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Journeys To Greeneland

September, 2006
By Roy Meador

Recently I ventured again to the special literary territory ruled over by storyteller, agitator, wanderer, rebel, Catholic, critic, humanitarian, bibliophile, and wartime spy Graham Greene. Greeneland is a jitters-provoking region of conspiracy and threat, but seasoned travelers profit from revisits.

Greene once “noted” that “I am not as a rule a note-taker, except in the case of travel books.” I, as a reading pilgrim and nomad in that varied and complex realm famed as Greeneland, and on the other hand a chronic note-taker.

Nearly every page has an idea or phrase I want to keep. So out notebook! This, frankly, is a long-time habit with most reading, Greene or otherwise. What’s more frustrating than a line you remember from a particular book and want again and can’t find because you didn’t mark the place or take the trouble to make an index. Out notebook—and write down the page number as well as the line.

Graham Greene was a master chronicler of 20th century malaise and the destructive follies of zealots. He used fiction, whether “serious” or “entertainment,” to study and expose the vanity and corruption of power. He kept us reading for decades with his genius for making evil intriguing (e.g Harry Lime in The Third Man) and his skill at depicting the dangers of moral narrowness and ignorance from both puritans and fanatics. Vigot warns in The Quiet American: “God save us always from the innocent and the good.”

Greene still surpasses others at invading the taut mind of the man on the run—from guilt, misguided authority, the hound of heaven, himself.

The Case of the Reader Who Wrote

Graham Greene’s centennial occurred in 2004. The son of an English headmaster, he was born October 2, 1904. In his centennial year, Greeneland pilgrims across the literary world recognized the event with books, lectures, conferences, and related paraphernalia of commemoration fanfare. The drumbeats of gratitude shouldn’t stop there.

Greene shared the honor of being nominated for and not receiving the Nobel Prize with Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Greene is a worthy peer of those non-Nobel eminences. He might have demurred. He named Conrad and James as sources of inspiration but insisted claiming he was guided by James was absurd “like saying a mountain influenced a mouse.”

Books by these and others clearly influenced his writing. He read anything and everything from childhood. “One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings,” he mused. In the Belgian Congo during 1959 for work on A Burnt-Out Case (1961), he mixed persistent writing with much reading and worried, “I have to be careful, since I am running short of books.”

On a 1941-42 wartime convoy to West Africa, his gear included books ranging from Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios to the poems of Wordsworth. In addition, he found more books to read aboard the ship. “A book is worth reading if you only learn from one sentence,” observed a fellow passenger. This struck Greene as worthy of his journal. He checked on the books others brought along and admitted. “Visiting a stranger’s flat one always looks at the bookcases.” Of Course!

One book he read during that voyage was a detective story by Michael Innes. The Innes book, he wrote, “set my mind moving in the direction of The Ministry of Fear” (1943). Writers are working, minds racing, ideas taking root even when they read – perhaps especially when they read.

As with others, his books came from reading, his own experiences, and chance encounters. Dreams too, were resources for the imagination. Psychoanalyzed in his teens, he paid close attention to his dreams. “My novel, It’s a Battlefield (1934), had its origin in a dream,” he reported.

He was alert to the importance of beginnings. “The beginning of a book holds more apprehensions for the novelist than the ending.” “There is an old legend that somewhere in the world every man has his double,” commences The Tenth Man (1985).

