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Playing Thomas Fowler:
Sir Laurence Olivier, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and the 1958 movie version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American
by Kevin Ruane
In December 1955, Graham Greene’s Vietnam-set novel The Quiet American was published in Britain to admiring reviews. When the book appeared in the United States a few months later, the reception was rather different. At the height of the Cold War, and with the legacy of McCarthyism still poisoning America’s body-politic, critics rounded on Greene for questioning the ethics of US foreign policy. In particular, he was condemned for using the character of Alden Pyle, the eponymous quiet American, to personify US interventionism in the developing/post-colonial world as naïve, self-serving and ultimately dangerous. ‘Nobody liked it in America when it came out,’ Greene recalled. ‘I don’t think I had any good reviews.’
Despite the novel’s anti-American slant, Hollywood was soon knocking at Greene’s door, and in early 1956 he sold the film rights to Figaro Incorporated, the production company of garlanded American film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The money – a considerable sum – was used by Greene to help his daughter, Caroline, fulfil her dream of buying a ranch in Canada. Greene knew only too well how the movie business worked. ‘[W]hen you sell a book to Hollywood you sell it outright,’ he accepted. ‘The film producer can alter anything. He can turn your tragedy of East End Jewry into a musical comedy at Palm Springs if he wishes. He need not even retain your title, though that is usually almost the only thing he wishes to retain.’ In the specific case of The Quiet American, Greene was initially unfazed. ‘I refuse to be distressed by what Mankeviecz [sic] does…I sold it with my eyes open with one intention and that was procuring a ranch in Canada for my daughter. That has been accomplished and the film will soon be forgotten – I hope sooner than the book!’
In January 1957, Mankiewicz and a large film crew descended on South Vietnam to begin a two-month location shoot. Mankiewicz was known to Greene by reputation as ‘a bold and independent producer’, an Oscar-winner esteemed for earlier movies like A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950) and 5 Fingers (1952). For this reason, Greene ‘hoped for the best’, but it was not long before troubling news reached him from local Saigon sources.
Mankiewicz, director-producer-writer, appeared to have exorcised all trace of the novel’s anti-Americanism and was bent on making a Cold War propaganda vehicle in praise of the burgeoning alliance between the USA and the anti-communist state of South Vietnam. ‘Terrible reports of the changes made reach me,’ Greene recorded. In Mankiewicz’s hands, the character of the English journalist Thomas Fowler became a naïve dupe of the Vietnamese communists, while Pyle was transformed into the hero of the piece. ‘Indignation seems to be divided and some people blame me more than Mankiewicz for allowing it,’ reflected Greene.
Primed as he was for disappointment, Greene was still shaken by the finished movie when it went on general release, first in America and then worldwide, in early 1958. The ‘most extreme changes I have seen in any book of mine were in The Quiet American,’ he later attested; ‘one could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and its author.’ By reconfiguring the political trajectory of the story to make ‘the American very wise and the Englishman completely the fool of the Communists,’ Mankiewicz was guilty of ‘a real piece of political dishonesty’. The film, Greene railed, ‘is a complete travesty of the idea of the book.’
For anyone familiar with Greene’s life and work, his loathing of the 1958 movie will come as no surprise. What is less well known is that Mankiewicz’s liberties with the original story – what Richard Greene has called his ‘disgraceful’ manipulation of the novel’s politics – had lost him his first choice to play Fowler, none other than Sir Laurence Olivier, Titan of stage and screen.
The customary version of Olivier’s in-out relationship with the movie has him agreeing in 1956 to play Fowler on condition that Montgomery Clift was cast in the role of Pyle, a pairing Mankiewicz accepted. When personal problems and serious injuries following a car crash obliged Clift to pause his acting career, Olivier began to cool. Then, when Mankiewicz announced that Audie Murphy would be the quiet American, Olivier, holding a low opinion of Murphy’s acting talents, decided to walk away.
This standard narrative is now in need of revision. If anything, it was Mankiewicz’s script, not Murphy’s limitations, that was the deal-breaker for Olivier. The evidence supporting this interpretation has languished for decades in the archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in Los Angeles, largely ignored by film historians and scholars of Cold War culture. For Greene aficionados, the exchange of letters and telegrams between Mankiewicz and Olivier in 1956 (reproduced in full below) does more than shed light on the casting process of a major Hollywood production of one of Greene’s works: it shows both director and actor to be acute – if very different – literary critics. Olivier in particular writes with exceptional insight; indeed, his final condemnation of Mankiewicz’s script aligns very closely with Greene’s own subsequent publicly-expressed misgivings about the film.
In due course, English actor Michael Redgrave, known for ‘an aristocratic mien coupled with a tortured sensibility’, replaced Olivier in the Fowler role, with the Pyle part staying with Murphy. When it was first announced that Murphy, a US World War II hero turned actor, was lined up for the film, American columnist Walter Winchel wrote of the unhappiness of many in Hollywood ‘about America’s most decorated soldier taking the lead…in a film version of The Quiet American which libels Americans’. But Greene, too, was unhappy: ‘I would have preferred a good actor.’
Nor was Greene impressed with the casting of Phuong, Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress whom Pyle lures away from him with hints of marriage and a new life in America. Decades before problems connected with cultural appropriation were properly acknowledged in the film industry, Greene could be found lambasting the ‘appalling’ decision to have ‘[t]he Vietnamese girl Phuong…played by an Italian’, Giorgia Moll, an actress who only made her screen debut in 1956. There were, he was sure, ‘innumerable beautiful Indo-Chinese equally without film experience.’
I am grateful to the archivists of AMPAS for their help in locating, and then scanning, these materials, and for permission to reproduce transcripts of the letters here. For anyone interested in Hollywood and the US movie industry, there are riches indeed in the “Oscars Archive”, as the Mankiewicz-Olivier exchanges confirm. It was quite the contest. In one corner, the wise-cracking, live-wire American movie-man, in the other the urbane, measured but needle-sharp English actor-knight.
Enjoy the sparring.
Kevin Ruane is a By-Fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge, and Emeritus Professor of History, Canterbury Christ Church University. His talk at the 2023 Graham Greene Festival, entitled ‘Shooting Alden Pyle: The Quiet American on the Big Screen’, will soon be available as an audio file on the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust’s website, ‘Resources & Archive’ tab.
THE MANKIEWICZ-OLIVIER CORRESPONDENCE, 1956
Thursday 5 January 1956
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Figaro Inc., New York, telegram to Sir Laurence Olivier, London:
DEAR LARRY. I AM GOING TO WRITE AND DIRECT GRAHAM GREENE’S QUOTE THE QUIET AMERICAN UNQUOTE WHICH IS REALLY ABOUT AN UNQUIET ENGLISHMAN STOP HAVE YOU READ IT WOULD YOU BE INTERESTED IN PLAYING IT AND IF SO WHEN COULD YOU BE AVAILABLE. PLEASE LET ME KNOW SOONEST POSSIBLE. JOE MANKIEWICZ.
Olivier reply, no date, but almost immediate:
DEAR JOE THANKS YOUR CABLE MOST INTERESTED IN SUBJECT WRITING LARRY OLIVIER.
Sunday 8 January 1956
Olivier, Notley Abbey, Buckinghamshire, letter to Mankiewicz, New York:
[Handwritten on plain notepaper].
Sun Jan 8. 56.
Thank you very much for your nice cable and very interesting offer re – “The Quiet American.” May I say that while admiring the book as a book and Graham’s writing enormously – I myself would have shrunk from making a picture of it because I would never wish to be thought anti-American, and I was afraid that the book might have caused sufficient angry feelings in America to sink the picture there if made by an Englishman – do you follow me? Of course the author’s inner prejudices need never come out as most are expressed through the thoughts of the Englishman and not in action or dialogue.
But for the same reasons I would like to be satisfied that the sympathies would not be reversed by the clever cunning of the producer [Mankiewicz], because if I hesitate to make an anti-American picture you will, I am sure, understand a like reluctance to make an anti-English one. But I am quite sure that with a little ingenuity all honours can be satisfied, all “anti’s” stilled, and all nationalistic hackles patted gently into place, and still give them a bloody good picture.
There is one thing about which perhaps I should warn you and that is that in my agreement I would like it to be understood that whilst not interfering in any way with the production or direction, but doing what I’m told like a good boy – I would insist that no cuts or departures be made from the agreed script in the final version that might alter the shape of my part without my consent. This I’m afraid is a condition I would insist on, following my experience in “Carrie” from which the precise elements and qualities in the part that made me want to play it were entirely removed from it.
I’m not a difficult person, you understand, but a teensy bit old to have my pants removed with becomingly boyish submission.
I may be coming to New York the beginning of February – but until then I shall be vagrant and itinerant in Europe, so if you wish to contact me Cecil Tennant of MCA in London is the chap.
I am immensely happy at the prospect of working with you.
P.S. I am available now, and the sooner the better as I have tentative plans after July. Where & for whom will the picture be made?
Friday 13 January 1956
Mankiewicz, New York, letter to Olivier, London:
[Typed on plain notepaper; carbon copy, original probably Figaro Inc. notepaper].
Your letter arrived yesterday, just after I cabled you in happy reply to your first cable. Your interest has delighted me, and I cannot recall having looked forward to a project with more enthusiasm.
Actually, THE QUIET AMERICAN has not yet been published over here. It will be brought out some time in March. No one can say, of course, what the critical reaction to the anti-Americanism will be. It may well happen that, as in most of the English reviews, the infantile level of Greene’s distortions will be considered unworthy even of rebuttal. In any case, I have no more intention of putting a Coca-Cola-swilling, crew-cut, Mom-loving, dollar-waving Yankee on the screen, than I have of portraying an umbrella-toting, tea-crumpet-and-warm-beer Pukka-stout-fella Limey.
Greene’s inability to keep what must be an uncontrollably deep and bitter and consuming, but nonetheless child-like, rage (and an equally child-like Catholicism) from permeating his work – much like a chef who will insist upon spraying his finest dishes with insecticide before serving – is a major frustration in the literary world. I know of no more accomplished story teller, and damn few more vivid writers. Fortunately, as you point out, in this case both the story and the writing can be wonderfully realized on film – and the insecticide removed – without damage to either.
Your request for assurance that your part in the finished film would not be so altered in the cutting, etc. as to change its original concept is startling to me. I cannot believe that a properly written part could be materially altered in such a manner – and I have never had any personal experience with such shenanigans, but your request is certainly understandable. You have that assurance. If you want it included in your agreement – and if it can be properly set down in words – I have no objection. Just what the hell did happen in Carrie?
I shall write the script, of course, and direct. The producing company will be Figaro – my own company – and the film will be released by United Artists. There are, literally, no artistic controls in anyone’s hands but mine. We have always the Breen office and the Catholic Church but, like Death and Taxes, we meet such things as we come to them.
There will be a finished, final script before we start production. For better or worse I have never started a film otherwise. “Where?” has not been decided. I am flying out to Saigon next week. I will sniff and smell about for ten days, then return here to start writing. If at all possible, I should like to do the exteriors at the actual locations, and the interiors at some European studio. It may become necessary to do it all in Europe, reconstructing the Indo-Chinese backgrounds in, say, Italy.
Unhappily, the “when” can not possibly be before June, at the earliest. The script will require careful writing, the production must be properly planned and, above all, it must be exquisitely cast.
Could you let me know, confidentially, just what the “tentative plans after July” are? And how tentative? Also, on the subject of confidential information, I would appreciate your not bruiting about my comments about Greene. They have nothing to do with my profound professional admiration for him, and certainly do not inhibit the excitement and enthusiasm I have for THE QUIET AMERICAN as a film of potential importance and distinction.
Robby Lantz has informed Tennant that I will be in Paris on January 22nd. That is, I arrive in the morning from New York, and leave in the afternoon for Saigon. Will you be near by? It would be most helpful if we could talk. In any case, I shall keep you informed of my whereabouts – and do thou likewise.
Yours [Joe Mankiewicz].
Tuesday 24 April 1956
Olivier, London, letter to Mankiewicz, New York. Handwritten on Lowndes Cottage, Lowndes Place, London S.W.1 notepaper:
[Mankiewicz had visited South Vietnam in January 1956 to assess locations for the film shoot. On his return to New York he completed a first draft of the script which was then passed on via Lantz/ to Olivier for comment].
Personal & Confidential
My dear Joe.
I am awfully grateful to you for your courteous and thoughtful promptness in sending me the Screenplay of “The Quiet American”.
But I am terribly sorry to have to tell you that it disappointed me very much. Perhaps disappointed is the wrong word as it implies that I expected it would be “better” when, indeed, I did not know what to expect only knowing from our last conversation in N.Y. that you were landed with a very tough proposition in keeping the balance of two story stories distributed as in the book while eliminating as much as possible the anti-American feelings expressed by the central character.
You will forgive my frank opinions, I trust, as even if you do not agree with them I presume they are what you want as we certainly wouldn’t get very far without them – I will make them as brief as possible.
