The weird Greene place

 

© Penguin Books

 

Graham Greene famously divided his novels into two categories: those meant to be seen as works of serious literature and those meant to be seen as simple ‘entertainments’.

 

Therefore, when I recently started reading his 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear and the words ‘An entertainment’ greeted me on its title page, I made a few assumptions.  That I was about to read a linear narrative that travelled from A to B and then to C with a minimum of fuss.  That I’d encounter a tale containing action and adventure that didn’t severely stretch my braincells.  That there’d be some reasonable character development and a plot that perhaps sprung the odd surprise, but no major questions would be asked about the nature of life, the universe and everything.  That when I reached the end of it, I wouldn’t feel I’d been massively intellectually stimulated but I would feel I’d been, yes, entertained.

 

Thus, it was a surprise when I began The Ministry of Fear and found how different it was from what I’d expected – certainly during its first section, which accounts for half the book.

 

Set in London during the worst days of the Blitz, it focuses on a man called Arthur Rowe who can best be described as ‘walking wounded’.  This isn’t because of any war-related physical injury, but because of guilt about his dead wife.  When she was terminally ill and racked with pain, he poisoned her to end her suffering.

 

One day, the unhappy Rowe wanders into a fete where “the inevitable clergyman presided over a rather timid game of chance; an old lady in a print dress that came down to her ankles and floppy garden hat hovered officially, but with excitement, over a treasure-hunt…” and “there in a corner… was “a fortune-teller’s booth – unless it was an impromptu outside lavatory.”  Another feature is a mouth-wateringly big cake on offer to the person who can correctly guess its weight.  Meanwhile, all the money being raised by the fete is going to a wartime charity organisation called the Mothers of the Free Nations.

 

Rowe consults the fortune teller, who for some reason provides him with inside information about the cake: “You must give the weight as four pounds eight and a half ounces”.  Rowe duly repeats this outside, wins the cake, carries it away and clings onto it when the fete’s organisers come after him a few minutes later claiming there’s been a mistake.  Then that evening, back at his house, Rowe finds himself entertaining a strange man who’s “dark and dwarfish and twisted in his enormous shoulders with infantile paralysis”.  The hospitable Rowe offers a slice of his cake to this visitor, who crumbles it apart in his fingers whilst eating it.  A little later, he seems to have slipped something into Rowe’s tea – for Rowe recognizes the scent of the poison that he once administered to his wife.  Before anything else happens, a bomb drops out of the sky, demolishes Rowe’s house and brings the scene to an abrupt end.

 

Things become even stranger the next day.  Rowe has escaped the bombing without serious injury and, convinced that he’s entangled in a plot where the cake he unfairly won was being used to smuggle something, he pays a visit to the offices of the Mothers of the Free Nations.  There, he gets the address of Madame Bellairs, the supposed fortune-teller.  He arrives at her house and finds himself in the company of a group of eccentrics who are about to sit down for a séance.  Rowe takes part in the séance and believes he hears the voice of his dead wife.  This too comes to an abrupt end when one of the party is found murdered – with Rowe’s pocket-knife.

 

Now on the run for a murder he thinks he didn’t commit, Rowe meets – apparently accidentally – an elderly bookseller whose “teeth were in a shocking condition, black stumps like the remains of something destroyed by fire.”  The bookseller persuades Rowe to run an errand for him, which involves delivering a heavy case of books to a client who’s staying in a London hotel.  Rowe finds the hotel-room empty but, increasingly paranoid, believes that he’s been trapped there by unknown and unseen adversaries who’re lurking in the corridor.  And at this point the opening section of The Ministry of Fear reaches its climax.

