A Ride On the Greeneland Express: examining Greene’s “first true success”

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Book: Stamboul Train (republished as Orient Express)

Author: Graham Greene

Date of Publication: 1932

Type: Novel (226 Pages)

Before continuing with this review of mine, I will have to admit (albeit sheepishly) that this took far too long to complete and publish. It is sad truth that an inevitable by-product of attending university is having an upsurge of on-topic and course-related work, all of which serves as an excellent preventative measure against the completion of Other Things. Therefore, actual Sanskrit shall impede the progress of supposed Creativity, and thus shall my writings be temporarily halted.

I was hoping to complete one review on a fortnightly basis, and if I could, on a weekly basis, but the latter occurrence is only likely to happen when all the stars come crashing down to Earth with a resounding “thwack” (and a lot of smoky debris), so I am not going to be so sanguine in the estimation of my own ability to manage time. My estimation was proven correct, and not only did I not manage to complete one on a fortnightly basis, I didn’t even manage to complete one during the first half of the term at all. So, in recompense I now present to you my latest review on Greene’s Stamboul Train, with the greatest happiness and enthusiasm, and I genuinely hope that all those interested in reading my ranting have enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed writing them. Truly, I have. Even if it meant a lot of angst and the occasional frantic scramble for a copy of the book I was reviewing (for referencing and memory reinforcing).

It is time to progress onto the actual review of Greene’s Stamboul Train (about time, I know some will say). Regrettably, there is only one word that can describe my feelings towards this book: lukewarm. It’s not necessarily a bad book, but to me, it’s not great either, and only has value in the fact that firstly, it was his first true success after the repudiated novels The Name of Action (which, I preferred in some ways, to Stamboul Train) and Rumour at Nightfall, and after his debut The Man Within, and secondly, because it exhibits the qualities (in a less developed form, naturally), that have made his later works truly stand out as quality literature. Before I proceed, I only have one small confession to declare: I personally think that my disappointment with this particular book is greater because of the extent to which I loved The Man Within. I had read The Man Within during the summer before I went up to Oxford, and I can truly say that it is one of those books that simply made the time fly. I remember feeling genuinely resentful that my lunch break at work was over, because I knew that I couldn’t finish the book because of that, and I raced home after work just so that I could spare the time to finish it properly.

Thus, after my surprisingly enthusiastic response to Greene’s (bloody amazing) debut, I continued onwards to Stamboul Train, genuinely expecting more of the same quality, but with more thrills and suspense and surprising plot-twists that would make the world of espionage more exciting and glamorous than it probably is. So, it was with genuine frustration that I finished this book, acknowledging the fact that it does indeed have its good points, but focusing more on the negatives that made my reaction to this book lukewarm, at best. In this review, I will attempt to justify this opinion of one of Greene’s more celebrated works, and explain why the skilfully created tension in the action scenes, and the clever interweaving of all the passengers’ lives and fates, do not outweigh the occasional clumsiness in the style, the scattered nature of the plot, and the lack of emotional depth and power, in comparison to some of his more ‘serious’ (and perhaps even less technically brilliant) works.

The novel focuses on the journey of a cross-continental train known as the ‘Orient Express’, a journey which will start in Ostend and end in Istanbul. The passengers of this train are a wonderfully eclectic assortment of people, all with different backgrounds and different motives, but their lives will be both tragically and farcically linked in unimaginable ways as the train journey continues. This includes entanglements in political rebellion, theft, homosexual relationships, and the unspoken problems of racial and social divides.

The scenes of “suspense” (or action thrills, as I like to call them) are actually very good, and definitely show promising signs of future greatness Greene’s stellar espionage sequences in his later classics, such as The Confidential Agent and The Human Factor. The scene of the escaping thief Grünlich at the beginning of the book is a masterly example of Greene experimenting with and honing the fine art that is skilfully creating tension. Another notable example of this successful evocation of edgy thrills is the car escape scene in Subotica, a scene filled with such incredible tension that the reader almost feels as stressed and anxious as Myatt as the decrepit and temperamental car slowly edges its way further and further eastwards. This is heightened by the sense of anti-climax that the reader feels when Grünlich escapes in the car with Myatt instead of Musker, ensuring that the reader feels great frustration and resignation at the unfortunate and tragic turn of events. However, though that scene is both exciting and frightening to the more timid reader, it is the episode of Dr Czinner’s court martial that really stands out as a scene of exceptional power and pathos. There is something poignant and tragic in the way Czinner stands up for himself and his convictions, fully knowing that there is no possible way he can escape alive, and yet still needing to prove to himself and to his captors that he is no coward, and certainly no turn-coat. The power and effect of this incredible passage is deeply felt, and is certainly one of the high points in what is otherwise an arguably bland and occasionally incoherent narrative.

This abruptness is especially felt in the final part of the Musker adventure, in which she is whisked away by the jilted journalist Warren in her car, and her fate is left unknown as the scene closes with Musker suffering from a heart bypass. I felt this turn of events was arbitrary, and almost completely superfluous to the plot; it added nothing to the general flow of the story other than to create a sense of bewilderment and perturbation in the mind of the reader. However, despite this, the creativity and tension that fuels many of the hair-raising episodes of the novel ought to be credit with the praise it deserves, and it would not be biased to claim that some of these great scenes display the great potential which Greene later fulfils in his next ‘entertainments’.

Another aspect of Stamboul Train which I, as a reader, definitely thought acted as an asset to the plot, was the way in which Greene successfully managed to create The disparate characters on the train all lead unique and strange lives (in a good way), and Greene does a relatively good job of tying it all together in plausible and tragic ways (the escape in the car, for example). From the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the irritable lesbian journalist Warren; to the cunning and resourcefulness of Grünlich; the passivity and resignation of Musker; the fluctuating tendencies towards both idealistic bravado and self-serving despair in Czinner, and the alternations of mercenary pride and ethnic insecurities in Myatt, Greene has managed to create a wide range of characters, whose interactions and relationships enmesh together in a clever web of deceit, gratitude, condescension, and reluctant good will, to name but a few. In presenting so many characters of so many different sorts, Greene has been successful in recreating a train full of passengers, all of whom are completely different and yet are bound together by the curious coincidence of heading in the same direction, with the same means of conveyance. Thus, Greene has managed to make his character sketches colourful but realistic, showcasing a wide panoply of characters and lives.