I find that in exonerating Pyle to a large extent, you have obviously added blame to Fowler making him the mental case, so to speak (or is it Greene you are after?) instead of Pyle, who now becomes relative innocent and rather characterless and Fowler a completely twisted degenerate who has no real cause to resent Pyle except through his jealousy over Phuong and his anti-American obsessions.
After he has virtually murdered Pyle it emerges that Vigot is the real central character being the only one with any discrimination or worthy of any sympathy.
In other words what I feared might take place has done so.
Mr. Lantz in his [covering] letter says “obviously, the picture will be neither anti-British, nor anti-American, nor anti-French – this is an entirely human story, told in terms of human emotion”. I don’t agree. To me it is palpable that in a story about an American, a Frenchman and an Englishman the sympathy is stacked against the nationality of the one who turns out to be the most unpleasant.
From a more practical point of view I find that the story-telling method of flash-backs, dreams and opium sessions an unhappy one and confusing – though this may be a purely personal view.
Over all I find that the central character is no longer as seen through the author’s eyes, but has become the author as seen through your own rather naturally resentful ones, and frankly I don’t like the part!
I am so sorry.
Thank you for letting me see it.
Ever, with warmest regards,
 Greene quoted in Gloria Emerson, ‘Our Man in Antibes: Graham Greene’, Rolling Stone, No. 260 (9 March 1978), pp. 45-49.
 Graham Greene, ‘The Novelist and the Cinema – a Personal Experience’, in William Whitebait, ed., International Film Annual, Vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1958), pp. 55-56.
 Greene to Berval, 24 August 1956, Graham Greene Papers, Boston College, USA (hereafter GGP/BC), box 11, folder 83.
 Greene letter, Le Monde, 3 February 1958.
 Greene to Redgrave, 26 February 1957, GGP/BC, box 32, folder 27.
 Greene, ‘Novelist and the Cinema’, pp. 55-56.
 Greene quoted in Christopher Hawtree, ed., Graham Greene: Yours Etc., Letters to the Press 1945-1989 (London: Penguin, 1991 edition), p. 57.
 Greene to Evans, 24 February 1958, GGP/BC, box 59, folder 17.
 Richard Greene, Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene (London: Little, Brown, 2020), p. 270.
 See for example Kenneth L. Geist, Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (New York: Scribner’s, 1978), William Russo, Audie Murphy in Vietnam (Boston: Long Time Ago Books, 2012), and Kevin Lewis, ‘The Third Force: Graham Greene and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ “The Quiet American”’, Film History, Vol. 10, No. 4 (1998).
 An exception is Simon Willmetts who utilised AMPAS in producing his outstanding book In Secrecy’s Shadow: The OSS and CIA in Hollywood Cinema 1941-1979 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
 Sir Michael Redgrave, obituary, New York Times, 22 March 1985.
 Graham Greene, ‘Freedom of Information’, The Spectator, 7 April 1984, p. 10.
 Greene quoted in Hawtree, ed., Yours Etc., p. 57.
 Greene to Redgrave, 26 February 1957, GGP/BC, box 32, folder 26, hereafter GGP/BC.
 Mankiewicz to Olivier, 5 January 1956, AMPAS, Joseph L. Mankiewicz Papers (hereafter AMPAS/JLMP), file 430/ID-7148926.
 Olivier to Mankiewicz, n.d., January 1956, ibid.
 Carrie (1952) directed by William Wyler and based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie (1900). Olivier starred opposite Jennifer Jones.
 Cecil Tennant (1910-1967), English producer and actors’ talent agent who ran MCA’s London talent office.
 Olivier to Mankiewicz to Olivier, 8 January 1956, AMPAS/JLMP, file 430/ID-7148926.
 ‘DEAR LARRY DELIGHTED AT YOUR INTEREST AND AWAITING YOUR LETTER WITH HIGH HOPES BEST JOE’, Mankiewicz to Olivier, 12 January 1956, ibid.
 A reference to Joseph Breen (1888-1965), American film censor with the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America; although Breen retired in 1954 as Hollywood sentinel of Big Screen morality, the code of ethics and political correctness he espoused continued to be applied for some years to come.
 Robert Lantz (1914-2007), US film industry talent agent.
 Mankiewicz to Olivier, 13 January 1956, AMPAS/JLMP, file 430/ID-7148926.
 In the novel, Inspector Vigot is the French detective tasked with investigating the murder of Pyle.
 The use of flashbacks was much favoured by Mankiewicz in his movies. In the final 1958 film, all references to opium – of which there were many in the novel and a number in Mankiewicz’s draft script – were omitted to ensure a green light from Hollywood’s Production Code Administration (the ‘Breen office’).
 Olivier to Mankiewicz, 24 April 1956, AMPAS/JLMP, file 430/ID-7148926.
The book that Never Was
On perusing Prof. Carlos Villar Flor’s book Graham Greene’s Journeys in Spain and Portugal, Travels with My Priest (Oxford University Press, 2023), I read about Chuchú (nickname of sergeant José de Jesús Martínez), General Torrijos’s aid who was Greene’s interpreter and guide during his visits to Panama. Born in Managua in 1929, he was multifaceted: polyglot, poet, mathematician, pilot. He obtained a doctorate degree in philosophy from Madrid University in 1958 with a thesis entitled The Problem of Death, directed by Prof. Ángel González Álvarez, who had the chair of Metaphysics that had been held by the famous Prof. José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). Chuchú was Professor of Marxist Philosophy in the University of Panama, but he left the chair and joined the Panamanian National Guard at 45 years of age.
I was curious to see what the web could offer about Chuchú. There is an entry in Wikipedia, short, incomplete but available in four languages: Spanish, English, Arabic and Russian. The Arabic version only includes the birth and death dates and places, and the Russian is the longest but lists only seven of the thirteen books by Chuchú mentioned in the Spanish and English versions. A philosophy page (www.filosofia.org/ave/003/c040.htm) provides his second surname, Navarrete, which was his mother’s family name -it is customary in many Spanish speaking countries to have two surnames, the first from the father and the second from the mother- and more information on his books. There are other entries, too, with biographical sketches, comments on his poems, references to his books, and an obituary.
His last book was My General Torrijos (Mi General Torrijos, Ediciones Casa de las Américas, La Habana, 1987). As I mentioned long ago (Why I am a Greene enthusiast, ASON, Spring 2001;p:7-9), Getting to Know the General, Graham Greene’s memoir on his visits to Panama invited by General Torrijos, had prompted me to read everything I could possibly find by Greene. So, the book by Chuchú interested me because of its connection with Greene’s book. I found it on the Internet, bought it and read it.
My General Torrijos is 271 pages long and is divided into 14 chapters. Graham Greene is mentioned in 16 pages:
- Page 44: Greene is flying with Torrijos and Chuchú on the FAP-205 airplane, the same in which Torrijos would die later. Greene asked Torrijos about his fundamental rule of his political moral. Torrijos answered that it was the same as that of the pilot: not to fall down.
- Pages 54 and 55: Greene had an interview with a chief of the Bayano region. The interpreter was beside him to translate what he said into Cuna However, the chief laughed at Greene’s humour before hearing the translation. Chuchú thought that the chief did not need the interpretation but he obliged them to translate for him. Later Greene said that not even speaking with the Queen of England had he felt so much the weight of tradition.
- Page 69: Greene dedicated one of his books to Matisse, Torrijos’ dog, saying that he hated him. The reason was that Matisse liked to rub his privates against Greene’s knees.
- Page 74: Torrijos listened to and learnt from the peasants. One day, a peasant told him that there was a difference between ‘party’ and ‘drunkenness’, and Torrijos wanted to apply it to Greene. Torrijos told him that when they, the Europeans, drank, it was because they had an alcoholic problem; but if they, the Panamanians, drank, they were drunkards. It seems that Greene did not take it too well, and Torrijos added that he would invite him next Saturday to drink together. Greene was worried about Saturday during the whole week. He even thought of declining the invitation saying that he had the flu but he finally went and all that Chuchú says is that they had a very good time.
- Page 75: Torrijos thought that it was important not only to improve the material wellbeing of the people but to change them, by educating them and changing their mental structures. He commented this issue with Humberto Ortega, Commander of the Sandinist Popular Army, and, during a dinner Ortega offered to Greene, he ordered all guerrilla soldiers who were there to watch the film Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa) by Cuban director Pastor Vega. This 1979 film participated in the 11th Moscow International Film Festival and Daisy Granados, in the role of Teresa, won the Best Actress Award. Teresa was a married housewife working in a factory. She was appointed cultural secretary of the factory and this promotion raised her husband’s jealousy. After a strong discussion, she kicks her husband out of home and she has to struggle alone to raise three children and face the problems many Cuban women have. Chuchú mentions this episode of Greene’s visit to Panama because he thought it was rather uncommon that a Commander of an army offered a dinner to a writer and, on top of it, ordered his army staff to watch a film. Pastor Vega also directed La Quinta Frontera (The Fifth Border, 1978), homonymous of the book that Torrijos wrote on the North American neo-colonization of the Panama Zone (La Quinta Frontera: partes de la batalla dipomática sobre el Canal de Panamá; 1978, Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana).
- Pages 114 and 115: Greene wrote an article on Panama and the negotiations with the USA on the Canal. It seems that he wrote with irony and even mocked the Chief of the National Guard. Chuchú was in charge of translating the article for its publication in Panama. He read it to Torrijos and when he arrived at the conflictive paragraph he suggested that it could be removed. Torrijos, in a menacing tone, said ‘don’t touch even a comma written by Greene’. Chuchú mentioned this because when Greene wrote his book on his visits to Panama, he invited Chuchú to France to read the manuscript before publication. Chuchú found parts that he would remove and even a few historical mistakes, but he remembered what Torrijos had said and suggested no changes to Greene´s original text.
- Page 125: according to Chuchú, Torrijos had a happy and optimistic revolutionary morale. This appreciation, however, would be incomplete if it were not framed within the context of a tragic morale. Greene understood clearly the tragic aspect of the General that he attributed to his daily coexistence with the idea of death.
- Page 129 and 130: Greene travelled to Nicaragua quite often. He refers to these visits in his book about Torrijos. He said that in these countries ‘politics is a matter of life or death’. Then, it seems that he complained about their restaurants. It is not clear to me if he meant the Nicaraguan or the Panamanian. Chuchú understands that it is difficult to compare their restaurants with those that Greene knew in Paris and other parts of the world. This is a strange comment because Greene was frugal, although this does not mean that he did not appreciate good cuisine.
- Page 141: Chuchú had an airplane model Cessna 185 that he liked very much. He was proud to have transported very distinguished people on it: Graham Greene, Ernesto Cardenal, Carlos Mejía and many guerrilla commanders. One day, Ernesto Cardenal wanted to try to fly it. On doing so, he held the steering handle very strongly. Chuchú told him to treat it like a woman. Ernesto Cardenal, being a priest, expressed his surprised. Then, Chuchú added, ‘well, treat it like a consecrated wafer’.
- Page 249: The palomares – dovecotes – were houses where the revolutionaries and refugees could hide or stay for some time. Chuchú told Greene about these places and Greene wanted to visit them. Greene started to interview people and they told them their stories, the hardships, torture and repression they had endured. Among those in the dovecotes was Rosario Murillo, Daniel Ortega’s wife, with whom Greene made friends. When Greene died, one of the scenes shown on Spanish TV was Greene on stage congratulating Daniel Ortega on his presidency of Nicaragua, most probably in 1985, when Ortega began his first term as president. I wonder what Greene would say and write on the present situation of Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo repress the opposition, the Catholic church, the educational institutions, etc. Greene said that he was on the side of the victims but, he added as a warning, the victims change.
- Page 252: Greene wanted to give some money to Commander Marcial (Salvador Cayetano Carpio), founder of the Farabundo Martí Popular Liberation Front, and leader of the Communist Party of El Salvador. Marcial told him to give the money to Chuchú because he would know how to spend it in a better way. This money originated from Greene’s rights as author of the book about Torrijos. So, Chuchú thought it was a posthumous homage to General Torrijos, and that the General was still fighting like Cid the Champion, who, already dead, fought the Moors on back of his horse Babieca holding his sword Tizona in Spain in the 11th No doubt, Chuchú was well versed in history to have thought of this association.
- Pages 261 and 262: this is in the last chapter of the book that deals with Torrijos’s death. Chuchú had no doubt that Torrijos had been assassinated by the CIA. Torrijos was the strongest and most efficacious politician in the region to oppose the imperialist strategies and, therefore, there were political reasons to eliminate him. When Chuchú had to fly over the site of Torrijos’s death, he turned his head not to look at it. He was afraid of Marta Hill. But when Greene went to Panamá after the General’s death, he asked Chuchú to take him to the site. Chuchú took Greene on a helicopter and when they flew over Marta Hill Chuchú felt that Torrijos had spread over all the jungle and that he was everywhere, a sort of pan-humanism. The hill that he did not dare look at before inspired him peace, security and love. That was the only time Chuchú felt like that. Next times, he always saw Marta Hill as a black, unfriendly and assassin hill. He wondered what could have happened the day he flew over it with Graham Greene.
My General Torrijos shows the admiration and personal esteem Chuchú had for his General. His prose is fluent and lively, and the book makes a good read.
