Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 21
Graham Greene’s new novel begins with the figure of a twelve-year-old boy, Victor Baxter—‘Baxter Three’—fleeing across his boarding school quad to escape from his enemies. Baxter is one of nature’s ‘Amalekites’, an outsider, intended, as the Bible suggests, for slaying. So when the mysterious, piratical ‘Captain’ arrives with a note from the boy’s father and permission to take him out, young Baxter looks upon him as a saviour: a view he will, in a way, never lose, for it is the Captain who enables him to stop being an Amalekite almost for ever, by abducting him and so changing the course of his life.
‘Will you be sure to know the good side from the bad, the Captain from the enemy?’ reads the novel’s epigraph, and within a page or two Greene has enmeshed us in just such a moral tangle: Were the boy’s schoolfellows his real foes? Is his abductor truly on the good side? Did the Captain really win Baxter Three from his father in a game of backgammon? Or was it, as his father later insists, actually chess? Can the father be what he is called through the book: viz., ‘the Devil’? And is the Captain justified, that is to say right, to have captured this boy for the sake of the woman he purports to love, a certain Liza, who longs for a child—particularly as Liza, when the Captain first met her, was recovering from an abortion, which was itself the outcome of her liaison with the elder Baxter, the Devil himself?
For seventy-nine pages, as he explores such questions with a miraculous, zany lightness of touch, Greene writes like a dream. There can rarely have been a less probable fictional family—helpless Liza and her crook of a beau, looking after the Devil’s child—but their story is pure delight. The Captain, also known as Colonel Claridge, the Major, the Sergeant, Señor Smith and Mr Brown, gives Baxter Three an education in the slipperiness and mutability of things. The boy quickly becomes ‘Jim’, while ‘Victor’ is added to the Captain’s list of names. Geography, under the Captain’s tutelage, becomes a war game. And there’s economics, too: ‘If you’re a bit short of cash … never drink at the bar, unless you’ve booked a room first, for otherwise they want their money straight away.’ Whereas, once you’ve booked a room, you can eat a hearty dinner and then abscond, leaving behind a cheap suitcase containing two stout bricks.
Most problematic of all, however, are the Captain’s lessons in love. He takes him to see the film King Kong, and the boy is puzzled. ‘“Why doesn’t he drop her?” I asked. I suppose I sounded very heartless to the Captain, for he replied harshly, “He loves her, boy. Can’t you understand that—he loves her?” But of course I couldn’t understand.’ Of course, because it is Jim’s tragedy to be unable to love any human being. (Even more bewildering to him is the Captain’s assertion that the woman’s kicking out at Kong does not mean she doesn’t like him. ‘It’s a woman’s way.’)
The unloving child, the pale, needy woman and the cut-price corsair who needs her are as haunting (and, I suppose one ought to say, ‘seedy’) a trio as Greene has come up with in a long time. And while we’re seeing through twelve-year-old Jim’s cold eyes, the novel works. Then we leap ahead ten years. Jim is now twenty-two, Liza dies an accidental death while the Captain is away in Panama, and the spell breaks.
Part of the problem is technical. Greene has described the fitful manner in which the novel was written over a period of some thirteen years, and his fictional Jim’s narrative method now acquires something of the same stop-go quality. Jim becomes a self-conscious narrator, revising and updating his text as we go along; until at length he throws the whole thing into a waste-paper basket, whence it is retrieved by one Colonel Martinez, an associate of the Captain’s, who considers having it recommended for a Cuban literary prize. After the lightness of the novel’s early pages, this comes across as heavy-handed stuff.
But the biggest disappointment is the weakening of emotional tension that results from Liza’s death. With the woman out of the way, the book becomes something like a ripping yam, in which the old, male and somewhat exhausted theme of the betrayal of the (fake) father by the (false) son moves ponderously to centre stage.
