The purpose of the Current Research page is to highlight ongoing research into the life and works of Graham Greene and his contemporaries as well as to give notice of relevant exhibitions and lectures. If you are engaged in study of this kind in a professional capacity, as a doctoral or post-graduate student, or for any other reason, please do get in touch.
[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.
[The following passage provides a brief synopsis of current doctoral student Lucas Townsend’s proposed dissertation on writers’ Ian Fleming and Graham Greene.]
Ian Fleming and Graham Greene: Intermodernist Agents, Violent Memories, and Everyday Objects
This dissertation brings together contradictory thriller novelists Ian Fleming and Graham Greene for a timely re-evaluation of their work; sufficiently insightful psycho-historical criticism is currently lacking, especially in light of the frequent everyday violence of a twenty-first century still greatly affected by the memories of a destructive twentieth-century. By asking why Fleming and Greene, in spite of their polar differences, approach memory together in similarly violent and object-oriented way, new insights into the cultural consciousness of intermodernist Britain (approximately 1930-1960) will be uncovered during the course of this project.
Fleming’s and Greene’s novels erupt with violent, memorialized images of war, death, and dictatorships in the midst of otherwise quotidian digressions on card-playing, dry cleaning, cigarette preferences, and transatlantic flights. Given the war-torn path taken by the twentieth-century, Fleming and Greene demonstrate that the psychological recovery process of the post-war periods has yet to run its course, especially when characters as disparate as savoir faire spy James Bond and impoverished gangster Pinkie Brown can find common ground in their attempts to repress, outlive, or destroy their similarly traumatic memories.
The dissertation’s four primary chapters will analyze different manifestations of Pierre Nora’s “sites of memory,” or the specific persons, places, or objects that memories center around in Fleming’s and Greene’s thrillers. Chapter One discusses the resurgence of dead persons as “spectres” that return to haunt their characters (e.g., Moonraker, The Third Man). Chapter Two argues the human senses—particularly taste and sound—are used to simultaneously repress and relive painful memories (e.g., Diamonds Are Forever, The End of the Affair). Chapter Three identifies that recreational time in the novels works to associate memory with object-oriented leisure rather than violence (e.g., Goldfinger, The Quiet American). Chapter Four interprets the obsession with “saving the world” as an allegory for preventing suffering in smaller communities (e.g., Thunderball, Brighton Rock). ”
Monsignor Quixote: The Knight Errant of Friendship & Tolerance
Quixotic is an all-too-familiar word in the lexicon of Greeneland. From the whiskey priest of The Power And The Glory who, despite his fear for incarceration and death, plods on, driven by some faint sense of heroism, and keeps on doling out spiritual redemption, the ageing, far-from-efficient but still determined initialled spy of The Confidential Agent, from the outwardly cynical Doctor Eduardo Plarr of the The Honorary Consul going out unreasonably on a limb to save the very man whose wife is his lover, from certain death, to the enigmatic Captain of The Captain And The Enemy doing his last foolhardy bid to help the Sandinistas against Somoza, the writer’s most memorable characters have resorted to a form of chivalrous, even melodramatic quixotic bravery that has thus ushered in an unmistakable sense of dignity to their otherwise crooked and doomed souls.
And so, it seems only natural that Greene would have thought of adapting Don Quixote, Cervantes’ celebrated picaresque classic that, among other things, first gave birth to the word and concept of Quixotism as we know it. Indeed, the titular character, an aging but still helplessly romantic nobleman, can be considered as an inspiration, not only for the wandering, reckless, irreverent heroes of many a picaresque novel that would follow, but also for the afore-mentioned characters from Greene’s novels. Like him, they all nurse and nurture a naïve but nevertheless heroic sense of idealism that impels them towards certain doom but also a brief but memorable moment of glory. However, even with the writer’s penchant for creating the flawed, ignoble, helplessly delusional protagonist, it would have been an uphill climb for him to bring a contemporary resonance to a literary accomplishment more than four centuries old.
An uphill climb, for a writer as skilled and dexterous as Greene, however, also represents a unique challenge and also a fascinating creative detour from his usual incendiary template of political intrigue, espionage, adultery and religion. The result, Monsignor Quixote, is something expectedly mellow and modest, inspired more by the piquant pastoral humour of the Don Camillio tales and less by the wicked English wit that was found in spades in Travels with My Aunt. And yet, what distinguishes it, apart from the leisurely, almost languid pacing and the seemingly loose, jaunty plotting, is that it is more profound and resonant than those entertaining works, and in the most unexpected ways.
“…Father Quixote realised with his nose that the bishop had left behind him for a brief instant an agreeable smell compounded of young wine, of cognac, and of manchegan cheese, which before it dispersed a stranger might well have mistaken for an exotic incense.”
Like his namesake, Father Quixote, too, is something of a naïve, romantic dreamer. Content with his simple, earthy life as a parish priest in El Toboso, he unwittingly earns the favour of an affably rich Italian Bishop when he welcomes the latter to his modest home and treats him to a congenial feast of horse-meat steak and manchegan wine.
Not too favourably looked upon by his own church elders, poor Father Quixote is nevertheless genuinely befuddled when he is recommended to the post of Monsignor, much to his own bishop’s chagrin. He is accordingly advised to take a holiday from his duties. And equipped with his unlikely Rocinante – a battered and beloved old Seat 400 – all that this Quixote – still without a romantic quest – now needs is his Sancho. The said companion on his journey turns out to be also the most unlikely of friends – Enrique Zancas, the recently deposed Mayor of El Toboso, who, too, due to his newfound disillusionment with the election results, would do with a holiday to calm the disillusionment in his soul.
“It’s odd, he thought, as he steered Rocinante with undue caution round a curve, how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith.”
The two men, theoretically speaking thus, are opposites in faith – one is a Catholic priest and the other is a Communist politician – but they are closely knit together as companions because of their shared doubts and questions about their own respective beliefs. And this is how their road trip across the breadth of post-Franco Spain unravels as – a lively discussion, discourse and even candid debate about the resounding convictions and inevitable pratfalls of both Catholicism and Communism in the contemporary world and, also in consequence, a leisurely journey marked with a celebration of pleasant, even hedonistic sensations.
“He was interrupted by the sucking-pig – indeed, for a while there was no opportunity to speak except by signs which could hardly have been misinterpreted by any secret policeman; for example, the raising of a fork in honour of the Marques de Murrieta.”
It is perhaps this casual, though always compelling, tenor of Monsignor Quixote that has befuddled some of Greene’s admirers and critics, accustomed as they are to his lean, clinical prose and tightly wound plotting. The most common complaint that I have found about the book is that it is almost “plot-less” and “flat” but while one can agree on the novel having a loose, almost unhinged structure, one would be advised to look deeper than the deliberately picaresque surface and discover that the book’s wisdom and ingenuity lie in its very subtlety and mellowness, allowing a greater depth of character development and emotional and spiritual resonance to seep into the pages.
“‘I know I am a poor priest errant, travelling God knows where. I know that there are some absurdities in some of my own books as there were in the books of chivalry my ancestor collected. That didn’t mean that all chivalry was absurd.’”
What propels the book magnificently, as it did in Don Quixote, is the brilliantly pitched, witty and also wise repartee between its primary leads and travelling companions. There is something beautifully innocent in Father Quixote’s sincere, sometimes painfully affectionate, belief in his chosen faith and Greene expertly equates this belief to Quixotism – the journey serves as a probing quest for this well-meaning, unassuming man of the Church to find some answers to his innocent queries about the more ambiguous facets of Christianity, just as it served, for his eponymous “ancestor”, as a test of reality for his romantic ideals of chivalry. Both men had picked up their beliefs and ideas from the books they read and it is their respective journeys out beyond their hamlets that reveals, unexpectedly, just how their beliefs would fare in the real world.
“‘What does it matter? The taste of cheese will not be affected by cross or hammer. Besides, is there much difference between two? They are both protests against injustice.’”
On the other hand, Zancas has all of Panza’s flair for wise-cracking wit and also all the warm, generous affability in his friendship with Quixote. But while his literary ancestor was merely content to follow his comrade’s fantastical whims till the end, the present-day Sancho is one, true to his difference of faith, uses his dazzling gift of wit to contradict and even challenge his partner-in-doubt’s impassioned romantic idealism. And thus, the trip is less concerned with its obligatory share of thrills, spills, discoveries and misadventures, even as Greene skilfully fills in them in whimsical, even lightly dangerous ways. It is more about these men’s hardened beliefs thawing in the sun and shade of the idyllic countryside and giving way to a cartwheeling conversation about not only Catholicism and Communism but also about their triumphs and failures, their virtues and flaws and how these form and shape these men’s respective beliefs and doubts in these ideas.
One of the writer’s favourite travel books of all time was William Somerset Maugham’s Don Fernando, a succinct and sublime summing up of Spain’s Golden Age of art, literature, culture and cuisine. Greene’s heartfelt affection for the country’s quaint and rustic charm is to be found in Monsignor Quixote in the most minute and yet most revealing vignettes; in his effusive introduction to the novel, Henry Shukman points out the writer’s fear for an overly descriptive style and yet that would be to overlook, among the fascinating interplay between the characters, the writer’s equally precise gift of rendering little, vivid scenes when the local flavour seeps in and lends a heady thrill to the reader’s senses.
“The night was beginning to turn from cool to cold, but the wine still warmed them, and Father Quixote had no desire to hasten towards the city he disliked and to breathe the fumes of the lorries, which continued to pass along the road in a chain of headlights.”
So, one can ‘lick one’s chops’ at how Quixote and Panza hold forth their opinions, lounging in the breeze of the grassy plains, while skinning sausages, slicing cheese and swilling generous quantities of wine. One is equally mesmerised as they are silenced, temporarily, by the feast of sucking pig in an expensive restaurant in Madrid. There are even more beautifully observed little details that lend the story the unmistakable stamp of happening in a particular place at a particular point of time in the past and yet the beauty, as always with Greene’s prose, is that they never take away the pleasure of following our characters on their trails across the landscape; they only enhance the sense of adventure and make us long to follow those trails ourselves.
“‘The Guardia revolve with every wind. They were there with the Generalissimo. They are there now. If my party came to power, they would still be there, turning with the wind from the East.’”
What further brings more realism and prescience to this seemingly quaint and wonderfully laid-back style of the novel is Greene’s astute awareness of the world around him and his characters. Monsignor Quixote is set after the death of Generalissimo Franco, a time of relative respite from tyranny and yet, there is always a sense of paranoia and unease, even in the gentle breeze and sunlight that Greene showers over his pair on their loopy tour across the countryside. One of the other brilliant parallels to the source is how the omnipresent Guardia Civil are Greene’s metaphoric equivalents of those windmills against whom Quixote was always pitted in a suicidal mission; in one surreal comic scene, one of the Guardia is described as waving his hands like a windmill when talking to his superior. The Mayor himself is hinted as a victim of a political conspiracy and the Guardia themselves are not merely for hilarity but are an actual threat of brutal law and order in this otherwise pastoral and gentle landscape.
While these elements do thicken the plot, they never break the languid, easy-going, affable rhythm that the novel accomplishes with such consummate ease. The humour is razor-sharp but piquant, the characters are rendered with believable strokes of earnest piety, genuine bewilderment and tender kindness, and the portrait of Spain, embellished with little nuances and vivid scenes flowing organically, only vindicates the vital unchanging nature of the country.
“Why is it that the hate of man – even of a man like Franco – dies with his death and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue? And to what end?”
More than four decades before Monsignor Quixote, Greene had pitted together a Communist lieutenant and his quarry, a Catholic whisky priest who had been trying his best to do little acts of grace even when on the run across the savage, relentless Mexico of the 1930s. A little before his execution in broad daylight, the whiskey priest and the atheistic lieutenant had found some time to talk and argue about their respective faiths. This novel, in every sense a lighter, more upbeat and genial counterpart to the haunting intensity of The Power And The Glory, brings those two men, on opposite sides of the wall of belief that divides them, together in a comradeship of doubt unlike any other, a friendship that proves that no belief, either in a deity or a dictator, is greater than the hope and warmth found in love and friendship.
THE BATTLE OVER THE QUIET AMERICAN
Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American was published in late 1955 in the U.K. and in early 1956 in the U.S. It was set in Vietnam in 1952. It was based on the British author’s first-hand journalistic knowledge of the place. And it dramatized the mounting American involvement – economic, military, diplomatic – in what was still in the early 50s a French colonial war. It was widely perceived – in the U.S., but also in the Soviet bloc – as anti-American and somewhat pro-Communist. Fêted in Pravda, adapted for the stage in Moscow, translated all over the Eastern bloc, it made Greene welcome there and put him on his late-career orbit as a politically progressive globe-trotting celebrity-writer. It was also made into a 1958 Hollywood film, by leading writer-director, and Hollywood intellectual, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, an adaptation which was and remains unusual in being a critique of its source novel and ultimately an all-out attack on its author. Mankiewicz’s film remains firmly locked in its era, a fascinating Cold War artifact, while Greene’s novel, of course, kept its relevance for the next two decades – when it was recognized as an Ur-text of Vietnam War studies, hostilely giving mythical and prescient form to American interventionism – and way beyond them. The whole Quiet American story makes for a revealing bit of Cold War history, one that bears retelling.
What were Greene’s politics at the time when he arrived in Vietnam? He was certainly not yet anti-colonial or ready to sympathize with the Vietminh – the Communist side of the conflict. By birth (1904) he belonged to the Edwardian era and to the administrative class of the British Empire. Writing about the Greene of the 1930s, film scholar James Naremore has described him as a “radical leftist” in political terms, “outraged by social injustice”, and at the same time a “radical conservative” in cultural and religious terms. He had converted to Catholicism in the 1920s. The “radical leftist” part may be a bit overstated. In any case, writing in 1949 about the leftist elements in Greene’s fiction, George Orwell had described them in terms which implied that they were somewhat generic: “If you look at his books like A Gun for Sale , England Made Me , The Confidential Agent  and others, you will see that there is the usual left-wing scenery. The bad men are millionaires, armaments manufacturers, etc., and the good man is sometimes a Communist.” As for Greene’s conservatism, which Naremore traces to the influence of T. S. Eliot, one of its manifestations is distaste, vividly expressed, for secular modernity, a modernity whose 1930’s faces included for Greene both the U.S. and the anticlerical Marxist regime in Mexico. A man of contradictions, this hater of secular modernity was also, during the 1920s and 1930s, a dedicated lover of cinema – between 1935 and 1939 he had a remarkable stint as a film reviewer. As a matter of fact, it is a film review from 1937, for James Whale’s film No Way Back, that contains his first memorable ‘rant’ about “the eternal adolescence of the American mind, to which literature means the poetry of Longfellow and morality means keeping Mother’s Day and looking after the kid sister’s purity”. And the rant concludes: “What use in pretending that with these allies it was ever possible to fight [in World War I] for civilization? For Mother’s Day, yes, and anti-vivisection and humanitarianism, the pet dog and the home fire, for the co-ed college and the campus. Civilization would shock them: eyes on the guide-book for safety, they pass it quickly as if it were a nude in a national collection.”
Be that as it may, the early postwar years saw Greene taste American success – Hollywood success as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for The Fallen Idol and Time-cover success as a best-selling novelist. The Time cover-story on him hailed him as “the new Dostoevsky”. He actually came to Vietnam, in November 1951, on assignment from another mass-market American magazine, Life, after having covered for them, in satisfactorily anti-Communist terms, an anti-colonial insurgency in British Malaya. However, this state of affairs was soon to change.
In 1952, Graham Greene was temporarily denied a U.S. visa (he was travelling there from Vietnam). The reason? His having been a member of the British Communist Party, for a very short time, in the 1920s. Greene himself had told Time Magazine about that episode. Around the same time, Life rejected his Vietnam piece, ostensibly for expressing some admiration for the Vietminh and expressing some doubt that they could be stopped. This despite the fact that, in other aspects, Greene’s article, eventually published in Paris Match, took a conventional Cold War line – for example, it accepted the “domino theory” according to which a Communist takeover of Vietnam would lead to a Communist takeover of the entire region. And the occasional sympathy for the Vietminh was more than balanced by the sustained sympathy shown to the French military and to French colonialism in general. Greene would later repudiate all sympathy for colonialism, but in his 1955 novel, which he began writing in 1952, it still makes itself felt, albeit in a fairly muted way, compared to the Paris Match article.