If you have read Getting to Know the General, you will remember that Greene appreciated Chuchú very much, and that he even planned to write a book about him entitled On the Way Back. When Greene and Chuchú travelled in Panama sometimes they did not stop to visit one place or another, and Chuchú always said that they would stop on their way back but, on their way back, they never stopped. Greene must have appreciated Chuchú as a very special character: an academic turned military, intelligent, well read and travelled, with a number of children whose names he could not remember, with whom he could talk about politics, literature, poetry, international affairs, etc. Chuchú was, indeed, worth a book. But, it so happened that Greene started travelling in Spain with Father Leopoldo Durán, a very peculiar character, too, that captured his attention even more than Chuchú, and the book about Chuchú and Panama became the book about Greene’s and Father Durán’s adventures in Spain: Monsignor Quixote. (For a more scholarly explanation of why Greene did not write that book, read Mansfield C and Gessel DA, Making Sense of Greene’s Panama: A Fuliginous Process. Graham Greene Studies 2021;2:271-281). Monsignor Quixote is a delightful book where the reader finds humour, religion, doctrine, theology, Saints, politics, geography but, overall, a growing friendship between two persons of different background, political thought and faith. It probably was the culmination of Greene’s dream to unite Communism and Catholicism as they both had the goal to improve the material and spiritual well-being, respectively, of humanity.
We missed a book but gained another one. Then, nothing was really lost.
Dislocation and Disillusionment in England Made Me
“Perhaps, no one can write in depth about a foreign country – he can only write about the effect of that country on his own fellow countrymen, living as exiles or government servants or visitors”, wrote Graham Greene in his introduction for R.K. Narayan’s The Bachelor of Arts, gently lamenting the inability of a writer to describe a foreign land comprehensively. He was, of course, being a little too modest in his reverence and his own books can hardly be deemed as superficial or facile in their portrayals of the foreign lands he travelled and chronicled. However, a crucial facet of his work has been a study of the dislocation and disorientation in which his Englishmen, either abroad or exiled, themselves, are vulnerable to the unexpected and ineluctable forces of moral corruption, vice and even larger events of revolution and war. There are the weary and disillusioned dentist Mr Tench and the idealistic Captain Fellowes, stranded in the anti-clerical state of Tabasco in The Power And The Glory; there are the civil servants and their atabrine-yellowed wives of Sierra Leone in The Heart Of The Matter and there is even the meagre, three-man English community of Corrientes in The Honorary Consul. Each of these novels portrays the Englishmen exiled in these strange, seductive but dangerous regions, trying, and even failing to reconcile themselves to their new outposts of escape.
Perhaps this portrait of exiled Englishness can be traced back to this fifth published, at least at a first glimpse, most uncharacteristic novel. England Made Me was written in the wake of the modest success of Stamboul Train – the first of Greene’s brilliant entertainments – and already, this 1934 novel witnessed Greene willing to take the literary risk of writing a comparatively serious and introspective novel that also encapsulated the contemporary themes of the decade with discerning depth. The result, indeed, seems like a Greene novel unlike most Greene novels – there is no simmering revolution in the cold, almost frosty milieu of Sweden, there is no detritus of a fallen empire to critique or even a despotic dictator to eviscerate skilfully – though one of the characters in this sad, strangely elegiac story comes almost close to wielding his will as irascibly as any tyrant. And yet, with the nuanced prescience of its themes, its complex portrayal of fraternal and human relationships and its typically solid characterisation, it emerges as characteristic as any Greene novel.
The epigraph to the novel, rather strangely, is a quote from a Walt Disney film – “All the world owes me a living.” This sentence is employed as a pun to imply the theme of the novel; at one level, England Made Me illustrates the disparity between the already rich and successful and those striving to reach this high plateau of success and affluence. The latter, then, believe that the world does owe them a living but the former, trapped in their gilded cages, cannot help but feel that the world owes them a “living” of a simpler kind – a life of companionship, love, and empathy.
The four protagonists of the story stand on opposite sides of this boundary of success and sordid struggle, of wealthy solitude and a comfortable spirit of seedy integrity. On one hand, then, is the omnipresent Erik Krogh, a self-made Swedish businessman who has ascended from the humblest of origins into an all-powerful financier with his name emblazoned like a household name across the civilised world. Despite his enviable status of access and affluence, Krogh, modelled on the real-life tycoon Ivar Kreuger and not too dissimilar from the present-day, self-aggrandising business tycoon, is nevertheless in the throes of a state of alienation; he cannot interact with or relate easily with his doting subordinates and servants or the respectable gentility with whom he must socialise. He doubts his own choice of the abstract statue that adorns the entrance of his office already strewn all over with his initials; he cannot understand the subtleties laden in English poetry, even when written by the Minister of the English Legation and in opera, he always chooses an empty place where he could also sleep, undetected. He is a rich man whose shyness derives from his consciousness of his peasant background and how it jars with the civility of his present surroundings.
In stark contrast to Krogh’s self-conscious diffidence, stands Anthony Farrant, the young and cocksure Englishman, always wandering from one outpost of the Empire to the other, in and out of jobs, forever an exile, carrying his battered, bruised luck with him around. His very spirit of bohemian shabbiness reeks on the surface of a jaunty, ragged optimism but the past of too many defeats and failures cling to him as inevitably as his false school tie that still wins him a few favours. Still, Anthony’s confidence, practised as it is, is the perfect foil for Krogh’s insecurities and when the two men meet and associate as master and bodyguard, the Swedish man of business is finally able to thaw some of his frosty reticence that conceals his inadequacies.
Between the two men, between Krogh’s existential discomfort and Anthony’s ragged adaptability, lies Kate Farrant and her own compelling tangle of feelings and conundrums. A companion to Krogh and even before that a sibling of Anthony, Kate is thus effectively torn in her loyalties, to the rich man to whom she has pledged her life and freedom and to the English twin to whom she is inextricably bound. Beneath her prim, sophisticated demeanour, she is herself assailed by self-doubt and even feelings of ambivalence over the two men who are so immovably established as signposts in her journey from her cloistered upbringing back in England to the cold comfort of Krogh’s companionship. On one hand, she prizes the refuge of settled stability but on the other hand, her rise to this position of Krogh’s confidence is driven by a hidden motive – of making it easy for Anthony, too, to be with her by offering him the chance of a career. With Anthony beside him, however, Kate feels distinctly uneasy and is unable to reconcile herself to the true nature of her feelings.
The relationship between Kate and Anthony deserves some scrutiny, notably for being one of the complex relationships that Greene was so deft in chronicling in his novels and stories. It has been widely speculated, not baselessly, that the two are in an implicitly incestuous relationship with each other and Greene himself agreed to this inference. More than once, in the novel, the reader will be aware of the close bond between the siblings that goes further than just fraternal love and is even marked by sexual overtones – Anthony finding Kate more attractive than any of his girlfriends and the latter, in turn, yearning for sexual fulfilment while yearning inwardly for her twin – and yet, on almost all occasions, both characters end up either denying or shoving their feelings aside. Some had remarked, at the time of the novel’s publication, that Greene was afraid of exploring the dimension of incest in his novel but one agrees more with what the author himself said, that his characters are fully aware of their feelings and yet are never able to reconcile themselves to the same.
Greene steps ahead to introduce yet another memorable and compelling character into the fray: the seedy and sordid, yet oddly dignified tabloid journalist Ferdinand Minty, chasing whatever scoop on Krogh and his dealings he can dig out and intrigued by Anthony when he spots the latter wearing a Harrow tie. In his unmistakable aura of seedy Englishness, consisting of the gaunt, pigeon-chested physical appearance, the ragged ability to adapt and survive, the stiff upper lipped demeanour and even an inextricable bond to one’s past as a schoolboy, Greene further infuses another element that would soon be found in many of his other memorable characters – a sordid spirit of faith to which he clings like a refuge. Minty is, thus, at one level, one of the author’s working models for similarly sordid characters such as Raven and Pinkie Brown, young men broken and bruised by a lifetime of torture and with only their faith (or an absence of it) and their hostility as a means of defence. Minty’s defence is also his weary cynicism – the way he derides and mocks the formality and snobbery of the rich and well-established people around him – the Minister of the Legation who keeps putting off his requests for another school reunion, Krogh and even Anthony Farrant. Yet beneath that cynical exterior is yet another exile – another outcast completely cut out of the world of Krogh’s affluence and Anthony’s opportunism to rise in ranks by only his association to Krogh’s companion. Minty resents Anthony’s good fortune that leads the latter to success, no matter how short-lived, even on the strength of his false Harrow tie. And yet, as any Englishman would depend on his fellow countryman, Minty still must rely on Anthony’s new position to make his own living – to get some scoop, no matter how malicious or insidious, that can help him survive for a little longer in his chosen place of exile.
And so, between these four characters, their motives and aspirations, their feelings of solitude and despair and their need for companionship and empathy, Greene weaves a skilfully rendered story, a slender but taut narrative thread, pitting together these three characters to play off each other masterfully in a deceptively simple story that reveals a little of each character’s fatal flaw or incorrigible virtue. There is the threat of Krogh’s plan, to strengthen his shallow empire, almost on the brink of collapse, with an unscrupulous gambit, to be exposed to the public; there is also the threat of Kate losing the refuge of her business-like relationship and Anthony’s companionship again, as the latter reveals himself, unexpectedly, to be capable of a shred of old-school dignity that won’t allow him to fall in for the rich man’s ambitions. And Greene hints at these possible events and consequences subliminally and subtly, gently escalating a disquieting sense of tension, while he also orchestrates a few incidents in the background leading to a similarly bitter fate for these characters.
Kate finds herself torn between the future – Krogh’s sterile stability – and the past – Anthony’s unshakable Englishness, his yearning for a home of mundane pleasures, brought about his attraction and love for an English girl whom he meets in Sweden. The author portrays her ambivalence as unerringly as Minty’s frustration at a world of ill-gotten wealth and affluence and he also humanises, convincingly, Krogh and his insecurities that fuel his almost devious ambition at the cost of integrity and dignity.
Yet, with such skill are empathetic characterisation and the fluid, almost compelling narrative balanced, that the resultant novel, even in its short length, is profound without being ponderous, almost quietly suspenseful without resorting to contrivances. These are flawed yet utterly believable characters and Greene, with all the prowess of a consummate storyteller, brings them together along with minor but equally vital characters such as Andersson, the young and idealistic factory worker who sets out to make an appeal to Krogh’s sympathies and Fred Hall, the doggishly loyal right-hand man, also English, who will do anything to save his employer from disgrace, in the unexpected travesty, that then leads us to the bitter denouement of the novel. What is even more impressive is his unerring ability to weave in detail and nuance to the slender storyline and draw a vividly observed yet realistic portrait of a foreign land with the same authenticity as he would later do for Africa, Indo China, or South America. His Sweden is rendered unmistakably as beautiful but frosty with a stirring, mesmeric, almost poetic skill at description, blending effortlessly into the elegiac narrative and his ability to orchestrate the actions and impulses of his characters is as flawless as ever, leaving many an indelible scene of camaraderie and introspection etched unforgettably on our minds.
In his much later novel Travels With My Aunt, the protagonist Henry Pulling concurs, while reading an issue of Punch that the English character is unchangeable. True to this, the English characters, be it Hall or Minty, are indeed fatally and irrevocably unchangeable in their personality too. As Anthony himself muses, “they were really only happy when they were together.” England Made Me is an exquisitely written and emotionally resonant tragedy of the dislocation and disillusionment of an Englishman abroad in an European country more alienating and confounding than any remote colony of the Empire. With a cinematic style of prose that lends dramatic weight to an intricately minute narrative, with even a few daring detours into a subconscious dreams and thoughts more compelling and hypnotic than any stream of consciousness and with a dark, pensive climax inspired by one of his favourite books in boyhood, Greene ended up writing one of his most moving, dramatic and surreal triumphs, an underrated gem that deserves rediscovery indeed.
