Books: From the Land of Shadows : In our Graham Greenery |
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In our Graham Greenery

The Fictions of Graham Greene never really divided into serious novels and 'entertainments', whatever the author might once have insisted. Even the best of his serious novels have always been entertainments and even the slightest of his entertainments have always been serious novels. His latest effort is very serious indeed — one of his best books, in fact. It is also an outstanding entertainment, which means that the reviewer is hard pressed, since it would be bad form to give away too much of the story. The book is a lot more than just a spy novel, but it is still a spy novel in the first instance, with a satisfactorily intricate plot. The reader should not be deprived of the chance to exercise his deductive powers, although if he does not rumble the significance of the hero's purchasing two copies of the Aylmer Maude translation of War and Peace on page 50 then he is either a dull dog or else he has never read Our Man In Havana.

As so often happens with Greene's later work, knowledge of his earlier work can only increase the reader's admiration. Familiarity breeds respect. As time has gone on, Greene's life-long preoccupations have come back again and again, more thoroughly explored, more subtly interwoven, so that everything comes up looking new even when it is most recognisable. Self-parody threatens only when his grip on likelihood momentarily goes slack — as it does, for example, towards the end of The Honorary Consul, when the dialogue between Eduardo and Leon is a bit too wonderfully concentrated for men due to be hanged in the morning. But generally Greene's touch has seldom ceased to grow more asssured, which means that all his characteristic themes, relationships, personalities, atmospheric effects, plot twists, gimmicks and props can safely be brought around for another airing.

At this point a clear line should be drawn between fandom and appreciation, even though both processes may be going on within the same reader. It is fandom to be unduly delighted by spotting a standard piece of Greenery recurring in compressed form. Fans open each new novel with a head full of ready-made expectations. Who's got the birthmark? Will there be a chess game? Who's going to be the whisky priest, the wise policeman, the ethnic love-partner? The fan's needs are usually satisfied. But appreciation depends on remembering that the author is making things more difficult for himself instead of less: he goes back over the same ground in order to dig deeper, and he can dig deeper because he has lived longer. It may well be true that Greene has never again written anything as perfect as The Heart of the Matter, but he knows more of life now than he knew then. The same themes of moral responsibility have been more profoundly gone into even in those subsequent books which most conspicuously lack the fearful symmetry of his masterpiece. The Heart of the Matter is evidence that in a master's work the apex of his craft can arrive relatively early yet need not necessarily represent the height of his interest.

But to business. Greene's latest hero, Maurice Castle, is another in the series of morally exhausted protagonists that nominally started with Querry in A Burnt-Out Case, although really the tradition stretches back to Scobie and beyond. Greene's central theme has always been partly about the impossibility of making a separate peace — nobody can escape responsibility by doing nothing, since the world will always catch up. Castle is a Secret Service officer stationed in London. Before the novel started he was a field-man who fell in love with one of his own black African agents. To get her safely away, he had to pay a price. What the price consists of emerges during the course of the action, which is all set in England. You can't hide even in England. In the last analysis even England is a foreign country.

This is the first time since The End of the Affair (an artistic catastrophe which has become in retrospect steadily more interesting) that Greene has made a full-scale attempt to set a novel in his homeland. He has succeeded in the most extraordinary way. You feel that he is seeing it as a foreign country. In the same way that he so carefully gets the details right about all those African, South American and Far Eastern trouble-spots, you can hear him being careful to get the details right about England. The protagonist has been a long time away and the narrator who writes about him has been away even longer — so long that the return is like a fresh beginning. There is a tight, nervous focus on such minor items of local colour as Maltesers and Smarties. The geographical features of inner London have not just been thought out, they have practically been paced out: you could walk all the distances in the right times and find all the named buildings. The topography is so neurotically accurate that it might have been seen by the self-exiled writer somewhere along one of his lawless roads, on the journey without maps.

Still straining every nerve to avoid giving away the plot, I can perhaps reveal that once again a joke figure gets caught in the firing line. The same thing happened in Our Man in Havana and The Comedians. The idea reached its fullest elaboration in The Honorary Consul, where Charley Fortnum pretended to be what he wasn't, got kidnapped instead of someone else, and turned the tables on everybody by knowing how to die. In this novel the role is taken by Castle's colleague Davis, a comic figure right up to the moment when he is mistakenly bumped off by his own side. As so often happens in the later Greene — and the later Greene is mainly the earlier Greene consciously exploiting his own preoccupations — the comic figure is not the true comedian. The true comedian is the poised sophisticate who succumbs to the ultimate folly of hoeing to remain uninvolved.

