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.