___________[Lucas Townsend is coming to the end of his post-graduate work at Roehampton University and is aiming to submit his doctoral thesis on Ian Fleming and Graham Greene in 2023. Below is his Progression Review as he moves towards the final stages of his work. We wish him well. Lucas will be delivering a talk at the 2022 Graham Greene International Festival. ]
The Intermodernist Poetics of Ian Fleming and Graham Greene
At the time of this progression review, I have completed a full draft on one chapter totaling over 20,000 words for my thesis project, “The Intermodernist Poetics of Ian Fleming and Graham Greene.” This new title—originally “Ian Fleming and Graham Greene: Intermodernist Agents, Everyday Objects, and Violent Memories”—reflects the changes made to my thesis since its inception in the summer of 2020, as I am now focusing more upon the actual poetics of Fleming and Greene through a system of close reading. My shift in project direction aims to offer a broader understanding of mid-century Britain through “intermodern” writing. “Intermodernism” is a useful but relatively new theoretical term for the movements of mid-twentieth century literature—approximately the 1930s to the 1960s—as discussed by critics Tyrus Miller in Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the Wars (1999), Marina MacKay and Lyndsey Stonebridge in British Fiction After Modernism: The Novel at Mid-Century (2007), and especially Kristin Bluemel in George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London (2004) and Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain (2009) have argued. Intermodern writing is classified by its[T]hree defining features: cultural features (intermodernists typically represent working-class and working middle-class cultures); political features (intermodernists are often politically radical, “radically eccentric”); and literary cultures (intermodernists are committed to non-canonical, even “middlebrow” or “mass” genres). (Bluemel, Intermodernism 1)
I had originally begun my research planning to focus primarily on the ways in which Fleming and Greene negotiate memory and violence through the “everyday” scenes in their novels, and thus identifying how these scenes, people, and objects fit in with the above themes of intermodernism. In pursuing this, I first completed a review of previous literature and criticism on the thriller genre and Fleming’s and Greene’s work, as well as identifying if other thriller writers of the mid-twentieth century needed to be included in my project. However, the work of these authors, Eric Ambler and John Le Carré, did not need to be incorporated in a major way due to their time periods (too early and too late) and their themes often critique globalization and the quotidian nature of espionage rather than specifically mid-century British concerns. The exclusion of Ambler and Le Carré confirmed that my direction is both innovative and focused, as it concentrates specifically on the similarities of Fleming’s and Greene’s writings by pairing them together, rather than lumping them in with other thriller writers. Additionally, by approaching their work through the above “concerns” of intermodernism, I was able to uncover similarities in style, topics, tropes, characters, plots, images, and themes between them both that range far beyond just memory and violence; this is especially intriguing, Fleming and Greene are commonly considered very different writers due to their respective religions, politics, and writing styles.
Additionally, during this process I have reached out to important institutions of Fleming and Greene scholarship such as Ian Fleming Publications and the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust for aid and research opportunities. I have also made essential use of the library at Roehampton to progress my research, as well as the holdings at the British Library and Senate House Library. To investigate for original connections between Fleming and Greene, I have undergone three days of document and archive training at the National Archives at Kew to be able to search their MI5, MI6 (SIS), Bletchley Park, and Naval Intelligence archives (Fleming and Greene were both active intelligence agents for or had connections to these various agencies during and after the Second World War). So far, the archives have given me insight into the style of Fleming’s and Greene’s daily communications in their place of work, which I plan to make use of in the section of my fourth chapter, “Education and Espionage” (see below). As for fulfilling my requirements to attend Roehampton’s Research Student Development Programme (RSDP) sessions, I have completed 21 of the 22 required research events (see attached RSDP log); I will easily be able to complete the last session at any point over the next year.
I have also presented my work at the annual South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) conferences on panels dedicated to Fleming in November 2020 and November 2021. At these conferences, I discussed sections from the attached chapter and in-progress work from, as of yet, incomplete chapters to source feedback and suggestions, as well as to help raise awareness of my research in the academic community around spy fiction; I intend to present once again at SAMLA in November of this year. The Graham Greene Birthplace Trust has also invited me to give a 45-minute talk about the connections between Greene’s and Fleming’s work at their yearly Graham Greene Festival held in Berkhamsted this upcoming September. Finally, I was one of the two organizers for Roehampton’s Postgraduate Research Day held last year, and led the conference over two days along with the other co-chair, Cristiana Lucidi; I intend submit a portion of my in-progress thesis to present for this year’s event.
I published an article on my research in The Modernist Review on 1 June 2021—titled “Pubs, Clubs, and Hell: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock”—and I have a discussion on Greene’s life and literary locations in London forthcoming in the May 2022 edition of A Sort of Newsletter, the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust’s quarterly magazine. I am currently Associate Editor of The International Journal of James Bond Studies (a publication through Fincham Press), with the role of providing extensive copy edits for the 2021 and now 2022 issues of the journal. Currently, I am working on a review for this journal on Oliver Buckton’s biography of Ian Fleming, The World Is Not Enough (2021).
The attached writing sample for this progression review is the first critical investigation that pairs Fleming’s and Greene’s use of the British countryside in their novels together. The overall chapter analyzes the “peaceful” countryside landscapes that they both explore within England—the counties of Sussex and Kent—as well as spaces they characterize as being historically and imperially “British”—Northern France and East Asia. By investigating their novels set within these places, common themes of resistance to modernity, removal of corruption, and revisitation of violent memory within the natural landscapes of Britain are revealed. The attached writing sample includes the introduction to the chapter and the first section on Fleming’s and Greene’s use of Sussex to illustrate the above themes.
Now that I have finished the draft of my first chapter, I have made progress on my second chapter as detailed below, having nearly completed one of its four sections on the similarities between Pinkie Brown and James Bond. I also have one other section from Chapter IV drafted (this section was moved out of the currently complete Chapter II) on the use of modern comforts such as air conditioning in Africa and the Caribbean, as depicted in Fleming’s and Greene’s novels. In total, I have approximately 30,000 words written for my thesis. Below, I have included my timetable to submission, followed by summaries of my remaining three chapters of which the broad content for has been finalized.
|Estimated Completion Date
|Draft Complete – March 2022
Chapter I – Brown and Bond Against the World: Intermodernist Narratology and Character Design
Fleming and Greene use very similar character types, plot directions, and recurrent symbols—particularly in the repeated motif of “the world,” and the forces arrayed against it. To argue this, this chapter will take Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) and Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953) together as a case study in the creation of what I term the “intermodernist thriller.” I will compare the gangster Pinkie Brown and secret agent James Bond of these two novels, respectively, to demonstrate that these characters are remarkably similar, speaking not only to Fleming’s “revision” of Pinkie for the postwar period, but also to establish that Fleming and Greene rarely stray from the same type of protagonist across nearly twenty years of writing. In doing so, I show that the intermodern period relies on the same tropes to respond to the constant concerns of mid-century British culture, and to also discuss how Fleming’s and Greene’s writing creates a dialogue through intertextual parody of each other’s writing by the replication of the Pinkie/Bond character-type. Examples of this include Bertram of Greene’s Loser Takes All (1954), Grant of Fleming’s From Russia with Love (1957), and the much later Davis of Greene’s The Human Factor (1978). This chapter is currently in process, and will be complete in June.
Chapter II – Memory, Modernity, and Violence: Locating Evil in the British Countryside
My aforementioned completed chapter, of which an extract from this chapter has been included alongside this progression review as part of my submission.
Chapter III – Modernist Revisions and Intermodernist Conversations
This chapter takes Fleming and Greene in context with their fellow intermodernists, such as George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, and Elizabeth Bowen. By comparing the work that Fleming and Greene are creating through the common tropes of intermodernism that Kristin Bluemel outlines as intermodernism’s four “concerns”—“work, community, war and documents” (Bluemel, Intermodernism 2)—their writing exemplifies the same cultural, political, and literary nuances of other intermodernists, who “[l]iterary scholars rarely treat [as] serious writer[s] in part because they assume [they were] too popular to be good” (10). Fleming and Greene also offer reinterpretations of classic Modernist works, such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, that update the themes, symbols, and motifs of Modernism for a new post-World War II era. Examples of important works that engage with this resistance to and revision of Modernism include A Gun for Sale (1936), The Third Man (1949), Dr No (1958), and “The Living Daylights” (1965), to name a few. I aim to complete this chapter by December 2022.
Chapter IV – Saints, Saviors, Spies, and Salesmen: Agents of Change in Mid-Century Britain
The preceding three chapters outline Fleming’s and Greene’s specific reactions to Intermodernism through their fiction and non-fiction, and finds their writings to agree on many of the same themes, despite being perceived as quite different authors. Having looked at the ways in which Fleming and Greene construct their plots, characters, and settings to fit with other mid-century contexts and authors, my final chapter will turn to four other subjects handled analogously within their work: 1. Women and prostitution; 2. Minorities and savior narratives; 3. Education and espionage; 4. Real estate and tourism. In doing so, I will argue that the intermodernist zeitgeist of Britain encourages similar mid-century British approaches to writing on these topics, as Fleming’s and Greene’s narratives of anxiety, ambivalence, and unique narrative constructions of these four disparate subjects reflects a greater sense of unease at work in mid-century Britain towards many different aspects of the British Empire’s rapidly-shifting place in the world. I intend to complete these essay-like chapter sections by September 2022.
The introduction to my thesis is currently being composed, and will continue to be compiled alongside the writing of my remaining chapters—this composition style is natural to my writing, as topics, theory, and criticism that do not fit within a certain chapter will be transferred to the introduction to form the overall thesis framework. I am to have a complete draft of the entire thesis, including the introduction, by next April (2023), allowing me several months before submission to carry out final revisions and prepare for the viva.
Stevenson and Greene – Storytellers Walking The Dangerous Edge
Every great writer owes something of a debt to other great writers who have inspired his or her work significantly. And Graham Greene, arguably the greatest and most prolific British storyteller of the previous century, too is no exception to this rule. In his works, one finds the influences of many a notable author who worked in a generation previous to him. There is the wanderlust and strong whiff of exotic adventure to be found in H. Rider Haggard; there is the searing, soul-searching quality of Joseph Conrad; there is the realistic characterisation which was first introduced by Henry James; there is the political prescience associated with Buchan and there is also the clinical emotional complexity to be unearthed in Ford Madox Ford. On top of these influences is Greene’s own distinctive and wholly original voice, punctuated with a lucid style of prose, a keenness for seedy realism and sexual perfidy, a perverse fondness for chronicling war and revolution and a trenchant sense of empathy and compassion that makes his novels and stories both entertaining and emotionally resonant at the same time.
But there is one author to whom Greene owes a greater debt than to all these other noteworthy names, perhaps even more so because of the distant but still significant relationship that they shared. Relatives such as Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood as well as close friends like Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen and R.K Narayan and peers such as P.G Wodehouse, Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming had all inspired his imagination at least once throughout his illustrious career spanning nearly seven decades but the impression left behind by Robert Louis Stevenson, coincidentally his distant maternal uncle seems to have been the most formative in shaping his style. Frequently overlooked by most critics of his time as merely a successful storyteller writing adventures and stories of suspense and horror for boys to read, Stevenson is today recognised in some circles rightfully as one of the pioneers of the modern popular novel, endowed with profound themes and a moral realism that lifted these adventures beyond their Boy’s Own realm into the territory of lasting literary greatness. His period swashbucklers represent a markedly mature evolution of the genre as compared to Sir Walter Scott, his Dr. Jeykill and Mr. Hyde is still cited as one of the finest examples of Gothic horror fiction and The Master of Ballantrae is also considered as the first of a kind of novel of adventure and suspense in which the very concepts of good and evil melt and distort into each other, creating successfully an effect of complete moral ambiguity for the reader. It can be said, with some reasonable level of unanimous agreement, that Stevenson was, in a way, a harbinger of the same philosophical and moral density that would be associated with Greene’s entertainments in the century to come.
On more than one occasion, Greene has been found being extremely laudatory in his appraisal of his relative. In his short autobiography A Sort Of Life, he reveals how, at one juncture early in his writing career, he had to abandon the more elaborately descriptive style of Conrad and instead resort to a leaner, crisper style of writing with a greater focus on action than on description. The greatest influence for him in this regard was Stevenson and his Kidnapped. The Siege of the Roundhouse in the novel was particularly impressive to him in how it conveyed the chaos and emotional frenzy of the situation simply and effectively without too many adjectives or metaphors. Greene had also been unequivocally admiring of its even more popular predecessor Treasure Island. In his review of the 1934 film adaptation of the same, he praised the original story for its symbolic value and remarked “Treasure Island contains…a sense of good and evil” and similarly, in his scathing review of the 1938 adaptation of Kidnapped, he lambasted with empathetic fury the film for ignoring everything about the novel, again reminding the readers of his admiration and even insisting, like an affectionate relative, that “there should be a society for protecting authors who may be out of copyright”.
Even in his fiction, Stevenson has been alluded to more than once. In the gently amusing novella Loser Takes All, the rich and affable, if absent-minded, Dreuther preserves a library of books in his office which also signifies his preference of “Stevenson over Scott” among other such unconventional tastes. In Under The Garden, the protagonist Winton Wilditch is directly inspired at boyhood by Treasure Island and most notably, in The Captain And The Enemy, when rescued from the tedium and terror of yet another day at school with boring lessons and bullies, Victor Baxter, also called as Jim later on, muses happily about whether he would travel far, meet sailors in Valparaiso and whether “pieces of eight” would suffice as currency.
It is in this last-mentioned novel that one finds the strongest evidence of a similarity in both the writers, of a shared fascination with people compelled to walk along, to quote the excerpt of Robert Browning’s Bishop Blougram’s Apology that is the last word on Greene’s sympathetic portrayal of corruption and betrayal, “the dangerous edge of things.” Throughout the novel, the titular Captain, an elusive, enigmatic man with no fixed name or purpose, carries with him all the shades of moral ambiguity and inexorable thirst for peril that we have discovered before only in the likes of Long John Silver and Alan Breck Stewart. Like them, the Captain and many other of Greene’s characters too are admirably heroic and even roguishly charming to the frequently naïve and more hesitant protagonists pitted against or put together with them in the dangerous incidents that follow. They even strut throughout the story in the reckless, illegal and even suicidal swagger of buccaneers and fugitives – think of Major Jones in The Comedians, Harry Lime in The Third Man or even the unscrupulous yet utterly charismatic collaborator Visconti in Travels With My Aunt. They are all pirates, criminals and fugitives of a kind and their dangerous tread along the thin line between survival and fatal discovery or capture is what makes them even more memorable when contrasted against the dire realism of the story.