This effective characterisation was accompanied by the clever use of train stops as chapter markers. This deceptively simple, yet efficacious method allowed the plot to be divided into episodes and phases that were neatly divided according to the location in which the train itself was situated, thus constantly reminding the reader of the artificiality and temporal nature of the environment. It was also clever in that it almost literally kept the plot moving, and gave the subsequent action a sense of inevitability that was heightened by Musker’s detainment (and thus her separation from Musker), as well as the similar car escape back eastwards, in which again much of the tension was based on whether passengers to get back to the train on time or not. This therefore allowed Greene to increase an already tense and highly charged atmosphere.

On the other hand, any effect that Stamboul Train may have had was partially ruined by the clumsy style of writing which was almost an inevitable by-product of constant shifts in narrative and environments. There was some good scenes, as I have explained above, and there were also some characters with great potential (such as the noble and altruistic Czinner), but it seemed as if Greene had a series of unconnected tableaus, with powerful writing and effect within these scenes themselves, , and no means by which he could connect them all together. If one were to visualise the plot as a tangible object, it would be comparable to having a collection of beautifully polished and glistening pearls, all of which are valuable and beautiful in and of themselves – until they are strung together in a necklace made of a ball of twine. There was little smoothness in the transition from one scene to another, and this made the plot occasionally seem stilted, and, in the transitional passages, outright dull. The profound effect that the advent of cinema had on the works of Greene and contemporary authors is apparent here, as the plot is more like a whole series of montages rather than one continuous narrative.

Furthermore, though the ‘action episodes’ show great potential, the monologue, at this stage of Greene’s development as a first-class writer, does not. The characters, with their constant stream of inane, and frankly irritating, consciousness begins to grate on the nerves and, in my opinion, wears the patience of the reader thin. I feel that this is especially applicable to the narrative focusing in Myatt; whilst it is important to understand the anxiety and insecurities that underlie his character, in part due to his personality, and in part due to the persecution that his race has continually received in mediaeval and modern Europe, this theme was belaboured and over-emphasized, and any power it had was lost. Whilst I am not critic of the concept of introspective experimentation, there can occasionally be too much, and, if the introspection does not yield anything of interest, either stylistically or thematically, then the technique is ineffectual. This inner-monologue technique, and its effect in displaying, in glorious details, the angst and dilemmas of the everyday Greeneland protagonist, is one will thankfully improve with time, but, at this stage, it is merely a fledgling in its quality and efficacy.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Greene failed in extracting any sentiments from me. The characters were interesting and diverse, and were certainly skilfully drawn up, but, with the possible exception of Czinner, I could not emotionally invest with the characters. I neither passionately hated nor loved them, and I found myself ambivalent to their plight. Despite my previous statement about Czinner, even then I discovered that, though slightly disturbed by the court-martial and subsequent execution, I did not genuinely feel pain, or loss at the death of the character. This stands in stark contrast to my emotions concerning Greene’s debut, The Man Within, which wildly vacillated from anguish, to despair, to frustration, ultimately to sadness in the closing scenes; there was a great sense of loss, and a even deeper sense of regret. The emotion which a book can evoke from its reader is, in my opinion, supposed to be one of its primary powers, and in this respect, Stamboul Train fails sadly.

In conclusion, I think that Stamboul Train is a book of very mixed parts. The scenes of action, of tension, with suspense and thrills, are very good. Their interlinking scenes and everything else is not. The writing and structure is occasionally stilted, and sometimes the scenes of actions are connected with each other like a very awkward string of wonky beads. However, what I do value in the Stamboul Train is the amount of untapped potential it has; it is a book with a very good concept, and really is the “entertainment” that Greene wanted it to be. Even now it does not fully realise its own potential, it definitely shows the glints of Greeneland genius that will flourish with a magnificent vengeance in his later works, be they serious or “entertaining”. For this, Stamboul Train is a useful and valuable link in showing the evolution of Greene’s career as a writer, even if, as a stand-a-lone, it lacks that emotional appeal and power that would make it a tour-de-force in the Greene canon.

In the Company of Words: exploring Carter’s Reworking of The Classic Fairy-tales.

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Book: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

Author: Angela Carter

Date of Publication: 1979

Type: Collection of Short Stories (176 Pages).

Despite the grovelling apology I attempted to make in my previous review, I have not compensated for the previous lack. I will now endeavour to do so, and thus shall all the hours of a single afternoon be whiled away manically typing on a slightly stiff set of keys.

Before I even begin to examine the complex mass that is The Bloody Chamber, I would first like to explain how I stumbled upon such a gem. It is an unfortunate truth that I don’t tend to read much “contemporary fiction”; though a handful of my favourite authors, are in fact, literary giants of the 20th century, my general tendency is to read books that predate the Victorians. I have an occasional flirtation with a Booker winner, should a copy come my way, but other than that, should my nose ever be “stuck in a book” (this in itself is a relatively rare occurrence), that book is usually firmly fixed in a century where internet cable and fresh milk are an impossible fantasy. However, there are two reasons why I decided to read this book.

The first is my longstanding love of mythology and folktales. Believe it or not, it is this fascination in such literature that has lead me to studying my fair share of Classical languages; tales of heroes navigating the depths of Hell, a Hell that contains three-headed dogs, or of talented youths with a flair for pest control via piccolo-playing, captured my imagination, and motivated my interest in learning the languages that these tales were written in. Hell, I even read several children’s retellings of such Greek myths, with a special mention going to Michael Cadnum’s Nightsong and Starfall, reinterpretations of Ovidian myth.