 

All this is entertaining enough, but it doesn’t feel like the easy-on-the-brain entertainment promised by the title page.  There’s an odd, unsettling blend of humdrum, down-at-heels English melancholia, which calls to mind George Orwell’s 1930s novels like A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936); and, as the plot veers from one weird situation to the next with Rowe in ever-less control of things, the positively Kafkaesque.  I haven’t seen the film adaptation of the book directed by Fritz Lang a year after its publication, but visualising the bizarre scene between Rowe and the deformed man in Rowe’s soon-to-be-bombed house, with Greene’s oblique dialogue (“What do you want?”  “Peace.”  “Exactly.  So do we.”  “I don’t suppose I mean your kind of peace.”  “We can give you peace.  We are working for peace.”  “Who are we?”  “My friends and I…”), I ended up with something akin to a scene in a David Lynch movie.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Heightening the uneasy mood is the book’s London-Blitz setting.  The story takes place in a blasted, cratered, dusty city with a traumatised and weary populace.  It’s certainly not the noble and romanticised place evoked nowadays by British patriots when they hark back to their country’s ‘finest hour’.

 

And then…  The book drastically shifts gears.  The action jumps to a clinic in the English countryside housing patients with psychiatric disorders.  One of them is a man called Digby, suffering from amnesia and trying to figure out who he is and what events brought him there.  I don’t want to give away much more of the plot but even the dimmest reader will soon cotton on that Rowe and Digby are the same person.  While Digby begins to retrieve his memory – and the reader begins to piece together the jigsaw about what’d happened before and what’s happening now – the book becomes much more the straightforward thriller that’d been promised originally.  Some suspiciously familiar-looking characters start to appear among the clinic’s staff and it transpires that Rowe / Digby has indeed stumbled across a nefarious wartime plot and the clinic is a means of keeping him out of the way.

 

Even so, The Ministry of Fear never quite becomes conventional.  As Digby devotes himself to unravelling the mystery of his situation, the reader is painfully aware that there’s much of his memory that he shouldn’t want to have back.  Indeed, while in his Rowe incarnation he was an emotional cripple, the Digby version of him is braver, bolder and more efficient precisely because he isn’t carrying the traumatising baggage of the past.  And, reading the book’s later pages, I found myself increasingly apprehensive of the moment when he would remember – or when one of the villains would remind him of – his wife’s mercy killing.

 

The Ministry of Fear is entertaining, then.  But it’s considerably more than the humble ‘entertainment’ that Graham Greene would have you believe.

 

Greene ups the auntie

 

© Audible Studios

 

I certainly felt ready to read Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt a few months ago. I started this novel just after Britain’s ruling Conservative party had held its annual conference, which itself came after the British electorate’s vote to leave the European Union. Most Conservatives being anti-EU, their party conference this year was shrill and gloating, loud with jingoistic rhetoric about the greatness and specialness of Britain and with xenophobic rhetoric about pulling up the drawbridge against immigrants, Europeans and foreigners generally.

 

And I began Travels with my Aunt with the words of Prime Minister Theresa May ringing in my ears. In her keynote conference speech, May made it plain that in her view the decent thing to do is to stay at home and not sully yourself with such dangerous concepts as living and working overseas (and presumably associating with foreigners). “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she intoned, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word ‘citizenship’ means.”

 

Having lived and / or worked at different times in Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, the Republic of Ireland, North Korea, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Mauritius and – my current place of abode – Sri Lanka, I thought: “Wow, that’s me told. Sorry, Theresa!”

 

Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t think that at all. What I really thought was: “Bog off, you ignorant, parochial, narrow-minded, curtain-twitching cretin, you.”

 

After that, I was eager to get into Travels with my Aunt, written by Graham Greene in 1969. Its story, the back-cover blurb assured me, was a humorous one about an unadventurous Englishman having his mind broadened and horizons widened by foreign travel. And the process whereby he becomes a citizen of the world, rather than remaining a citizen of the stultifying Little England beloved by Theresa May, has an unlikely facilitator – his elderly but still sprightly and impetuous Aunt Augusta.

 

And for most of its length, that’s how the narrative of Travels with my Aunt unfolds. Henry Pulling is a fifty-something retired and never-married bank manager, living in a sedate part of London with a garden of carefully cultivated dahlias (“the Polar Beauties and the Golden Leaders and the Requiems”) and an ex-army major next door. His main plan for the future is to produce some home-made jam since “a man in retirement has to have some hobbies if he is not to age too fast”. Had he lived 47 years later, the timid Henry probably wouldn’t have voted to leave the EU – he would’ve been a reluctant Remainer. But I’m sure that, generally, he would’ve admired the cut of Theresa May’s jib.