How about these: (1) “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” (2) “Castle, ever since he had joined the firm as a young recruit more than thirty years ago, had taken his lunch in a public house behind St. James’s Street, not far from the office.” (3) “One never knows when the blow may fall.” (4) “Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.” (5) “There was something about a fete which drew Arthur Rowe irresistibly , bound him a helpless victim to the distant blare of a band and the knock-knock of wooden balls against cocoanuts.” (6) “Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust.” (7) “The gulls swept over Dover.” (8) “What a long road it has been.” (9) “I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral.” (10) “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” (11) “The purser took the last landing card in his hand and watched the passengers cross the gray wet quay over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks.” (12) “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven.” (13)“Doctor Eduardo Plarr stood in the small port on the Paraná, among the rails and yellow cranes, watching where a horizontal plume of smoke stretched over the Chaco.” (14) “I think that I used to detest Doctor Fischer more than any other man I have known just as I loved his daughter more than any other woman.” (15) “The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive,’ then sat pen in hand with no more to record.” (16) “The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun.” (17) “The Assistant Commissioner was careful of his appearance before meeting men younger than himself.” (18) “I had noticed him for days in the club restaurant sitting there in the same spot, always alone with a book propped in front of him: a man in the early forties with an expression of tired patience as though his life were spent waiting around in such unrewarding spots as the leave-centre of Braunlage.” (19) “After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the Catinat; he had said, ‘I’ll be with you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay any longer and went down into the street.” (Titles later.)

Graham Greene Counsel and Caveats

My return journey to Greeneland was initiated by the centennial and by a film based on his 1955 The Quiet American. In it he didn’t conceal his contempt for naive, reckless do-gooders and meddlers in Vietnam The film remake questions American motives less timidly than did the anemic and ideologically distorted 1958 film version. American Alden Pyle (“He had read a lot of books”) was “impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance” with fine motives for “all the trouble he caused.”

Will these decent, that is to say more authentic, remakes of films based on Greene’s books – The End of the Affair, The Quiet American — send moviegoers helter-skelter to the books, which are always superior to the films (except of course The Third Man about the perils and price of friendship? ) One might care to hope so. Anyway, Greene appreciated films, even when altered, based on his works. The movies made “twenty years of life easier,” “It could be, dear boy,” as Sir Laurence Olivier observed about a less-than-artful film in which he appeared, “one could use the money.”

Rereading Graham Greene unseals his sadness; “There is no peace anywhere where there is human life.” His insight in Our Man in Havana stays pertinent: “Would the world be in the mess it is now if we were loyal to love and not countries?” A 1959 Greene letter protested Soviet actions in Czechoslovakia and U.S. actions in the Dominican Republic: “The convenience of the major powers is all and morality counts for nothing in international politics.” Who’s arguing, who can argue.

“The general good,” he warned, “is always invoked by scoundrels, hypocrites, and flatterers.” The freedom to dissent is vital, “the virtue of disloyalty” a human duty. If conformist loyalty and obedience are necessary to get paid and to avoid incineration like Joan of Arc, then, “Be a double agent – and never let either of the two sides know your real name.”

Such caveats or markers on display throughout Greeneland make clear we more than ever need his reports on political hypocrisy, patriotic piety, and earnest destruction driven by Pyle-like dogmatists and boastful poseurs. His cautionary voice waits for us in the books he began writing over eighty years ago as literary antidotes for and escape hatches from his depression and ours.

If we speculate how Graham Greene would respond to the explosive situation in the Middle East today, we could start by recalling his angry opposition to American intervention in Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Chile, Panama, and Nicaragua. In his journal in 1954 on a return trip as a journalist to Saigon, he didn’t hide his cynicism about Americans there: “Is there any solution here the West can offer? But the bar tonight was loud with innocent American voices and that was the worst disquiet.” He quoted this journal in his article for the Sunday Times (21 March 1954) and added, “They were there, one couldn’t help being aware, to protect an investment, but couldn’t the investment have been avoided…Everybody knows now on both sides that the fate of Vietnam does not rest with the armies…Two years ago men believed in the possibility of military defeat or victory; now they know the war will be decided elsewhere.”

In No Man’s Land, written in the 1950s, he states, “The world is controlled by uranium, not by God.” Now he might substitute “oil.” A Greene insight from 1932 in Stamboul Train has contemporary echoes. “How old-fashioned you are with your frontiers and your patriotism. The aeroplane doesn’t know a frontier, even your financiers don’t recognize frontiers.” And we can conclude Greene was preaching to us too when he continued in 1932, “The wealth of the world belonged to everyone. If it was divided, there would be no rich men, but every man would have enough to eat, and would have no reason to feel ashamed beside his neighbour.” From these views, can’t we dare informed guesses about his likely views of current Middle-East madness?