My interest in them hasn’t even abated in the least; quite the contrary, in fact. I hope to do some form of post-doctorate work on the inter-textual links between the folklore of different cultures and languages, but sadly, this is likely to be a pipe dream, so I will probably resign myself to eulogising, excessively, such literature on the internet instead.

The second reason for my curiosity is because it was recommended to me by someone who studied this in their Sixth Form English Class. Idiotically, this acquaintance of mine, who shall, through my bountiful mercy, remain anonymous for reasons that will become transparently obvious reasonably soon, enthused about these stories, describing it to me as one novella that was essentially “Sexy Red Riding Hood”, a terminology which I didn’t and still do not appreciate, not in the least because a) the book is a collection of short stories, of which The Bloody Chamber is a part, but not the whole, and b) The Bloody Chamber is obviously a reworking of the infamous Bluebeard lore, rather than Red Riding Hood. How incredibly awkward for both of us. At least, in his commendation of the work, his judgement doesn’t falter, even if it does everywhere else.

So, you are now probably going to ask me the next (fairly obvious) question: how did I find it? That is an incredibly easy question to answer: this collection of work is bloody fantastic, and I don’t mind saying it to anyone who is willing to listen. However, the question of why I liked it is a more difficult one to answer, not because of a lack of anything to say, but more like through the difficulty of trying to form my ideas and opinions into coherent thought patterns in a fairly concise way; I am sure that my dear readers would not particularly like a thesis on a fairly slim collection of writings. With this in mind, I shall make this a short(ish) piece homage, focusing on the novel’s superb language and imagery; the ingenuity of the reinterpretations; the successful exploration of the themes of Love, Betrayal, Liberation, and Belonging (to name a few); and the sheer breadth of its experimental diversity.

The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories loosely (very loosely) based on classic folklore and fairy tales. To summarise, The Bloody Chamber is a re-telling of Bluebeard; both The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are re-workings of Beauty and the Beast; Puss-in-Boots shares the same name as the folklore it is based on; whilst The Erl-King is based on the “erlkonig” of German folklore; The Snow Child is created from the Snow White tale; The Lady of The House of Love from the vampire legends; and the last three stories (The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, Wolf-Alice), are re-interpretations of the werewolf and Red Riding Hood mythologies, drawing the two together in surprising and unexpected ways.

The first strength of The Bloody Chamber is its stellar use of language. Carter uses words like a sharp weapon, and her skill is so great that she can be trusted to cut right to the heart of her intent with her sentences. The words somehow manage to be stringed together into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that combine into a wonderfully sensual piece of literature.  The language used in The Bloody Chamber is so evocative that the words weigh on one’s tongue like clotted cream; and I mean this in a good way. The language creates such a vibrant and vivid image in the reader’s mind that one can easy visualise each scene: the appearance of the ”vampirella” as described in The Lady of the House of Love was both sensual and scary, especially with the description of her sharpened fangs; the intrepidity Red Riding Hood as she confronts the wolf in The Werewolf gives one a chilling sense of her almost psychopathic calmness, a feeling that is very much heightened by the later sequence of events; the description of Beauty’s skin as her human flesh slowly melts away, to be replaced with a tiger’s pelt in The Tiger’s Bride is vibrant and colourful, as one can almost feel one’s own skin peeling away in concordance with the narrator’s; and the tightly-packed adjectives and descriptive nouns all layered one atop of the other in the sketch of the forest in The Erl-King makes the reader feel as claustrophobic and trapped as the protagonist. These are but a few examples in which Carter uses a phenomenal attention to detail to construct a world that is startling and yet fascinating; and this ability is part of what makes The Bloody Chamber a work of incredible sensuality.

The descriptive paragraphs are especially enhanced by Carter’s mastery over imagery and contrasts, her use of which creates sensations that are not entirely comfortable, and yet not entirely unpleasant as well. The starkly bold language in The Snow Child makes no effort to soften the shock of the plotline, and the bluntness in the contrasting mentions of the blacks, reds, and whites in the narrative very much enhance the plot’s potency. Its starkness and abruptness add to its power, filling the story with pathos and shock. Equally, The Bloody Chamber ironically uses long descriptions (such as describing the lilies as dismembered  arms, a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s future discoveries), and a long build-up of apprehension towards the dramatic revelation of what is behinf the locked door, to increase the terror and the tension within the narrative. This would be especially effective for fans of the Bluebeard legend, who, fully aware of what will follow, would be alternately pleading with the heroine not to indulge in her whim of curiosity, whilst secretly wishing her to go and look, just to see how the extent of her Sadist husband’s depravity and iniquity. In this respect, Carter doesn’t disappoint: the brutal description of the mutilations, flagellations, and defacements that the narrator sees the evidence of is seriously scary, and scarily mesmerizing. The reader is as incapable of stopping halfway through the story, as the heroine is from leaving the bloody chamber without finding out more. Carter’s repetitive use of certain words (such as the description of the oppressive presence of the lilies everywhere) and certain analogies also serves to add to the sense of claustrophobia, as in The Erl-King, and this sensation makes the reader feel as apprehensive and imprisoned as the bored and sexually-oppressed protagonist does. In using the examples of The Bloody Chamber and The Snow-Child, I hope to display, despite the inadequacies of my eloquence, the extent to which Carter has brilliantly used language and imagery.