Is there a wise policeman? Yes, there is a wise policeman. Or in this case a wise Secret Service officer, named Daintry. He and Castle end up on opposite sides of the fence, but there is a kinship between them. The kinship goes back to at least The Power and the Glory; in Our Man in Havana they played chess with miniature bottles of spirits and liqueurs; in The Honorary Consul they were in Argentina. (Castle is slow to emerge as a reincarnation of the whisky priest, by the way, but fans will be pleased to note that when he finally gets to the bottle he pours himself a quadruple.) Daintry comes even closer than his predecessors to being the good man in a bad job. Estranged from his bitchy wife, he dines alone on sardines and yesterday's Camembert. As usual, however, seediness has a sharpening effect on the moral sense. Daintry is the one who is most disgusted by Davis's death — more so, indeed, than Castle, which leaves you wondering if the author hasn't repressed his hero's sensibilities in order to safeguard the plot.

If the book has a serious flaw, it lies in the fact that Castle is too complacent about the fate of Davis. Faced with such indifference, we are bound to care less than we should about his love for his wife and child. It might be, of course, that Castle can't care about Davis — because he is a burnt-out case. But even at his most elliptical Greene would be sure to make such a point explicitly, if he were making it at all. I think that the point is not made, and that the book is somewhat weakened by having a central character less interesting than his dilemma warrants. In fact Castle is almost put in the shade by Daintry, who shows signs of wanting to break free and start a novel of his own.

Daintry, like his creator, seems to be experiencing England as a strange land. The eye for exotic fauna is never more sharp than when Daintry is at large among the upper classes to whom he is supposed to belong but among whom he never loses the heightened consciousness engendered by discomfort. The huntin' -shootin' -and-fishin' high-echelon Secret Servicemen are observed with the kind of sardonic penetration that Evelyn Waugh partly lost after he moved into his latter-day romanticism. As with Greene, so with Waugh, Catholicism was a guarantee against the supposition — crippling to any artist — that paradise can be attained on earth. But Waugh eventually reneged to the extent of romanticising the vanishing English social order: Sword of Honour, like Ford's Parade's End, is in many ways a self-serving fantasy. Greene has never allowed himself to lapse.

He is not as inventive as Waugh but in the long run he has proved himself tougher. Here is the final proof, if proof were needed: an England treated not as home but as a far country, in which evil forces are operating uncomprehended.

Greene's Catholicism is the real answer to the question, still often posed, about whether or not he has the gift of prescience. He moves into a country, writes a novel about its inner tensions, and straight afterwards the novel happens in real life. He does have a gift, but it is not for clairvoyance. It is not that he sees ahead. He just sees straight. In South-East Asia, for example, he simply saw what was actually happening: The Quiet American succeeded in foretelling the future by reporting the present, at a time when others, for the best of reasons, couldn't see realities for ideals. Since Greene's ideals are not of this earth, he is free to see realities. The spiritual component of his religion must necessarily remain mostly private, but it is possible to say that the intellectual component has been a boon to him as an artist. His natural talent for political analysis has been able to flourish unswayed by any temporal allegiance.

Whether his Catholicism is of much help in the analysis of personality is a moot point. He would as soon explore non-believers as believers — perhaps, nowadays, even sooner. For the record, Castle, although not a Catholic, gravitates into a confessional box on page 233. Even ifhe had not felt the need, his remorse would have remained the same: no more and no less. If Castle is insufficiently realised, it is not because he is an apostate but because the story got in the road, leaving him neither fish, fowl nor good red Philby.

But the story is absorbing enough to justify the intrusion. Quibbling for a moment, I can't see why Castle couldn't get the details of Operation Uncle Remus back to his superiors without blowing his cover — all he would have had to do would have been to warn his control that there was a defector in place. Apart from that one slip, however, the plot is both plausible and engrossing from start to finish. It is like one of those good, solid, early Ie Carré novels, plus the moral overtones which the later Le Carré vainly tries to add by cramming on hundreds of extra pages, but which Greene can't help generating from the first sentence, simply because he views life in a certain way. We can only be grateful that his unique vision has gone on intensifying for so long, time after time choosing the right issue to clarify at the right moment in the right place. Which is to say, on this occasion: apartheid, now and England.

New Statesman, 1978