Book Collecting in Greeneland

His initial work was a book of poems, Bubbling April (1925). His first novel was The Man Within (1929). Years later in an inscription, he dismissed the novel as “this ghastly first effort.” Of course, we don’t have to swallow a proud author’s put-down of his first-born. That often comes across as easy camouflage for pride in precocity: “I was a kid, look what I did.” The Man Within is not a bad read.

As a patient collector of Graham Greene firsts, largely acquired at modest-prices in friendly secondhand shops and library sales, I dream about also eventually finding the early rarities modestly offered at the same venues in other than the reprint editions. Dream on, seeker, there’s no charge for dreaming and wishing.

Yet, I don’t just dream, I keep eyes peeled for the juvenilia, along with elusives such as The Name of Action (1930), Rumour at Nightfall (1931), A Gun for Sale (1936), et cetera. Rare book quests tirelessly continue, and sanguine expectation keeps us looking.

Ah, if only Greene’s book-loving shade might guide me to his treasures. Before his death at 86, on April 3, 1991, he too was a seeker of secondhand bargains. With his brother Hugh he browsed often in the Wye Valley shops. His rewards in such quests were the same as ours: “There is the musty smell of books, and there is the sense of the treasure-hunt.”

Graham Greene considered secondhand dealers “the most friendly and the most eccentric of all the characters I have known.” If not a writer, he declared, “theirs would have been the profession I would most happily have chosen.” Those of us who read and reread Graham Greene rejoice in his choice.

350 Words a Day Come What May

Graham Greene’s daily credo was “I must do my 350 words.” Thus related his friend Shirley Hazzard. From his youth, he wrote novels, poems, plays, journalism, stories, essays, criticism, letters, broadsides, movie reviews, travel reports with devoted daily discipline. The results of a lifetime’s work are there on the shelves for our benefit, pleasure, and when he hits a nerve, exasperation – for which we should be grateful.

See A Sort of Life (1971) and Ways of Escape (1980) for Greene’s view of the compulsive writing life which he loved whatever the pain, frustration, doubt, despair. For a writer, one among “the spies of God,” he feared, “success is always temporary, success is only a delayed failure.”

Haunted by pessimism and afflicted by depression, he found writing “a form of therapy.” Graham Greene wondered how those who didn’t write, compose, paint “manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear.” A fair and effective means of escape is reading and rereading the often gloomy, always entertainingly argumentative and persistently informative books we find waiting for us in Greeneland.

Graham Greene Beginnings

  1. Brighton Rock (1938)
  2. The Human Factor (1978)
  3. The Third Man (1950)
  4. The Heart of the Matter (1948)
  5. The Ministry of Fear (1943)
  6. The Power and the Glory [England] (1940) (Initially in the U.S. as The Labyrinthine Ways
  7. The Confidential Agent (1939)
  8. Ways of Escape (1980)
  9. Travels With My Aunt (1969)
  10. The End of the Affair (1951)
  11. Stamboul Train [England] (1932) (Orient Express [U.S.])
  12. This Gun for Hire [U.S.] (1936) (A Gun for Sale [England])
  13. The Honorary Consul (1973)
  14. Doctor Fischer of Geneva Or The Bomb Party (1980)
  15. A Burnt-Out Case (1961)
  16. The Lawless Roads (1939)
  17. It’s a Battlefield (1934)
  18. No Man’s Land (1993) (Film treatment published in Mornings in the Dark, The Graham Greene Film Reader)
  19. The Quiet American (1955)

Roy Meador, a writer and book collector in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is the co-author with Marvin Mondlin of “Book Row”, their history of the bookshops that once flourished on and around Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue.