by the bloated running time of two-and-a-half hours.

Related links

1970s paperback edition of The Comedians, illustration by Paul Hogarth

1970s paperback edition of The Comedians, illustration by Paul Hogarth

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.

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.

The Looking Glass War by John le Carré (1965)

‘All right,’ Haldane conceded. ‘We have our brief. But things have changed. It’s a different game now. In those days we were top of the tree – rubber boats on a moonless night; a captured enemy plane; wireless and all that. You and I know; we did it together. But it’s changed. It’s a different war; a different kind of fighting.’ (p.62)

Failure and misery

This novel has the unrelenting despair and misery of a Graham Greene book. Everyone is unhappy, incompetent, in failed marriages with wives who despise them, children they don’t understand, in unsuccessful careers, too old, living in the past, working for a superannuated organisation, slack, doomed to failure.

He went back to his room. There were times when he confronted his own image as a man confronts an empty valley, and the vision propels him forward again to experience, as despair compels us to extinction. (p.103)

The same wish-to-lecture as Greene. And the same subject: despair, emptiness, the horror of life.

The flat was in darkness. Standing before it, he tried to detect in the house, in himself, some trace of the sentiment, or affection, or love, or whatever it was that explained their marriage, but it was not to be found and he supposed it had never been. He sought desperately, wanting to find the motive of youth; but there was none. He was staring into an empty house. (p.151)

And the same easy equation of complex situations with half a dozen standard bromides about love and guilt.

He was terribly tired; the tiredness was like a physical despair, like the moment of guilt before making love. (p.212)

Like most of Greene’s editorialising, this sounds fine but, on inspection, is meaningless, as if the words ‘despair’, ‘guilt’ and ‘love’, ‘faith’ and betrayal’, are shiny counters which can be placed in any order to deliver a Grand Statement about the Human Condition.

‘Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.’ (p.196)

Greeneitis.

Competence and the thriller

If you can put aside the relentlessly depressed view of human nature, the novel has other themes.

It highlights the importance of ‘competence’ as a key concept in the thriller. From Sherlock Holmes to Jason Bourne the hero has a super-human ability to swiftly size up situations and seize the advantage. Despite le Carre’s reputation for the downbeat and realistic, George Smiley (p.32) does in fact perform the function of the omni-competent hero in the eight novels in which he is mentioned (part of the reason I don’t like the running gag about his glamorous wife, Lady Ann, having left him, is because it is so obviously a ruse designed to conceal the fact that Smiley is, beneath his thick glasses and badly-tailored clothes, as shrewd and all-seeing as Holmes.)

The Looking Glass War

In this novel le Carré goes out of his way to portray incompetence. It is set in a government ‘Department’, which had a clear brief during the War to gather intelligence but has now fallen on hard times, its staff dwindling, its agents taken over by the ‘Circus’, in whose shadow the resentful handful of remaining ageing bureaucrats dream up schemes to reassert their importance, led by a hesitant, small man named Leclerc. The old-timers with too much time on their hands reminisce about the War, and the plot boils down to an effort by these middle-aged dreamers to recapture the intensity, the sense of purpose and the excitement they felt, during the War.

Part one

In the brief first part we are introduced to Taylor, a boastful man sent by Leclerc to a remote airport in Finland. A commercial flight has been instructed to fly over East German airspace with cameras in the belly, presumably to look for military installations. Taylor is to meet the pilot and take receipt of the roll of film. The point of the entire section is to highlight Taylor’s incompetence:

  • he fluffs elementary security by telling his wife about the mission, and she has told their daughter (!)
  • he is tempted at every turn to impress the airport staff with how jolly important he is
  • instead of finding a quiet corner of the bar and waiting for the pilot to arrive, he hogs the bar and makes himself memorable by insulting the barman
  • when the pilot arrives he is himself flustered by having been intercepted by MIG jets, unhappy with the mission
  • and they exchange the roll of film and money in plain sight

By the time Taylor has realised he’s drunk, the last airport taxis have all gone and he sets off to walk through the heavy snow to the hotel. A car seen earlier loitering, accelerates up behind him and deliberately runs him over, killing him. The strong implication is this murder follows logically from the folly of the mission and the failure of Taylor to observe almost every rule of ‘tradecraft’.

Part two

Leclerc hosts a meeting of the ‘Department’. Le Carré forensically highlights the politics, the psychological combat, of the attendees. (Le Carré literally belittles Leclerc: he has small fists, a small head, struggles to assert himself.)

Leclerc tells them a mechanic who fled from the East brought photos of what appear to be the latest type of Russian missile being installed in secret locations in East Germany. The attendees are sceptical. They point out that their man who forwarded this ‘information’ – Gorton – has his contract up for renewal; maybe he invented it. (On page 167 Haldane, head of Research, finds similar photos which are known to be fake, but doesn’t inform anyone.) They are critical that Taylor, an overt courier, had been used for a clandestine mission (which explains why he was so puffed up and incompetent), but generally accept the conclusion that this could be a new Cuban Missile Crisis. –What comes over in spades is their collective sense of inferiority to the ‘Circus’, their resentment of the Foreign Office, their determination to prove themselves. All desperately downbeat and depressing.

This is one of the eight Smiley novels: he is not the main figure, as in Tinker, Tailor or Smiley’s People, but not quite as peripheral as in Spy. Once the Circus learns what the Department is up to, Control asks Smiley to lend a hand and keep watch. Smiley interviews Avery on pages 55 to 58. It is clear that he is appalled at his ignorance of tradecraft. Smiley gives him detailed instructions on how to ‘drop’ the film to an experienced courier. He reports back to Control and is tasked with keeping a watch on the Department’s activities.

Avery comes across as a young romantic fool. His trip to Helsinki to collect Taylor’s body is a disaster. Le Carré shows unrelentingly how your story must be perfect to the utmost bureaucratic detail or else the Consul, the Embassy, the local police, the coroner, the airline – someone, in the normal course of their duties, will stumble across any anomalies, and then start asking difficult questions. Avery is portrayed – like Taylor before him – as completely out of his depth. He cannot even manage burning Taylor’s letters and affects in his hotel room without staining the sink, leaving tell-tale traces, and making the hotel staff suspicious.

Wives

Depression and failure colour the entire book. Le Carré carries it deep into the characters’ private lives. The members of the Department fail to keep basic security by telling their wives what’s happening. Their wives don’t believe them or despise them. We meet:

  • Woodford the technician and his drunk weeping malicious wife, Babs – ‘she was a thin, childless woman’ (p.168)
  • Taylor’s wife, horribly distraught with grief, when told her husband has died ‘for his country’
  • Fred Leiser’s wife, drunk and resentful and suspicious: he’d rather spend the night with a prostitute than return to her
  • Young foolish Avery emerges as probably the lead character in the novel and we learn far too much about the sterile love-hate marriage with Sarah, who bitterly resents his secrecy and his new sense of puffed-up importance, and are mildly nauseated by the way both of them use their young son Anthony as a pawn in the endless arguments – ‘If it weren’t for Anthony I really would leave you’ (p.164)
  • Smiley thinks Control stays in town on Monday nights because he wants to get away from his wife (p.154)
  • and, of course, everyone knows about Smiley’s wife, the glamorous Lady Ann, and her serial infidelities

All relations between the sexes, in this novel, cause pain. Reading the many passages about relationships in this novel are like having toothache.

Part three

Back in Blighty, young Avery discovers there’s been more incompetence: since he had used his own name when visiting Helsinki to reclaim Taylor’s body, the irregularities in Taylor’s identity were noted and pursued by immigration police our end, who called on Avery’s wife in the middle of the night. As if that wasn’t bad enough, because he’d blabbed to her, she proceeded to tell the police all about Taylor and his secret mission. If they were police, that is…

Meanwhile, we are shown Leclerc adroitly handling the Whitehall system and getting permission and money to ‘send a man in’ to check the rocket rumours. We are shown Department buffer Woodford going to a shabby old club, the Alias Club, on Villier Street near Charing Cross, set up by veterans of the War, and asking about old contacts, trainers he could call up, plus does anyone know the whereabouts of the man they’ve chosen for the mission, the only man they have on the books from the old days who can speak German, a Polish emigré who fought with us during the War, Fred Leiser.

The novel describes the way old hands from the War are tracked down and set to work training Leiser for his top secret mission at a rented house in Oxford. But the whole flavour of the thing is bitter farce: they are all dreamers, deluded; they want the old days to return, the War years to restore a sense of purpose to their empty lives. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is downbeat, but the leanness of the narrative and the slowly-revealed depths of intelligence in the plot are invigorating for the reader. This novel is plain depressing. Everyone is deluded.

The training is described in minute detail. Maybe it is an accurate portrayal of espionage tradecraft circa 1960. Certainly the class consciousness is very 1960s. Leiser and the the trainers are sergeants and NCOs, not proper officer material, dontcha know. While Leclerc and Haldane swell into their officer-class sense of self-importance, Avery notices the trainers and the agent himself have ‘something of the backstairs’ (p.166).

In the East

The final forty or so pages, describing Leiser’s pointless ‘mission’ into East Germany, are vividly imagined and written, heart-stopping, terrifying: he sneaks across the night-time terrain, through the wire, suddenly killing the young border guard he encounters, then blundering through snow, through darkened villages, stealing a motorbike, asking questions and causing suspicion wherever he goes, leaving a trail a mile wide. The defining mistake is transmitting a radio signal back to his controllers for a solid six minutes, when the maximum for security purposes is two-and-a-half. After three the East Germans have detected it, and the remaining minutes allow them time for several receivers to pick him up and work out his location. They close in for the kill.

Control

It’s not as if the ‘Circus’ (the name all the characters use for British Intelligence due to its location on Cambridge Circus in central London) is much better. The Circus is well-informed about all these developments but let the Department’s crazy plan go ahead anyway, deliberately lending them antiquated radio equipment, fixing passports and papers. On pages 216 to 218 a conversation takes place between Control and Smiley in which the former seems to be admitting that they’ve set the Department up to fail; in other words, that they’re happy for this agent to be captured or killed if it leads to the disgrace and closure of the Department and the triumph of the Circus. ‘It’s not my fault they’ve taken so long to die.’ (p.218)

This exchange clinches one’s view of Control. He is nasty, amoral and manipulative (as he seems to have been in conceiving the plan which led to Liz and Leamas’s death in the Spy Who Came In From The Cold). But, worse, he comes over as doddery. He is portrayed as a querulous old man who detests the modern world and judges people as much by snobbery as on their merits.

  • I do detest the telephone (p.216)
  • Leclerc’s so vulgar…a silly, vulgar man (p.217)
  • God, how I loathe civil servants. (p.217)

Partly this looks forward to Control’s death just before the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and everyone’s comments in that book that he’d lost it, become obsessed, should have been pensioned off etc. But on every page of this novel I thought, if this is a remotely accurate account of Britain’s intelligence services in the early 1960s no wonder the Americans were so supremely reluctant to share anything with such a shower.

Short

The narrator not only belittles the silly ‘Department’, its foolish plan and its ham-fisted incompetence, he literally belittles the characters. They’re always short, under-sized.

  • Leclerc Smaller than the rest, older. (p.29) Leiser laughed in a reserved way. It was if he could have wished Leclerc a taller man. (p.182) His small hands folded tidily on his knee. (p.202)
  • Leiser He was a short man, very straight (p.106) He was very much the small man just then. (p.184) As Leiser put on each unfamiliar thing… he seemed to shrink before their eyes. (p.187) … his small face was turned to her… (p.237)
  • Smiley Little sad bloke.’ (p.112)

Everything about the book is little and sad, including, by extension, England itself, its shabby pubs and seedy clubs, its streets full of prostitutes, its awful food and grim weather. The descriptions are beautifully precise. Le Carré’s prose is crisp and clear. But this is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.