Jim, lusting for adventure, has decided to join the Captain in Panama, where, it transpires, he’s busy airlifting weapons to the Sandinistas (the action takes place before the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution). Geography is, once again, a war game, but Jim is blithely ignorant of Latin America (‘Where’s Estelí? What country are you talking about?’ And, a little later: ‘What Canal treaty?’). He lies to the Captain, not daring to tell him that Liza is dead; and at last, after a bitter quarrel, spills the beans about his surrogate father’s secret plane to Mr Quigly, an Englishman with a bit of an American accent, who poses as a financial correspondent but is actually the ghost of many such shadowy spooks from Greeneland long ago, drinking Pisco Sours and arranging for the Captain to be shot down and killed.
The Captain turns out to be King Kong, after all. He has held on to Liza’s memory for years, writing to her every day, and when she is freed from his grasp it’s the aeroplanes that get him. (But not really the aeroplanes, as we know from the film’s famous last line: “Twas Beauty killed the Beast.’) And Jim, remorseless Jim, turns out to be an Amalekite after all: an enemy, fit to be slain.
Goodish news, then, from Greeneland. After the damp squib of Doctor Fischer of Geneva and the Don Camillo-like flatness of Monsignor Quixote, half a novel’s worth of vintage Greene is not to be sneezed at. We should be grateful for that initial champagne, and tolerant of what follows, even if much of it is a rather plain Panamanian plonk.
Yours Etc.: Letters to the Press 1945-1989
If you glance through the index of this sprightly volume, in which is to be found a most entertaining celebration of Graham Greene’s lesser-known career as a prolific author of letters to newspapers, you will find unarguable proof of his total addiction to everything about his time, from the greatest issues of the day to the humblest subject imaginable. Under ‘E’ you will find, in close proximity, El Salvador, Eliot, T. S., Elizabeth II, Queen, and Eltham Laundry Supplies Ltd. The letter G offers the equally remarkable sequence: God, sex of, Goddard, Lord Rayner, Gonzi, Archbishop, and Gorbachev, Mikhail; while, amongst the Ms, Matisse rubs shoulders with Mau Mau rebellion and Maudling; and My Fair Lady (musical) is followed by My Lai (massacre). Here is evidence of that most un-English of characteristics, an eclectic and frontierless engagement with the world; engagement not in the narrow sense of overt political affiliation, but in the broader sense of finding oneself possessed of a huge and consuming need to report on the reality of real life.
Greene has always acted upon the assumption that a writer might have a public role as well as a purely literary one; that there is much that an artist might legitimately comment on outside the confines of his art. His letters keep up a running commentary on a number of issues, notably the nature of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and of its opponents, the ‘contra’ insurgents and their puppet-masters in the United States; and the folly of NATO’s commitment to the nuclear ‘first strike’; and, at a somewhat less elevated level, the postal service itself (there are letters on fair pay for postmen, and letters containing apparently contradictory schemes to bankrupt the Post Office entirely).
The inevitable effect of such meddling is that Greene has been regularly reviled in the public prints, accused of blasphemy, bizarrerie, Communism, Jansenism and other capital offences. One of the most remarkable aspects of this collection is its demonstration of Greene’s perfect equanimity and good-humoured perseverance in the face of such opposition. When accused of becoming ‘increasingly left wing in his old age’ by Alexander Chancellor, on account of his friendship with Nicaragua’s Tomás Borge, Greene replied: ‘I am, I hope you will agree, a friend of Alexander Chancellor. Does this mean that I am seeing Blue?’ Or, when the American right-winger William F. Buckley took serious issue with Greene’s frivolous suggestion that ‘it would be equally true, or equally false’ to call the Nicaraguan government Catholic as Communist, Greene rejoined: ‘Alas, these English jokes! I
Journalists in general appear to be the only human beings for whom Graham Greene has little time or respect. ‘A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction,’ he says sharply before demolishing one Stephen Pile. Other journos who get the treatment in these pages include Bernard Levin, Penelope Gilliatt, Nicholas Wapshott, Marina Warner and Bernard Levin again. On rarer occasions, such as the fairly well-known tiff with Anthony Burgess, he quarrels with fellow-novelists as well, though in this case Burgess’s habit of telling interviewers that Greene ‘was living with a woman whose husband walks by at night and shouts up at the window “Crapaud! Salaud!”’ might be thought a sufficient provocation. (Typically, Greene quarrels only with the yelling. ‘But I live on the fourth floor. And with the traffic, how can her husband come shouting through the window?’)