 

One day Henry attends his mother’s funeral, which passes with an efficiency and lack of fuss that he approves of: “The flowers were removed economically from the coffin, which at the touch of a button slid away from us out of sight. Afterwards in the troubled sunlight I shook hands with a number of nephews and nieces and cousins whom I hadn’t seen for years and could not identify. It was understood that I had to wait for the ashes and wait I did, while the chimney of the crematorium gently smoked overhead.” At this point he meets Aunt Augusta, his mother’s younger sister, whom he hasn’t seen for more than half-a-century.   Henry soon decides it was a good thing his family saw nothing of her for so long: “She had a temperament my mother would not have liked.” But almost immediately, he finds himself entangled in a web of eccentric acquaintances, far-flung locales and not-entirely-legal activities that somehow surrounds the old lady.

 

By page 12, Henry is visiting his aunt’s apartment above a London pub, which she shares, seemingly intimately, with a burly middle-aged Sierra Leonean called Wordsworth. By page 26, Henry is having visitors of his own – the police, eager to examine the contents of his mother’s ashes-urn, which he unwisely took with him to his aunt and Wordsworth’s flat and which they believe now contains something besides human remains. And twenty pages further, the same police are informing him that there’s “more cannabis than ashes” in the urn.

 

Meanwhile, Henry also gets roped into accompanying his newly-discovered aunt on her travels. By page 30 she’s made him escort her to Brighton, where she tracks down an old friend called Hattie, who’s now a fortune teller. Giving Henry a tea-leaves reading, Hattie predicts: “…you’re going to travel. Across the ocean. With a lady friend… I see a lot of confusion too and running about.” Henry retorts, “That’s most unlikely… I lead a very regular life. A game of bridge once a week at the Conservative Club. And my garden of course. The dahlias.”

 

Needless to say, Hattie’s predictions are on the money. By page 60, Henry finds himself heading for Paris in the company of Augusta and a dodgy-looking red suitcase that proves to be “stacked with ten-pound notes”. By page 91 he’s with her on board the Orient Express, bound for Istanbul where she has a rendezvous with a mysterious General Abdul. He makes the acquaintance of an American hippy-chick called Tooley, who offers him a cigarette: “It had an odd herbal flavour, not disagreeable. ‘I’ve never smoked an American cigarette before,’ I said.” And by page 183 Henry is journeying across the South American interior to Paraguay, summoned by Augusta after she’s installed herself there with a former lover called Mr Visconti. There’s no surprise when it transpires that both of them are up to their necks in a smuggling operation.

 

During their travels Augusta regales Henry with stories – tales of past adventures and lovers that are rambling, fanciful, at times ridiculous and no doubt economical with the truth. But they indicate that the old lady has led a life – in contrast to Henry, who’s managed to spend most of his life in the same bank-branch, first as a clerk, then a cashier, then a manager. The funniest of Augusta’s stories involves a chancer called Curran, with whom she once set up a fake church in Brighton. Called the Doggie Church, it catered for the spiritual needs of canines and, obviously, was designed to fleece the congregation’s owners. “It was Curran who set me reading theology,” she tells her nephew. “He wanted references to dogs. It wasn’t easy to find any – even in St Frances de Sales. I found lots about fleas and butterflies and stags and elephants and spiders and crocodiles in St Frances but a strange neglect of dogs.”

 

The exchanges between the feisty Augusta and the fusty Henry – who, despite himself, develops a wanderlust and taste for adventure as the book progresses – are a constant delight. Modern readers will have problems, though, with how Greene depicts the character of Wordsworth. Specifically, they’ll be uncomfortable with how he milks Wordsworth’s Sierra Leonean patois for easy and nowadays politically-incorrect laughs: “The telephone talk all the bloody time while you not here… Oh, poor Wordsworth not understand one bloody word. Ar say to them you no talk English. They go away double quick.” Yes, I know, Greene wrote the book in an era when awareness of racial stereotyping, among British authors anyway, was practically non-existent and it seemed acceptable to use coloured characters for comic relief. But still. I found myself cringing every time Greene had Wordsworth open his mouth.

 

That said, Wordsworth is allowed some development and by the book’s finale he’s become its most virtuous character – certainly its most loyal, probably its most principled. Gratifyingly, Henry’s attitude towards him changes. After viewing him at the start with shock, suspicion and probably lightly-disguised horror, he reacts to Wordsworth’s reappearances in later chapters with the joy of someone reunited with a dear old friend.

 

Travels with my Aunt is a funny book but there’s a point, near the end, when it suddenly stops being funny. Greene suddenly switches mode from entertainer to moralist. Henry and Augusta have had a lot of fun on their travels, but much of that fun has involved illegality and now there’s a price to be paid. Thus, the story finishes on a sour note. A sympathetic character gets killed, the nephew and aunt find themselves in cahoots with another character who’s utterly unsavoury, and in the final paragraph Henry makes a couple of admissions that show his escape from his mundane existence as a retired English bank manager and transformation into a well-travelled man of the world have cost him his decency.

 

I still think Theresa May is talking objectionable drivel with her citizen of the world / citizen of nowhere claims. However, if I were debating the matter with her, Travels with my Aunt probably isn’t the book I’d use to back my argument. She might read the ending and jeer: “See? I told you so!”

 

© Daily Telegraph    

 

Entertaining Mr Greene: book review / Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

 

(c) Penguin

Published in 1932, Stamboul Train was Graham Greene’s first novel.  The legendary author was careful to label it an ‘entertainment’ so as to distinguish it from his more serious, more literary works that came afterwards.  Indeed, 40 years later, he said of Stamboul Train, “…I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film.”  (It was, under the title Orient Express, in 1934.)

 

So what might you expect Greene, with his ‘entertainment’ hat on, to serve up in a book set on board a train?  Might the train be the setting for an Agatha Christie murder mystery, or for a daring robbery, or for the outbreak of a deadly plague?  Might the train be taken over by agents of a hostile foreign power, or by terrorists, or by aliens?  Actually, no.  Stamboul Train, in fact, feels like many of the more famous and more lauded novels by Graham Greene.  The characters on the titular train, from Ostend to Istanbul, seem to do more travelling through their own troubled psyches than they do physically, across the expanses of 1930s Europe.  There’s a little action now and again, but it’s no more thrilling than the action in the author’s supposedly more serious novels.  That action happens quickly and haphazardly, it gets described in Greene’s customarily terse prose style, and there’s nothing heroic or glamorous about it.

 

Where the novel differs from the loftier titles in Greene’s oeuvre is its lack of Catholicism.  Unlike Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, A Burnt-Out Case and The Honorary Consul, no member of the Roman Catholic Church in Stamboul Train, practising or lapsed, is subjected to pages of introspection about love, betrayal, self-sacrifice, fathers, etc.  Not that I’m complaining.  I regard Greene as one of the finest English-language writers of the 20th century and, having read his autobiography A Sort of Life, I understand how important his conversion to Catholicism at the age of 22 was to him – especially coming after his teens, when he’d suffered from bouts of suicidal depression and played Russian roulette.  But as an out-and-out atheist, I could never really engage with those sections of his novels where characters analysed their lives, loves, sins, guilt and so on according to the teachings of an institution dedicated to the worship of A Giant Invisible Pixie That Doesn’t Really Exist.  In fact, if his novels had been films on television, the Catholic sections would definitely be the bits where I’d retreat to the kitchen, boil up the kettle and make a cup of tea.

 

The typical Greene element that does figure in Stamboul Train, however, is left-wing politics.  Here it’s embodied in the character of Richard Czinner, a melancholy socialist politician exiled from his native Serbia, who intends to return to Belgrade to take part in an uprising.  It’s Czinner’s bad luck that the uprising kicks off earlier than planned, while he’s still stuck on the train.