The Quiet American is a tale of three empires. There are the French, who are on their way out of Vietnam. There are the Americans, preparing to take over. And there are the British, who, as represented by the novel’s journalist-narrator, act as if they’re above it all – ruefully wise, with nothing at stake in this conflict, without any imperial ambitions left for themselves. This middle-aged Englishman, named Fowler, initially prides himself with his political neutrality and presents himself as someone without illusions. As a war correspondent he is competent, but devoid of ambition – he just wants to stay in Saigon with his very young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong with whom he’s been living for two years, and his opium pipe. In the course of the several consecutive winters spent in Vietnam, beginning with the one of 1951-52, Greene had also developed a taste for opium. He dreads being recalled to London even if that would mean a promotion. One evening in Hanoi, playing quatre-vingt-et-un with a French officer in the colonial police, he reflects: “It seemed impossible to me that I could ever have a life again, away from the Rue Gambetta [in Hanoi] and the Rue Catinat [in Saigon], the flat taste of vermouth cassis, the homely click of dice, and the gunfire travelling like a clock-hand around the horizon.” A colonial parasite in his own right, feeding off Vietnam, he combines a weary hedonism with an indifference to his own life that borders on death-wish.
Into Fowler’s life comes a young American called Alden Pyle. As Fowler recognizes, he is another type of American abroad than the big, boisterous, boorish type. The latter type, for which the phrase “ugly American” had not yet been coined at the time, is represented in the novel by an American journalist called Granger. An employee of the U.S. Economic Aid Mission, which means he is working for the CIA, Pyle is Harvard-educated, virginally earnest, possessed of a crusader’s zeal. An idealistic cold warrior, he’s in thrall of the writing of a fictional political theorist called York Harding – works with titles like The Role of the West, The Challenge to Democracy and The Advance of Red China. Inspired by Harding, he raves about the American duty to bring democracy to Vietnam by building up a local “Third Force”, both anti-Communist and anti-French: a convincingly nationalistic Vietnamese leader/army/party which/who could be relied upon to serve as a bulwark against Communism after the inevitable departure of the French, while, of course, remaining favorably disposed towards U.S. interests. Not inclined to lose time, Pyle quickly finds a candidate for this role: General Trinh Minh Thé, a character with a real historical existence, an ex-leader of the twenty-five thousand men private army employed by the Caodai religious sect, who at the time when the novel is set had recently taken to the hills with two thousand soldiers, declaring his intention of fighting both the French and the Vietminh. When General Thé detonates in a Saigon square some explosives provided by Pyle, killing innocent civilians (the attack is blamed on the Vietminh), the cynical Englishman, shocked out of his jadedness, confronts the sincere American. Pyle defends himself by invoking the inevitability of collateral damage. Fowler eventually lends a helping hand to the Vietminh in the elimination of the young CIA agent. His progress from neutrality to commitment is approved by the Vietminh organizer, Mr. Heng, in these terms: “Sooner or later one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.” On the other hand, when turning Pyle over to the Vietminh agents, Fowler acts as if in a daze and he is obviously in a very muddled state of mind: besides always treating him like a friend, Pyle had recently saved his life and simultaneously wooed Phuong away from him.
A self-confessed disciple of Henry James, Graham Greene was, at one level, working out new spins on a Jamesian theme: the contest between Old World experience and New World innocence. He continuously contrasts Fowler’s knowingness, deviousness, and depravity, always connoted as “European”, with Pyle’s boy-scout simplicities (for example, he undertakes a dangerous journey in order to solemnly inform Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong: chivalrous in a childish way, he doesn’t want to woo her behind Fowler’s back), construed as “American”. Fowler’s narration is not all sneering, though: it is artfully sprinkled with spots of envy and at times it locates a certain dignity in Pyle. An irony much seized upon in 1956 by hostile American reviewers of the novel is that Fowler’s hardboiled-journalist narrative manner is itself belonging to an American literary and cinematic tradition – not that of Henry James, but that of Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart.
At another level, Greene, who was celebrated at the time as an unconventionally religious writer, was engaged in a bit of subversion of the concept of “innocence”. In his usage of the term, being “innocent” obviously doesn’t mean being good. It means being capable of committing monstrous acts with a good conscience. It means being – dangerously – ignorant of evil. Greene gives this ignorance a national dimension. The French are also shown as committing war crimes – terrible deeds – but they are also shown to be aware of it, aware of their evil. It is part of the superiority that their “mature” colonialism seems to carry in this novel. Another part of it has to do with the fact that the French characters seem to know that they are losing the war; they act gallantly doomed. As one of them says, “we are professionals: we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop.” Whereas the Americans, as represented by Pyle, are guilty not only of crimes, but of being drunk on words like “democratization” and “modernization”; they are guilty of facile optimism (one of Pyle’s few books, beside the works of York Harding, is something called The Triumph of Life), of vulgar meliorism, of not recognizing this world as a fallen one. In the course of the novel, Fowler indulges in a fair amount of ranting against their “sterilized world”. Some of his contempt, directed as it is against things like refrigerators and air-conditioned lavatories, looks quaint nowadays, redolent of the snobbery of a certain class of Englishmen from another era. True, there are suggestions that this discourse was not meant to be taken at face value. Writes Fowler: “[When Phuong left me for Pyle] I began – almost subconsciously – to run down everything that was American. […] I became a bore on the subject of America, even with my French friends who were ready to share my antipathies.” But there are not nearly enough passages built to accommodate this kind of critical distance, to problematize the narrator’s anti-Americanism.
Fowler’s and Pyle’s views clash in a famous scene in which they find themselves trapped together for a night in a watchtower that could be attacked any minute by the Vietminh. As Frederick Logevall has remarked in his history of the Indochina wars, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, in which he writes at length about Greene’s novel, “generations of college students have debated [this scene]”. When Pyle starts parroting the mantra of the “domino theory”, which Greene had also parroted in his early Life/ Paris Match article about the war, Fowler interrupts him abruptly. To the American’s paranoid vision of Communist contamination he opposes a – no less clichéd – pastoral of the unchanging East: “[I]n five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to the market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The boys will be sitting on the buffaloes.” Pointing out the condescension in Fowler’s assumption that the whole country is peasant, Pyle urges the Englishman to think about the educated Vietnamese and about the threat that Communism poses to their individuality: “They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.” And again: “Do you want everybody to be made in the same mould?” It is this kind of talk that plainly arouses Fowler’s contemptuous suspicion. “Why have we only just discovered it [the importance of the individual]?” he asks. “Forty years ago no one talked that way.”
Distinguishing between the generic French rubber planter who beats his Vietnamese labourer and a French colonial priest he had seen, “so poor he hasn’t a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic”, Fowler states a preference for old-school European colonialism over the new type of Western meddling promoted by Pyle in the name of democracy, individuality, freedom of thought, and other such abstractions. But he also says several times that basically neither the French, nor the Americans, nor the English have any business there, and even that, “we deserve to have [our throats] cut”. When Pyle asserts that the Vietnamese don’t want Communism, his – circular – answer is that they “don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want”. As for the Communist threat to individuality, Fowler remarks that, for the moment, in Vietnam, it is the Communist political commissar who’s closer to standing for the individual: it is he who is more likely to enter the hut of the paddy field labourer and, “ask his name and listen to his complaints [and] give up an hour a day to teach him – it doesn’t matter what, he’s being treated like a man, like someone of value”.
Although Fowler here is clearly working his way towards an anti-colonial position, Pyle is not wrong in noting the element of condescension in his talk of the Vietnamese. In a later scene, Fowler will reproach Pyle for being on the point of using the word “childlike” to describe the Vietnamese, but this is how he sees them – or seems to see them – himself sometimes. There are failures of racial sensitivity in Fowler’s narration (for instance, his generalization about “yellow voices”, which sing instead of speaking), and, since Greene doesn’t provide the reader in these passages with any signal of authorial distancing, it is fair to assume that he shares some of his narrator’s blind spots. With the exception of Phuong, the Vietnamese are background figures, extras in the tragedy ravaging their country. The Communists with whom Fowler eventually conspires to have Pyle stopped are phantom-like presences, stealthy, distant, out of focus. Phuong herself is only a stereotype of submissive femininity – a placid surface hiding a hard core of survivor’s instincts. Both Fowler and Greene, who in this case clearly shares his narrator’s failure, are unable to burrow beneath the stereotype – all they can do is signal their awareness. “One always spoke of [Phuong] like that in the third person, as though she were not there”, Fowler informs us, before desperately advising Pyle, when he loses her to him, not to treat her as if she were an ornament, because she’s not. It’s a pity that the novel lacks any other terms in which to describe her.
The bomb attacks which in the novel are organized by General Thé with Pyle’s help took place on January 9, 1952 (when Greene, though still in Vietnam, was absent from Saigon). Although they were claimed by Thé, which didn’t stop them being officially blamed on the Communists, there is no evidence of American involvement. This seems to be just a speculation of Graham Greene’s, shared at the time by French and British officials in Vietnam. But the truth is that, even if the Americans weren’t yet supporting Thé at the precise moment when the novel is set, or at the moment when Greene began writing it, they were soon to support him. As shown in both Logevall’s Embers of War and Jonathan Nashel’s 2005 Edward Lansdale’s Cold War, CIA counter-guerrilla expert Edward Lansdale seriously considered Thé’s potential as the leader of a Third Force – nationalistic, anti-Communist, pro-American –, exactly as Greene’s fictional Alden Pyle had envisaged it. As a matter of fact, it is widely and persistently believed that Greene modeled his “quiet American” on Lansdale, although it seems that, at least at the time when be began composing his novel, if not by the time he had finished writing it, Greene hadn’t yet met Lansdale and didn’t know of him. According to him, he had first heard of the “Third Force” scenario from a certain Leo Hochstetter – a Public Affairs director for the American Economic Aid Mission, with whom he had shared a room for one night. According to Frederick Logevall, he “almost certainly heard this line of argument [from other U.S. officials as well]”; by 1952, the need for a “Third Force” in Vietnam had even been advertised in American magazines like The New Republic.
Still, Lansdale was to be definitely connected – as an advisor – with the 1958 Hollywood adaptation – or refutation – of The Quiet American. And he is definitely portrayed, under another name, in another novel, which was also conceived as an American refutation of Greene’s criticism (it also appeared in 1958): Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American. Given the fact that the phrase “ugly American” came to define the type of American abroad who behaves like a lout, who’s totally insensitive to the foreign culture and the foreign society he’s exposed to, like the American journalist Granger in Greene’s novel, it is important to note that in Burdick’s and Lederer’s book it meant something else – something positive. As Jonathan Nashel notes, the novel is “set in dualities between ‘ugly’ Americans – that is, good citizens who are not afraid to get their hands dirty and work with peasants – and ‘beautiful’ Americans: the State Department officials who know little of the countries in which they work and alternately fear and despise those who are different from them. The Lansdale-like character in this case is the ‘ugly’ Edwin Hillandale, an American military officer who is unique among the other American bureaucrats in that he works with, listens to, and – most importantly – respects the nationalistic sentiments of Asians. In turn, the people of Sarkhan, the mythical Southeast Asian country where the novel takes place, deeply admire the ideals of the United States and intuitively fear and hate Communism.”
Jonathan Nashel also notes that, unlike Greene’s The Quiet American, Burdick’s and Lederer’s The Ugly American was widely accepted in the U.S. at the time of its publication as “responsible criticism”. It didn’t matter that, unlike Greene’s novel, it was “poorly written”, “filled with stock characters”, and with “no real plot other than anti-Communist sensationalism”. While, at a time when the murderous dimension of the American advisory effort in Vietnam, and, more generally, abroad, was not yet clearly evident at home, a lot of American reviewers felt free, as Frederick Logevall puts it, “to be dismissive of the characterizations [in Graham Greene’s novel] and to recognize nothing of themselves in Alden Pyle”.
Since Greene had started writing his novel, a number of things had happened. In 1953, the American war in Korea – which had initially made the French war in Vietnam look like an old-fashioned colonial conflict of secondary Cold War importance – had ended. 1954 saw the withdrawal of the French troops and the establishment of North Vietnam as a Communist state. Greene was to – admiringly – profile Communist leader Ho Chi Minh for the London Sunday Times in 1955. In 1955, General Thé was assassinated; it is still not clear whether the orders came from the French, from the Communists, or from the new South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem – “a staunch anti-Communist and committed nationalist” who, according to Frederick Logevall, “had lived in America and had several influential American backers”, thus making a better “Third Force” leader than Thé. (CIA’s Edward Lansdale worked closely with him.) A Prime Minister in 1954-55, Diem became president of the Republic of (South) Vietnam towards the end of 1955, just as Greene’s The Quiet American was being published in Britain. A brutal dictator, Diem was to be murdered in 1963, after a U.S.-approved coup d’état by dissident generals. But before that, for a while at least, his regime served U.S. interests in a manner that was deemed satisfactory enough. It was under him that Joseph. L. Mankiewicz was to shoot his 1958 adaptation of – and attack on – Greene’s The Quiet American, with Lansdale as a consultant. The film even ends with a dedication to Ngo Dinh Diem.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s (right) 1958 film version of The Quiet American was a polemical answer to Graham Greene’s novel – a literary adaptation as politically driven literary criticism. More than that, it was an operation meant to “correct” the novel, to replace it in the public consciousness, to neutralize it: literary adaptation as propagandistic damage control. Like another Cold War cinematic operation – the feature-length British cartoon made in 1954 by filmmakers Joy Batchelor and John Halas, from George Orwell’s Animal Farm – it “benefitted” from the CIA’s involvement in its production, even if involvement in The Quiet American was strictly advisory, not financial. The advisor was Edward Lansdale, chief of the CIA’s Saigon military mission, who later in his life would be followed by persistent rumours that he had served as Graham Greene’s real-life model for the “quiet” American in his novel, Alden Pyle. A 1956 letter from Lansdale to Mankiewicz has survived, concerning, among other things, the real-life bomb explosion of January 1952 in front of Saigon’s Continental Hotel, used by Greene in his novel as a pivotal moment. Lansdale encourages Mankiewicz to pin the attack on the Vietminh, even if in real life, as in Greene’s novel, it had been claimed by the renegade General Thé. In Greene’s novel, the bombs are also provided, through the American Economic Aid Mission, by CIA operative Pyle, who hopes to turn Thé and his army into a “Third Force”, which, backed by the U.S. and supported by the local population, would go on fighting the Communists after the departure of the French. As Lansdale reminds Mankiewicz, General Thé, who had died in 1955, while Greene was getting his novel ready for publication in Britain, “is quite a national hero for his fight against the Bing Xuyen [another independent military force]”. In fact, as Greene was writing his novel, Lansdale had seriously considered using General Thé in a very Pyle-like scenario – turning him into a U.S.-sponsored Vietnamese nationalist leader. In the meantime, he had found someone better: Ngo Dinh Diem, who was serving as President of South Vietnam when Mankiewicz came to shoot at least part of his Quiet American. (The shooting was completed at the Cinecittà Studios in Italy.) President Diem is actually turned into a – heroic – character in Mankiewicz’s film, even though he stays off-screen and he is not mentioned by name. Mankiewicz’s film also carried in its end credits a dedication to Diem, which would become embarrassing five years later, after Diem’s corrupt and brutal puppet-regime had been overthrown – once again with the blessing of the United States. Writing to President Diem himself after having seen Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American, Lansdale assured him that the film “will help win more friends for you and Vietnam. When I first mentioned this motion picture to you last year, I had read Mr. Mankiewicz’s ‘treatment’ of the story and had thought it an excellent change from Mr. Greene’s novel of despair. Mr. Mankiewicz has done much more with the picture itself, and I now feel that you will be very pleased with the reactions of those who see it.”