Thus, we discover that both Stevenson and Greene frequently populated their stories and novels with characters, not wholly worthy of trust but wholly believable and even irresistibly admirable with even the rare qualities of dignity and rugged honour. In both the above-mentioned novels, the Scottish author compelled us to even believe and trust wholeheartedly these honourable men on the run, which explains why Jim Hawkins starts to admire Silver for the latter’s boisterous charisma and affability and why David Balfour, a Whig royal to the King, finds a life-long friend in the openly rebellious Stewart, even as in the course of the proceedings, both these young protagonists, on the verge of coming-of-age, question their feelings and even wonder if their trust in these men would be good for them or not. A remarkable parallel of these paradoxes and conundrums, of again treading the dangerous edge between loyalty and betrayal, between trust and treachery, is found in Greene’s work too. Rollo Martins is unwaveringly loyal to Harry Lime, even going out on a limb to stay behind in Vienna and discover evidence that can discredit Inspector Calloway’s accusations, unaware of his friend’s capacity for betrayal to save himself; Thomas Fowler, the jaded English correspondent of Indo-China, feels responsible, almost as a father figure, for the younger and more naïve Alden Pyle but the Quiet American, despite saving the former’s life, does walk away with the young woman he loved and even threatens the peace of his chosen home nevertheless. As a doctor, literally torn into two, reflects about his relationship with his vicious alter-ego: “Jekyll had more than a father’s interest; Hyde had more than a son’s indifference”.
There is also a similar portrayal of unexpected fellow-feeling between the most unlikely of companions. Father Quixote, a Catholic priest, and Mayor Zancas, a Communist politician, end up forming and then reinforcing a tightly wound friendship that transcends their differences of ideology. This is again a wistful echo of the rousingly emotional bond between Stewart and Balfour and also, in the same novel, the endearing scene when Stewart and his sworn rival Robin Oig end up playing bagpipes as a sign of friendly rivalry instead of trading blows with each other.
There was, however, one more dangerous edge, a thin line that these writers and relatives walked along more frequently than any other writer of their times. That is the boundary dividing truth and falsehood, certainty and doubt, evidence and suspicion. In the works of both Stevenson and Greene, one discovers a narrative that thickens and gains unprecedented meaning with each new proceeding, character or incident but also a narrative, or multiple sub-plots that can be questioned in their validity. The Scottish writer’s skill at telling a singular story from different perspectives was further developed by Greene when he wrote his multi-layered novels that even represented different points of view and even wholly realised character arcs woven flawlessly into a singular thread of narrative. Yet, both authors also wrote stories that either were chronicled by somewhat unreliable narrators (Mackellar in Ballantrae and Maurice Bendrix in The End of The Affair) or featured smaller stories within the story recounted by supporting characters which can be possibly scrutinised for veracity as well.
For instance, are we to believe that the Chevalier’s account of his experiences with the Master are enough evidence of his inherent nature as an untrustworthy and even devious scoundrel? It contradicts directly with the final stages of the novel when Mackellar finds that there is enough to admire and respect in the man, in spite of himself. Similarly, what can we make of the small but surreal miracles about which Bendrix is informed at the end of the novel? Can we trust Parkins, given his profession as a curator of lies and clumsy excuses, and more importantly, can we trust Bendrix’ atheism anymore as well? In The Captain And The Enemy, Victor’s and other characters’ narratives of the events are tainted more than once with errors of memory and chronology, further making us doubt whether their collective portrait of incidents and even people themselves are to be believed. And in the audacious coup of the climax, Greene further reveals that the complicated personal narrative is simply a piece of a more befuddling jigsaw of geopolitical intrigue. Whom can we believe – the Chevalier or Mackellar, Parkins or Bendrix, the Captain or the Enemy? Or, to be more precise, Stevenson and Greene themselves?
Yet, there is another facet to this ambiguity regarding the truth. In both Greene’s and Stevenson’s novels, we also find smaller stories enclosed inside the actual storylines that not only reveal unique perspectives but also enrich the strength of the main story remarkably. The clever device that the earlier writer adopts in breaking up the story of Treasure Island as narrated primarily by Jim into an episode narrated completely by Dr. Livesey, thus establishing the older man as the real hero of the story – is ingenious – it breaks the monotony of a single narrative voice and also helps us to look at the same situation from a widely different point of view. And similarly, in The End of The Affair, the second part of book told entirely through entries of Sarah’s journal is what lends the book its emotional weight and its real moral and spiritual dilemma. We are relieved skilfully from the point of view of Bendrix, who is merely unable to comprehend the reason for Sarah’s departure from his life and the narrative too gains a unique voice that takes it to uncharted territory.
As it turns out, it is not completely new to compare Stevenson and Greene in the same light. Reviewing the writer’s last novel, an amusingly befuddled Paul Theroux called it as “Greene in his frankest RLS mood”; Nicholas Shakespeare, in his excellent introduction for The Honorary Consul, very much a Stevenson-like novel of kidnapping, the ensuing suspense and camaraderie lent an unmistakable touch of Greene in its subtle gift of irony, its dark humour and its compassionate portrayal of a defeated revolution, considered it as an ode to the earlier writer’s adventures in its masterful handling of tension and characterisation. And Pico Iyer, a fellow lifelong admirer of Greene for us all, wrote in his The Man Within My Head that “Greene was always fascinated by the many Jekylls and Hydes who compete for dominion within us.” Indeed, blood does run thicker than water but even apart from the familial connection between them, there is no denying that Robert Louis Stevenson and Graham Greene shared an uncannily similar penchant for high adventure and unrelenting suspense, for unlikely friendship and the most certain existence of danger.
A Burnt-Out Case of A Man Doubting himself and his Faith
By the end of the nineteen-fifties, Graham Greene was emotionally and creatively exhausted, His proliferation of writing in the last two decades, especially in his formative years in the 1930s, had now began to dwindle as he approached middle-age. In a letter to his peer and friend, R. K Narayan, he had even confessed his weariness in completing Our Man in Havana, remarking that he was getting too old to boil the pot. More to the point, however, the writer had already begun to experience a cathartic moment of epiphany. Until the publication and unexpected success and controversy of The Heart of the Matter, Greene had not been as conflicted about the possible reconciliation between an inherent belief in his faith’s benevolence, as evidenced in The Power and the Glory, and his own tendency for vice and infidelity; the 1948 novel, however, compelled him to confront the implausibility of such a reconciliation through the conundrum of its main character, Henry Scobie. Greene’s affair with Catherine Walston had also taken a disorientating turn; the devout beliefs of his paramour who believed that what was progressing was spiritually and ethically in the wrong took him by storm and thus, one finds that the God, the elusive yet omnipotent supporting player in many a novel, hitherto an object of the writer’s awe, became in The End of the Affair an enemy, a romantic rival of a far superior skill, to be shunned and dreaded.
Nowhere, however, is this spiritual and personal disillusionment to be found more explicit than in A Burnt-Out Case, Greene’s fascinatingly complex and philosophical novel written in the wake of a journey through Belgian Congo, halting at many leper colonies in its uncharted depths. It can be assumed rather easily that Greene was merely finding material for yet another novel but it can also be said, with some accuracy, that like the protagonist of the novel that would be, he, too, was finding, no matter how short-lived, some refuge from the overwhelming burden of not only his tumultuous infidelities and lack of faith but also a lack of belief in his ability as a man of a trade to live up to overwhelming expectations.
“‘Of course,’ the captain said, ‘I know where you are going, but you have never told me why.’
‘The road was closed by floods. This was the only route.’
‘That wasn’t what I meant.’”
That last part is what unites him, a writer reputed already by then for his dexterous industry and his technical skill but also of a sharp insight into the spiritual conundrums facing humanity in the twentieth century, and Querry, an architect famed not only for his skill but also for creating famous churches, in one spirit. The novel chronicles, in the beginning, Querry’s arrival to a mundane leper colony at the furthest end of the river; the journey that he undertakes, on a battered old steamer chugging through the river, (something akin to how a certain sailor named Marlow once travelled on his way to a certain “heart of darkness” awaiting him at the end of the river) in a haze of heat and humidity, is one that Greene himself took and experienced first-hand and yet the writer skilfully distances himself from his character at the same time; while Greene was rigorously recording his experiences in his journey with still the artistic ambition of using them as material, the far more laconic Querry simply surrenders to the ebb and flow of the journey and where it would take him, to his predestined refuge of sorts, to both a possible cure for his condition of disillusionment and an unexpected and ultimately fatal relapse of the same malaise.
“‘I don’t deny my profession once meant a lot to me. So have women. But the use of what I made was never important to me. I wasn’t a builder of council houses or factories. When I made something, I made it for my own pleasure.”
It is in portraying this very malaise, of a marked disenchantment for not only action, initiative and fellow human beings but for life in general, that Greene slowly but assuredly tugs us into the richly layered complexities of his main narrative. Querry is a psychological and spiritual equivalent of a leper, the titular “burnt-out case”, a man on whom the erosion of belief and goodness has left its most indelible mutilations, thus rendering him unable to feel like a man or a human being again. When he utters his first few words, they are guarded and elusive; when he starts talking more steadily, what pours out of his lips is simply a collected tide of his embittered cynicism at his world and, not least, at himself, We wonder to ourselves, in the initial chapters, as to what could have caused such an advanced state of moral decay in a man as once so successful and celebrated as him. Little we are aware of how the same success and celebrity are as much the cause as Querry’s own inescapable failings from a very recent past.
“The doctor tried to flex her fingers but she winced with the stab of the nerves, though she continued to smile with a kind of brave coquetry as though she thought in that way she might induce him to spare further pain.”
What cannot be doubted or wondered about is the utterly debilitating mutilation of the physical kind that the real disease of leprosy leaves on its victim. Greene’s observations of the unfathomable depths of suffering and despair in a leper colony blend seamlessly into his prose, which is also, in keeping with the air of disillusionment, markedly unromantic and without the slightest decoration of mysticism or stark beauty. Yet, even as the portrait of the heart of Africa to be found in A Burnt-Out Case is shred of all its romanticism, it is never anything than mesmerising and compelling. Greene’s unerring skill in perspective, his gift for gallows humour running richly through the supple prose and his eye for precise, roving detail and even the surreal, poetic touch result in the fact that we are as hypnotised by the desolate, even elegiac beauty of the words as much as sobered by the pitiless realism with which he spares us not one unsavoury detail.
“‘ I tried to teach her the importance of loving God. Because if she loved Him, she wouldn’t want to offend Him, would she? And that would be some security.’”
But even as the Congo of Greene’s novel might be without its share of romance or wonder, it is nevertheless enough of a breeding ground for many other passions. Not surprisingly, one such passion is faith itself and Querry, ideally seeking an escape from all conflicts and confirmations of the same, finds himself in the midst of a babel of voices either affirming or abstaining from their beliefs. There is Doctor Colin, the atheistic idealist of the colony who nurses passions of a different kind, envisioning, in spite of the far-from-reassuring reality, better amenities for his mutilated patients; there is the humdrum and haplessly inadequate crew of priests, led by a coolly open-minded Superior, who themselves reflect different shades of their conviction in their faith. And most prominently, there is Rycker, the archetype European expatriate, who is also a fanatic Christian and who seeks constant assurances of his own pig-headed actions and beliefs from everyone around him, including Querry whom he mistakes as a modern saint and thus catalyses the startling incidents that follow.
“She awaited day after day some radio signal which would announce the hour of liberation. Sometimes, she thought that there were no lengths to which she would not go for the sake of liberation.”
There is also a woman in the midst of these men both troubled and calmed by their varying degrees of conviction – Rycker’s young wife, listless and lonely, further disillusioned by her older husband’s moral prudery and sexual selfishness and yearning for escape. If Rycker’s obstinate fanaticism infuriates Querry and makes him more suspicious of society, Mme Rycker’s frivolity thaws his practised indifference and inevitably, in a classic Greene touch, leads him to yet another cathartic moment of mutilation, this time of what remains of his dignity.
This might sound as if this is yet another of Greene’s noir-like moral landscapes haunted by harsh extremes of impoverishment and decadence and with an atmosphere of duplicity swirling in the air. Yet, A Burnt-Out Case is markedly different from most of other Greene’s novels – there is no turbulent war or revolution or even the elements of an intrigue on the threshold of the story and for a major part of the narrative, the writer is more interested in playing off his characters compellingly than in encapsulating a local scene or in deconstructing the metaphysical aspects of faith; that said, even as it is much more introspective and even subtly elegiac than other of Greene’s literary works. It retains all his signature strengths of astute characterisation, realistic dialogue and an authentically rendered atmosphere of sordid realism enlivened by the goodness of a few and darkened by the seemingly innocent corruption of many. Even more than that, however, it marks a definite new tilt of style and perspective for the writer; doubt, rather than undisputed conviction, would be the primary subject of his storytelling, right till his final novels, especially Monsignor Quixote, in which he finally comes to terms, at the end of a long road, with the inevitability of uncertainty.
“‘I am certain he meant a place – somewhere in the forest, near water, where something of great importance to him was happening.’”
By astutely drawing a parallel between the physical destruction of leprosy and the psychological mutilation brought about by a loss of faith, Greene also accomplishes a deft comparison between Querry’s disillusionment and the despair of his aide Deo Gratias. Deo Gratias, a mutilated leper who has now been “cured” in an ironical way, yearns silently for escape, for even a purpose and one night, in one of the many haunting, surreal scenes to be found in the novel, disappears in a bush, only to be discovered by his master, now driven to curiosity. Later, Querry muses upon Deo Gratias’ word ‘Pendele’ which he thinks of as a refuge, a place anywhere in the world where he can feel at home without being judged. Querry too has come to this far-flung colony at the end of a seemingly endless river to find his ‘Pendele’ and while it promises to live up to his expectations, it also self-destructs when the same demons of blind worship and suspicion overrun it unexpectedly.
“‘If I went back and belief did not return? That is what I fear, Mr. Dunlop. As long as I keep away from the sacraments, my lack of belief is an argument for the Church.’” (from ‘A Visit To Morin’)
In a letter to a suitably scandalised Evelyn Waugh, who was almost convinced that his life-long friend had lost his faith, Greene insisted that Querry was not him just as Rycker could not be Waugh himself; but there is no denying that, true to his name, the burnt-out and broken protagonist of the novel was, for him, a query, a means of ruthlessly objective self-examination of his own failings and fears. In his short story, ‘A Visit To Morin’, Greene had also sought to reassure his doubting self by creating a protagonist in the titular author who is widely perceived to be an ardent believer of his faith, also his purported material, and who explains in the end of how he has lost his belief and is now afraid of reinforcing his belief, lest that he also lose faith completely.
Much of what Querry too says, especially about his own lack of belief in both his faith and his vocation, is ironical and bitter, especially as he fumes and seeks to silence the people, including the obnoxious and self-aggrandizing hack journalist Parkinson, who are so intent on hailing him as a saint without understanding his despair and guilt. But much of the novel is also a starkly honest confession of a great storyteller desperate to purge his own loss of faith like a sin and flagellate himself by the clinical and frequently beautiful violence of his words.
[Professor Sinyard was scheduled to give a talk at the 2021 Graham Greene International Festival but was subsequently unable to attend. He has kindly sent us his paper which is below. Thank you Neil.]
AMBLER AND GREENE: Journeys into Fear
“International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood.”
“Victims? Don’t be so melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving?…These days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing”
(Harry Lime, looking down from the Great Wheel in The Third Man)
A year or so ago, when I was contemplating writing a book on the relatively unexplored territory of the screenwriting career of Eric Ambler, one outcome seemed certain: I would need to devote a chapter comparing Ambler with Graham Greene. The connection seemed inescapable. They were both major screenwriters who had made a significant contribution to British cinema during its heyday of popularity from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s; they were both masters in their fictional field who, particularly during the 1930s, brought a new literary respectability to the genre of the mystery thriller; they even shared the same publishers and had coincidentally spent regular periods of residence in Switzerland. My interest was piqued still further when I recalled quotations cited in two classic works of Greene scholarship, which, in an interesting and oblique way, seemed to confirm my conviction that the parallels between Ambler and Greene were worth pursuing.
The first quotation comes from Volume One of Norman Sherry’s biography, The Life of Graham Greene (1989), where Sherry is quoting from a review of a novel published in 1951: “The cinema has taught him speed and clarity, the revealing gesture. When he generalizes it is as though a camera were taking a panning shot and drawing evidence from face after face.” (Sherry, p.415). As Sherry remarked, it could be a description of Greene’s own writing style, but it is, in fact, taken from a review by Greene of Eric Ambler’s novel, Judgment on Deltchev. We know that Greene was an admirer of Ambler’s work, describing him as “unquestionably our best thriller writer” on the cover of a compendium of Ambler’s work; and including Ambler in The Spy’s Bedside Book (!957) which he compiled and edited with his brother Hugh. “He analyses danger,” wrote Greene of Ambler, “as carefully and seriously as other novelists analyse guilt or love.” [i]. His review of Judgment on Deltchev suggests a stylistic literary kinship particularly derived from their common cinematic experience.
The second quotation comes from the third edition of Quentin Falk’s study of cinematic adaptations of Greene’s work, Travels in Greeneland (2000), when he draws attention to an observation from the Observer’s film critic, Philip French made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Third Man in 1999. French had been musing on why Greene had always expressed a preference for The Fallen Idol over the more highly esteemed The Third Man, the reason being, Greene said, that it was more a writer’s film whereas The Third Man was more a director’s movie. French suspected there was more to it than that and that Greene was distancing himself from “this masterpiece” because he was aware that, in terms of plot and character, The Third Man owed something to Eric Ambler’s 1939 novel, The Mask of Dimitrios, most notably its central situation of a main character, presumed dead, who turns out two thirds of the way through the story to be very much alive. French suggested further points of contact which I will be exploring in due course, but he seemed surprised that few commentators had picked up the comparison. When he had once asked Ambler if he had noticed the resemblance, Ambler replied drily; “Yes, I have.” (Falk, p.69).
It should be emphasized that I am not talking about direct or conscious influence here, but more about parallels and connections between two writers who might be considered, in a sense, kindred spirits. I have talked in a similar way about parallels between the work of Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, even though Greene’s film criticism had a curious blind-spot about the merits of Hitchcock’s movies.[ii] Ambler had an even more direct contact with Hitchcock. He not only wrote two episodes for Hitchcock’s TV series, but he married Hitchcock’s long-time assistant and later producer of his TV shows, Joan Harrison, with Hitchcock being their (by all accounts, very unruly) best man.[iii]
Parallel lives and literary connections
Before exploring the cinematic and literary connections in greater detail, I think it might be useful to sketch in a bit of biographical background. Incidentally, both wrote two volumes of autobiography, the second of which was even less forthcoming than the first and the first each having titles that suggested something short of complete self-revelation: in Greene’s case, A Sort of Life (1971); in Ambler’s Here Lies (1985). I think it was John le Carré who said of Greene that he never disclosed the whole truth about himself but only gave you a cover story, in the spirit of someone who sometimes covers his tracks with the truth only because it is easier to remember. Ambler put things more bluntly. “Only an idiot believes he can write the truth about himself,” he declared. [iv]
Both were born and died in the same decade: Greene (1904-1991) at the age of 87; Ambler (1909-1999) at the age of 89. Their family backgrounds were very different, Greene being the son of a headmaster, Ambler the son of parents who were partners in a successful music hall variety act. Both were psychoanalyzed in their youth and both early on seemed to conclude that England was a dull place to live, finding inspiration and excitement in foreign locations.
They each discovered at an early age a love of reading and a passion for writing. For Greene a decisive influential text was Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan (1906), a deceptively escapist period novel which for Greene conjured up a world of tragedy, treachery and terror. “She had given me my pattern,” he was to write in his essay ‘The Lost Childhood’, “perfect evil walking in the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.” [v] The whole world of The Third Man is evoked in that description; the Great Wheel of Vienna seems almost like the Wheel of History tilting tentatively and only temporarily towards a more optimistic future. For Ambler, it was his encounter, at the age of fifteen, with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and, being, as he wrote, “shattered by it. Wrapped in the mantle of Raskolnikov, I used to go for long, gloomy walks in the more depressing quarters of London, looking for fallen women whom I could salute, though from a respectable distance, in the name of suffering humanity.”(The Ability to Kill, p.81) It led to his conviction that there is a potential policeman or criminal in every human being. The Dostoyevskian influence can even be felt as late as 1963 when The Ability to Kill was published, his macabre and even morbid collection of essays about notorious murder cases, narrated in that characteristic low -key prose which in his novels, as Gavin Lambert remarked, often conveys “a high state of panic”. [vi]
Over the years they developed a writing routine that was quite similar. They both would draft out their work in longhand. Greene would customarily stop when he had written 500 words; and Ambler was to remark that 500 words a day “was good going.” [vii]Their literary reputations were established in the 1930s, with both ending the decade on a high note: in Greene’s case, with two masterpieces, Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940); and in Ambler’s case, the two novels on which his literary fame and prestige largely rest, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940). Although there is no evidence of conscious borrowing, there seems sometimes an intriguing crossover of stimuli. Ambler uses as epigram a quotation from Dryden to launch Cause for Alarm (1937); Greene does likewise for The Power and the Glory. There is a similarity of titles: Journey into Fear (Ambler); The Ministry of Fear (Greene, 1943). “Dangerous” is one of Greene’s key words, whether it be found in the lines from Robert Browning’s poem Bishop Blougram’s Apology that he said was at the basis of all his work (“Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things”) or his comment that it was the “dangerous third martini” that prompted him to propose himself as film critic to the editor of The Observer in 1935. Ambler describes Dimitrios’s “brown, anxious” eyes as “dangerous” and one of his early novels has the title, Uncommon Danger (1937). “Would they ever cross the border?” says a character in Uncommon Danger; and crossing the border is a main theme of Greene’s great short story of the following year, ‘Across the Bridge’.
Given that they were both working within the thriller genre, such coincidences are perhaps not surprising in themselves or significant until one considers what each novelist has done with the ideas, Nevertheless, it seems to me noteworthy when the imagery one of them uses prompts a memory of something in the work of the other. For example, we know now the symbolic importance to Greene of the green baize door which led to a passage by his father’s study, and which signified not only the dividing line between home and school, but also between safety and anxiety, for the other side of the door opened onto an alien world of fear and hate.[viii] Ambler’s image in Journey into Fear for a similar kind of realization, where a zone of comfort leads to one of chaos, is “the world beyond the door, the world in which you recognized the ape beneath the velvet”. [ix]This is the moment when three shots are fired at the armaments engineer Graham as he opens his hotel room door; and suddenly he is aware of a world of terror outside of the orderly and comfortable terrain in which he has hitherto complacently moved. When Ambler talks in Epitaph for a Spy of “mankind fighting to save itself from the primaeval ooze that welled from its own subconscious being” and then later in Journey into Fear refers to “the insanity of the subconscious mind…the awe-inspired insanity of the primaeval swamp”,[x] I cannot help mentally fast-forwarding to Greene’s fascination with the Viennese sewers in The Third Man, this slippery underworld through which Harry Lime moves, and which could symbolize the subconscious mind of Holly Martins, who has a guilty admiration and envy of his best friend’s outlawed vitality that must be rooted out and destroyed in a final and deadly underground confrontation. Greene has always – and rightly – been admired for the prophetic quality of his novels, his nose for the next political trouble spot, which prompted his friend Alec Guinness to remark that when he heard that Greene was going off to visit some part of the globe, he would avoid that place like the plague: he thought some revolution or war would be bound to erupt soon. The Quiet American is the quintessential example of that. Ambler also had his impressively prophetic side. One would struggle to find a more chillingly prophetic sentence in all 1930s literature than the one in Ambler’s 1936 novel, The Dark Frontier: “Never does a man’s knowledge advance so rapidly as when he is creating a weapon of destruction.” [xi]In a few years’ time that knowledge will have advanced the world into a new nuclear and Cold War age that could imperil its very survival.
The cinematic connections
The connections between the two authors’ engagement with the film industry seem alternately minor and substantial. Both made a solitary personal appearance in a film: Ambler as a Bren Gun instructor in The New Lot (1942), Greene as a retired businessman in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). Each had the distinction of being nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay: Greene for The Fallen Idol, Ambler for The Cruel Sea (1953). A more substantial connection is that both collaborated on three films with the director Carol Reed. During Greene’s period as film critic in the 1930s, Reed was one of the very few English directors whose work he had consistently championed. Their three films together – The Fallen Idol, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana (1959) – constitute one of the most highly regarded writer/director partnerships in the history of British film; and Greene was to dedicate the publication of his novella The Third Man, which provided the basis for the screenplay, to Carol Reed “in admiration and affection”. A good friend of Reed also, Ambler had a more quirky and unorthodox collaboration. His first screenwriting experience was for Carol Reed’s Army Film Unit, where they worked together on The New Lot, which was intended as a recruiting film for the Army and an introduction to basic training. This was expanded into the feature film starring David Niven, The Way Ahead (1944), which, with Went the Day Well? (1942), seems to me arguably the best British war film made during the actual war years. Their third collaboration was an altogether more troubled affair, for they were involved in MGM’s ill-fated remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), which essentially involved their endeavour to make a coherent and entertaining movie whilst satisfying the whims of its temperamental star, Marlon Brando. Years earlier, in a lecture entitled ‘The Novelist and the Film-Makers’, Ambler had defined the central issue confronting any screenwriter, as being “the problem of collaboration without loss of self-respect” [xii]. After fourteen re-writes had failed to satisfy the film’s star, Ambler resolved to salvage his self-respect by leaving the production altogether and Reed followed shortly afterwards. Less original and imaginative a screenwriter than Greene perhaps, Ambler was nevertheless to demonstrate a particular facility for literate and well-crafted adaptations of popular English novelists in the realist tradition, such as his adaptation of H G Wells’s The Passionate Friends (1948) for David Lean, and his version for Ronald Neame of Arnold Bennett’s The Card (1952), which Ambler mentions in his autobiography as being his father’s favorite novel. As well as the Oscar nomination for The Cruel Sea, Ambler was to be nominated for British Academy Awards for The Purple Plain (1954), which its director Robert Parrish thought improved on the HE Bates novel, and for Roy Baker’s film, A Night to Remember (1958), which still looks the best film yet made of the Titanic disaster.
Ambler’s lecture on the novelist and the film makers had originally been given in 1951 at the invitation of Greene’s publisher friend, A S Frere to the Sunday Times Book Exhibition and delivered later that year to the Edinburgh Film Festival. It offered a wise and whimsical fantasy about the likely fate awaiting a young and enthusiastic novelist who has excitedly sold his novel to the movies but then must look on askance and even aghast as his precious work becomes progressively altered to suit the commercial imperatives of the medium. Ambler is pragmatic about this process. After all, he says, “most writers from other media go to work in the film industry in the hope of making a lot of money in a comparatively short time.”[xiii] There is nothing wrong in that, of course, because it means they will be able to continue writing novels; and it still requires them to fulfil their obligations to the project with all the diligence and professionalism at their command. The novelist must be under no illusions, however, about what is involved. “Screenwriting has very little to do with writing as a novelist understands the term,” Ambler argues. “The only common denominators are a sense of story construction…and the ability to create characters who breathe.” [xiv] The distinction Ambler makes between writing a novel and writing for the screen underscores one significant difference between Ambler’s approach and that of Greene: namely, Ambler’s policy of never adapting his own novels for the screen, for they involved completely different approaches and techniques. This was in sharp contrast to Greene, who, after what he saw as his disastrous attempt to adapt John Galsworthy’s play ‘The First and the Last’ in Twenty-One Days (1937), vowed in future only to adapt his own work for the screen, a rule he kept, except for the solitary (and frustratingly unexplained) exception of his adaptation of GB Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957) for Otto Preminger.
In 1958 Greene was to write his own essay on the same theme, entitled ‘The Novelist and the Cinema – A Personal View’. Like Ambler, he expressed a general gratitude towards the cinema in the contribution it has made to a novelist’s survival; in his case, not so much in writing for the screen but selling the rights to others for his novels to be filmed. “It is better to sell outright,” he wrote, “and not to connive any further than you have to at a massacre.”[xv] . The book would probably have a longer life, he reasoned, and the money he made from a film version would enable him to carry on writing. The “massacres” he mainly deplored were those films which reversed the meaning of his originals: as examples, he would single out particularly John Ford’s film, The Fugitive (1947), his version of The Power and the Glory, and Joseph L Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American (1958), neither of which he seems to have seen but which he concluded, from reports he had read, were travesties of his intentions.[xvi] Like Greene, Ambler disliked nearly all the films made from his work. Probably the most successful was Jules Dassin’s heist movie, Topkapi (1965), adapted from his novel, The Light of Day (1962), and which at least won a best supporting actor Oscar for his great friend, Peter Ustinov. An adaptation of Journey into Fear (1942) was, in Ambler’s phrase, “master-minded” by Orson Welles, who was a great fan of Ambler’s writing, but was directed by Norman Foster and in the end bore little relation to the novel. Jean Negulesco’s film of The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) was an attempt to cash in on the success of John Huston’s film of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and similarly featured Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. The experience of watching it gave Ambler stomach cramps; and although the film has gathered a following as a well-executed mystery of mood and atmosphere, it and the novel were never mentioned, in terms of theme or achievement, in connection with The Third Man. Until Philip French, that is.
Dimitrios and Lime
Ambler’s preferred title for his novel had always been A Coffin for Dimitrios. One surmises that the publishers might have thought it too downbeat, but for Ambler, it would have concealed for longer the twist in the tale: that, just as the body in Harry Lime’s coffin is not Lime’s but that of the hospital’s doctor, Joseph Harbin, so the body in Dimitrios’s coffin is not that of Dimitrios but of his expendable criminal associate, Manus Visser. As Philip French went on to argue, the connection between Ambler’s novel and The Third Man was not simply confined to the two charismatic criminals at their core, but to their other main characters, both of whom are writers of popular lowbrow novels (Greene’s Holly Martins writes westerns, Ambler’s Charles Latimer writes detective stories) who discover that there is more excitement in pursuing a real-life adventure mystery. With his admiration for Ambler, Orson Welles is likely to have noticed the similarities and, for that matter, so might Carol Reed, whose opening narration for The Third Man, as French noted, begins: “I never knew the old Vienna before the war- Constantinople suited me better,” which is where the narrative of Mask of Dimitrios begins also.
On a visit to Turkey, a university lecturer in political economy and writer of popular detective novels such as The Bloody Shovel, Charles Latimer is introduced to an admirer of his, the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki, who wonders if he is interested in real murderers. He starts telling him the story of a man named Dimitrios, whose murdered body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus and who, for the last fifteen years or so, had been an international criminal of legendary status for his involvement in crimes ranging from robbery, murder and drugs smuggling to sex trafficking, spying and political assassination. Latimer becomes obsessed with finding out more about Dimitrios and, to this end, begins to track down and interview people who knew him and, in some cases, were former associates. The structure has sometimes been thought to have influenced that of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), which has also begun with the death of a larger-than-life character and which has then been followed by an investigation and interrogation of people who knew him, gradually building up a character portrait based on the sum of their different perceptions and perspectives. As Latimer proceeds, he keeps encountering an individual called Peters who seems to have his own agenda regarding the investigation into Dimitrios’s past. There is something disquieting about Peters. On their first meeting, Latimer is reminded of “a high church priest he had known in England who had been unfrocked for embezzling the altar fund” (p.43). On further acquaintance, he will notice “an edge to his husky voice that made Latimer think of a small boy pulling the legs off flies” (p.67); and Peters’ smile with his brilliant false teeth is “as if some obscene plant had turned to the sun” (p.100).[xvii] It will transpire that Peters is seeking revenge on Dimitrios and knows something that Latimer does not: namely, that the body in the morgue which Latimer saw was not that of Dimitrios and that Dimitrios is still very much alive.
When one recalls Greene’s high praise for Ambler, it seems certain that he would have read The Mask of Dimitrios and inwardly absorbed some of its contents, for, as well as the central twist, there are incidental details which will occur in modified form in The Third Man. Indeed, Ambler even uses the phrase “the third man” at one point (p.23) about one of the intermediaries involved in a drugs operation that had been masterminded by Dimitrios. The babble of foreign languages around Latimer, which sometimes confuse him, anticipates similar situations experienced by Holly Martins during Greene’s story. One of the characters whom Latimer locates, Grodek, is identified by his inordinate fondness for cats (p.77); and, of course, it is a favourite cat that will first disclose the presence of Harry Lime in The Third Man “I have, I know, done things of which I have been ashamed”, Peters tells Latimer at one point (p.119); one of Lime’s associates, Kurtz will make a similar disclosure when he first meets Holly Martins (“I have done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war”). Ambler’s imagery sometimes has the evocative pithiness of Greene. The “watchful repose” on Colonel Haki’s face reminds Latimer of “a very old and experienced cat watching a very young and inexperienced mouse” (p.19). One of Latimer’s contacts, Irana Preveza tells him that Dimitrios’s eyes “made you think of a doctor’s eyes when he is doing something to you that hurts.” (p.60)
The central comparison is that between Dimitrios and Lime. If Lime is the logical and consistent product of a fallen post-war world (amoral, cynical, indifferent to the suffering of humanity, governed only by motives of self-interest and greed), Dimitrios is similarly representative of the spiritual, moral and political degeneracy that has led to this genocidal war in the first place. (Ambler will even deploy the word “holocaust” on page 27 of his text.) There is an extraordinary passage in Ambler’s novel when Latimer is still absorbing the news that Dimitrios is alive; and aligning this information with what he has learnt about the man. “If there were such a thing as Evil,” he reflects, “then this man…”; but he stops this thought in mid-flow and carries on:
But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were
no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were
the elements in the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical
and consistent: as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the
poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in
the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David,
Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics have been replaced by that
of The Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. (p.130)
In its way, and for its time, Latimer’s reflection seems to me as remarkable as Harry Lime’s immortal “cuckoo-clock speech” in The Third Man in its attempt to define the cock-eyed state of the world. When Latimer later communicates what he has learnt from his quest to his journalist friend Marukakis, the latter wonders whether it is possible to explain a character like Dimitrios or simply turn away disgusted and defeated. “Special sorts of conditions must exist for the creation of the special sort of criminal that he typified,” he suggests. “All I do know is that while might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment, those conditions will obtain.” (p.155)
Do those words resonate today? I found re-reading The Mask of Dimitrios a rewarding but unnerving experience, partly because Dimitrios now looks such a modern figure. Harry Lime might have been, in Major Calloway’s words, “about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city”, but Dimitrios is an insidious international bandit; an entrepreneur and puppet-master behind the scenes who manipulates the links between businesses and politicians; a man who “could preserve a picture of distinguished respectability” (p.139) and is on the Board of Directors of an organization called the Eurasian Credit Fund ( the equivalent of a multi-national corporation of today) whose reach and influence extend world-wide into all kinds of significant and murky spheres and events. Anton Karas could write a jaunty theme to capture the sardonic swagger behind the villainy of a Harry Lime, but I think he would have been hard pressed to come up with something similar for a sinister character like Dimitrios. His actions have no boundaries of shame or conscience or moral integrity, and adherence to the law is something entirely outside of his consideration. He knows exactly what he is doing and, because he is doing it, he reasons it therefore cannot be wrong. What motivates him? Peters will have the answer to that. “He wanted money and he wanted power,” he tells Latimer.” Just those two things, as much as he could get.” (p.105). One would not need to look very far for contemporary equivalents nor be surprised by his explanation for what finally brings about his downfall: in a word “stupidity”; as he says, “If it is not one’s own, it is the stupidity of others” (p.152). In his final communication with Latimer, Marukakis is describing political tensions between his country Bulgaria and Yugoslavia which seem to him utterly absurd but, because of the stream of propaganda, could lead to war. ”If such things were not so dangerous one would laugh,” he says. “But one recognizes the technique. Such propaganda always begins with words, but soon it proceeds to deeds. When there are no facts to support lies, facts must be made.” (.155) For me, that last sentence is redolent of the politics of 2021, never mind 1939.
Although Ambler’s post-war novels do not achieve the same level of literary eminence as Greene’s, they are still well worth investigating, not least because of their Greene connections. There is an explicit reference to The Quiet American in Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959) when a guide says to the hero, an American engineer Greg Nilsen, “Now I show you where Quiet American makes bomb explosion” (p.628) and is not to be dissuaded even when it is pointed out to him that Greene was writing a work of fiction not fact. In his fine critical study of Ambler, Peter Lewis has pointed out more parallels between the two novelists, as, for example, in a later novel like Ambler’s Doctor Frigo (1974), which reminds Lewis of The Honorary Consul (1973) in terms of setting and seems to anticipate The Human Factor (1978) in terms of theme. Ambler’s droll essay ‘Spy-Haunts of the World’, Which includes a list of ten questions which could help one identify a spy, would make an amiable companion piece to Our Man in Havana.[xviii] My impression is that they never saw each other as rivals so much as literary practitioners working within a tradition laid down by John Buchan and later pursued by writers such as John le Carré and Len Deighton, and which they pursued in their own distinctive and individual ways.
Reviewing Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) in the Washington Post, the critic JW Anderson wrote that “Ambler deserves to be considered a major novelist by any standard; had he chosen another subject [i.e. something other than the thriller], he would no doubt have been installed long since in the required reading lists for college English majors.”[xix] As David Lodge pointed out in his Foreword to the collection of essays, Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, the same situation seemed until recently to have been true of Graham Greene, who, though widely read, was rarely considered to be of sufficient stature to figure on the syllabus of a University English Department: too accessible perhaps, and working in a popular genre that was not quite academically respectable. [xx] A Festival in celebration of his work, that is still going strong after more than twenty years and has attracted leading scholars from all over the globe, has knocked that perception of Greene’s literary status on the head. Has a similar commemoration been created for Eric Ambler? I don’t know, but I would like to think so; and a festival devoted to his masterpiece The Mask of Dimitrios would be a thrilling place to start.
[i] Quoted in Gavin Lambert’s The Dangerous Edge Barrie & Jenkins Ltd., 1975, p.121.
[ii] I elaborate on this comparison in my chapter ‘Poets of Criminality and Conscience: Greene and Hitchcock’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 96-108; and in ‘The Strange Case of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock’ in Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2004, pp. 44-48.
[iii] For a full account of the incident, see Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie, Simon & Shuster, 2005, p.233. Hitchcock had arranged an elaborate reception for the married couple at Chasen’s, which featured an 18-course dinner, with food flown in from all corners of the world and drinks to accompany every course. By the time he was due to deliver his best man’s speech, Hitchcock seemed thoroughly inebriated, swaying from side to side, almost falling over, and speaking incoherently, to the embarrassment of the guests. Suddenly at the very end of the speech, he stood up straight, looked at the audience, and said in perfectly spoken English without a hint of having had a drop to drink, “I do hope they’ll be very happy.” In this context, it might be remembered that another thing Greene and Hitchcock had in common was a fondness for practical jokes.
[iv] Ambler, Here Lies, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985, p.18.
[v] Greene, Collected Essays, Penguin, 1970, p.17.
[vi] Lambert, p.116.
[vii] The Ability to Kill, Bodley Head, 1963, p.128.
[viii] For an elaboration of this idea, see my chapter ‘The Green Baize Door’ in Graham Greene: A Literary Life, pp.86-95.
[ix] Quoted in Lambert, p.119.
[x] Cited in Valentine Cunningham’s British Writers of the Thirties, Oxford University Press, 1989, p.75.
[xi] Cited in Peter Lewis’s Eric Ambler: A Literary Biography, Continuum, 1990, p.50.
[xii] Ability to Kill, p.199.
[xiii] Ibid, p.179.
[xiv] Ibid, p.187.
[xv] Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader edited by David Parkinson, 1993 ,p.445.
[xvi] As a counter to Greene’s opinion, it is perhaps worth mentioning that John Ford told Peter Bogdanovich that The Fugitive had “come out the way I wanted” and was “one of my favourite pictures- to me, it was perfect.” (John Ford, Studio Vista, 1967, p.85) Worth recommending also, for a more balanced assessment than Greene’s, is Andrei Gorzo’s perceptive and judicious analysis of Mankiewicz’s film of The Quiet American in A Sort of Newsletter, February 2021, pp.2-7.
[xvii] All quotations from The Mask of Dimitrios are taken from the Omnibus edition of Ambler’s novels, published by Heinemann/Octopus, 1978.
[xviii] Reproduced in The Ability to Kill, pp.139-56.
[xix][xix] Quoted in Lewis, p.248.
[xx] See Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene, edited by Dermot Gilvary and Darren J Middleton, Continuum, 2011, p.xiii.
[Graham Greene once wrote that he considered R.K.Narayan to be ‘one of the best novelists now writing in English’. Greene championed the Indian writer’s career from the 1930s onwards firstly by getting him known and appreciated in the West and later by editing his work. He told A.S. Frere, ‘I go over all his scripts ironing out a few little awkwardnesses of English’.
In the essay below, Zoeb Matin draws interesting comparisons between Narayan’s novel The Man Eater of Malgudi and Greene’s The Quiet American.]
An Indian Shade Of Greene: R. K Narayan’s The Man-Eater Of Malgudi
It comes as no surprise to anyone well-versed with the work of Graham Greene as well as his long-time friend and correspondent R. K Narayan that both these deft storytellers would end up inspiring and being inspired by each other. There are distinct differences in tone, choice of subjects and prose style to be found in their respective output and yet, at the same time, there is also a clearly distinguishable layer of similarity to be discovered. At heart, Greene was as much occupied with a yearning for innocence in his stories as much as Narayan’s tales revelled in it. Characters in the latter’s work are the complete and emotionally redeemed counter parts of Greene’s anti-heroic protagonists who have lost their way due to their inherent failings and tendency for sin. The titular protagonist of The Guide finds, eventually, the absolution that his damned but still human soul yearns. In contrast, the forcefully God-hating Querry in A Burnt-Out Case never attains the anonymous solace that his disillusioned and even guilty soul searches for and almost discovers in the physical and spiritual wilderness of Congo.
Conversely, one can also agree that Greene’s novels offer to the reader the unmistakable sense of an intellectually fulfilling closure, which Narayan’s novels and stories resist from consciously. Notable instances of this open-endedness can be found in the ending of Swami And Friends, as Swami deceives himself with the hope that his best friend Rajam will return someday, in the sceptical final lines of the story Fellow Feeling as the unexpectedly quixotic Rajam Iyer exaggerates the effect of his own cocksure ousting of the bullying “newcomer” from his train compartment. Greene’s characters frequently find themselves stumbling on some accidental self-exoneration or self-damnation, steered to these destinies by forces and circumstances beyond their control but Narayan’s characters resort to self-deception almost instinctively.
Nevertheless, much of Greene’s work, particularly from the late 1940s onward, starting with The Heart Of The Matter, concludes with that same ambiguity and doubt that marks so much of his peer’s writing. It can be assumed quite safely that the moral complexities of the post-war period as well the intensifying conundrums of his own personal life had led him to question and argue even further with the fixed realities of the world and the human condition as he knew it. In The Comedians, Brown finds himself wondering as to what a free-wheeling man like Jones could sacrifice his life, in the alienating landscape of Haiti where all noble causes wither in the sweltering heat, while in The Captain And The Enemy, the purpose and identity of the titular character and his Quixotism remains elusive to interpretation. This self-questioning ambiguity is found well-entrenched throughout Narayan’s works too – especially in his short stories which, as mentioned before, frequently end with his readers wondering as to what caused or moved a certain character to behave in this particular way or how could a miracle occur against every conceivable odd.
And so, going by that measure, one finds the echoes of The Quiet American in Narayan’s 1961 novel The Man-Eater Of Malgudi. I emphasise again the superficial differences in the plot and narrative context of both the works. The former is what we would call a geopolitical novel of love, loss and intrigue set against the backdrop of the inevitable collapse of French colonialism in Indo-China and the new contention between the world’s superpowers to seize it as an outpost for their respective ideologies. The latter, on the other hand, is something simpler and more humdrum – a tale set in a pastoral South Indian town and concerning a congenial man who finds his calm existence disturbed by the arrival of a bullying stranger whose penchant for pugnacity is inexhaustible.
But just as Narayan lends this simple story with the weight of a moral parable, drawing on his rich knowledge of Indian mythology and folklore, Greene himself pares down what could have been a weighty deconstruction of the political scenario of Indochina into something intimate, crafting instead a parable of an aging man finding a refuge against the disillusionment of his life in this exotic country and finding this very refuge threatened by the arrival of a newcomer whose secret weapon of destruction is his earnest innocence.
And so, we have here a striking similarity between the two novels. Both the jaded English correspondent Fowler and the simple, even unspectacular printer Nataraj are trying, at one level, to preserve, as long as they can, the blissfully unchanging scene of their present existence. Fowler’s interest in defending it is also romantic. He is in love with Phuong, a vivacious Vietnamese woman whom he cannot bear to leave, even as he would have to, one day, when his tenure as a reporter for his newspaper expires. Nataraj, on the other hand, is more simply concerned with leading a normal, unhurried existence in Malgudi, set to the same languid rhythm of this little town and unbroken by any violent disruption.
“Of course, it would be agreeable to feel her thigh beside me in the bed – she always slept on her back, and when I woke in the morning, I could start the day with a pipe instead of with my own company.” – The Quiet American
“Life in Market Road went on normally. It was good to watch again the jutkas and cycles going round the fountain and the idlers of our town sitting on its parapet and spitting into it. It produced in me a great feeling of security and stability.” – The Man-Eater Of Malgudi
But what is also crucial to understand here is how both these men, albeit belonging to completely different cultural landscapes, are also far from being admirable heroes on their own. Fowler’s newfound romance with Phuong is a refuge for his escape from his failed marriage back in England while Nataraj’s almost unshakeable resistance to change is merely an attempt to disguise his own lack of imagination and business ability.
“I was considered a fool for not getting my money’s worth out of it, since all the space I need for my press and its personnel was at the back, beyond the blue curtain. But I could not explain myself to sordid and calculating people.” – The Man-Eater Of Malgudi
“I wanted to keep the sight of those silk-trousered figures moving with grace through the humid noon. I wanted Phuong, and my home had shifted its ground eight thousand miles.” – The Quiet American
What can be said about the new entrants in the meticulously built but fragile worlds of both these men? On one hand, we have the titular American, Alden Pyle, a young, fresh-faced, idealistic propagator of democracy who calmly but naively sneaks into this foreign country only for the sake for furthering the cause of a Third Force, representing his own nation, as a solution to this inexplicable post-colonial muddle.
“Perhaps I should have seen that fanatic gleam, the quick response to a phrase, the magic sound of figures; Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day. I might have saved all of us a lot of trouble, even Pyle, if I had realized the direction of that indefatigable young brain.” – The Quiet American
On the other hand, we have the domineering, thick-headed Vasu, the archetype small-town bully, who storms his way into Nataraj’s hitherto peaceful, even uneventful existence by sheer brute force, inconsiderate and even ignorant of the consequences of his arrogance. He throws his weight around recklessly and thus alienates all his fellow mortals, starkly unlike his American counterpart who also carries with him an affecting schoolboy innocence and impregnably idealistic intentions that almost make him endearing despite being uncannily aware that his good intentions can lead to disaster.
“He gave me a hard grip. My entire hand disappeared into his fist – he was a huge man, about six feet tall. He looked quite slim but his bull-neck and hammer-fist revealed his true stature.” – The Man-Eater Of Malgudi
Greene modelled Pyle on the many similarly earnest crusaders from America who were propagating the idea of this Third Force and also sneakily trying to get it implemented, with terrible consequences, paving the way for the onset of the devastating Vietnam War itself. Narayan resorted to Indian mythology to sculpt Vasu who is most clearly a monster without any of that meticulous moral greyness. The writer draws a parallel between Vasu’s blunt pugnacity and the similarly inherent destructive instinct of the mythical monster Bhasmasura who could turn everything that his hands would touch into ashes. The allegory that he creates here is astute and resonant, just as deftly accomplished as Greene’s incisive and objective query into just how much one can believe and just how much can one commit to a belief to the detriment of everyone else.
“‘I guess you’re just trying to be tough,’ Pyle said. ‘There’s something you must believe in. Nobody can go on living without some belief.’
‘Oh, I’m not a Berkeleian. I believe my back’s against this wall. I believe there’s a sten gun over there.’
‘I didn’t mean that.’
‘I believe what I report, which is more than most of your correspondents do.’”
But there is one more quality apart from these similarities that unites these two works, from East and West and that is frequently overlooked in both these novels. That is, of that unlikely, almost concealed sense of camaraderie that exists between these men. This is to be found in a greater, more noticeable degree in The Quiet American. Fowler and Pyle might be both romantic rivals and polar opposites in their opinion on the conflict at hand but the older Englishman still finds in the younger, wet-behind-the-ears American nothing less than an idealistic version of his own youth that has now been eroded by his jaded cynicism. More than once, he is compelled to reconsider and even temper his instinctive dislike for Pyle and more than once, the latter himself proves to be both resourceful and indispensable as a friend to the Englishman, on one occasion even saving his life from certain death. Vasu of Narayan’s novel does not possess any of these subtleties, which is a minor niggle, as we never come to sense anything even perversely purposeful or artistic about his profession or even his reckless ambition but Nataraj is endowed with the same odd fellow-feeling as Fowler and at one point, he is even willing and eager to resolve the conflict and form a genuine friendship with his bully.
Here is Fowler questioning his own distrust of Pyle in The Quiet American:
“All the time that his innocence had angered me, some judge within myself had summed up in his favour, had compared his idealism…with my cynicism. Oh, I was right about the facts, but wasn’t he right too to be young and mistaken?”
And here is Nataraj musing if there could be any possibility of a friendship with the bullying Vasu:
“I was beginning to miss his rough company. I often speculated if there could be some way of telling him that all was well, that he should not give another thought to what had happened between us, that he could stay in my house as long as he pleased…”
At the end of The Man-Eater Of Malgudi, Narayan presents a convincing reason for just how Vasu could have self-destructed, referring explicitly to how Bhasmasura had self-destructed himself. The monster, entranced by the beauty of Mohini, the feminine avatar of the deity Lord Vishnu and her dancing moves which he had tried to match step by step, ended up touching his own head with his incendiary hands, thus burning himself to ashes. Greene’s own conclusion to The Quiet American, however, is enigmatic and leaves one wondering – is Fowler right in lending a hand in thwarting the advances of this quiet American into bringing the Third Force with its blood-splattered consequences into Indo-China? Can Fowler be exonerated anymore, now that he has just done the one thing that he had always refrained from doing – taking a side? And is he any different from Pyle now that he too believed, no matter how reluctantly, that his intervention can save his country? Can Nataraj, on the other hand, also find any respite from the removal of Vasu’s bullying ways from his modest, even mundane existence, or have the monster’s hands again left behind a trail of destruction now Nataraj has lost all his friends in one swift stroke?
It is to the credit of both these storytellers’ gift for self-reflection that even as both these novels end up restoring at least some of the peace and hope that their protagonists had yearned for, these questions and thoughts linger in our minds and compel us to question what we desire and what we believe in our lives.