 

The other main characters are Carleton Myatt, a Jewish trader on a business trip to Istanbul, and Coral Musker, a working-class chorus girl heading to the same city in the hope of getting some stage work.  Coral ends up befriending Czinner – as much as Czinner’s melancholy, distracted personality will allow – and falling in love with Myatt, who treats her with a certain bemusement but certainly isn’t unkind towards her: “He liked the girl’s thin figure and her face, the lips tinted enough to lend her plainness an appeal.  Nor was she altogether plain; the smallness of her features, of her skull, her nose and ears, gave her a spurious refinement, a kind of bright prettiness, like the window of a country shop at Christmas full of small lights and tinsel and coloured common gifts.”

 

The stops along the route bring additional characters and increasing trouble.  At Cologne the train is joined by Mabel Warren, an ageing, alcoholic and obviously lesbian English journalist and her younger and more glamorous ‘lady friend’, Janet Pardoe.  Mabel, a ruthless old hack who nowadays would probably make a good living writing for the Daily Mail – “Her manner was masterful; she sat down without waiting for an invitation.  She felt that she was offering this man something he wanted, publicity, and she was gaining nothing commensurate in return” – recognises Czinner and determines to find out what he’s up to, which makes his precarious situation even more precarious.

 

Meanwhile, Vienna sees the arrival of Josef Grunlich, a robber who’s just botched his latest job and killed a man and needs to leave Austria fast.  Although Grunlich is the character who most obviously belongs in a conventional thriller, his character infuses the plot with some much-needed energy.  One of the best scenes come shortly after the murder, when Grunlich – whose conceit of himself as a master criminal is at odds with the bungler he is in reality – decides nonchalantly to stop off at a café below his victim’s apartment.  “I am clever, he thought, I’ll be too much for them.  Why should I hurry like a sneak thief to the station, slip inconspicuously through doorways, hide in the shadow of sheds?  There’s time for a cup of coffee, and he chose a table on the pavement, at the edge of the awning…  Something struck the pavement with the clink of metal, and Josef looked down.  It was a copper coin.  That’s curious, he thought, a lucky omen, but stooping to pick it up, he saw at intervals, all the way from the café, copper and silver coins lying in the centre of the pavement.  He felt in his trouser pocket and found nothing but a hole.  My goodness, he thought, have I been dropping them ever since I left the flat? And he saw himself standing at the end of a clear trail that led, paving stone by paving stone, and then stair by stair, to the door of Herr Kolber’s study.”

 

At Subotica near the Serbian-Hungarian border, the authorities, whom Mabel has alerted, detain Czinner.  They also hold Grunlich and Coral, who is unfortunate enough to be in Czinner’s vicinity at the time of his arrest.  Before Myatt realises what has happened, the train chugs off with him still on board.  Thereafter, things become increasingly tense.  Will Czinner, subjected to an on-the-spot trial, be executed?  Will Grunlich’s criminal know-how help the three of them to escape from captivity?  Will Myatt manage to get back to Subotica in time to rescue them?  And will Myatt end up with Coral, or will he succumb to the growing temptations of the sexy, sophisticated and wealthy Janet Pardoe?

 

From the melancholic tone already established in the novel, you can guess that the ending won’t be a happy one.  Indeed, the unfortunate Coral, whose luck keeps turning further and further for the worse, calls to mind a more famous heroine in English literature, the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Tess’s ongoing bad luck prompted Hardy to conclude his novel with the memorable line, “the President of the Immortals… ended his sport with Tess”; and you feel that poor Coral doesn’t fare much better with those Immortals here.

 

Modern readers might feel that Greene’s unflattering treatment of Mabel Warren reeks of homophobia – although he deserves credit for how he portrays Myatt, the decent-though-flawed Jewish businessman, especially at a time when anti-Semitic forces were gathering in Europe with ultimately devastating consequences.  Meanwhile, for a novel supposedly written to entertain and please, Stamboul Train contains a surprising blackness.  It’s black but it’s also undeniably Greene.