Another merit of this work is how beautifully Carter’s original concept has been realised. Literature, to be objectively reviewed, has to be analysed in the two ways: its emotive appeal to the senses, and its technical brilliance. A bad book may have the former; a good book will certainly have the latter, but a great book should have both. However, within the second category, two questions should be posed: how original is the basic premise, and to what extent has this initial concept been effectively achieved? In the case of The Bloody Chamber, in which Carter claimed to be “drawing out the latent content from the original fairy tales”, Carter has proved herself to be a magnificent writer, as she writes with imagination and flair. Fairy tales come in many shapes and forms, from the sugar-coated and heavily edited ‘happily-ever-afters’  of the Disney tradition, to the darker and more “adult” folklore from the continent, which I grew up with (in which a girl with serious pigmentation issues and a predilection for eating staining red fruits, ended up being gang-raped and sexually tortured by seven lecherous and vertically challenged wood-dwellers, for example), and Carter has made a significant contribution to that literary tradition through her vibrant and colourful re-interpretations. Her manipulation of the material into stories that share the same basic storyline, and yet differ radically in tone, emphasis, and character is so skilful that, by the second story (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), I was genuinely looking forward to each individual tale, knowing that I would experience something achingly familiar, and yet startlingly new. I particularly enjoyed the contrasting stories of The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride, both of which drew inspiration from the Beauty and the Beast folklore, and yet managed to differ so much in narrative tone, mood, and language, that the two stories became complementary halves of the same whole. The plot- twist of having Beauty becoming the Beast in The Tiger’s Bride instead of vice versa is especially noteworthy, and I appreciated the contrast that The Tiger’s Bride provided to the more traditional story arc of The Courtship of Mr Lyon.

Furthermore, Carter’s fresh interpretations of the classic fairy tales have allowed scope for a renewed study in the underlying age-old themes, themes that Carter experiments on with an almost radical playfulness. The themes of belonging, passion, trust and betrayal, and fear, are threaded into the bare canvas of the plot with a ruthless dexterity that is only matched by the colour and flamboyance that characterise the detail and language of the stories. I feel that Carter has been exceptionally successful in her exploration of humanity: the stories of Wolf-Alice, The Company of Wolves, and The Tiger’s Bride are fine showcases of how human appearance and humane behaviour are not necessarily mutually inclusive, and how one can find acceptance and belonging anywhere, regardless of appearance or creed. The fluid changes in form evident in all these stories are representative of a deeper, more disturbing fluidity within, through which it is impossible to judge others purely based on their appearances and their initial behaviour. The acknowledgement of such a troubling aspect of human nature, and Carter’s clever handling of it through her stories, is indicative of the calibre of this work, and of this author.

However, what I find most praiseworthy in Carter’s collection of tales is the sheer breadth and diversity of the writing. She leaps from the ominous gloom of The Lady of the House of Love to the playful insouciance of the insolent (and humorous) cat in Puss-in-Boots; she depicts with great relish the messy gore in The Bloody Chamber, whilst using sparingly describing the sparse starkness present in the landscape of The Snow Child; she simultaneously flirts with the concepts of rape and sexual liberation; she investigates the themes of sacrifice and love in one story whilst letting her narrator laconically recount instances of betrayal and treachery in the next. Carter has experimented dramatically in The Bloody Chamber, manipulating language, tone, mood, and even story length, in order to lambast the senses and provide a set of dizzying contrasts that would take a life-time and a lot of pluck to analyse properly. It is this diversity and bold experimentation that makes this such a joy to read, and such a work of Art in every way. It is the absolute range of themes, styles, and plots that proves Carter’s worth as a writer, and I for one cannot convey the extent of my admiration for it enough.

To conclude, The Bloody Chamber is, to me, all things to all people. Diverse, bold, outrageous, and shocking, it is all the more brilliant for all these traits, and should be read on that strength alone. Its language must also be lauded, as it is a roller-coaster ride through the land of sensual language and vibrant imagery.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it thoroughly disturbed me on so many levels, but in nothing but a good way. It did what all great classics do: it took me far beyond my comfort-zone, and opened my eyes to a variety of experimental techniques and ideas that will stay with me for as long as I am literate. It is truly a work of genius, and one that I would strongly recommend to anyone with a heartbeat and a milligram of sense.

The Author and His Critics: an analysis of Greene’s final finished work.

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Book: The Captain and the Enemy

Author: Graham Greene

Date of Publication: 1988

Type: Novel (194 Pages).

The Captain and the Enemy - Graham Greene

Before I start on this review, I would just like to proffer my humblest apologies to any reader that has been experiencing agonising withdrawal symptoms through my lack of recent reviews. I have been manically busy recently, as I have been involved in what is known as a “College Telethon”: this involves exposing alumni of The Glorious College to the wonder that is my sexily husky voice, whilst politely requesting for a monetary contribution to The Glorious College. Yes, it is a fundraising initiative; yes, I have had my fair share of phones being slammed on me. It also means that I have very little spare time, and that the little spare time I do have is usually spent not writing reviews, but doing something a little more meaningful, like washing dishes, for example. So, having taken an enforced hiatus of precisely 10 days, I am now back, and am on (potentially) sparkling form.

It has been declared before that I am a Great Graham Greene (such fantastic alliteration) fan. In light of this great partiality of mine, I have decided to alternate my reviews between Greene and non-Greene works. This “brilliant” scheme will very probably last until

  1. I get bored and restless and move on to something else to review,
  2. I get bored of reviewing altogether and drop this illustrious enterprise, or
  3. I run out of Graham Greene novels to review.

I am happy to tell the reader that the last possibility is very, very unlikely to happen.

Even so, until that sad hour of my distraction, when I scamper off from the much-loved territory of Greeneland, I shall boldly  continue to alternate between the two; and I shall continue the precedence set by my review on The Human Factor, by now publishing one on Greene’s last finished, and fully published work, The Captain and the Enemy.

In my opinion, it is almost impossible for any author to maintain a consistent standard in all his works, and when some of these works are masterpieces (as is the case for Mr Greene), it is an unfortunate inevitability that some works will appear to be sub-standard in comparison.

This, unfortunately, is the case for The Captain and the Enemy. It was his last book published before he died in April 1991, and is not one of the well-known ones. I don’t even think that it’ll be presumptuous to assume that many so-called Greene fans (who have possibly only read Brighton Rock, and perhaps, The Power and The Glory), haven’t even heard of it, let alone read it. Therefore, it is up to the hard-core enthusiast to read it, and thus place themselves in a position to review it.

Now, it cannot be said that this book is the very best. However, even though it isn’t, it has a raw vulnerability that touches me very much. In this review, I will endeavour to analyse the merits and demerits of The Captain and the Enemy, expanding on its qualities – its great emotional depth; the mysterious and exciting nature of its basic premise; and its occasional humour – as well as assessing its flaws: its abrupt ending through a fast declining plot; and its bewildering lack of genre.

The Captain and the Enemy is narrated from the perspective of a young man called Victor Baxter, who continues onwards to recount his life with “the Captain”, a shady character whom he first met when the Captain successfully kidnaps him. He then grows up with the Captain and Liza, a nervous woman whom he is meant to keep company. Events in his life continue along the same pattern for a while (frequent absences from the Captain, unexplained visits from the police, and the constant anxiety exhibited by Liza in between letters and visits from the Captain), until the death of Liza, an occasion which prompts Baxter to relocate to Panama (where the Captain seemed to be) to try to discover just what the Captain is involved in. Consequently, Baxter is drawn into the politics and intrigues of that troubled Central American state, with unexpected consequences.

Even though part of my criticism of The Captain and The Enemy is due to the “espionage” part of the novel, I do have to admit that one of the book’s strengths is its exciting and totally unexpected starting, an unpredictability that continues with great effect. It is the casualness with which the narrator announces “I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father” when he recounts his first meeting with the Captain, that automatically makes the reader sit up, and take stock. Thus starts a journey into Greeneland that gallops at full pace for a significant portion of the plot; from “Baxter Three” being whisked away from school and  from the life he had always known, to a life of uncertainty and tension, where a knock on the door is treated with abject terror, and when secretive letters signed off with different names become the norm. The tension is handled well, with Greene’s typical ability to describe with meticulous detail, each little bit of neurosis that makes being human, well, human. Liza’s constant anxiety from the Captain’s nefarious dealings, as well as the constant disappearances of the Captain, very much adds to the mystery, thus keeping the reader perplexed, and eager to continue.

This is very much enhanced by the character of the Captain himself. His very presence raises so many questions that are still left unanswered by the end of the novel. In my opinion, the lack of an answer doesn’t even diminish any power that the book does have; it simply adds to the uncertainty of the entire novel. From the constantly changing identities, to the conflicting stories of the Captain’s life, to the unexplained absences, and the invariable visits from the police, to even the ambiguous promises of a better future cited in the Captain’s letters, there is not one aspect of the Captain that is fixed or known (except his love for Liza); we don’t even know his real name. Even a small issue, such as the game through which the Captain won Baxter is in doubt, with the Captain insisting that it was backgammon, whilst Baxter senior claims it was chess. This lack of certainty in any aspect of anyone’s lives consolidates the ever-present aura of mystery that the Captain radiates, and keeps the plot exciting and suspenseful.

In my opinion, though, it is Greene’s portrayal of love that is his greatest triumph here. The extent to which the Captain is willing to go (kidnapping children, long absences, possible stints in prison, moving abroad, entangling himself in political espionage, to name but a few) to let Liza have anything she wants (including a child!) is deeply moving. Liza’s awareness of this, and her gratitude as a result, is equally touching, and allows us to see another kind of love than that which is usually depicted in Literature: a love that thrives on self-sacrifice, and on making the other happy (much like Blake’s Clod). Liza’s final letter to the Captain is especially powerful, and made all the more so because the reader knows that the Captain, despite all of his absences and all of his risks, for her sake, will never get to hear such a wonderful admission of love from Liza herself. Their constant trials and tribulations make the strength of that confession even more startling, as their love is one that has gone through significant hardship. Consequently, Greene’s depiction of a Great Love characterised by self-sacrifice, secret yearning, and mutual selflessness makes this relationship one of the best in Greeneland literature, and it should definitely be celebrated as such.

The depth of the emotion between them is made all the more profound by Greene’s contrasting it with the detachment of the narrator. There is a certain coldness in Baxter’s reactions and interactions to everything that is slightly frightening, and slightly fascinating. He simultaneously manages to describe the events occurring around him, with other people’s reactions to these situations, without either analysing himself or his own reaction to it. Though some fear and longing is discernible, (especially when he recounts his experiences with the bullies at school, his first night with Liza, and his whimsical decision to take a plane to Valparaiso after he dreamt about it as a sort of paradise) this is hardly noticeable when compared to the palpable fears and worries of Liza, or to the Captain’s disbelief and anger when he discovers Baxter’s convenient white lies. His casual admittance to the fact that he felt he “owed nothing” to the Captain;  his methodical and practical analysis of the situation after Liza’s death, especially in relation to the issue of money; and his initial willingness to continue lying to the Captain after arriving in Panama, makes Baxter an upsetting contrast to the more human Captain, and it also inevitably leads the reader to question the extent to which Baxter takes after his “Devil” father, who is purportedly as heartless as Baxter sometimes appears to be.

Despite the slightly dark aspects of this book, there are certain lighter moments that very much contribute to its virtues. This book, as are many of Greene’s books, is written in a gripping, yet easy-to-read style, that makes the story move along well, and eases any transitions in plot that may startle or confuse the reader. However, it is the occasional humour within The Captain and the Enemy that makes it so enjoyable. The time spent debating the silliness of the narrator’s name (“I never liked the name Victor“) adds a moment of comic relief in what is actually a very disturbing opening scene: the kidnapping of a boy from school.  Equally, the “lessons” he was given by the Captain before being forced to attend school again are also very funny, with a special shout-out going to the Geography-lessons-cum-war-game-extraordinaire that Baxter experiences (“If you want to go from Germany to Spain, how would you do it?”…”No, no, you can’t walk through France, it’s under German occupation.”…” Liège is a safe house. Find Liège”). Even so, it is the letters from the Captain that are absolutely brilliant: long, winding, and very often off-topic, they are peppered with archaic and elaborate vocabulary (“glabrous” earns a notable mention) which has no relevance to the text whatsoever, but which is apparently used “for good sound effect”. These disparate elements all combine to make a novel with a surprising amount of laconic humour, despite the underlying sadness and anxiety beneath it.

On the other hand, one of the biggest flaws of The Captain and the Enemy is its failure to maintain the tension right to the end. Up to the point where Baxter admitted to the Captain that Liza was dead, the plot was moving at an incredibly fast pace. However, after that point, the plot just tailed off, with the Captain abruptly dying on a suicide mission, flying over the wrong part of Panama, and Baxter meeting a similar fate shortly, dying in an “accidental” plane crash to Chile. The two parts of the novel, namely Baxter’s childhood post-kidnap, and the intrigue in Panama with the spies and the militia, never seemed to combine well, and the plot thus lost steam at the end, leaving the reader deflated and slightly stunned. Greene managed to build up a level of mystery and uncertainty to such a high pitch that this sharp decline is rather disappointing. This is especially so because of the clumsy epilogue, which features Colonel Martinez and Quigly looking through Baxter’s “manuscript”, a stylistic device that considerately allows the reader to pretend that the entire story was real, as well as letting the reader know that Baxter doesn’t manage to outlive the Captain by more than a fortnight (if that), without having to resort to Baxter the Ghost recounting his last moments of life from Heaven. This device is, to me, ill-timed, and jars with the rest of the first person narrative; I feel that it not only adds precious little to the plot, it actually lessens it.

Nonetheless, what I found most troubling about the book was Greene’s inability to decide which genre he wanted to write in. Though it has often been argued that a book that defies traditional genres is a book that defies conventional logic, and is therefore groundbreaking work, I simply cannot agree with this. I feel that the mixing of genres in The Captain and The Enemy is simply a result of Greene’s indecision, rather than it being a bold experimentation in stylistic writing. It is a well know fact that Greene self-styled his publications into two types of novel: the novels of a “serious bent” (though he never used that particular term), which tended to include novels of a Catholic trend, such as The End of The Affair, and The Power and the Glory; and novels of “entertainment” (a term Greene did use), which described thrillers with a predilection towards suspense and espionage, such as The Stamboul Train, or England Made Me. It is true, there have been Greene novels that married the two beautifully (The Quiet American and The Honorary Consul automatically stand out), but The Captain and the Enemy does not fall into the “gold-standard” category. This novel therefore wants to be too many things to too many people all at once: it discusses arms-trading whilst the narrator ponders over the morality of his decisions, and it explores the inexplicable attachment between Liza and the Captain on the same page that it describes the unstable political situation in Panama. It is this indecision on the author’s part that weakens the novel’s strength, a novel that could have been so superior to what it currently is if Greene had simply decided to make it one of his “serious novels”. This choice would have been well-supported by the relationship described between Liza and the Captain, as it is wonderfully portrayed and has great emotional complexity.

So, what does this all mean? Well, though I cannot objectively call it a novel of the best technical skill, it is one which, for me, has a profound emotional appeal. The Captain and the Enemy does have its imperfections; yet, despite that, it has a curious emotional affect on me that makes it very special; I have to admit with blushing cheeks and shifty eyes that it is one of the very few novels that made me cry. There is something about Greene’s portrayal of Love here that is so unique, so different, and yet so beautiful, that this Love is one of the few Loves that I actually feel something for. It is this Love that motivates the best parts of the plot; it is also the ending of this Love through Liza’s death (and the Captain’s belated realisation of it) that heralds the unravelling of the plot at the end. Greene’s portrayal of Love is therefore, to me, central to this novel, and it is because of this Love that The Captain and The Enemy should be celebrated as a novel with great emotional depth, even if it does have little else.

In Praise of Rattigan: a review on Rattigan’s interpretation of love.

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Book: In Praise of Love

Author: Sir Terence Rattigan

Date of Publication: 1973

Type: Play (96 pages).

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Anybody who knows me really, really well will know one obvious fact about me: I love plays. It is a preference that started from taking Ancient Greek at A-level, which has a relatively significant amount of the workload dedicated to the translating of plays. I was set the task of reading and reviewing the plays of Sophocles for my unseen paper over the summer holidays, and thus was my partiality born. Ever since, I have gone out of my way to read as many plays as possible, and have come to a few conclusions about my tastes:

  1. I don’t like Shakespearean comedy.
  2. I prefer Marlowe anyway.
  3. I am Seneca’s biggest fan, despite the teasing I have to put up with from better-educated Classicists.
  4. I love Terence Rattigan so much that I can ignore the fact that he went to my rival college.

Yes, Sir Terence Rattigan is my all-time favourite playwright. I have only read a handful of his plays (no more than eight, I believe), and yet I have not stopped marvelling at the absolute consistency in the quality of his dramatic vision, writing, and clarity. I was introduced to his plays by my mother at a relatively tender age, and already liked The Winslow Boy immensely (even though I was not a great fan of reading at the time). During my first term at university, I, in a fit of idle curiosity, picked up a copy of his plays and read The Deep Blue Sea, which unfortunately had attracted my attention through its bearing the same name as a horror B-movie about a psychopathic killer shark all at sea in the…sea. Thankfully, I realised later that the title was a reference to the potentially nautical/potentially Odyssean idiom, “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, and not to a fish, so all was alright with the world thenceforward.

What I love the most about Terence Rattigan’s plays is his ability to successfully dramatise raw human interactions and reactions to the ultimate degree, making his plays heart-warming and heartbreaking in equal parts. Though most of his premises are very simple, the adept way in which he explores these themes allows his subject matter to be realised with a brilliance that is delightful. He takes a basic plot device, such as a boy being expelled for stealing, for example, and manipulates it into a creation that questions the fundamental concepts of justice, truth, love, respect, and honour. In a word, he is simply marvellous.

The play In Praise of Love is, in my opinion, no anomaly in his canon; I cannot praise it enough. In this review, I will discuss the wonderful pacing of the drama; the aching humanity of the characters and their awkward interactions; its glorious exploration of the concepts of Love and Misunderstanding; its stellar dialogue; and its quality as a performed play.

The play opens in a London house, which is inhabited by Sebastian, a distinctly alcoholic publisher-cum-editor and his Estonian wife, Lydia, who had previously been involved in the secret service of her country. Initially, relations between the couple seem to be strained, as both husband and wife lament about their lives to a visiting family friend; it is especially clear that Lydia is resentful of her husband’s less-than-desirable attitude towards their son, and his lengthy unexplained absences. This friction is much exacerbated with the arrival of their son, from whom Lydia manages to obtain a promise to visit Sebastian more regularly, despite the son’s reluctance and the obvious ill-feeling between father and son. Yet, as the play progresses, it becomes evident that all is not as it seems, and slowly, all misunderstandings are cleared up to such an extent that an alternative truth is revealed, one which is startlingly different to the original portrait of a dysfunctional family.

The pace of the play is really, really good. It is neither too heavy, and nor does it rush the storyline forwards in awkward and abruptly surprising ways. Each twist and turn of action is carefully measured out, and the different types of revealed information that the separate characters tell one another cleverly adds different layers to the action, allowing the audience to have a full picture of the situation, but without affording the actors on stage the same pleasure. The consistently smooth development of the plot thus allows the reader to remain mentally and emotionally engaged, and it lets them interact and react to the action. I think the systematic yet significant revelations of Sebastian’s, and then Lydia’s secrets, is particularly notable, which strip away each small misunderstanding that has built up within the family circle, so that the result is a wholly exposed, and wholly uplifting finale.

The characters within the play are portrayed with an aching humanity that is poignant to the reader, and makes each one very realistic. They are all so lost in their own world of self-sacrificing love and corrosive pain that they fail to listen to what they hear, and thus misunderstand and resent one another. Their doubts and uncertainties are patently obvious to the omnipotent reader, such as Sebastian’s fears about Lydia’s comfort and health; Lydia’s concerns about Sebastian’s concerns and her doubts about the unity of their rather fractured family; and their son’s uncertainties about his ability in his chosen profession, as well as his imperfect relationship with his father. However, that which is painfully clear to the reader is not so apparent to the characters, since they choose to mask their true feelings in order to protect both themselves and the ones they love; this regrettably manifests itself in unfortunate ways: alcoholism, aloofness, negligence, superciliousness, hysteria, forced jocularity, and simple snappishness, to name but a few.

The complexity of the characterisation is enhanced by their awkward interactions, especially as the tense and occasionally antagonistic colloquy between the characters is contrasted by their secret sacrifices and familial concern. Though Lydia and Sebastian love each other and go out of their way to protect each other from ugly truths, their interactions never show this, and even at the end, the depth of their attachment is never actually openly admitted, although there is a certain warming in their attitude towards each other. Equally, the communication between Sebastian and his son is initially openly antagonistic, as one would expect between an absentee father and his neglected son. And yet, subtly, through Lydia’s well-meaning machinations, as well as a conscious effort on both the father and son’s part to reconcile themselves to each other, a truce is reached, and so is a more solid footing in paternal relations. Rattigan has a great skill in simulating realistic interactions, that are nuanced, and shift subtly in accordance with the change in mood and emotion, and I feel that this is a great asset to the play.

Equally, the dialogue is also very natural, and reads off the page very smoothly. What I especially like about the dialogue, is how it shows (through language) the initial hostility and bitterness between the characters, which gradually morphs into secret satisfaction, truce-making, and mutual understanding as the play progresses. Nothing constructive or confessional is actually said between them, but the dialogue allows each player to make insinuations beneath their banal chatter, intimations that build an affection and rapport between the reconciled characters, without pretensions or stiltedness.

However, what I loved the most about this play is its celebration of Love: the way in which the characters are revealed to be performing secret labours of love for each other is a touching affirmation of the strength and endurance of love, as well as a light cautionary warning never to assess a situation (or a person) purely at face-value. It is this that inevitably leads to misunderstanding and acrimony. Of course, the fact that the bare bones of the story is very much based on real life characters certainly adds to its emotional depth and pertinence. Despite Sebastian’s supposed negligence and boozing, he is in fact, a concerned husband who simply wants to protect his wife from the truth that she is dying of terminal cancer, and half of the time, his unexplained absences and obvious secrecy is a direct result of his elaborate attempts conceal the truth. Similarly, the son seems like a sullen and singularly disagreeable young man, but it becomes apparent that much of his attitude is a reaction to the pain caused by his father’s slightly dubious parenting, and we automatically feel sympathy for the character. All the characters perform selfless acts for those they love; equally, it is those they love who seem to hurt and misunderstand them the most, and the concept of Love being inextricably entwined with Misunderstanding is beautifully portrayed through In Praise of Love.

Lastly, it is important to remember that a play is to be performed, not to be read. Though I have not had the privilege of seeing this play, I think that the vibrancy of its message of Hope and Optimism, combined with the aforementioned qualities, make it work well as a piece of theatre. The characters are relatively few, and there are no complicated and constant shifts in scene; thus, all the dramatic energy can be channelled effectively, making the emotional experience of watching Sebastian and Lydia quite intense. Therefore, I think that this is an extremely performable play, through its powerful simplicity and the contemporary nature of its premise.

To conclude, this play is a triumph in play-writing. All of these factors, though important in their own right, combine magnificently to produce a masterpiece. Having said this, the stylistic points that I have raised would be nothing without the emotional impact created by it. To me, the hope and optimism with which the play ends touched me profoundly, and I was very much affected by each revelation that displayed a character’s love, or their anguish. I almost cried. That is a lie, I did cry, whilst smiling at the same time; that was admittedly quite an odd experience. Rattigan’s successful appeal to the emotions has therefore achieved something quite extraordinary: he has brought a certain type of magic to the stage, and he has done this in two ways. Firstly, he used his technical skill to create a dramatic mechanism that functions efficiently and effectively. But then he used his genius to breathe life into this being, giving it an emotional quality and vibrancy that brings it to an entirely different level. It is this, I feel, that makes over-performance of this play impossible, and overestimation of its creator equally so.