He handed in his suitcase to the depository at Paddington Station and wandered out into Praed Street because he had nowhere to go. He walked about for half an hour, looking at the shop windows and reading the tarts’ advertisements on the glazed notice boards. It was Saturday afternoon: a handful of old men in trilby hats and raincoats hovered between the pornography shops and the pimps on the corner. There was very little traffic: an atmosphere of hopeless recreation filled the street. (p.149)

The movie

Made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with plausibility, precision and thrilling intelligence.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) Depressing tale of a ramshackle wing of British intelligence left over from the War, whose members try to recapture the old glory when they receive a (dodgy) tip about missiles stationed in East Germany, and wangle the funding to give incompetent training, useless equipment and send to his pointless death, a hapless Polish émigré. A detailed and persuasive account of a dispiriting shambles.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist German political movement.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European emigre in Hampstead leads, eventually, the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to allow herself to be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things start to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

A fine comic novel which, like Loser Takes All, keeps a good-humoured smile on your face as it leads you through a succession of humorous or farcical episodes. Because of the dated way people speak it’s difficult not to see it as a black-and-white Ealing comedy and the book was in fact made into a movie in 1959, starring Alec Guinness as the hapless hero.

Plot summary

Jim Wormold (worm + old, geddit?) is rather a failure in life. He lives in Havana where he works as a vacuum cleaner salesman. His wife has left, leaving him in charge of their flighty and spoilt, St Trinians-y teenage daughter. She is hanging round with unsuitable company who encourage her to borrow a lot of money to buy a horse along with all the extras and to join the expensive, high society Country Club.

Out of the blue, a shifty Brit named Hawthorne comes sidling round the vacuum cleaner shop, takes Wormold for a few drinks, manhandles him into the loos (‘for security, old man’) and bamboozles him into becoming an agent for British Intelligence. Wormold is in the middle of spluttering his opposition when Hawthorne mentions the £150 per month pay, plus expenses, plus extra money if he runs sub-agents. Wormold thinks of his daughter’s Country Club fees – and accepts. Thus, our man in Havana is recruited.

Back in Blighty, Hawthorne visits the Chief in his underground bunker in Maida Vale and very amusingly manoeuvres him into embroidering Wormold’s character, helping build a fantasy of a well-connected old planter type with contacts in high society. ‘Useful chap, eh?’

After a month or so Wormold receives a (coded) message, via the embassy, asking where’s the information they’re paying him for. That night he has a brainwave. At a stroke he invents five sub-agents – a pilot, an engineer, a professor, a Mata Hari glamour girl etc – and cooks up completely fake intelligence about big clearings being made in the jungle, concrete platforms being built, scary new weapons being constructed.

When London ask for more details Wormold, now working with a fluency and confidence that surprises even himself, sits down and draws technical diagrams of enormous and ominous-looking weapons based on… the vacuum cleaner parts lying around in his shop! In London HQ the Chief calls Hawthorne over and there is a very funny scene where, the more the Chief evinces horror at this ghastly new secret weapon, the more Hawthorne realises what they’re actually sketches of, realises Wormold is pulling a fast one, and hears the crashing noise of his own career hitting the buffers.

The Chief (or C) says Wormold (or agent 59200/1) is now generating such important information he’s going to need a properly-trained secretary and a radio operator, which are duly despatched. They arrive in Havana to Wormold’s horror – and it’s then that the fun really begins.

For it turns out that there actually exists a pilot with the name Wormold thought he’d invented for him – and he is assassinated by ‘the Other Side’! Soon after an attempt is made on the life of the (actually existing) engineer he’d frivolously named in his reports to London. The police are called in. Wormold is questioned. The sinister head of police, Captain Segura, tells him someone has cracked his code and is taking his wild fictions for fact, taking them so seriously they are prepared to threaten and kill to get their hands on the photos of the new secret weapon!