Played by real-life World War II hero Audie Murphy, Mankiewicz’s Alden Pyle, unlike Greene’s, does not provide General Thé with American materials for fabricating bombs. He does believe in a “Third Force”, but it is not Thé; it is “a prominent Vietnamese living in exile in New Jersey [at the time when the story is set: 1952]”. This great man, whom Pyle met and befriended while a student at Princeton, is clearly Ngo Dinh Diem, who would go on to be for a time – encompassing the shooting of the movie we are watching – President of Vietnam. Pyle does approach General Thé, but only in order to investigate whether Thé would support Diem when the latter returns to Vietnam. Moreover, this Pyle is not with the CIA; he is on his own. He does not work for the Economic Aid Mission, as he did in Greene’s novel; here he is affiliated with a charitable organization – Friends for Free Asia. He only approaches General Thé out of friendship for Diem, in whose potential as a democratic nationalist leader, capable of stopping the advance of Communism in South-East Asia, he deeply believes. He is doing this in his spare time, when he is not importing American plastic to help the local toy industry. This is the very plastic which Fowler comes to believe – because he is a dupe of the Communists, who manipulate his sexual jealousy and his prejudiced anti-Americanism – is being used to fabricate explosives.
So far, so shameless. But, shameless as it is, it is also a sophisticated work. In front of a wide audience, it dramatizes a debate – a confrontation of ideas – with Greene’s critical, “anti-American” novel, and, although the debate is rigged so that the novel and its author would be discredited, the very willingness to enter it, the assumption that a wide audience would be interested, lend it an interest and an immediacy lacking from the later, faithful adaptation of Greene’s novel – the 2002 The Quiet American (left), directed by Phillip Noyce from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan.
Mankiewicz starts by following very closely Greene’s scene-by-scene breakdown and his dialogue, while using his own facility with aphoristic repartee to sharpen Pyle’s dialogue, his comebacks to the Englishman’s caustic attacks. Working steadily to improve Pyle’s game, Mankiewicz does it in a manner that is at first discreet: in the beginning, his Pyle just holds his own in the arguments with the Englishman Fowler, which is more than the book’s Pyle ever did. A sample:
“PYLE: You haven’t answered my question yet.
FOWLER: Which? I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.
PYLE: You were saying that nothing rises from its ashes nowadays. Whether that was opinion or fact.
FOWLER: I suggest that you ask the dead: French or Communist, it doesn’t matter – their ashes can’t be told apart.
PYLE: What about the living?
FOWLER: They want not to be dead.
PYLE: Doesn’t it matter how they live?
FOWLER: If you mean does it matter whether they stay alive under French colonialism or Chinese Communism, the answer is no, it does not.”
This exchange, which occurs early in the film, is still dominated by Fowler, like all the exchanges in the book. But there is a cool, sure, sustained pressure in Pyle’s questioning of Fowler, which already signals that this quiet American, baby-faced and cowboy-voiced as he is (Mankiewicz took the tactical decision of making him a Texan – i.e., more “all-American”, less “aristocratic” than Greene’s Bostonian), is going to stand his ground.
American writer Robert Stone has described Greene’s Alden Pyle as always speaking “with a straight man’s timing”, like all the other Americans in the novel: “That is, they do not understand or respond to the witticisms offered at their expense. For them, words cast no shadows; they are deaf to irony: Pyle, Bill Granger, all of them, stand mute before Fowler’s very cinematic wisecracks. Pyle and the others refuse to be drawn, like Margaret Dumont subjected to Groucho Marx. They persistently offer their puppyish friendship (‘Do you mind if I call you Tom?’) in the face of Fowler’s insults.” Mankiewicz’s Pyle is not like that: although in the beginning he holds back, content to just hold his own against Fowler, he slowly emerges from the action as a witty, eloquent Pyle, capable of matching Fowler well-phrased barb for well-phrased barb, and, most crucially, capable of seeing through Fowler, of reading his motives, of seeing him more clearly than he sees himself. At least that is how Mankiewicz redesigned the character on paper; on screen, Audie Murphy’s delivery of his lines never makes the most of them.
Conversely, Fowler, as re-envisioned by Mankiewicz, and magnificently played by Michael Redgrave, is from the very beginning more uncomfortable in his own skin, or more obviously uncomfortable, than the book’s Fowler, who has an answer to everything. Redgrave, who is of Greene’s generation (he was born in 1908; Greene – in 1904), does upper-middle-class sarcasm and prejudiced condescension superlatively. Not only does he patronize Pyle, but he also condescends unpleasantly to his young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, in front of Pyle, congratulating her on her “longest consecutive passage [to date] in almost-English”, and ordering her about as if she were a servant. In the novel, the 20-year old Vietnamese woman’s subservience to this middle-aged Englishman is depicted with not enough critical awareness – a weakness that Mankiewicz pounces on. Crucially, Redgrave is also a master at playing neurotic weakness. The film’s mission is to cut through his Fowler’s air of superiority and to expose him; and, by exposing him, to also expose the British author who created him. The film is planned as a relentless, annihilating drubbing administered to both Fowler and his creator. Fowler starts by acting in a superior manner to everybody and ends by breaking apart. It is Pyle who starts working on him – after a while he starts winning arguments, scoring points against the Englishman. After Pyle dies, another character takes over the work of castigating and chastising Fowler and Greene: it is the French colonial policeman Vigot (Claude Dauphin), turned by Mankiewicz into a very pro-American French policeman. And Vigot, too, steps aside in the film’s final minutes, allowing Phuong herself to finish Fowler off.
All of these characters seem to have read the negative reviews which Greene’s novel had received in the U.S. “Your anti-Americanisms are pretty worn-out”, Pyle remarks to Fowler, seizing on what is also a vulnerable point in the novel in which narrator Fowler rants against things like refrigerators and air-conditioned lavatories, and Greene does little to create some critical distance around his diatribes. And Pyle adds a punch-line: “Some of them [Fowler’s anti-Americanisms] have become anti-British by now.” Indeed, the inexorable march of Americanisation is one of the film’s slyly pursued themes: even the Communist agent declares himself addicted to American chewing-gum, while the French policeman tastes, admittedly not without disgust, a Coca-Cola from Pyle’s reserve while noting admiringly that, on the other hand, Pyle – that is Mankiwicz’s Pyle, not Greene’s – listened to Debussy.
Pyle also accuses Fowler of fantasising and raving: he dismisses as “cloak-and-dagger nonsense” Fowler’s talk of how the U.S., in trying to create a local “nationalist” force, are arming rogue generals with explosives, thus financing massacres of civilians. Terms like these had also been used by American commentators to dismiss the criticism offered by Greene in his novel. At the time, the American public was not yet used to seeing U.S. involvement abroad depicted as murderous, except by the Communist enemy. The plot dreamed up by Greene seems to have struck many as malevolent and also fantastic – an opium-smoker’s evil hallucinations. He was taken to task – not always disingenuously – for irresponsibly “creating a fantasy [with a villain: the U.S.A] out of a very real historical disaster”. And these are exactly the terms in which the film’s Vigot, taking over from Pyle, chastises Fowler. When Pyle praises Fowler’s skill with words, while bemoaning his irresponsible use of them, and he does this repeatedly in the film, it is Mankiewicz speaking over him, and it is Greene – presumed to be staying behind Fowler – whom he is addressing. And what about the scene in which Pyle tauntingly suggests to the atheist Fowler that he should join the Catholic Church? “You must need some repository for the guilt and self-loathing you feel about yourself as a human being”, Pyle says. And he goes on: “Choose [a church] that would hear your sins, or at least your version of them, and give you absolution”. This speech makes scant sense, except as a cruel jab at Greene’s Catholicism – notorious at the time, but not salient in The Quiet American. As for Fowler’s mask of hard-won, world-weary wisdom, it has to be torn from his face, exposing a naïveté about the world, and also an abject fear of it, far beyond what Fowler himself had, mistakenly, thought he detected in Pyle. Once again, it is the young American who does the unmasking in Mankiewicz’s name. Staring straight into Fowler’s soul, he compares him to an adolescent boy who keeps using dirty words because “he doesn’t want anyone to think he doesn’t know what it’s all about”. And the punch-line is: “I know you’ll hate this, but I think you’re one of the most truly innocent men I’ll ever know.” Thus is Fowler – Greene’s glamorously bitter man of experience – unmanned.
And Mankiewicz’s movie is not yet done with him: he has to be criticized, by the Frenchman Vigot, for having an inadequate grasp of French, confusing the word plastique – which refers to a well-known, malleable, putty-like explosive – with American plastic. According to the film’s Vigot, it is this misunderstanding which allowed Fowler to become so easily persuaded of Pyle’s guilt – of his having smuggled into Vietnam American materials for building bombs. In a 1973 Positif interview with Michel Ciment, Mankiewicz, playing literary detective, suggested that Graham Greene’s inspiration for the plot of his novel came from the same misunderstanding: “Greene, whose French was far from perfect, had translated the French explosive ‘plastique’ as the English ‘plastics’, which in French means plastic materials. Throughout the whole book he spoke of exploding plastic materials!” Mankiewicz’s Quiet American is literary adaptation as demolition.
At the end of the novel, Fowler is left with a sense of desolation – despite having served justice in helping eliminate Pyle, and despite having got Phuong back. He is left with no one to confess to, with no peace of mind, with no redemption in sight. The film’s Fowler is left in an incomparably worse state: although he is neither killed nor imprisoned for his complicity in the American’s assassination, he is punished again and again. Phuong does not come back to him; she tells him off like everybody else. And, as he is being punished, he is being used as a stand-in for his British author.
Hollywood’s 1958 version of The Quiet American is a piece of ideological warfare in which adapting a novel is understood as engaging an enemy, as retaliating for an insult. A hostile American reviewer of the novel, New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling, had called it “a nasty little plastic bomb”. The Hollywood adaptation was a Cold War attempt to defuse it. Repulsive in a number of ways, even odious, the operation was also carried out by Joseph L. Mankiewicz with skill and gusto. An interesting historical document, it is a richer film than the politically honorable 2002 version, notwithstanding such 1950s Hollywood conventions as having Phuong played by Italian actress Giorgia Moll and her sister played by Hollywood all-purpose exotic Kerima.
The ferocity, or bad faith, with which the 1958 Quiet American – which was an act of Cold War – engaged with the enemy’s ideas lent it immediacy. The 2002 version – in which Hollywood at last makes it up to Greene – lacks any such urgency. By 2002, of course, the murderous CIA meddler abroad had become a stock character; he was no longer news – the shocking news that Greene had once brought, generating disbelief and outrage and ferocious retaliation. The 2002 Quiet American is a safely “historical” picture – and its director, Phillip Noyce, lays on thick the nostalgic-exotic trappings. It is also compressed, streamlined, with little patience for the talky, protracted confrontations of political views found in both Greene’s novel and Mankiewicz’s 1958 answer to it. And if Michael Redgrave’s Fowler was a believable upper-middle-class Englishman of Greene’s own generation, constantly projecting the world view of that age and class, its prejudices etc., Michael Caine’s 2002 version is just a generic Hollywood Englishman of our time. This Fowler doesn’t even condescend to Pyle’s Americanness; he condescends only to Pyle’s youth, and only slightly. For all his colonial entitlement to a young Vietnamese mistress and for all his willingness to play dirty in love, lying to her and to his rival, he is mostly just wise and sad, with little of the venom of Greene’s – and Redgrave’s – creation.
Redgrave was also a first-class on-screen fretter, good at smoking nervously or striking defensive poses with his hands stuck in his pockets or crossed on his chest. Maybe off-screen, too: during the 1950s, while he was appearing in anti-Communist films like The Quiet American or Michael Anderson’s 1956 adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, he was under MI5 surveillance, suspected of Communist leanings (Orwell himself had indicated him as a suspect). In 1958 – the year in which his anti-Communist version of The Quiet American had its premiere – he also toured the Soviet Union with a theatrical production of Hamlet, taking time to consort with British defector (and fellow-homosexual) Guy Burgess. A few years later, another British spy, Kim Philby, would famously defect to Moscow. Graham Greene would visit him every time he found himself in the Soviet Union. Michael Redgrave was knighted two years later and MI5 closed their file on him, which can be read online, in 1961. One of the last items in the file concerns his daughter, Vanessa Redgrave: then in her early twenties, and on her way to becoming a major actress and a radical-left spokesperson, she was fined in 1961 after participating in an anti-nuclear demonstration. The participation of Michael Redgrave, with his troubled, enigmatic biography, only enriches the historical texture of Hollywood’s 1958 version of The Quiet American.
MAKING SENSE OF GREENE’S PANAMA: A FULIGINOUS PROCESS
“Whom the gods wish to destroy,” wrote Cyril Connolly, “they first call promising” (Enemies of Promise, 109). A promising idea is in similar peril, as evident in Graham Greene’s writing about his various trips to Panama from 1976 to 1983. His “promising idea” started out as a diary, which among its copious details includes plans for a novel, to be entitled On the Way Back. However, despite his numerous plans, the novel proved so imperilled that it was never written. Instead, Greene eventually published two books based on his experiences in Panama, both of which defy generic expectations: a memoir, Getting to Know the General, and his final novel, The Captain and the Enemy, a work that Michael Shelden described as, “a confused story that tries to combine the world of Berkhamsted with that of violent Panama” (395).
The reasons for his failure to complete On the Way Back are complex and opaque—“fuliginous” one might say, to use the word that “The Captain,” the hero of Greene’s final novel, would have used. Incarcerated with only the first half of a dictionary to read, the Captain acquired a wide vocabulary of words beginning from A to G. Known by a series of aliases and a master of disguise, the ethically-challenged Captain is somewhat fuliginous himself, a typical inhabitant of Greeneland. “Fuliginous” can also be applied to the works that eventually took shape: the memoir and final novel. Not only does neither fulfil the expectations of its genre, they too suffer from the complex and opaque issues that Greene faced transforming his experiences in Panama into fact and fiction. The difficulties occurred despite the promise to tell the story as recorded faithfully in the diary, rendered from experiences made possible by his privileged position, having been invited to the country by its ruler and provided with a driver and guide, flown when necessary across the difficult terrain, and able to speak to anyone he chose, from those in the administration to the inhabitants of remote villages.
So what went wrong with the aborted novel, On the Way Back? What prevented the completion of the novel that he announced would be set in Panama, when he already had the skeleton plot and the title in mind? The title came early, as he was taken on a journey through Panama; when a famous haunted house was closed, he and his guide resolved to see it on the way back. There was title and theme—a return that would be a discovery, a re-examination—a triumphal return or a regretful one. Words and phrases, whole snatches of conversation, even an appropriate epigraph, were coming to him readily—and recorded, in his usual fashion, in note form to be written up later. Even the tone of the novel seemed to be established, when Greene, having finally allowed himself to read Conrad again, found an epigraph in Heart of Darkness: “It seems I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream’s sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment and a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible” (50). With this comparison, Greene indicates his awareness of the perils he faced in creating his ideas, even though when he began visiting Panama in 1976, he had already successfully completed twenty-three novels.
Indeed, the perils to promising ideas abound. Enemies of Promise, Connolly’s masterly examination of the writing process, first published in 1938, catalogues the various preoccupations, distractions, experiences and dilemmas that endanger creativity: politics, “day dreams, conversations, drink and other narcotics,” “the clarion call of journalism, worldly success, escapism,” “sex with its obsessions,” and “the ties of duty and domesticity” (85-86). Yet, this list sounds like a synopsis of Graham Greene’s existence. After all, his second autobiographical work was called Ways of Escape. Domesticity he had abandoned thirty years before. Describing himself to his wife as having, “a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life” he left her and their two children, but the other “enemies” persisted: journalism, success, drinks, and another—politics—became a growing preoccupation.
In fact, Greene had long established a pattern of visiting far-flung places and finding literary inspiration there. Though he described Panama as, “This bizarre and beautiful little country” it was the danger that enticed him. Earlier in 1976 he had, “skipped off to Belfast for a cold whiff of fear.” Greene’s friend, the Life magazine journalist Bernard Diederich, knew that Panama’s volatile political situation would appeal and he had spent some time acquainting its head of state with the English writer’s literary reputation and political sympathies. He had also kept Greene informed of events in Panama. It was Diederich who had led Greene to write his novel, The Comedians, set in Haiti; and ultimately Diederich who introduced General Torrijos and Greene, Quickly assessing the Panamanian leader as complex—a benign dictator, intent on a form of direct democracy—an autocrat who dreamed of relinquishing power, Greene found a paradoxical character ideal for his fiction. After all, the epigraph he chose for all of his writing was a quotation from Robert Browning: “our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things. The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist” (A Sort of Life 85). He had found just such a man. No wonder he liked him.