Some vendettas are friendlier. The verbal swordplay between Greene and Evelyn Waugh is one of the features of this book. When an American dramatization of The Heart of the Matter flopped, Waugh wrote: ‘I long to hear an account of your Boston disaster.’ Greene, in his turn, is capable of referring to a piece of Waugh correspondence as ‘a little castrated letter’. But the friendship was a deep one, and when Waugh died Greene defended him fiercely against an attack by Beverley Nichols in the Spectator. He likens Nichols to the ‘oldest unmarried woman’ customarily employed by an unnamed West African tribe to spit upon a dead chief’s grave. ‘Evelyn never waited till a man died to release his venom.’ Greene finely remarks. ‘He would always have chosen to spit in a man’s face rather than on his grave.’
Yours Etc., in which Greene’s letters are placed in context by the excellently witty Christopher Hawtree (who remarks, at one point, in true Greene journalist-hating fashion, that ‘a haddock never looks best pleased at being squashed against a mugshot of Paul Johnson’), is a book studded with gems. Here you will learn of Greene’s addiction to practical jokes, to the formation of satirical societies and to New Statesman and Spectator competitions, particularly those asking for parodies of Graham Greene. Several of his books, including the most recent novel The Captain and the Enemy, had their origins in such competition entries. Here, too, are Greene’s letters championing Charlie Chaplin, anatomizing Indo-China, defending Nabokov’s Lolita, resigning from the American Academy over the Vietnam War, and fulminating against the outrageous decision by the British government to seize and burn books and music imported from Argentina during the Falklands War. Contraception, the Pope, liberation theology and voodoo also figure prominently. A long life, and an argumentative one; and while there have been those who wondered, as Kingsley Martin informed Greene during the course of a dispute in 1958, ‘why anyone so successful and creative as you should have become so “bitter, rude and disgruntled”,’ most readers will, I’m sure, agree that while Greene is quite capable of rudeness he is never bitter and seems a most enviably gruntled individual. Gruntlement is likewise his readers’ happy lot.
JOHN LE CARRÉ
If your characters have to hide behind façades for a living, the world of your novel can all too easily look more like a cheap stage set than the real thing. But readers read spy novels to be persuaded that they’re getting an authentic insight into the closed world on the far side of the looking-glass. It is this problem (How do you create a satisfyingly rounded portrait of Flatland? How to give faces to necessarily faceless men?) which the spy novelist must solve if he wants his work to transcend the genre and be treated as Serious Literature.
John le Carré, who wants to be taken very seriously indeed, has in the past tried two solutions to what could be called the ‘human factor’ problem. His best book, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was a brilliantly plotted procedural thriller in which the secret world was shown not to be flat but composed of different dimensions. Here character was no longer destiny. Deception and power had supplanted it. This was a theatre of masks, whose spook-world, its economy and morals in decay, became a perfect metaphor for Britain as a whole. Earlier, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the technique was different. In this variation, an agent burdened with residual human values (love, ethics, etc.) found himself at odds with the anti-ethic of the ‘espiocrats’. The ‘round’ world of the emotions struggled against the ‘flat’ world of power. This is the method to which The Russia House returns.
Love and war have long been incompatible in le Carré. His most proficient cold warriors, like George Smiley, have emotional lives that are not so hot. Whereas those who permit themselves human attachments, the ones who come in from the cold, tend to become casualties of the loveless, endless war of shadows from which they can’t really escape. To put it more simply: women usually mean trouble. Mr Palfrey, the spies’ lawyer who is the ostensible narrator of The Russia House, is Smileyishly unhappy in love; while at the centre of the novel is the love affair of an English publisher, Barley Blair, perhaps the unlikeliest spy of all le Carré’s honourable schoolboys, and a Russian woman, Katya Orlova. And from this love affair all kinds of trouble flows.