How can Wormold get out of this fix? How long can he conceal his massive deception from Beatrice, the female assistant sent out from London? What is the role of Wormold’s secretive friend, the German Dr Hasselbacher? Will Wormold get his fingers burned playing a dangerous game of deception with the head of Havana’s intelligence, Captain Segura, who is rumoured to be an expert torturer? And what grim fate awaits Wormold at the European Traders’ Association annual jamboree?

The plot darkens

Arguably the plot darkens a bit from here onwards. The eccentric German emigre doctor, Dr Hasselbacher, who, over drinks at the bar, first suggested the idea of inventing agents and reports, has himself been approached by ‘the other side’. It is he who reports that the pilot Wormold thought he’d invented has in fact been assassinated. And then he himself is murdered. The novel moves towards a climax of sorts when Wormold confronts the fellow Englishman who tried to poison him at the annual lunch.

These actual deaths ought to spoil the book, but Greene maintains a light-hearted tone, combined with crisp writing which continues to produce comic effects, banter, repartee, comic asides, and leads up to the high comic ending, so that you close the book with a broad smile on your face.

Sententious

The sheer volume of Greene’s wise sayings in his early novels prompted me to devote a blog post to Greene the preacher. The dictionary defines ‘sententious’ as ‘abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims’ or ‘given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous’. This essentially light, witty novel would be lighter if Greene didn’t feel compelled to sprinkle it with pithy apothegms:

A picture-postcard is a symptom of loneliness. (p.64)

Somebody always leaves a banana-skin on the scene of a tragedy. (p.70)

There was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim. (p.72)

The irritating thing about them, is they’re nearly all not true. When my mother died there were no banana skins around. When I’ve watched friends or family write piles of postcards on holiday, it wasn’t anything to do with loneliness, generally the opposite. I can think of many jokes with no victim. What’s yellow, lumpy and extremely dangerous? Shark-infested custard. Can’t see the victim there. Greene’s pithy maxims are invariably slick and false.

But these, and the occasional potholes in the road caused by references to his daughter’s Catholic convent education, and even the sudden deaths on the last part, can be easily overlooked in the sheer enjoyment of this confident and extravagantly funny novel.

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The movie

Apparently, Greene based the story on a well-known agent he came across while running British Intelligence’s Portuguese network of agents during the War. The agent, codenamed ‘Garbo’, earned a fortune sending the Germans entirely spurious information about British troop movements and so on without ever leaving the comfort of his apartment. Greene wrote a movie treatment in 1946, which wasn’t commissioned and which he dusted off after making trips to Cuba in the late 1950s and realising the farcical plot could be relocated there.

Our Man In Havana was immediately optioned and gave Greene the opportunity to collaborate once again with director Carol Reed (of The Third Man fame). The resulting movie stars Alec Guinness, Noel Coward, Burl Ives and Ralph Richardson and was released in 1960. It is beautifully shot in and around Havana, uses lots of Cuban music and extras, and has brilliant comic actors. Why, then, does it fall flat? There isn’t a real laugh in its nearly 2 hours duration whereas I laughed out loud at numerous places in the novel.

It might be something to do with the way a book cocoons you in its own little world, carefully selecting the details it provides you and where you’ll end up believing anything (eg Harry Potter), including this farcical intrigue involving half a dozen characters. Whereas this film all-too-beautifully shows you the ‘real’ world of Havana with its millions of people going about their lives in the hard tropical sunlight, and this somehow destroys the delicate bloom of the novel’s comedy. The reality of the bustling streets and busy highways makes the fragile farcical fiction harder to sustain.

Plus, it could be that Reed, the master of sinister effects and noir camera angles in The Third Man, was just not so good at filming comedy. Comedy is always about timing – there are plenty of funny moments in the screenplay: the moment when Hawthorne realises that the diagrams his boss is holding in his hands and raving about are in fact just enlarged drawings of vacuum cleaner parts, that Wormold is a fraud, that his boss will sooner or later realise this and then Hawthorne’s goose will be cooked – is a great moment in the book and it occurs here in the film but, as with almost all the other would-be comic moments – just doesn’t quite click.

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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