Politics was central to Greene’s interest in Panama and the notes reveal the extension of his concerns to Nicaragua. The reference to the torture of a Sandinista female, points to his wish to include the conflict there in his writing. Like Fowler in The Quiet American, Greene became involved—in Panama and back in Antibes. There was no safe way of doing this that could have protected his creative process. As Connolly argues in Enemies of Promise, the wrong turns and bitter traps that seem to endanger the literary are also—simultaneously—the very conditions through which art thrives. Writing will never fully outstrip or elude its enemies; it doesn’t succeed by transporting itself into the realm in which difficulties and dilemmas have disappeared. The writing process exists “on the dangerous edge of things.”
The Panama diaries enjoy a richness of details of the political, yet have issues in their recording of Greene’s “day dreams, conversations, drink and other narcotics.” He relates how the diaries began early on during his first trip: “I felt again a certain sense of adventure. Why otherwise would I have made trivial notes in a diary from the moment I arrived in Amsterdam?” (General 23). As “the sense of excitement grew,” he compares “a sense of fun” to the emotions he experienced leaving Vietnam, Malaya, Kenya, and the Congo: “These had been serious journeys—this one was not. I thought of it as only a rather comic adventure, inspired by an invitation from a complete stranger which had come to me out of the blue” (24). Greene then admits that “the sense of fun, however, faded on arrival” before he meets with others (25).
That all changes as new feelings set in upon meeting others. After several rum punches with his friend Diederich, in rapid succession Greene meets both Chuchu and the General Torrijos. Both prove to be walking contradictions. The General immediately defies the stereotypical as Greene describes being captured by his fixed look and then admitting that, “Through the next four years I got to know those eyes well; they came to express sometimes an almost manic humour, an affection, an inscrutable inward thought and more than all other moods” (28). It is in the early moments of their meeting that Greene becomes aware of his own vulnerability as stereotype in the nascent friendship, as he recounts their first conversation:
Perhaps he was painting a self-portrait to the stranger whom he had been rash enough to invite to his country—for what reason he may well have been wondering now himself—as a plain simple man of action, which was very far from the truth. With a sidelong look at me he attacked intellectuals. “Intellectuals,” he remarked “are like fine glass, crystal glass, which can be cracked by a sound. Panama is made of rock and earth.”
I won the first smile out of him when I said that he had probably only saved himself from being an intellectual by running away from school in time. (29)
Likewise, he records the contradictions of the driver and guide supplied to him: with the innocent sounding nickname of Chuchu, Professor Jose de Jesus Martinez, is no normal soldier. “A poet and a linguist who spoke English, French, Italian and German as well as Spanish,” Chuchu is a former professor of philosophy who had returned to Panama as a professor of mathematics and army sergeant, a Marxist devotedly loyal to the social democrat General (27-8). Chuchu, Greene explains, “became my guide, philosopher and friend and remains so to this hour” (27). Their friendship becomes the key to understanding not only Greene’s experiences in Panama but also his writing process for the novel.
It is Chuchu who suggests the theme for Greene’s writing about Panama. During their travels, they continually miss opportunities to visit places they pass through. For instance, when Greene wants to visit the Haunted House, he is stymied. Chuchu promises that they will see it “‘On the way back,’ . . . but,” as Greene explains, “a year was to pass before I had my way. It proved easier getting to know the General than the interior of the Haunted House” (49). Because so much is promised “on the way back,” Greene makes plans to write a novel with that name, explaining that “In my book the promised return would never be fulfilled—there would be no going back for my chief character” (54).
So the creative process began. The diaries that Greene kept throughout his trips to Panama show that he had been there only a week when he began working on the idea. By 21st December, he was writing notes marked On the Way Back. Here are those from a page marked “O.T.W.B.”
No – the story begins through the Sergeant’s
eyes. “He was using one of the General’s cars
because his own had been blown up by an insignificant
bomb which had only shocked the thief who had
tried to steal it”
Try and write the whole book on the surface:
dialogue and acts and environment—no thoughts revisited.
Or beginning through woman’s eyes.
“She felt the uneasiness she always felt before an
interview—she lacked the brazenness of the male reporter,
but not, so she believed, his cynicism.”
Chuchu contributed to the novel in other ways. He proved to be a womanizer with a love life that put even Greene’s in the shade. He was flamboyant, dramatic, comical, pleasure-loving and sincerely committed to the Panamanian cause. He was such a gift for a writer like Greene that he was soon taking a role in On the Way Back. This turned out to be the mistake, as Greene later recognized:
For the first time as a novelist, I was trying mistakenly to use real characters—the general, Chuchu—in my fiction. They had emerged from life and not from the unconscious and for that reason they had stood motionless like statues in my mind—they couldn’t develop, they were incapable of the unexpected word or action—they were real people and they could have no life independent of me in the imagination. (72)
He had used real-life individuals before, but crucially had allowed himself to change, omit and modify their characteristics. Even more importantly, he had not used his friends and told them of his intention beforehand. Chuchu, in Diederich’s judgement, had tried to micro-manage the novel.
It is this sharing of the creative process that was damaging. In another sort of notebook, Greene made an intriguing entry which seems to confirm this. During the time he was making occasional trips to Panama, he was also making annual journeys across Spain with his friend Father Leopoldo Durán. The priest had purchased a fine quality exercise book and given it to Greene with the request that he write a sentence or phrase on every page. Greene took seven years to complete the labour of love for his friend. One page has a quotation from Miguel de Unamuno: If you write, let no-one know how you write, nor at what hours, nor your way of doing it. By announcing his intention to write On the Way Back to Chuchu, the General and others, he shared his idea too soon.
Conversations had been the enemy of promise. But the ties of duty and domesticity were also returning with force. Panama diaries one and two written in 1976 and 77 are labelled “with my love to Yvonne to show what I was up to in those periods of separation”. Yvonne Cloetta was his mistress from 1959 to his death in 1991, and as he aged, Greene rediscovered some of the appeal of having a home—his was near Yvonne’s, not with her. Duty too was calling him from Panama, albeit in a particularly dangerous form as he sought to protect Yvonne’s daughter during a bitter divorce from a man who had connections with organised crime. This would lead to a battle with the French mafia and the publication of J’Accuse in 1982.
Because of all of the perils, Greene ultimately resisted the impulse to turn experiences recorded in his Panama diaries into On the Way Back. However, the recursive “on the way back” had become a theme for his travels informing both his memories and his writing. Rather than writing the novel he was planning, Greene turned the tricks of memory into the memoir and his final novel, which become a study of how memory works, particularly Greene’s. Memory is extremely important to Greene, particularly in regard to Panama and his friendship with Torrijos. He remarks about the dangers of memory: “When I had heard of Omar’s death in August 1981, it was as though a whole section of my life had been cut out. It was better, I thought, not to revive memories” (General 185).
Memory works differently in each of the two genres. Fiction demands that the process of remembering transforms memories: details become mutated to flesh out characters, enhance theme, and advance plot. Even though this possibility of making fiction of the experience brings the immediacy of the experience into an even sharper focus in the memoir, the reader realizes that the problem with creating fiction is that it has the opposite effect from how memoirs work. In a memoir, reality is recreated by reading diaries and the memories that made the events are re-remembered, all while supplying the details, which had not been previously recorded, from the vividness of the recall. It is as if this very act of leaving open the opportunity to visit a place “on the way back” keeps the immediacy of the memory alive, even if revisiting never happens. The remark calls into question how memory works, particularly with the immediacy of revisiting familiar places.
In its recursiveness, his memoir about Panama, Getting to Know the General, defies its genre, which is usually more journalistic. Instead, it is more oriented toward conveying the worldly success of Torrijos as well as Greene’s escapism. The memoir’s opening itself is recursive, with its news that his fifth transatlantic visit to Panama will not occur as planned: “In August 1981 my bag was packed for my fifth visit to Panama when the news came to me over the telephone of the death of General Omar Torrijos Herrera, my friend and host. The small plane in which he was flying to a house he owned at Coclesito in the mountains of Panama had crashed, and there were no survivors” (11). He follows with his plan to publicize Herrera’s worldly success in response to sharing his loss with Chuchu: “At that moment the idea came to me to write a short personal memoir [ . . . ] as a tribute to a man whom during that time I had grown to love” (11). However, even that idea is interrupted by his memories and a larger realization of the politics involved:
But as soon as I had written the first sentences after the title, ‘Getting to Know the General’, I realized that it was not only the General whom I had got to know over those five years—it was also Chuchu, one of the few men in the National Guard whom the General trusted completely, and it was this bizarre and beautiful little country, split in two by the Canal and the American Zone, a country which had become, thanks to the General, of great practical importance in the struggle for liberation taking place in Nicaragua and El Salvador. (11-12)
As Greene slowly realizes why he is in Panama and agrees to continue his annual visits because of the General and Chuchu, he also realizes that committed to recording their struggles with the injustices of American imperialism. The process of his growing awareness of the extent of the political issues, however, is related in a jumbled manner in the memoir. Early on, Greene writes, “A friend asked me, as I was writing the closing passages of this book, ‘But why this interest which you seem always to have shown in Spain and Spanish America?’” (12). Rereading his notes and remembering his experiences, he crafts an answer:
“Of those poor Spanish exiles the acknowledged chief was General Torrijos, a man of high qualities and fortune, still in the vigour of his years, and in these desperate circumstances refusing to despair.”
The General Torrijos whom I had grown to love had been killed in the vigour of his years and I had been close to him in the desperate circumstances from which he suffered, the closing stages of the long-drawn-out negotiations with the United States over the Panama Canal Treaty, and the disappointing aftermath. He too refused to despair and he even seriously contemplated a possible armed struggle between his tiny country and the great power which occupied the Zone. (13-14)
When pressed further, he adds “Perhaps the answer lies in this: in those countries politics have seldom meant a mere alternation between rival electoral parties but have been a matter of life and death” (14).
He remembers just how Torrijos, whom he calls “a lone wolf,” works:
In his diplomatic struggle with the USA he had no support from . . . the authoritarian generals who held their power with the aid of the United States, and who only existed at all because in the eyes of the Americans they represented anti-Communism. Torrijos was not Communist, but he was a friend and admirer of Tito and he was on good personal terms with Fidel Castro. . . . His country had become a haven of safety for refugees from Argentina, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and his dream, as I was to learn in the years that followed, was of a social democratic Central America which would be no menace to the United States, but completely independent. However, the nearer he came to success, the nearer he came to death. (32-33).
It is only when Greene is halfway through the memoir that he admits “I was beginning to appreciate what he had done and what he had risked in trying to achieve his dream for a Central America which would be Socialist and not Marxist, independent of the United States and yet not a menace to her. I felt for him as for a teacher as well as a friend” (112-13).
In general, the associated ‘clarion call of journalism, worldly success, escapism,’ enlarged the problems involved in rendering reality into specific genres, particularly vis-à-vis the problems with memory. Greene often commented on the chicanery of memory in his works. For instance, in A Sort of Life, he again uses the image of trying to relate a dream: “Memory is like a long broken night. As I write, it is as though I am waking from sleep continually to grasp at an image which I hope may drag in its wake a whole intact dream, but the fragments remain fragments, the complete story always escapes” (33). In The Heart of the Matter his narrator muses, “He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache when certain things combine—the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch” (5). And in The Captain and the Enemy, his narrator succinctly sums up the issue: “Memory cheats” (25).
The memoir twists and turns as it moves forward through each yearly visit, also moving back and forth through time to add context from the past and to explain the significance of events within the context of future events. Despite its obvious memoir form, the book leans toward the novel as time blends to add coherence to the events, to make them story. Even though the memoir is based on notes that were mostly chronologically recorded, it doesn’t follow typical generic conventions: his recollections are neither straightforward nor presented in chronological order, as most memoirs are structured. The memoir is as much about his various attempts to stay linear, but the nature of his Panamanian trips is recursive, so much so that the last time he leaves Panama while the General is alive, he is comforted by the thought that he will return in a year. After the General dies, he does not return the next year; however, he does return two years later, on the unused ticket that the General had purchased for him.
In writing the memoir, Greene admits that “So much that happened in Panama during the next four years proved as unexpected as the events in a dream” (48). In addition to the dreamlike quality of the visits, part of what makes the memoir so non-linear is the culture of Panama, where even the best-laid plans suffer from miscommunication or are made impossible because of the acts of others. At times the reader is left wondering if the sole purpose of the visits is to find places serving an acceptable planters punch, fortified with the proper amount of rum, or to frequent restaurants serving passable food. Yet another part of the difficulty of making sense of events is the smallness of the country, causing people to reappear unexpectedly, as Greene explains: “nobody in Panama City only turns up once. Like a play with a small cast the same actors were always reappearing in different roles” (107).
Also disorienting is the very nature of travel in Panama, made difficult because of its terrain. Greene comments that often the only way to travel overland is by the same road going and coming, and when traveling by air, the steep terrain is made even more dangerous by the unpredictable weather with heavy fog, strong winds, and torrential downpours. Even the geography of the country defies the linear. Greene writes that “points of the compass in Panama can be confusing even to a geographer. Who for example would guess that the Canal runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific more or less west to east?” (The Captain and the Enemy 117). Another complicating geographical feature is the country’s five borders, the extra created by the Canal Zone bisecting the country, which Greene explicates in his memoir: “Panama is not the Canal, and the Zone was a whole world away from Panama. You could tell the difference the moment you entered the Zone from the neat well-built unimaginative houses and the trim lawns. There seemed to be innumerable golf courses and you felt the jungle had been thrown back by a battalion of lawn mowers.” He adds an epigraph for the Zone:
And the wind shall say: here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand golf Balls. (Getting to Know the General 42-3)
Perhaps even more revealing, Greene’s own memories of his childhood reading complicate the memoir. He becomes obsessed with visiting the Romantic legendary places that he remembers from his childhood reading, including Portobello, the historic ending of the gold route from Panama City, Nombre de Dios “the Harbour of Provisions” for Drake, and Bocas del Toro, where Columbus turned around, starting on his way back.
When Greene does fictionalize Panama, it is in the second half of his problematic last novel, The Captain and the Enemy. The first half, written as a memoir by an adolescent, is specifically problematic in how it deals with ‘the ties of duty and domesticity.’ After all, the first scene depicts his abduction as a child and yet suggests only the slightest disapproval of it by anyone, including the child, who himself—now adolescent—feels no grievance. Nor is there a grievance when the Captain haphazardly renames him Jim. The world is decidedly one without love. The Captain has taken the child to replace an aborted child, and the “love story” between the Captain and Liza (whom Jim is instructed to call “Mother”) is so problematic that neither involved will call it that, which perplexes the child, even in his recollections as the adolescent narrator. Like the memoir published earlier, the eventual novel challenges the boundaries of its genre, transforming the memories detailed in the memoir into caricatures. Greene’s exaggerations create both the grotesque and the comedic.
His use of Panama as the setting for the novel’s second half, narrated by Jim as a young adult, invokes mythical images of wealth and gold, again, the romantic images from Greene’s childhood reading, which he claims “had persistently haunted my imagination” (General 21), but which are quickly discarded as sham by the narrator. For instance, when Jim narrates his flight to Panama, he claims his motivation is “towards a team of mules laden with gold riding along a rough track from the Pacific” (Captain 88). Nevertheless, as the plane descends for landing, reality intrudes: “The forest yielded to the ruins of that old Panama which the pirate Morgan had destroyed and a few moments later the plane was rolling smoothly along the tarmac towards buildings which resembled any airport anywhere” (88).
