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