As a teenager, I read ‘The Comedians’ and in my twenties ‘The Power and the Glory’, ‘The Quiet American’ and ‘The Human Factor’. I remember swapping my copy of The Quiet American for ‘Off the Rails in Phnom Penh’ when in Laos. The Human Factor I read in a hostel in Colombia. In my early thirties, I bought a cheap copy of ‘Our Man in Havana’ in Argentina – reading it in Spanish, some of the plot was lost on me. Then I gave up on Greene for about ten years until I read George Orwell’s unfavourable review of ‘The Heart of the Matter’ and strangely it inspired me to check that novel out. In the past two years, I’ve read fifteen of Greene’s books, most of which I review below. They aren’t in the order I read them. The reviews I put the most effort into come first, and the only really negative review comes last.
The Honorary Consul
An atheist doctor? An ex-priest with wavering faith? An exotic, isolated setting with a whiskey sodden Englishman? Check all these. Two of the three ‘Englishmen’ here aren’t Greene’s usual ex-pats but locals. Born in Paraguay to a British father and local mother, Doctor Plarr is our atheist. Born in Argentina to British parents, Charlie Fortnam is the honorary British Consul in a small town on the Paraná River in Northeast Argentina. He has a great thirst for whiskey The only other Brit in town is Doctor Humphries, a grumpy teacher of literature with a background we are not sure of, but he was probably born in England. I found it true even in the early 21st century that Anglo-Argentinians held fast to a ‘colonial era’ English accent and customs, like five o’clock gin and tonics, not maintained among British descendants in my part of the world. So the idea of a locally born Englishman not quite fitting in that Greene introduces rings true.
The setting is the oppressively hot Corrientes – a million miles away from the cosmopolitan capital Buenos Aires, where Doctor Plarr’s Paraguayan mother grows fat on dulce de leche. I don’t know how long Greene was in Argentina, the novel is dedicated to Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine writer he stayed with. He refers vaguely to the political troubles in Argentina in the early 70s, the period just before the return of Perón. (Quickly followed by his death, his wife taking over, and the subsequent military dictatorship.) Over the Paraná river is Paraguay – under control of the American backed dictator, General Stroessner. In a muddle up Charlie gets kidnapped by Paraguayan rebels hoping for an exchange of prisoners. The American Ambassador was the real target. The British government isn’t eager to get involved, Charlie is a sixty-year-old ‘honorary’ consul and alcoholic – worse still he has recently married Clara, a young prostitute – not a becoming image at all. He lives by growing mate tea and importing cars and then selling them on – flaunting the diplomatic rights he doesn’t actually have.
The intellectual conversations at the brothel Clara once worked at between Plarr and local writer Doctor Saavedra are amusing. Saavedra comes off as a joke, a man obsessed with machismo – until we see that he lives in poverty and Plarr gives him grudging respect for devoting his life to literature. Greene’s idea of Argentine machismo is accurate in its knife fights, but also seems mixed up with the Mexican version which is more pervasive than the Argentine one.
The kidnappers are known to Plarr, who is involved because his British father is a political prisoner in Paraguay. Dr Plarr lacks the faith and personal morality of the head kidnapper, his ex-classmate and former priest Rivas. However, Plarr is committed to the poor – he resembles Dr Colin the atheist doctor treating lepers in Greene’s ‘A Burnt Out Case’. In both novels, Greene seems to be debating with himself the merits of the man of faith and the practical man who tries to save lives rather than souls. The saving of souls is a much more tortuous business because it raises the possibility of personal damnation. The pace never drops off much in this book – it didn’t get bogged down in Catholic theology and moral debate (although there is certainly a sufficient amount of these). There is a fair deal of humour too. I was just in the right mood for this novel, so a subjective five stars.
The Heart of the Matter
This novel drew me in with its depictions of mean gossip at the club and the general loneliness of the British inhabitants in a West African colony based on Sierra Leone. The protagonist Scobie is a policeman and the one white character who gets on with the locals – not developed beyond a shadowy presence of saying “yes sah” or, in the case of women, stirring forbidden lust as they walk by. The setting is just a background allowing the British characters to be significantly alienated and inward-looking, their small closed society becomes very claustrophobic. When the rainy season comes this feeling is further intensified.