Similarly, his description of Panama City invokes the grotesque reality:
It was a city of steep hills and torrential rainstorms which lasted for less than a quarter of an hour and yet made miniature Niagaras down the streets, leaving cars stranded. . . . In the quarter which was called ironically Hollywood it was a shocking contrast to see the tumbledown shacks on which the vultures lodged and in which whole families were crowded together in the intimacy of complete poverty only a few hundred yards from the banks, where the high windows glittered in the morning sun, and it was even more of a shock to gaze into the American Zone across the mere width of a street, and see the well-kept lawns and the expensive villas on which no vulture ever cared to settle.” (93)
The comedic is also created from exaggeration as Jim and the Captain drive “into the American Zone, past all the golfers and the barracks and the churches—” and
the captain named a few of the churches as we went by them—the Coco Solo Community Church, the Cross Roads Bible Church the Nazarene, the Latter Day Saints, the Four-Square Gospel—‘more than sixty of them,’ he told me confirming Pablos’ mathematics, though not so many as the banks.
‘Coco Solo,’ I protested, thinking of Coca-Cola, ‘you must have invented that.’
‘Not invented, but perhaps I pointed to the wrong building. It may have been the Jehovah Witnesses or the First Isthian. A very religious people, the Yankees. I forgot to show you the Argosy Book Stall. That is really unique. The only bookshop in the Zone. Of course with so much religion, not to speak of military duties, they have very little time to read.’ (117).
Through Greene’s creation of a jaded narrator and a host of stereotyped characters, he invokes black humour to comment on American imperialism. Two of the strongest statements to this effect are made by the narrator’s would-be “guides” as they control his movements in the country, restricting what he sees of the country. His “guardian” Pablo remarks, “‘This is not only Panama. This is Central America. Perhaps one day . . . ’ He patted the holster at his side. ‘One needs better weapons than a revolver, you understand, to change things’” (94). Mr. Quigly, his “guide” clearly explains the imperialism evident in everyday life:
“Panama is a curious place. A little capitalist state with a socialist general, split in two by the Americans. You and I as Englishmen can understand the difficulties which might arise here. It’s as though England were split between the north and the south with the Americans in between. Somehow the Americans can’t understand the resentment, because they bring in a lot of money. Panama would be poor without them, they expect to be loved, but they have enemies instead. Money makes enemies as well as friends.” (113)
Although fiction permits Greene a wider variety of characters to voice his concerns with authorial distance, he understands that once he transforms his diaries into fiction, he has lessened the potential to recall the memories and link them to real people. As he says in A Sort of Life, “ . . . for in the course of sixty-six years I have spent almost as much time with imaginary characters as with real men and women” (11). Jim, the narrator of The Captain and the Enemy, articulates the problem, which although he is speaking of the Captain and his woman could be equally true for Greene and the General and Chuchu:
I cannot pretend that all these details which I am trying so hard to reconstruct from my memory are necessarily true, but I feel myself today driven by a compulsive passion now that we are separated to make these two people live before my eyes again, to bring them back out of the shadows and set them to play their sad parts as closely as possible to the truth. I am only too well aware of how I may be weaving fact into fiction but without any intention of betraying the truth. I want above anything else to make the two of them clear to myself so that they will continue to live as visibly as two photographs might seem to do propped up on a shelf beside my bed, but I don’t own a single photograph of either of them. Why am I so possessed by them? (General 38-9)
However, his last visit to Panama two years later convinces him otherwise. As an unofficial ambassador of Panama, he visits Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba, reigniting his memories and causing him to “feel a little closer to the country which had produced Omar Torrijos” (194). It is only at the end of the memoir that Greene suggests why writing the novel could never happen: he is reluctant “to close finally the pages of a book and relegate to a shelf all the memories which it contains of a dead man whom I loved, Omar Torrijos” (217).
Greene’s final visits to Panama become parts of larger trips with visits to other countries, including Cuba and the US. He uses the occasions to convey the political situation he encountered in Panama. By focusing on the politics of his visits in such overt political writing, the rendering of those trips into memoir defy the “norms” of travel writing. In fact, his desire to remember and record the injustices of American imperialism in Panama seems to become his sole motivation for writing these works on Panama. They reflect his larger sense of injustice that informs the concern of his writing and his life choices. The concern was fostered early on by his childhood reading: as he recollects of his childhood memories, “A child learns about injustice early” (A Sort of Life 61).
As he relates in Getting to Know the General, when the General was forming the delegation to travel to Washington to sign the new treaty, he suggested to Greene that he disguise himself as a colonel of the Panamanian National guard and appear before President Carter as a special envoy. Despite a love of practical jokes, the writer declined. But he did agree to go as part of the delegation. And so, traveling on a Panamanian passport, he flew into Andrews Air base with Gabriel García Márquez. Both had previously been refused entry to the United States, “for reasons that even the president had been unable to explain,” said García Márquez .
Greene had emerged with a status that transcended even that of a world-renown writer: he had become a symbol for the struggle of the weak with the strong. On the Way Back had not developed as he had planned, but he himself was ‘on the way back’ to a country that had once refused him entry and was now receiving the casually dressed writer with, ‘a 21-gun salute “and the martial notes of the US national anthem” (189). His presence alone could disconcert a tyrant. When Márquez and Greene later mingled at a reception at the Organization of American States attended by dictators such Pinochet of Chile and Stroessner of Paraguay, Greene wrote to his friend Diederich, “A girl introduced me to one of his [Strosesner’s] ministers who directly when he heard my name froze, said ‘You once passed through Paraguay,’ and turned on his heel without a handshake.’” Greene commented in a letter written to Diederich, “I was pleased to find I got under Stroessner’s skin as I got under Duvalier’s” (Seeds of Fiction, 189).
By being part of the Panamanian delegation he showed the world where his sympathies lay. As he said to Castro when they finally met, “I am not the messenger. I am the message.” There was nothing fuliginous about that.
1 Letter to Vivien Greene, June 3rd 1948. In Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, ed. Richard Greene.
2 As fellow writer V.S. Pritchett described it, quoted in Sherry Vol. 3 P.604
3 However, Greene did not acknowledge this in Getting to Know the General, to protect
Diederich’s role as a journalist.
4 Greene’s Panamanian diaries, at Georgetown University.From notes taken by his bibliographer, Dr. Jon Wise.
5 “and” is an abbreviated squiggle, “the” as he writes it, is almost totally illegible, but it is exactly the same illegible structure elsewhere where “the” can be deduced from the context.
6 “Known and Not So Known Literary Outcomes of Graham Greene’s Travels with Father Leopoldo Durán”—a paper given at the Graham Greene Festival by Dr. Beatriz Valverde Jiménez, 23rd September 2018.
7 Notes taken by Dr. Jon Wise.
8 Quoted in Seeds of Fiction by Bernard Diederich, Ch. 15. p.189
Dr Jon Wise, joint bibliographer with Mike Hill of The Works of Graham Greene, generously shared the notes he made of the Panama Diaries, in Georgetown University archives.
Auchard, John. Introduction. “Graham Greene: The Private Universe.” The Captain and the Enemy. 1988, Penguin Books, 2005, pp. vii-xxii.
Connolly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. Macmillan. 1938.
Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness. 1902, —-, —-.
Diederich, Bernard. Seeds of Fiction. Peter Owen. 2012
Greene, Graham. The Captain and the Enemy. 1988, Penguin Books, 2005.
—. Getting to Know the General. 1984, Simon & Schuster, 1985.
—. The Heart of the Matter. 1948, Penguin Books, 2004.
—. Letter to Vivien Greene June 3rd 1948.
—. A Sort of Life. Simon & Schuster, 1971.
—. Ways of Escape. 1980, Vintage Books, 2002.
Greene, Richard. Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, Little Brown, 2007.
Jiménez, Beatriz Valverde. “Known and Not So Known Literary Outcomes of Graham Greene’s Travels with Father Leopoldo Durán” Graham Greene Festival, 23 September 2018, Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, England, Conference Presentation.
Shelden, Michael. The Enemy Within. Heinemann, 1995.
Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene, 1955-1991, Vol. 3, Jonathan Cape, 2004.
Creina Mansfield & Donna A. Gessell
LIMELIGHT IN VIENNA: SOME NOTES ON BRITISH CINEMA’S MOST CHARISMATIC VILLAIN
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the release of Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the 20th anniversary of its being voted the best British film of the century in a British Film Institute poll, I want to offer some reflections on the film and particularly on the character of Harry Lime, who, as played by Orson Welles, is assuredly one of the cinema’s most charismatic villains. A remarkable aspect of Lime’s cinematic durability is that he is only on screen for around 8 minutes or so. My focus will be on those scenes in which he appears and the reasons for their impact. To begin with, however, I wish to ruminate on one of his most striking features: his name.
What’s in a name?
In Ways of Escape, Graham Greene mentioned some of the symbolic interpretations which had been offered about the names of the two main characters of his screenplay, Harry Lime and Holly Martins: for example, how the former had been linked to the lime tree in Sir James Frazer’s classic study of pagan mythology, The Golden Bough (1922); and how Holly was clearly associated with Christmas, so symbolically they represented a clash between paganism and Christianity. Greene could offer a much simplerexplanation for what he had in mind:
The truth is I wanted for my ‘villain’ a name natural and yet disagreeable, and
to me Lime represented the quicklime in which murderers were said to be
buried. As for Holly, it was because my first choice of name Rollo had not
met with the approval of Joseph Cotten. So much for symbols.[i]
However, it is worth noting that a character’s name in The Third Man, like his or her nationality, is a very slippery business in what is an extremely slippery film (in terms of its narrative development, its camera style, and even its streets, which seem to gleam with wetness although it never rains). Holly was originally Rollo but is sometimes called Harry by Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who is supposedly Austrian but is actually Czech, so one could surmise that Schmidt is not her real name. The British Chief of Police, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is mistakenly called Callahan by Holly (the name probably derives from the head of the British Military Police at that time, Galloway); but Calloway is also the name of the crooked financier of one of Greene’s short stories ‘Across the Bridge’ (1938) which concludes with one of his most potent phrases- “the baseless optimism that is worse than hopeless despair”- which seems to predict the folly of appeasement and the onset of war. In The Third Man, we are amidst the rubble of Vienna after World War 11; and Holly will encounter a sinister Austrian doctor called Dr Winkle (Erich Ponto) whose name Holly will mispronounce as “winkle”. The film is a veritable miasma of unstable identity in a city of fluid nationalities and borders and even more flexible morality. As one of Lime’s shady associates, ‘Baron’ Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) tells Holly: “ I tell you, I have done things that would have been unthinkable before the war.”
Although Greene indicated that the name of Holly for his main character was inspired by the 19th century American poet Thomas Holley Chivers, who was essentially a figure of fun (Greene wanted the name to be absurd and at one stage Anna comments directly on how silly it is), it has been suggested that the actual character of Holly Martins was based on the American screenwriter and producer Robert Buckner as an act of retaliation for Buckner’s screen adaptation of Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent, which had been filmed by Herman Shumlin in 1945. Buckner had been the screenwriter on a number of westerns, including The Oklahoma Kid (1939). and. Holly Martins writes westerns, one of which is called ‘Oklahoma Kid’, which ‘Baron’ Kurtz displays on his first meeting with him and which Major Calloway later tells Holly he has read with some pleasure. Greene might have been having a private joke at Buckner’s expense (he was a great practical joker), but I don’t think he was after revenge. After all, he rallied to the defence of Lauren Bacall’s much-criticised performance in that film, and in general thought The Confidential Agent perhaps the best American film adaptation of his work, far surpassing the endeavours of more prestigious Hollywood directors, such as Fritz Lang ( Ministry of Fear ,1944) John Ford ( The Fugitive, 1947, based on The Power and the Glory), Joseph L. Mankiewicz ( The Quiet American, 1958) and George Cukor ( Travels with my Aunt ,1972). He might also have been pondering ‘Holly’ as a diminutive of ‘Hollywood’, and thinking wryly of those bizarre story conferences about The Third Man that he and Carol Reed had shared with Hollywood mogul, David O Selznick, which on one occasion seemed destined to be endlessly protracted until Selznick realised he was thinking of another film entirely. In his Preface to The Pleasure Dome (1972) Greene recalled, among other things, Selznick’s dislike of the film’s title ( “Who the hell is going to a film called The Third Man?” he grumbled), and his preferred choice of Noel Coward in the role of Harry Lime ( both Reed and Greene were appalled).[ii]
But what about the name ‘Harry Lime’? ‘Harry’ is a good English name with Shakespearean connections (“Pray God for Harry, England and St George!”), but it also has connotations of to ‘harry’, as in ‘harass’, or ‘hurry’, for a character who is elusive, sometimes threatening, and always on the move. Lime is a shade of green, or what Peter Conrad called “an acid variant of the novelist’s name.”[iii] Another connection between Greene and Lime is obliquely suggested by an interesting comment about the novelist which is cited in Ian Thomson’s book Articles of Faith, where Tom Burns is quoted as saying that, when Greene entered a room, he “seemed to me to have a spotlight on him”.[iv] Think of Harry Lime’s first entrance in The Third Man: arguably the most dramatic spotlit entrance of any film character..
The name resonates in other ways. It is only one letter short of ‘smile’; and he is the only character in the whole film who really smiles. (When anyone else does, or laughs, it is so remarkable an occurrence that it usually attracts comment. Anna has only two laughs in her, she says; and Holly seems almost terminally morose, a potentially monotonous mood which, it should be said, Joseph Cotten invests with a good deal of variety and charm.) ‘Lime’ is also only one letter short of ‘slime’, as if presaging that final chase in the sewers. It is a clever name because it is such a fizzy concoction of ‘sly’, ‘slime’, ‘smile’ and ‘lie’, all of which make up the cocktail of his character. And the film certainly ensures that we don’t forget it, or him: the name is mentioned twice in the prologue, and ten times in the opening ten minutes; and he dominates every scene in the picture, whether he is in it or not. His absence is always present; indeed it ensures the film always seems to have a spring in its step and a surprise round every corner. “Lime, Harry Lime,” says Holly in the opening scene when he gets off the train and is explaining the purpose of his visit to Vienna. “Thought he’d be here to meet me.” But he isn’t, for Lime is a will o’ the wisp. who is not where Holly thought he would be nor is he where Calloway thinks he is. “Could you tell me.. is this …?” says Holly at the graveyard when wondering whose funeral service it is “A fellow called Lime, “says Calloway, dispassionately. But it is not quite, for someone else is in that coffin; although even when he is supposed to be dead, his spirit seems to walk abroad and every character seems obsessed with him.
All of this mystery and mythologizing is setting the makers of the film a huge challenge, because when he does eventually appear, it must deliver on that promise. It is similar to a Hitchcock suspense sequence: when you have worked an audience up to such a pitch of expectation, you have to top that expectation with something extra in order to avoid anti-climax. After all, an audience knows that Orson Welles will appear sometime in the film, because his name is on the credits. When Carol Reed told Welles apologetically that he would not appear until halfway through, Welles replied: “ Could you make it two-thirds?” He might well have been thinking of something like the carefully delayed entrance for maximum effect of the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, a work very close to Welles’s own heart (he had adapted it for radio, and it was intended to be his first film before location and financial complications forced its cancellation: nevertheless, Citizen Kane was to show clear traces of its influence. )[v] And it is not just a case of when the character is going to appear; it is also how.
Extract 1: Enter Harry Lime
This is surely one of the classic moments of the cinema: once seen, never forgotten. Much of its power derives from the skill of its preparation.
As Anna and the lovelorn and inebriated Holly are sharing their memories of Harry in Anna’s apartment, the camera, which has been behaving oddly throughout the film, makes a sudden lunge towards the open window, as if it has spotted something strange out in the square that it was not expecting to see. A dark figure is walking across the street but it seems to stop as if noting a light on in Anna’s apartment. The cat, which Anna has said only liked Harry, has gone wandering off into the square to see what is happening. (One is not surprised to find that Harry was a cat person- sly, self-sufficient, a loner- whereas Holly is associated with a squawking parrot.) It comes to a doorway and starts sniffing round a person’s shoes, which are well polished and give the impression of a man who is doing quite well for himself for someone in a bombed out city. Another thing about those shoes: they might give a clue as to the identity of the murderer of the porter (Paul Hoerbiger), who just, before his death, looked as if he had seen a ghost. The screenplay reads: “Porter slams the window and turns towards camera. He stays still, listening. The sound of squeaking shoes [my emphasis] approaching from the next room. As they come closer, there is a look of horror on the Porter’s face.” [vi]. Holly will be suspected of that murder; and it could be another example of Holly’s getting into a scrape from which his best friend has escaped, a repeated pattern of their childhood friendship.
When Holly comes out of Anna’s apartment, he notices a figure in shadow in a doorway across the square. Still quite drunk, he starts shouting at it: “Cat got your tongue?”; and then defiantly initiates a game with this mysterious spy: “Come out, come out, whoever you are…” Suddenly this childish chant seems magically to summon up the very person who has defined childhood for him. Joseph Cotten’s reaction shot at that point is superb, for the shock of what he sees jerks him forward; and what will follow in a moment is what Graham Greene said was his favourite game from childhood: a game of hide-and-seek in the dark. The game has cropped up also in The Fallen Idol (1948) and in his short story ‘The End of the Party’ and in each case the game will start playfully but will turn into something much more serious, as it will in The Third Man, when the game is to be played out again in earnest and fatally in the sewers of Vienna.
The revelation is visually stunning. One of the neighbours, complaining about the noise in the street, opens her window and the light from her room illuminates the doorway like a theatrical spotlight, to reveal Harry Lime, an appropriately grand entrance for a larger-than-life character who, it seems, even has his own theme tune and one which is so insistently catchy that it sold 40 million copies on its release. Anton Karas’s music is one of the film’s master-strokes (there are a few) and part of its magic is that it fits the character so snugly. There is a hollowness to it, as if it is suggesting that Harry, like Conrad’s Kurtz, is hollow at the core, yet its jauntiness has something of Harry’s cheek; it is not the obvious music for a villain; it seems to invite us to forgive him. Incidentally it is quite wrong to claim, as some soundtrack critics have done, that the theme is repeated incessantly through the film. Apart from the opening credits, it only appears when Harry appears.
In the published screenplay, Greene describes Lime’s habitual expression in Martins’ presence as one of “amused geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world’s day.”[vii] That could almost have been written with Welles in mind. It is as if his cockeyed smile, the ironical twinkle in his eye, his cheerful rascality, requires the tilting of the camera to reflect Harry’s sardonic take on things.[viii] Even the step where he stands seems to be on a slight slope. In Citizen Kane, there is a famous close-up of Welles when the young Kane as newspaper editor has just enunciated his ‘Declaration of Principles’, and Joseph Cotten as his best friend Leland asks to keep a copy of it as he feels it might someday be important. Welles as Kane smiles at that but looks uncomfortable, as if he has been caught out at something. Peter Bogdanovich thought the shot looked awkward, though Welles always insisted it was meant to look that way, but the close-up in The Third Man cannot be faulted: it is exactly what the moment demands. The great French critic, André Bazin thought this performance enshrined Welles as a movie actor much more than Citizen Kane. This is all the more remarkable given its short duration, and is particularly interesting because, unusually for Welles, he played the part without make-up, meaning that this was the closest we ever got to him on screen. Bazin went on:
The topicality of Greene’s script equated the ambiguity of his hero with our
war-torn world. Personable bandit, in tune with the disillusionment, the
romanticism of the period, archangel of the sewers, an outlaw prowling the
zone dividing good from evil, a monster worthy of love, Harry Lime/Welles
was, in this case, more than a character: he was a myth.[ix]
Personable bandit/ monster worthy of love: Bazin’s paradoxical description of Lime cannot but remind one of those favourite lines of Greene’s in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, which Greene said could stand as an epigraph to all his books::
Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things,
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demi-rep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books-
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway.[x]
Small wonder that Harry Lime appealed so strongly to Greene’s imagination. Little wonder also that Carol Reed was his favourite of all the directors he worked with, not simply fulfilling his vision of this moment but imaginatively enhancing it.
There is a fine touch still to come. When Holly tries to cross the square, he is almost run over; and in the time it takes him to recover, Lime has gone. It is a subliminal recollection of how Lime is supposed to have died (being hit by a car), but he seems to have disappeared as if by magic. We remember that Lime has taught Holly the three-card trick, and also perhaps that Orson Welles was an accomplished magician who could no doubt make himself disappear in a deserted square. It is another example of why Welles was such perfect casting.
As yet, we have only seen Harry Lime. We have heard much about him- the worst racketeer in Vienna, fun to be around- but we have not heard his voice. From a brilliantly constructed visual sequence, we will move to what one could equally be described as an exemplary piece of screenwriting, where the eloquence of the dialogue and the sharpness of the characterisation never get in the way of purposefully moving the film forward.
Extract 2: The Great Wheel
The scene on the Great Wheel is so important because it is the only one in the entire film between Harry and Holly. In those five minutes the momentum of the narrative has to be maintained, but the scene must also capture the essential relationship between the two men, which is the core of the film and what has kept Holly in Vienna. If that does not come across, the whole film falls apart.
There is an immediate contrast in character; Holly waiting glumly, Harry arriving on the move- brisk, unapologetic, already smiling, no explanations, just a greeting (“Hello, old man…”). There is no suggestion of guilt. He does not suffer from a bad conscience, only from bad indigestion (rather like the lawyer Prewitt in Greene’s Brighton Rock, who is also corrupt and dyspeptic and who says that “I’ve sunk so deep I carry the secrets of the sewer”: Harry Lime has taken that one literal stage further.) Yet immediately on his appearance, and even as Harry circles round him (he could always run rings round Holly), one can feel life quickening with excitement for Holly and can sense within him the magnetism of Harry’s attraction..
“Hello, old man” is a slightly odd greeting, a term of endearment (he uses it six times in the scene) that is not meant literally but does carry certain inferences. There is still an element of the naughty boy about Harry Lime. “He never grew up, “Anna has said about him, “the world grew up around him.” Holly seems older by comparison, having the melancholy of maturity. The setting adds to that feeling: a playground, a fun fair out of season; and in this context, one might also think back to the little boy Hansl (Herbert Halbik) with the round chubby cheeks, whose whole purpose in the film seems to be to get Holly into trouble and who is surely meant as a sort of surrogate of what Harry was like as a child and his relationship even then with Holly. The phrase “old man” also suggests to me a comparison with a film made the previous year, John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), another allegorical fable about the post-war situation, with Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco, a deported gangster in hiding, planning a return to America by flooding it not with diluted penicillin (which is Harry’s racket) but with counterfeit money. “Who’s gonna stop me, old man?” he says to Lionel Barrymore, who is in a wheelchair and who symbolically, I think, is meant to evoke Roosevelt. There the phrase “old man” is literal and said with a sneer, unlike the affectionate address of Harry, but the underlying sentiment is similar. Barrymore in Key Largo and Holly in The Third Man are ‘old men’ in comparison with their audacious adversaries, or, more specifically, old-fashioned men, dinosaurs of decency out of place in the ruthless new world of pragmatism, profit and power.
The Great Wheel is an inspired choice of location. It is a reminder of the old Europe which the recent war has destroyed. It is also appropriate for a film of constant instability and revolving perspectives. Anna tells Calloway at one stage that “You’ve got things upside down”; and when the porter tells Holly about Harry’s funeral and the destination of the dead body, he points upwards to indicate Hell and down to indicate Heaven. In his 1947 essay ‘The Lost Childhood’ (which would be a good alternative title for the film), Greene writes that, inspired by Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan, he had discovered the pattern for his future work, which was: “perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.” [xi] It seems to me that The Third Man is an elaboration of that pattern, with Lime as a charismatic Lucifer, who insists that he still believes in God but who knows the way the world is turning. The sin of Lucifer was pride, which comes before a fall, and Harry Lime’s fall will be precipitous: from the top of the Great Wheel all the way to the sewers. As Calloway said on discovering that the man they buried at the beginning of the film was not Lime: “We should have dug deeper than a grave.”
“Have you ever seen any of your victims?” Holly has asked Harry, referring to the patients who have suffered from taking the diluted penicillin. (And, incidentally, the turning-point for Holly is the later occasion when Calloway tricks him into visiting the children’s hospital and he sees for himself some of the victims of Harry’s racket.)
In response, Harry will nonchalantly deliver the first of two statements of personal philosophy which encapsulate the moral deformities of a fallen post-war world. “Victims?” he says. “Don’t be melodramatic.”. Opening the door to the cable car to look down at humanity below, he goes on:
Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped
moving forever? If I said you could have twenty thousand pounds for every dot
that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money- or would you
calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man,
free of income tax.
A moment later he will go on to say:
In these days, old man, nobody thinks 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. They have their 5-year plans; so
.Harry’s smooth alignment of his own individual philosophy with the political morality of the day is still capable of chilling the blood. From his vantage-point of superiority, Harry has the dangerous egotism of the demagogue, an attitude that has accounted for the current devastation of Europe. In Harry’s eyes, such cheerful cynicism is not an erosion of the soul but a recognition of the new reality. It could not be more different from the naive simplicities of Holly’s western novels where good will always triumph and evil will always be defeated.
As if delighting in his amorality, Harry starts teasing Holly with a little game of his own, which typically Holly does not quite grasp. “There’s no proof against me. Except you,” Harry says and muses how easily Holly could now be disposed of. “Don’t be too sure,” says Holly with grim apprehension but Harry seems still to be turning the idea over in his mind. “Hm…I carry a gun. Don’t think they’d look for a bullet after you hit that ground.” And then he laughs: “I suppose he was laughing at us all the time,” Anna has said of him. He has been pulling Holly’s leg, of course, for, as he says, “as though I’d do anything to you or you to me.” Inadvertently he reveals his Achilles’ heel.
The cuckoo clock
As he gets out of the car, Harry extends his offer to Holly to come in with him as a partner and set up another meeting, adding that “when we do meet, old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police.” And then comes the parting shot. ”And don’t be so gloomy,” he says. “After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed- they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.” It is the one part of the scene not written by Graham Greene, but improvised on the spot by Orson Welles, and it is an improvisation of genius. Throughout the scene, his delivery of the dialogue- the timing, the rhythm, the apparent spontaneity, the irresistible shafts of mischief, the way he seems always two sentences ahead of Holly’s laborious thought processes- has been instrumental in lifting the words off the page. That exit speech- witty, paradoxical, sardonic, and, as enunciated by Welles, a marvel of breath control and ironic inflection- elevates the scene onto another level. Supreme man of the theatre that he was, Welles knew that a character who had been given such a stunning entrance would need an equally inspired exit, because, to all intents and purposes, this is his last line in the film. What is wonderful about it is that is perfectly in character. It is a lot more than an afterthought by an egotistical actor; it is the magical something extra that makes a screen character not simply memorable but immortal and makes a film sequence not just exceptional but unforgettable.
Harry’s curtain-line, as it were, makes you smile, reminding us that The Third Man could be a rather glum film without Harry Lime, which perhaps is one of the reasons that audiences can like him in spite of themselves.[xii] And the cuckoo clock is a compelling symbol, “an automaton that pretends to be alive,” as Peter Conrad put it,[xiii] whereas Harry Lime is a human pretending to be dead. It is very Wellesian for Harry to pick the Renaissance as his prize example of artistry in the midst of political turbulence. Yet underneath all the cleverness and the irony, one can still intuit the nihilist in Harry, the Fascist inside the funster, with a contempt for ordinary people and their values, and carrying within him a lethal message about the failure of democracy that now seems so worryingly topical..
The secret of the sewers
I have often puzzled over the last part of the film when Harry agrees to meet Holly. Does he not suspect that he is walking into a trap? Is it a kind of death wish? Or is his trust in Holly so absolute that it never occurs to him that he is being set up? The best defence I have read of Harry’s motivation at this point appears in a book on film-making by that great director Alexander Mackendrick, who, when a teacher at UCLA, had an exercise in which he invited his students to write out the thoughts of a screen character at a particular stage in a film: what would be going through that character’s mind? One of his main examples comes from The Third Man and the thoughts going through Harry Lime’s mind as he approaches that café. Mackendrick suggested a cluster of reasons for Harry’s keeping that appointment, including curiosity (and we know what curiosity did: it killed the cat), but at the heart of it is Harry’s absolute conviction of Holly’s enduring hero-worship and his capacity for loyalty, which makes him, in Harry’s eyes, completely trustworthy.[xiv] “As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me…”
When Peter Bogdanovich discussed loyalty and betrayal with Welles and suggested that “you must disapprove then of Cotten’s betrayal of Harry Lime in The Third Man, Welles replied: “ Of course….Betrayal is a big thing with me…almost a prime sin.”[xv] It is another aspect of the casting of Orson Welles which brings a resonance that would not have happened with any other actor. If there is one theme that recurs again and again in Welles’s work, it is the theme of betrayal and, more specifically, betrayal by one’s closest friend or confidante: from Citizen Kane (1941), Othello (1952), Touch of Evil (1958) to perhaps the greatest betrayal scene in all literature, when Welles’s Falstaff is disowned by Prince Hal, now Henry V, in Chimes at Midnight (1966). And casting him next to Joseph Cotten, an acolyte from Welles’s Mercury Theatre, only intensifies the theme. Cotten as Jed Leland in Citizen Kane moans at one stage, “I was his oldest friend- and he behaved like a swine.” Did Cotten betray Welles over The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s magnificent torso of a film, cut by the studio from 131 to 88 minutes after a disastrous preview, and in which Cotten appeared in some scenes that were re-shot by another director? Welles was very cross with him, but Cotten’s feeling was that, if he had not acquiesced, the film might not have been shown at all. Certainly the history between the two men feeds fascinatingly into the character complexities of The Third Man.
In one way, Holly exhibits a quality which Greene was to discuss controversially in his later career (notably in his defence of Kim Philby): the virtue of disloyalty. Holly is disloyal to Harry but for a virtuous reason: the sight of the ‘victims” in the children’s hospital. Yet why is it that this virtue feels so treacherous? In a later scene with Anna, when it seems as if her papers have been cleared, she realises that she is part of the bargain that Holly has struck with the police to trap Harry, and she tears up her papers in disgust. The price of her freedom is too high. “Look at yourself,” she says to Holly. “They have a name for faces like that.” We learn what that name is when she confronts Holly in the café just as Harry is stealing in by the back entrance and catches the end of their conversation. “Holly. What a silly name,” Anna is saying. “You must feel very proud to be a police informer [my emphasis].” It is on the word “informer” that Harry pulls his gun, and at that point his expression suggests he would do something to Holly, for this is the worst betrayal in his eyes. “Informer” was certainly a loaded word in the Hollywood of 1949, reeling from the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee and prior to the McCarthyist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, which will see friend informing on friend. Harry’s sentimental (complacent?) belief in Holly’s unwavering loyalty has proved his undoing.[xvi]
Extract 3: Chase, Funeral and Finale
From the heights of Vienna to its depths: from the top of the Great Wheel to the sewers. Greene was fascinated by the sewers: what he called, “a strange world, unknown to most of us, that lies under our feet.”[xvii] I suspect he saw people like that, essentially unknowable and with hidden depths; and the final chase does feel as if it represents the point when Lime is finally and inescapably trapped by the dark deviousness of his own personality. At the end, he is cornered, his bid for freedom now rendered as just fingers through a grating that lead out onto the street (another of the film’s indelible images). He has shot the sympathetic Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and retribution is at hand. Now wounded, he will nod consent for Holly to shoot him, even at the end holding dominion over him and, as it were, calling the shots. There is a loud report; and Holly will come back down the tunnel alone with gun in hand, looking for all the world, and for the only time in the film, like one of those western heroes he writes about.
There follows a funeral scene which echoes how the film has begun and brings the narrative full circle (like the Great Wheel). What a strange narrative journey it has been: of a man investigating the suspicious circumstances of his friend’s death; suspecting he has been murdered but then discovering he is a murderer; and who, in a delicious stroke of irony that Harry himself might have appreciated, finds that finally it will fall upon him to kill the friend whose death he has been investigating. And yet is Harry dead really? His death is implied, not shown- like the ravages of his diluted penicillin. He still gets the girl, living on in the memory of Anna, who departs from the cemetery and walks past the waiting Holly without so much as a glance, leaving him on the margins of the film frame and amongst the falling leaves, sidelined in love, the absolute epitome of the forlorn romantic loser. Would audiences remain in their seats for this long goodbye and tolerate an unhappy ending in what had been intended as a film with, in Graham Greene’s words, no other desire than “to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh.” ?[xviii] Greene had misgivings, but Reed insisted that artistic truth should take precedence over commercial calculation, and he was triumphantly vindicated. As Greene later generously acknowledged, he had underestimated the mastery of Carol Reed’s direction and the potency of Anton Karas’s music in making the ending so perfect a conclusion. Although Greene said they had no desire to move people’s political emotions, it seems to me that, if T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land is the definitive evocation of post-World War One decadence, demoralisation and dismay, then its equivalent artistic masterpiece of post World War Two is The Third Man. With its own babble of languages and heap of broken images, and with its extraordinary visual deployment of a devastated Vienna to suggest a whole culture and civilisation in ruins, The Third Man quite transcends its thriller genre. At its heart stands Harry Lime, buried but seemingly imperishable, for he will soon be resurrected on radio and on television. With just a few lightning strokes of inspired creativity, Welles, Greene and Reed had fashioned an altogether extraordinary character who was realistic, symbolic, and mythical all at the same time.
[i] Graham Greene, Ways of Escape ,Penguin, 1980, pp181-2.
[ii]The Pleasure Dome, Secker & Warburg, 1972, pp.3-4.
[iii] Peter Conrad, Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life, Faber & Faber,2003, p.329.
[iv] Articles of Faith, edited by Ian Thomson, Signal books, 2006, p.146.
[v] Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a work close to Greene’s heart also. As I have argued in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), it has always seemed to me that the relationship between Holly Martins and Harry Lime owes its pattern to the Marlow/Kurtz relationship in the Conrad novella. “In both cases, one can see the attraction of the ostensibly ‘good’ character for the ostensibly ‘evil’ character, who makes him uncomfortably aware of darker potentialities within himself that he would rather not see. In Greene’s screenplay, Lime is the suppressed Dionysiac side of Martins’ inhibited personality, representing an outlawed vitality that Martins both envies and fears. Marlow has the same ambivalence towards Kurtz [ Conrad’s phrase for this is “the fascination of the abomination”] In both cases , the temptation of irresponsible licence that his ‘double’ represents is to be rooted out in a symbolic confrontation in darkness- in Conrad’s case, in the heart of the jungle; in Greene’s case, in the sewers of Vienna.” (p.26)
[vi] The Third Man screenplay, Faber &Faber, 1973, p.63.
[vii] ibid, p.95
[viii] After seeing the film, the great Hollywood director, William Wyler had sent Carol Reed a spirit level, with a note that read: “ Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?” See Nicholas Wapshott, The Man Between: A Biography of Carol Reed, Chatto & Windus, 1990, p.228.
[ix] André Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View, Elm Tree books, 1978, p.105
[x] Graham Greene, Why the Epigraph?, Nonesuch Press, 1989.
[xi] Graham Greene, Collected Essays ,Penguin, 1970, p.17.
[xii] When Welles’s daughter Chris saw the film with her father and told him afterwards that she felt sorry for Lime at the end, he was delighted. “That’s what makes the movie work…and any other one, for that matter- that you can feel sympathy for the villain.” But when she asked him whether he liked Harry Lime, Welles replied: “Like him? I hate him. He’s utterly cold and without passion.” She says she was startled by the vehemence with which he spoke. See Chris Welles Feder, In My Father’s Shadow, Mainstream Publishing, 2009, p.101.
[xiii] Peter Conrad, p.357.
[xiv] See Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-Making, edited by Paul Cronin, Faber, 2004, pp.55-7.
[xv] Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Harper Collins, 1993, p.296.
[xvi] The screenwriter William Rose once wrote that the basic theme of his screenplay for Alexander Mackendrick’s classic black comedy, The Ladykillers was: “In the Worst of all Men is a little bit of Good – that will destroy them”: see Mackendrick, On Film-Making pp. 103-4. This could apply to the ending of Greene’s short story, “Across the Bridge” and is also applicable to Harry Lime.
[xvii] The Third Man screenplay, p.86.
[xviii] Graham Greene, ‘Preface’, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, Penguin,1971, p.11.
GRAHAM GREENE’S ROMANIAN CONNECTION: A 30-YEAR CORRESPONDENCE
Graham Greene made a visit to Romania (People’s Republic of Romania, as it was called then) in 1962. It was his 1955 novel The Quiet American – with its trenchantly critical depiction of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and its British protagonist who, in the end, takes the Communist side in the conflict – which had opened the doors for this Western Catholic novelist to what was then the Soviet bloc. As Newsweek reported with dismay to the American public, ‘the Kremlin has discovered Graham Greene’, though ‘not the Greene of The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, whose characters wander through a haze of tortured religiosity’, but ‘the political Greene of The Quiet American’, which Pravda itself, adding its voice to ‘a chorus of acclaim from Soviet journals and newspapers’, had called ‘the most remarkable event’ of recent British literary history.[i] During 1957, Greene visited Russia twice.[ii] Before the end of the Cold War he would return several times – once in 1960, when he attended a representation of Sergei Yutkevich’s and Nikolai Rozhkov’s production of the Quiet American, at the Moscow Drama and Comedy Theatre.[iii]
Greene’s novel had been translated into Russian in 1956, and the other Eastern bloc countries seem to have been quick to follow suit. A Romanian translation by Radu Lupan appeared in 1957 at the Editura de Stat pentru Literatură și Artă. (It wasn’t the very first Romanian translation of a Graham Greene novel; The Confidential Agent had been translated for the first time in 1945.) It was Lupan who also translated Our Man in Havana (in 1960, for the same publishing house), for which he also provided an introduction portraying Greene as a politically progressive writer.
Greene arrived in Romania on August 26, 1962. He spent a few days in Bucharest, a few more days at the seaside and, finally, a few days travelling through Transylvania; all in all, he was in Romania for nearly two weeks. It was Lupan who acted as his guide in Transylvania, while during his excursion to the seaside he was accompanied by a Romanian poet named Petre Solomon. For the rest of Romania’s state socialist era, which ended in 1989, Solomon would become the official translator of Greene’s novels into Romanian. His translations of The Ministry of Fear and The Confidential Agent appeared in 1965, followed by A Gun for Sale in 1967, A Burnt-Out Case in 1968, see left, (with Solomon also providing a substantial introductory study), The Comedians in 1969, a short story collection in 1973, Travels with My Aunt in 1982, The Tenth Man and Doctor Fischer of Geneva in 1986 (brought together in a single volume), and The Captain and the Enemy in 1991 – the year in which both Greene and Solomon died. A final translation from Greene by Petre Solomon – the short story collection May We Borrow Your Husband? – came out in 1993.
During the state socialist era, Solomon seems to have applied more than once for permission to translate The Power and the Glory – the 1940 novel most often cited as Greene’s masterpiece. But that novel, with its clearly religious sensibility, not to mention its hostile depiction of Mexico under a socialist regime, was never deemed acceptable enough to pass Romanian censorship. Of Greene’s quartet of major ‘Catholic novels’, only one – The Heart of the Matter – was translated into Romanian (by Liana Dobrescu, in 1979) before the fall of the Communist regime. Romanian readers were thus kept for decades from appreciating the full scope of Greene’s literary imagination – a situation only corrected in the 2000s by a new series of translations.[iv]
Greene never returned to Romania after his 1962 visit, but he and Petre Solomon exchanged many letters in the course of the next three decades. Greene’s earliest letter to Solomon, letting him know that he had arrived safely back in London (if only after missing his connection in Vienna), and also that he intended to mail him copies of A Burnt-Out Case, The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, and In Search of a Character: Two African Journals, is dated 10 September 1962. Greene’s last letter to his Romanian translator is dated February 12, 1991 – less than two months before the novelist’s death. Solomon’s own death would come eight months later, at the age of 68. The Greene-Solomon correspondence, comprising all or nearly all of Greene’s letters and early drafts of some of Solomon’s, is the property of the translator’s son, Alexandru Solomon, a noted documentary filmmaker. I am deeply grateful to Alexandru Solomon and his wife, Ada Solomon – an important film producer – for letting me consult it.
It cannot be claimed that the Greene-Solomon letters shed any substantial new light on the British novelist’s life and work. Through all those years, Greene kept his communications to Solomon laconic and businesslike, never engaging in anything resembling a true discussion of literature or world events. He didn’t have much to say or ask about Romania – a country which seems never to have caught his imagination except to a very limited degree, even compared to other Eastern bloc countries, like Czechoslovakia or Catholic Poland. His references to it, in either his public writings or his diaries, seem to be very few and to attest to this lack of engagement. According to scholar Brian Diemert, Greene spent the Cold War decades looking for ways out of the binaries centred on support for either the United States or the Soviet Union: he sought developing nations where socialism and communism appeared to be evolving ‘along lines distinct from the Soviet or the Chinese models’.[v] The Romania of the early 1960s, tentatively distancing itself from the Soviet Union, could have been taken for such a promising place. However, travelling through Cuba in 1966, and praising in his journal the enthusiasm that he saw invested in the construction of Cuban socialism, he contrasted it with what he called ‘the cynicism of Romania’.[vi] As Diemert puts it, Greene’s ‘continued search for communism’s human face’ led him more and more towards ‘Third World communism or some combination of liberation theology’.[vii] It is not surprising if Romanian Communism appeared to him as early as 1962 to be corrupt. On the other hand, he may not have looked too closely. In a foreword to Brighton Rock[viii] he later confessed that what he actually had in mind, as he was travelling through the Carpathians, was the map of ‘Kravonia’ – a fictional country created in 1906 by the English novelist Anthony Hope that he had fantasised about since childhood.
Greene was evidently very adept at keeping a correspondence going for many years while also keeping his correspondent at arm’s length. His connection to his Romanian translator was one of the many such professional connections that he kept in many countries – some of which were state socialist. (His unique position as a Western literary celebrity whose name could open a lot of doors in the sphere of Communist influence also made him valuable to the British Secret Service, for which he had worked during World War II; there is evidence that he informally continued to pass on information to his old contacts there.) Most of Greene’s letters to Solomon were dictated – to Josephine Reid, who was Greene’s secretary until the mid-70s, and then to his sister, Elisabeth Dennys, who replaced her – and either personally signed by him, or else signed in absence (in which case this is specified under the signature). Only four of them were handwritten. During the first decade of their long-distance acquaintance, Solomon translated six books by Greene, and for each of them he sent the author lists of words and passages that he found obscure; Greene dictated answers to all these queries. He also helped Solomon by sending him copies of the French translations, and also other books, not by him – among them a big Oxford dictionary and a collection of Herman Melville’s stories (unobtainable at the time – 1965 – in Britain, at least according to Greene’s letter, and thus procured from the U.S. through his American agent). Asked by Solomon which Joseph Conrad stories he should translate first, Greene gave him some suggestions. He also recommended some books on Henry James (Solomon’s Romanian-language book-length introduction to James’s writings appeared in 1988).
There is very little that is personal in this 30-year long correspondence. The earlier letters keep returning to the two men’s one shared memory of adventure – when Greene, after many drinks in Solomon’s company, had insisted on taking a bathe in the Black Sea very late at night, and Solomon, trying to look after him in the waves, had contracted otitis in the left ear. As late as 1971, Greene wrote to Solomon that he thought of him ‘a lot a few weeks ago when I was suffering from my ear rather in the same way as you suffered after our midnight bathe in the Black Sea’. The episode – the fragile basis for a closer rapport than the distant, unequal, purely professional dealings of internationally famous British author and obscure Romanian translator – would keep making appearances in the correspondence, although, by the 80s, the otitis seems to have mutated, in Greene’s memory, into an eye ailment.
In the early days of their correspondence, Greene kept apologising for the briefness of his replies, more than once assuring Solomon that he was the same with everybody he wrote to. On March 31, 1964: ‘Forgive this hasty scrawl but I have been away for four weeks struggling with a novel and finishing a play and I have a mass of correspondence to deal with.’ On September 17, 1964: ‘Forgive this hurried line but I have a play [the London premiere of Carving a Statue] coming on today.’ On March 1, 1965: ‘I am just back for a few days to find your new questions [related to The Ministry of Fear, which Solomon was translating at the time], so forgive a very hurried note.’ On July 18, 1966: ‘Forgive a rather perfunctory reply to your letter, but I am feeling very tired after finishing the film script of The Comedians. What exciting news that you have become the father of a boy – I hope he will continue healthily to interrupt your work of translation! Now for your questions [related to A Gun for Sale] as far as I can answer them.’ This note is followed by a page and a half of dictated explanations of words and passages from the book.
Through the years, Greene also did a lot of apologising for being unable to meet Solomon during the latter’s infrequent trips to England or to France, where Greene had moved in the mid-60s. Solomon’s journal, published in Romania in four volumes between 2006 and 2012, mentions one Parisian meeting, which happened on July 7, 1967.[ix] On that occasion, Greene invited him for drinks to his Boulevard Malesherbes apartment, and then to a restaurant downstairs. According to Solomon’s diary notes, they talked about the recent Arab-Israeli war (Greene declaring himself one-hundred percent pro-Israeli), about Cuba (Greene enthusiastic), and about New York (Greene saying that it reeked of violence and strident pornography like 1930s Berlin). Greene talked about his intention to orchestrate the mass resignation of the Honorary Members of the American Academy – Institute of Arts and Letters, in protest against the Vietnam War. He described himself as a politically committed writer who generally felt better understood by Marxist critics from the socialist world than by Western critics, the latter too often unwilling to see beyond the Catholic aspects of his novels. They also talked about literary life in London – Greene saying that he disliked the company of writers and comparing it to masturbation – and France – Greene saying that he didn’t socialise much with French writers either, but mentioning as an apparent exception the name of Maurice Druon, then recently elected to the Académie Française. Solomon also jotted down Greene’s pronouncements on a number of writers – classics like Melville (‘a giant’) and Joyce (Greene having come to prefer the Joyce of Dubliners), but also contemporary writers like Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson (both of them dismissed by Greene).
There is no mention of this meeting in Greene’s letters to Solomon. However, a handwritten letter, Greene’s first, dated November 22 (the year has to be 1966) alludes to an earlier, somewhat embarrassing Paris meeting, on which Solomon’s published diary keeps silent. It’s a strange-sounding letter: ‘My dear Petre, I must apologise for receiving you so churlishly this afternoon, but the facts are these. After sending you a message from Antibes [which became Greene’s main place of residence, although he also kept the apartment in Paris] I was summoned to Paris yesterday by the murder of an old friend in mysterious circumstances in Morocco. When you called I couldn’t let you in because his widow was with me in a state of great distress. I have to look after her tomorrow too, and then I return to my flat in Antibes. I wish you could have visited me there. Affectionately, Graham Greene.’ Greene’s excuse may sound somewhat outlandish, like something out of one of his own thrillers, but the fact is that the tortured dead body of Yves Allain, a World War II French Resistance hero and espionage colleague of Greene’s, had recently been identified in Morocco. The Times of November 24, 1966 carried Greene’s tribute to Allain.