Much of the trouble is, I’m afraid, literary. There is something unavoidably stick-figure-like about le Carré’s attempts at characterization. Here, for example, is Katya’s entry into the story: ‘She was earnest. She was intelligent. She was determined. She was scared, even though her dark eyes were lit with humour. And she had that rare quality which Landau in his flowery way liked to call the Class That Only Nature Can Bestow. In other words, she had quality as well as strength.’ This is pretty close to schlockbusterese, and the novel’s male characters are not much better done by. All that public-school chatter, all those insufferable Americans and poetic/tormented/drunk Russians! And if one is going to send a fully formed human being down the mean streets of the inhuman secret world, one ought to be able to make his declaration of love more convincing than, oh, ‘It’s a mature, unselfish, absolute, thrilling love,’ or, ‘I love you so profoundly that I am ashamed to be articulate … I look at you, and I am absolutely sick of the sound of my own voice.’ At which Katya, displaying the Class That Only Nature Can Bestow, suffers herself to be kissed.
The truth is that le Carré’s strengths do not include profound characterization. He is at his best telling a terrific, mystifying story peppered with the special vocabulary that he has taught us all and which may be his greatest gift to us—mole, lamplighter, tradecraft. The human factor brings out what is most naïve and sentimental in his prose. And the biggest problem with The Russia House is that the love story takes up so much of the foreground that the spy story is almost perfunctorily simple—a Russian scientist wants his work published in the West, it turns out to contain sensational information about the limitations of Russian weaponry, the Brits recruit the Russian’s chosen publisher, the above Barley Blair, to get more out of the source, the Americans take over, Barley falls in love, things begin to go wrong … For admirers of the myriad subtle convolutions of le Carré’s plotting at its best, this is disappointingly plain fare.
Those who have liked The Russia House—and it has already acquired many distinguished admirers, including Russian ones—have praised it primarily for its portrait of the USSR in the third summer of the perestroika, for its attempts to adapt the rules of the spy genre to the requirements of what one character calls ‘glasnostics’. And there’s no doubt that the novel is full of information about the Soviet Union, from the price of notebooks to the elaborate system of barter by which people obtain the things they want; while there are glasnosticians of every type to be found within these pages, from committed believers to unreconstructed cold warriors for whom nothing has really changed. But the knowledge the book imparts is head-knowledge; there’s not much here to illumine the spirit. One page, one paragraph of Tatyana Tolstaya gives you more of Russia than all 344 pages of le Carré. What a shame that le Carré’s Western readers will outnumber readers of Tolst
The shadow world is evidently a good deal more fascinating than the one most people inhabit. Unfortunately, few serious writers have ever penetrated it, Graham Greene being the great contemporary exception. Le Carré is as close to a serious writer as the spy genre itself has thrown up. Close, but—this time, anyway—no cigar.
‘The true adventurer,’ wrote O. Henry in The Green Door, ‘goes forth aimless and uncalculating to meet and greet unknown fate. A fine example was the Prodigal Son—when he started home.’
Among the most remarkable qualities of the words adventure and adventurer is their capaciousness. Any idea that can encompass the Prodigal Son and Indiana Jones, that finds common ground between the Pilgrim Fathers’ voyage to America and the journey of the Darlings with Peter Pan to the Neverland, that suggests a connection between Alice’s step through the looking-glass and Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helix of DNA, is clearly one of the most resonant notions in the culture. We often think of adventure as a metaphor of life itself, and not only of life: ‘To die,’ Peter Pan muses, ‘will be an awfully big adventure.’
Closely connected with this version of the idea of adventure are notions of danger, of a journey, of the unknown. And, of course, of heroism: he (or she) who would voyage into the secret night, who would step off the edge of the earth because it is there, must clearly be made of the Right Stuff. Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager is perhaps a modern archetype of this myth; Huck Finn its antithesis, adventure’s anti-hero. Heroic adventure is, typically, an individualist affair. There are of course adventurer-heroes who travelled in groups—Argonauts, Everest climbers, the Magnificent Seven—but the myth more often seems to require the existentialist purity of a single human being pitted against the immensity of the universe, to prefer the lone sailor in the small boat traversing the liquid Andes of Cape Horn to any team effort, to elevate the lone gunman (Clint Eastwood in most of his Western roles) above the Wild Bunch.
Other author's books:
- Midnight's ChildrenThe Satanic VersesShameJoseph Anton: A MemoirLuka and the Fire of LifeStep Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002The Enchantress of FlorenceEast, West: Stories
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