Scobie’s wife Louise is a burden on him, she is falling apart in West Africa while he wants to stay. He risks his reputation as a straight-shooting cop and borrows money from a Syrian businessman so he can send her to South Africa. While she is away he starts an affair with a younger woman, Helen, who has survived forty days in a lifeboat after her ship sank, presumably because of a German submarine attack. The novel is set during the Second World War, but in general the war feels far away in West Africa. Helen’s husband died, and Scobie’s affection for her seems created by pity.
Wilson, a newcomer to the colony, falls in love with Louise and will not let Scobie get away with his behaviour. Never mind Wilson, Scobie’s Catholic faith won’t let him tolerate his own actions. Yusef, the Syrian he has borrowed money off wants part of his soul too – and there is a subplot about the Muslim Yusef and his Christian Syrian rival accusing each other of smuggling diamonds. Yusef is a sleazy character, who claims he wants Scobie friendship but just ends up manipulating him.
Perhaps the most brilliant part of this book is the relationship between two Brits in the colonial service: Scobie’s enemy Wilson and the pitiable Harris. The two men bond over a game involving killing cockroaches Harris has developed. They end up as flatmates in a nipper hut and find out they went to the same public school back in England. Although they won’t admit it their alienation began there. Both, however, still wish for belonging – Wilson publishes a poem in the school magazine, and Harris wants to send a letter to tell the old boys of his whereabouts, which they have requested – although in his heart he knows they just want to hit him up for a donation.
Ali, Scobie’s boy (servant) plays an important part in the book but he is hardly sketched out. Such a character would be better handled by Anthony Burgess, who would give Ali a lot of comic idiosyncrasies and include scenes of him talking to other Africans about the Europeans. Burgess’s characterisations of locals would be far from politically correct by today’s standards, but through comic portrayals, he would show at least some interest in them. Burgess’s Yusef would be better too: although Greene has it that Yusef can’t read or write, the Syrian speaks perfect English; Burgess would have attempted a more realistic speech pattern and thrown in the odd word of Arabic. “The Heart of the Matter” is interesting to compare with Burgess’s “Devil of the State”, which is influenced by Greene and dedicated to him. Greene didn’t rate it though. Burgess’s fictional Dunia in East Africa (based on Brunei, see my review Devil of a State: A Novel) is more alive than Greene’s West Africa. But Burgess doesn’t have much of a plot in his vivid portrayal of a colony on the verge of independence. Local politics don’t interest Greene, but his book is tightly written and gripping for the first 150 pages or so. Then he goes deep into Scobie’s agony of guilt, I’m interested in Catholic themes of sin, guilt and redemption, but Greene takes an indulgently long time over the fall here. This was my first work by Greene in almost a decade, I enjoyed it without getting bowled over. Originally gave it three stars – who am I kidding it needs four.
Brighton Rock has great characters, but the plot set-up was rather vague and/or hard to follow. Charles ‘Fred’ Hale is a journalist visiting Brighton to drop off cards at certain points. If members of the public find these cards and say what the Kolley Kibber (the man who drops the cards off) looks like they get a cash prize. Have I got that right?
Fred has annoyed local mobsters by writing about one of their scams and so the seventeen-year-old gang leader Pinkie murders him. At the inquest, Fred’s death is deemed to have been from natural causes. However, some people have seen things and Pinkie must deal with them. He’s not a likeable young man, he’s violent and selfish despite being a tee-totalling Catholic. Ida, a woman of about forty with often mentioned large breasts, is with Fred just before he dies. She knows something is up and aims to get to the bottom of things. A young waitress, Rose has also seen something she shouldn’t have but she falls in love with the sex-averse Pinkie. Rose is as ignorant of the larger world as they come but she has courage. This being Greene there is a lot of talk of hell and damnation from Pinkie and Rose, while Ida believes in none of it. Ida represents common sense and the enjoyment of simple pleasures like drink and, by the number of affairs she is having, sex. Rose and Ida are the most interesting and certainly most sympathetic characters in the book. Each of the three main members of Pinkie’s gang has their moment in the story. None of them is as ruthless as the young leader.
Colleoni, the big mob boss won’t take rival Pinkie seriously as a leader because of his youth and this, like most things, sparks immense anger and hatred in Pinkie. There is a fight between the rival gangs at the horse races with people slashing each other with razors. The writers of the ‘Peaky Blinders’ TV series must have been fans of Brighton Rock.
Pinkie – I don’t think I spoil things for you here – will come to a bad end, which wasn’t as hard to take as in “The Heart of the Matter”, Greene’s novel that I read just before this one, in which I really liked Scobie, the doomed protagonist.
Seaside Brighton comes alive in the book, the foreshore, the fairs, the pubs and the doss houses. ‘Frank’s’ the boarding house, where Pinkie and his mobsters live is a particular highlight. Greene doesn’t give too much description of the place, just the odd telling detail: the crumbs on the bed, the stove which hasn’t been lit in weeks. This was an enjoyable read but I’m still on a mission to find my favourite Greene novel. I would advise reading J.M Coetzee’s introduction to Brighton Rock AFTER reading the book as it includes a surprising amount of plot spoilers. (Much more than in this review!)
The Ministry of Fear
The best thing about ‘The Ministry of Fear’ is the author’s introduction in which he describes writing this novel set in London during the Blitz while living in Freetown, West Africa. Greene gives us some interesting insights into his life as an intelligence officer in Freetown (the setting for his later novel ‘The Heart of the Matter’). He also talks about how sometimes it’s easier to write about a place when you aren’t there. This is not to say the book isn’t good – just that the intro is fascinating.
So to the story, Arthur Rowe wins a cake at a fair. But the cake was meant for somebody else. It has a photographic film inside that the ‘somebody else’ wants to smuggle out of the country and give to the Nazis. Rowe unwittingly gets involved in this and the plot is quite convoluted but Greene unravels it quite nicely – yes, he does a better job than in ‘A Confidential Agent’ for instance. The main female lead, the Austrian ‘refugee’ Anna, falls in love with Rowe as he is a man who can feel intense pity – he is also wracked by guilt like most of Greene’s protagonists.
‘The Ministry of Fear’ was made into quite a funny, almost surrealistic movie by Fritz Lang – in his introduction, Greene indicates he thought the movie was pretty pointless as they removed the psychologist, Dr Forrester. I can see what he means but the movie is worth watching. It took me a while to find a copy of this book. I think it’s one of the lesser read Greenes.
A Gun for Sale
The anti-hero Raven is made memorable by his hair-lip, sometimes just one small detail makes a novel successful. The plot is better than other Greene entertainments I’ve read recently, those being ‘The Confidential Agent’ and ‘England Made Me’. The narrative is full of foreboding of the war to come, and so captures the zeitgeist of the 1930s.
The movie version ‘This Gun for Hire’ transfers the action from England to California. Ellen who helps Raven is working undercover for a senator in the movie. This strengthens the plot as in the book Anne (Ellen) didn’t have any good reason to help him. Well, she thought helping him would stop the war, but I didn’t buy this. Because they didn’t want to mess with handsome actor Alan Ladd’s face, there is no hair-lip in the movie and this takes away Raven’s most important feature. The Eddie Muller intro on TCM’s Noir Alley to the movie is worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyvGO…
The Tenth Man
How did he forget he wrote this?
The manuscript was lost for nearly forty years until someone wrote to Greene about it. He claimed he couldn’t remember writing it. The Tenth Man – a treatment to be developed into a film script – was written as part of Greene’s contract with MGM in the late 40s. On rediscovery in the 1980s, Greene re-edited it and allowed it to be published. It’s a pity it never got made into a film by Carol Reed, who directed The Third Man, Our Man in Havana and The Fallen Idol. I haven’t seen The Fallen Idol yet but the other two are excellent. A lot of times Greene’s work got made in lousy movies. The Ministry of Fear is good and I liked the 21st-century version of The Quiet American, but beyond these two and Carol Reed’s flicks, there isn’t much. (I later discovered that I was wrong about this.)
As a short novel of around 35,000 words, I preferred this to The Third Man. It has a less complicated narrative structure and stronger characters. The Third Man’s strength is its setting in the divided post-war Vienna, this one is set in France during WWII and after. Interestingly all the characters are French, no Englishman to be seen, quite unusual for Greene.
The Third Man
Using post-war Vienna divided between the English, Americans, French and Russians as the setting was genius. The faked death of Harry Lime – the seller of black-market penicillin – and his subsequent escaping through the sewer into the Russian zone were wonderful plot devices.
I got a bit mixed up about all the dodgy characters and who knew what about Harry’s fake death. Also, the British policeman relating what Rollo Martins, the protagonist, was up to reminded me of Conrad’s Lord Jim – a detached narrator telling us what we could have got from the author through the protagonist much less confusingly. Mind you this was written for film and Greene knew what he was doing.
My favourite story here is ‘Across the Bridge’. Yes, it’s a gringo on the run in Latin America story and that can get tiring. But Greene does it better than most.
Greene employs a narrator, who meets the protagonist and then tells his story in an unreliable way. The main problem the narrator has with the conman protagonist is how he treats his dog. There is some local colour described in the town plaza – but this is Greene: he sketches the atmosphere and then gets us involved in the plot.
‘The Basement Room’ filmed as ‘The Fallen Idol’ is also excellent. I’m happy that the movies ‘Across the Bridge’ and ‘The Fallen Idol’ have good reviews. I thought I’d seen all the good Graham Greene film adaptions already.
‘The Destructors’ is good. It reminded me of Robert Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’. Beyond that the stories, many of them about Catholic doubts and childhood fears, ranging from good to average.
No Man’s Land
Four stars as draft film treatments. As a book of two novellas, three stars. ‘No Man’s Land’ is set in post-war East Germany and has many similarities with ‘The Third Man’. It’s grimmer though and not well developed. The second story in the book ‘The Stranger’s Hand’ is more interesting. Set in Venice, the main character is a young English boy in the city to meet his father. Because of the war, they haven’t seen each other for three years. However, his father gets kidnapped and the boy is left alone in a hotel. Like in ‘The Fallen Idol’, Greene is very good at showing a child’s inner world in turmoil when confronted by an unfiltered version of the adult one. Sadly, Greene never finished the treatment. The ending here, supplied by another writer, is from the movie based on the story. The Stranger’s Hand originated when Greene, using a pseudonym, cheekily entered a version of it in a newspaper competition. The aim was to write a story in the vein of Graham Greene. He got the second place prize!
So The Stranger’s Hand is a film treatment with great potential that Greene probably just forgot about. Another, more well-known, one was ‘The Tenth Man’, written in about 1950, somebody found the manuscript and sent it to Greene in the 80s. For me, The Tenth Man is a five-star work. Greene’s throwaways in the 40s and 50s had ideas and atmospheres other authors can only dream of.
The End of the Affair
In the past eight months or so, I have read seven or eight books by Graham Greene. They have all been enjoyable reads with some profundity. I’m surprised this one is the highest-rated of his works on Goodreads and that people, whose opinion I respect, like this novel.
I didn’t enjoy it, one problem is that the setting of Clapham Common, London just after the war doesn’t come alive. It’s not that Greene needs an exotic setting like the Congo or Vietnam, he wrote about Brighton brilliantly in ‘Brighton Rock’. Neither do the main players, the cynical novelist, Maurice, his saintly lover Sarah and her weak husband Henry, have much to recommend them. The plot device of having the private detective, Parkis, get Sarah’s diary for Maurice was hackneyed. Also, the contents of her diary detailing her struggle for a relationship with God just annoyed me. The comic Parkis was the only character I liked.
It’s amazing how many novels Greene wrote and how different they are while all being distinctively his. This one didn’t do it for me, but I’m still looking forward to my next GG – I’m hoping to find a second-hand copy of “The Ministry of Fear” also set in London I believe, the movie was fantastic.
‘England Made Me’, ‘The Confidential Agent’, ‘A Burnt Out Case’, ‘In Search of a Character’, ‘Travels with my Aunt’.