There were no further meetings between Greene and Solomon after 1967. There were a few phone conversations; and practically every time he got an opportunity to travel to the West (France, Belgium, Germany and the UK being his four destinations), Solomon checked with Greene to see if it was possible to visit him. It never was. For example, in a 1979 letter, Greene wrote that recent surgery made him unfit for the train journey between Antibes and Paris, and he couldn’t take the plane either because of an airport strike. After encouraging Solomon to give him a phone call, and also to send him the English-language poems he had been working on, he wrapped up by assuring his Romanian translator that he would ‘always remember that midnight bathe in the Black Sea’, as well as Solomon’s ‘poor eye [sic] afterwards’. On March 30, 1981, Greene wrote: ‘I have been away in England and only just received your letter of the 19th. I am glad that you have got as far as Belgium anyway! And I do hope we can meet as you are staying for two months nearby. I am afraid it won’t be immediately as at the beginning of next week I go off for ten days to Palestine to get a prize in Jerusalem!’ On April 10, he was back from Jerusalem: ‘I was away a week, so you can imagine the amount of mail waiting for me. Now I leave for England (London) on the 20th & stay there till the 26th, so it is impossible to get to Paris. I can’t alter the London dates because among other engagements are my surgical check-up & my brother’s 80th birthday & I have to return here [Antibes] for an engagement on the 28th. So fate is against it unless you were able to break your journey say on the 27th via Nice. I would find you a room here – oh, I see you are going to London then. I am in a bit of a muddle. Anyway send me copies of your poems here.’ In August or September 1982 there was another failed meeting: ‘I am very sorry that it was quite impossible for me to get to Paris during your stay’, wrote Greene on September 12. ‘The war with Nice keeps me to Antibes’, he added, referring to the campaign he was leading at the time against the authorities of Nice – up to the Mayor, Jacques Médecin – accusing them of corruption and complicity with organised crime. (Greene’s pamphlet J’Accuse had come out in May 1982.) On October 11, 1984 – shortly after Greene’s 80th birthday – Solomon called him from Marseille; according to Solomon’s diary, Greene was willing to receive him in Antibes the same day, but Solomon couldn’t afford the train journey.[x] Soon after this, on October 24, Greene wrote to express his pleasure at hearing Solomon’s voice on the phone, and also his regret that it couldn’t be a meeting.
Greene’s correspondence with Petre Solomon affords an opportunity for observing the British writer’s balancing act of maintaining a friendly professional connection – one of many – for decades, while keeping it long-distance and marginal. Relationships like this were part of the necessary work of maintaining an international reputation, work that, judging from the evidence of this case, Greene performed adroitly and sensitively – for the most part. He clearly didn’t have much time, or much of himself, to give this Romanian acquaintance, but he was aware that anything he gave would be appreciated anyway, and he was generally able to perform with some delicacy the juggling trick of remaining guarded without making his Romanian translator feel snubbed or unwelcome. And for all his diffidence, and despite the businesslike ‘nothing-specialness’ of most of the letters, some of Greene’s qualities do shine through occasionally – his cruelty as well as his generosity. And partly because of the sense of time passing and both letter-writers getting older, and their acquaintance enduring, the correspondence reads like the story of a real relationship; it has an element of comedy, a big moment of crisis, and towards the end, as both Greene and Solomon entered 1991, the last year of their lives, a touch of something like pathos.
It is especially interesting when considered from Solomon’s end. In the early-to-mid-60s, when he and Greene started corresponding, he had little access to books in English – he repeatedly asked Greene to supply him with a copy of this or that – and his grasp of the language was not very sure: when translating Greene’s works, he relied heavily on the French translations, also provided by Greene. The specific queries he sent to Greene, about passages in some of his novels set in London (A Gun for Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear), often revealed his total separation from the world described by Greene – its physical geography, commodities and customs. One of the long lists of terms and references which he asked Greene to clarify for him includes the names Piccadilly, Burlington Arcade, and Garland Hotel (‘a hotel now destroyed by the blitz’, explained Greene). There are not a few lists like this. Over the years, Greene dictated explanations for names and phrases like Barkers (‘a shop in London’), Harrods (‘a shop in London’), the Cotswolds (‘a part of England’), ‘a little cad car’ (‘a two-seater open sports car’), ‘Woolworth ring’ (‘a ring bought in a Woolworth’s store. Woolworth’s are a big American Co. which have cheap price stores in England.’), and ‘bunny girls’ (‘waitresses scantily clothed in American clubs called Playboy who wear a rabbit’s tail on their bottoms’). Exchanges like these – between the English writer and the translator from an Eastern European state socialist country, to whom the phrase ‘bunny girls’ was bewilderingly exotic – provide a glimpse into an era when the world (or, anyway, most of it) wasn’t yet a single system, a single market.
It is worth pointing out that, for a Romanian citizen from that era, Petre Solomon was cosmopolitan enough. In 1944, faced with the prospect of being sent to a work camp for Jews, he had emigrated to Palestine; he had lived there until 1946, studying English – he had continued his studies upon his return to Bucharest. As a young man, he had developed a close literary friendship with Paul Celan, who was later to attain great prestige as a German poet of Romanian origin. Solomon would go on to write a book called Paul Celan: The Romanian Dimension – published in English by Syracuse University Press in 2019. He was an expert in the poetry of Rimbaud, whose completed works he translated into Romanian. His first translations from English literature were from Shakespeare and Shelley.
On the other hand, he was aware of the lack of a Romanian tradition of Anglophone intellectuals – the models had tended to be French, German and Italian. As he wrote somewhere in his journal, ‘before the war, Romanian specialists in literary translations from the English language could be counted on the fingers of a single hand’.[xi] When writing to Greene, he was aware of the stilted, antiquated quality of his English. He was also painfully unsure of the right tone – when and how to be jocular, how familiar he should be, how to avoid boring ‘the great man’, etc. Writing in Romanian in his diaries – which add up to a valuable between-the-lines record of one Jewish Romanian intellectual’s gradual disenchantment with Romanian state socialism – he is a different writer, steady, soberly lapidary, unostentatiously sophisticated. For example, this was his cool-eyed initial appraisal of Graham Greene, at their first meeting in 1962, when he knew little of his work: ‘Greene: very tall; watery blue eyes; rather muscular; beautiful hands. Not especially elegant. […] His political consciousness leaves a lot to be desired: he’s intoxicated with various sorts of anti-communist prejudice, although he tries to come towards us. He talks about the welfare state as if it were reality – a position that he doesn’t really back up; the idea seems to be that, in England, earnings are becoming more equal, the gap between workers and capitalists is decreasing, and in a couple of generations there would be perfect equality. All this due to taxation. He admits that in the U.S. the gap is an abyss and that American capitalism gives a very bad example. […] He’s an individualist à outrance, but with antennae reaching towards the world around him and with a real interest in life.’[xii]
The diarist Solomon, with his terseness and his appraising eye, contrasts with the Solomon writing to Greene in English – and coming across as wordy (and at the same time aware of the inadequacy of his words), daunted, and lacking in worldliness. For a low-ranking literary figure from recently destalinised Romania, travelling to a Western country was a rare event – at the beginning of a diary entry[xiii] dedicated to one such trip, he noted that it was his fourth, before proceeding to hungrily jot down views, places visited, films seen, etc. Every time he asked Greene whether it would be possible to meet in three or six months’ time in London or Paris, the unvoiced subtext is that, for him, going there for a few days was a rare occasion which won’t renew itself too soon. His life can appear as almost pathetically constricted when set next to the Englishman’s – who was, of course, a celebrated traveller – even if Solomon was a fairly privileged Romanian citizen and socialist Romania itself was, for a while, in the late 1960s, relatively open to the West. The publication of Solomon’s translation of The Comedians in 1969 – only three years after the first English edition – was itself an indicator of that openness. It is true that, back in the 1950s, Romanian publishers had been even swifter in translating The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, but that was Cold War swiftness – those books were regarded in the Soviet bloc as useful weapons.
It was at the time of The Comedians that Greene started showing signs of impatience with the long lists of words and passages that Solomon kept sending him for elucidation. The list dealt with by Greene in his letter of November 21, 1966, contained several dozen terms, and as the novelist was going through them, dictating explanations to his secretary, it sometimes looks as if he was pulling Solomon’s leg: ‘Gin-rummy is a card game. It would be too long to give you all the rules. […] massacre of pigs means massacre of pigs. […] South of Piccadilly I am afraid means south of Piccadilly the London street. […] I don’t understand your difficulty.’ Some of the translator’s difficulties are indeed not easy to understand by any standards. ‘Cherries are a fruit’, wrote Greene in answer to one of them, adding with a touch of exasperation: ‘Haven’t you got your big dictionary?!’
The crisis came six years later, as Greene was addressing Solomon’s difficulties with The Basement Room and several other short stories: ‘As I don’t have the Heinemann standard edition it’s difficult for me to trace some of your questions. Sir Arthur Stillwater I imagine is simply an imaginary name for an imaginary character. I don’t understand the difficulty here. […] Bo is a town in Sierra Leone. Lord Sandale like Stillwater is the name of an imaginary person. Baines’ remark “I said don’t let me touch that black again” is alluding to some incident in his life or his rather imaginary life in Africa. I don’t know what it refers to, and the boy only hears that phrase. Some of your questions do seem to me to show a complete lack of comprehension of the story.’ To his list of replies to this particular list of questions, Greene attache a very short letter (dictated and signed in absence, and dated 9 February 1972) which reads: ‘I wonder really if it would not be better to translate from the French rather than from the English because some of your questions do seem to show that French might be a better tongue for you. Affectionately, Graham Greene.’
Greene’s words drew blood. Petre Solomon’s reply, dated February 23, is rather painful to read. (A reader of Greene novels can be put in mind of the pathos attained in some scenes by some of his supporting characters.) ‘Dear Graham Greene, I don’t know whether you intended it or not, but your letter dated 9 February did hurt me. Of course one doesn’t weep at fifty, but the blow is a rather damaging one. For a writer who happens to have translated nearly fifty books from English, Shakespeare and Shelley included, your remark that “it would be better to translate from the French rather than from the English” cannot be but unsavoury. The more so because six of the above-mentioned fifty books are your own, rendered by me into my language. Why are you punishing me in this way? I never pretended to be a perfect reader or speaker of your language, only a native Englishman could boast of such a knowledge. But I did my best to understand whatever I wanted to translate, and I have, here, the reputation of a good translator from the English. My queries seem to have irritated you up to the boiling degree, whereas my sole intention was to make sure no mistake remains in my text. Perhaps I was awkward in asking some things which to you are self-explaining. Of course I’m not entering into any polemics with you. How could I? You are a world-famous author, and I’m nothing, or nearly nothing. But I wanted to let you know that your disobliging remarks did hurt me.’
There was no immediate answer from Greene. Then, in October, there was a short letter acknowledging receipt of Solomon’s customary birthday wishes and informing the translator that a new novel, The Honorary Consul, was ready for publication. After this, things would get back to normal, though not immediately – there would be only one letter in 1973, one letter in 1974, and none between 1975 and the end of 1979, when the relationship resumed – and Solomon would never again send such long lists of questions. On the other hand, the acquaintance entered a warmer phase after Solomon sent Greene some of the poems he had been writing in English. With the promptitude and generosity that he had shown to countless other writers, Greene replied on November 29, 1979: ‘My dear Petre, I received your poems today. I thought that if I liked a poem I would put a little cross on the page for reference. I find now there are 19 crosses – a pretty remarkable score. Two poems – The Hour Glass & The Cemetery – have two crosses! – which make 21! I liked very much the poems about writing poetry in a foreign language – a highly original theme. I want very much to see some of these in print, & what I would like to do is to get at least a dozen well typed & well photocopied & start trying to interest a weekly paper – I would try first The Spectator, though it seldom publishes poetry. Book publication is much more difficult, but if a number appeared first in a weekly I would try to interest a small publisher called Carcanet who specialise in poetry & seem not afraid of a new name. I shall be going [to London] to see my surgeon in January & I would like to take a selection of your poems with me & try what I can do. Anyway I congratulate you on a fine start. Go on – whatever happens.’
The pace of the correspondence picked up again after this, Greene’s encouragements to Solomon and his attempts to help him publish providing them with their main subject over the next four years or so. In the end, Greene would help him get a poem – ‘A Language Is a House’ – published in The Times Literary Supplement, and another one – ‘Building a Poem’ – in The Spectator. Other possibilities would prove to be dead ends, Greene supportively blaming ‘the so-called intellectual press’ for only choosing to publish poems ‘which seem to me of a quite incredible dullness and lack of mood, leave alone some melody’. Apart from that, the exchanges between the two men in this last decade of their lives were mainly enlivened by occasional chit-chat about films: Solomon watching, on Greene’s recommendation, the 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant – elsewhere described by former film critic Greene as ‘the film which I’ve liked more than anything else in recent years, [although] I’ve only seen twelve films probably in the last ten years.’[xiv]; Greene commenting on the 1957 Across the Bridge (‘A friend of mine who is now dead, Robert Stafford, was the producer. I thought it was not altogether bad but not very good.’), a film adapted from one of his short stories and otherwise seldom mentioned by him; Greene admitting that he ‘couldn’t bear’ to watch the 1972 Hollywood adaptation of Travels with My Aunt (‘The script which was smuggled to me from Spain was appalling.’). Greene’s producer friend was John not Robert Stafford: no doubt a memory-slip on his part.
There was another silence, from 1987 to 1990. When Petre Solomon wrote again, it was after the violent fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist regime. The correspondence contains only one previous hint at Romania’s political situation – a few words from Greene, in the aftermath of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, appreciating the fact that, by refusing to participate in the Soviet-led invasion, Ceaușescu’s Romania had ‘come out of this situation with its honour unimpaired’. Romania and its regime had deteriorated a lot since then – Solomon’s diaries trace this modest, honest man’s growing disenchantment with the Eastern European version of state socialism. Still, Romania’s situation in its first post-communist months filled him with confusion and anxiety verging on distress, and he felt the need to talk to Greene about it – an urge he compared to that of Arthur Rowe, Greene’s protagonist from The Ministry of Fear, who had ‘an overpowering desire to talk to someone frankly’. He was dismayed by the vulgarity and the predatory mediocrity ‘unleashed by the recent events’. Rather touchingly, he asked the British writer – notorious as, among other things, a jaded connoisseur of depravity – to share his sense of shock at the appearance of sex ads in the post-communist Romanian press. He told Greene that he found solace in his books – the way they delineate ‘the human predicament’ without illusions, ‘but with a deep compassion’.
It was a very sick, 86 year-old Graham Greene who answered these last letters. His memory of the distant beginnings of his acquaintance with Solomon seems to have gone out of focus. In his penultimate letter he wrote: ‘I think of you often in the difficult situation in which you live. […] I have happy memories of my own visit to Romania, in far distant days before I think we knew each other. I wish the country had remained as it was then.’ And the last letter, on February 12, 1991, from the Swiss clinic where Greene would die two months later, reads: ‘Dear Petre, thank you belatedly for your letter of January 10, but I am in a very bad state of health and find it very difficult to get any work done. I am glad you came to a final arrangement with the publisher over The Captain [Greene’s final novel, The Captain and the Enemy]. I’m delighted to hear how busy you are with my work and you know how I trust your translations.’ Then back to the bread and butter of their correspondence – Greene’s helping Solomon with his translation difficulties: ‘Toad of Toad Hall was a well known children’s play of the period. “Brave Horatius” comes from a poem by Macaulay – a not very good one. Affectionately yours, Graham.’
[i] Quoted in Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene Volume Two: 1939-1955, London: Jonathan Cape, 1994, 472-3.
[ii] Christopher Hull, Our Man Down in Havana: The Story Behind Graham Greene’s Cold War Spy Novel, New York-London: Pegasus Books, 2019, 110.
[iii] Richard Greene (ed.), Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, London: Little, Brown, 2007, 248.
[iv] Doina Cerăceanu translated The End of the Affair, Alexandru Vlad did The Power and the Glory, The Honorary Consul and Stamboul Train, and I myself did Brighton Rock, The Human Factor and England Made Me.
[v] Brian Diemert, „The anti-American: Graham Greene and the Cold War in the 1950s”, in Andrew Hammond (ed.), Cold War Literature: Writing the Global Conflict, London-New York: Routledge, 2006, 215-6.
[vi] Quoted by Hull, 246.
[vii] Diemert, 222.
[viii] Reproduced in Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, London: Vintage Classics, 1999 (first edition: 1980), 79.
[ix] Petre Solomon, „Am să povestesc cândva aceste zile…”. Pagini de jurnal, memorii, însemnări”, volume II, Bucharest: Vinea, 2008, 210-12.
[x] Solomon, „Am să povestesc…”, volume IV, 2012, 144.
[xi] Solomon, „Am să povestesc…”, volume IV, 2012, 43.
[xii] Solomon, „Am să povestesc…”, volume II, 2008, 141-42.
[xiii] Solomon, „Am să povestesc…”, volume II, 2008, 231.
[xiv] Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theatre, 3 September 1984, printed in David Parkinson (ed.), The Graham Greene Film Reader: Mornings in the Dark, Manchester: Carcanet, 1993, 559.