The Popularity Factor: a look at one of Greene’s most enduring works.

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Book: The Human Factor

Author: Graham Greene

Date of Publication: 1978

Type: Novel (290 pages).

It is probably fairly obvious that I am one of Mr Greene’s  fans. The obsession has permeated into many facets of my life: from my choice of college, to my reading tastes, and even my predilection in film. I cannot quite remember how this frankly worrying obsession started, but I do know for a fact that the first novel I read was Brighton Rock. Brighton Rock certainly did not automatically spawn the fruits of my eternal love, but I think one small thing did, at the time, leave its mark on me: Pinkie’s matter-of-fact explanation that Heaven had to exist, because, naturally, Hell (and all the smoky brimstone that it contains) did. There could be no Hell without its exact opposite, and as Hell was a definite, so therefore, was Heaven. This reflection of my own views on Roman Catholicism and God (as opposed to my more sanguine friends, who only believed in Hell because Heaven obviously existed), caught me, and led me forward. After The End of the Affair, and The Quiet American, one could safely affirm I was permanently hooked. The rest, as they say, is history. The quest to finish every single novel by him (repudiated or otherwise) was taken on. And this quest has been remarkably fulfilling.

Which leads me back to The Human Factor. Now, The Human Factor is a bit of an oddity for me, mainly because it was left until so late. Apart from Rumour at Nightfall (which is rather difficult to get hold of), I had read almost every single novel by Greene. The only remaining three were The Captain and the Enemy, Travels with my Aunt, and surprisingly, The Human Factor. Surprising, because this was considered one of his best works, and it was certainly one of his most popular. There had been many of time when I had professed myself a Greene fan, only to be caught out sheepishly admitting that I hadn’t read this particular novel. Cue sceptical looks and a plummet in my Greene-cred. So, when I finally got around to The Human Factor, I had been led to believe in its almost mystical power and had, essentially, bought the hype.

That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. There is something about the way in which Greene deals with his subject material that’s masterful, and, at the same time, absolutely unpretentious. One can get stuck into a Greene book; one can forget the time reading the Greene book; Greene books are often imbued with an almost magical power.

However, I find myself as conflicted as the character Castle in the matter of reviewing this book. One side of me enthusiastically eulogises over the good points of this work: namely, the expertly displayed psychological tensions and conflicts, the well-written scenes of thrilling suspense (this is, after all, an espionage novel), the unpredictability of the novel (I, for one, had no idea where it was going, and I am a relatively experienced reader), and the excellent characterisation. On the other hand, I found fault with the pacing, and especially with the ending, which I felt marred the positives. Furthermore, though there was great continuity and smoothness of plot, I found that the whole premise fell a little flat, though this is purely a gut instinct on my part. Terrible as it sounds, I didn’t see the point of the book after I’d finished it, and this marginally spoiled the reading pleasure. But, I will address all of these points in turn.

The Human Factor is an espionage novel with a basic premise: sensitive information has been leaked. The leak has occurred in a department of MI6 that handles data concerning and deriving from the African continent, which, according to one of its agents Castle, “only sees the dullest side of things”. The novel deals with the lives and thoughts with the players involved in investigating and resolving this problem, and how they are affected by the checks that are taking place. The leak is eventually revealed to be the apparently staid and loyal civil servant Castle, and the rest of the novel describes his actions in first trying to prevent exposure, and then in trying to escape with his family once exposure is guaranteed.

Greene’s manipulation and exploration of psychological tensions is exemplary in this novel. The intense love that Castle feels for his wife Sarah, and the extent to which he is willing to go to preserve and encourage that deep bond is touching to read, as well as being beautifully narrated. This yearning is also successfully displayed in the character of Davis, though this yearning translates into a desire for the exotic, for the unusual, for a taste of adventure (this is fairly obvious from the glum references that Davis makes constantly to James Bond and his enviably wild antics). Castle’s fear and craving for stability is so real that one can almost feel the anxiety wrap its tenacious fingers around the reader; Daintry’s pained dilemma between his duty and his sense of friendship, and well as his desire to do everything correctly, is so tangible to the reader as to transmit itself across the page, making us empathise with the character and the difficult decisions he has to make.

The encroaching invasion against the status quo and the inevitable shattering of tranquility that is represented in the repetitious security checks is so skilfully built up within the framework of the novel that one feels the same tension and anxiety as the investigations progress closer and closer to the truth. The insecurities and doubt of each and every character – Castle doubting his actions as a double agent; Davis, the choice of occupation; Daintry, the correctness of the investigation’s routine; Percival, his medical methods and knowledge; and Sarah, her position as a black woman in a white-dominated country – is layered one upon another in such a way that the whole novel becomes a build-up of great uncertainties, leaving one anxious and troubled even after the book is finished. Even the ending is ambiguous, with each and every player of the spy game trapped in a stalemate that leaves the future as painfully uncertain in fiction as it is in reality.

Of course, this novel has plenty of what Greene does best: great scenes of action that keeps the reader in an uncomfortable suspense as the plot unravels. In my opinion, the interview between Daintry and Castle (after Castle believes that his cover has been blown) is one of the most awkward and tense parts of the novel, with both trying to play a cat-and-mouse game with each other, while trying not giving their own position away. Castle’s getaway is also an episode of high thrills, with each stage of his flight providing an excitement and apprehension that makes the reader continue forward with bated breath. From the car ride with the old bookseller, to his coincidental and rather unfortunate meeting with a former acquaintance at the airport hotel, this sequence serves as one of the better written scenes of “epic flight”.

Furthermore, the way in which the plot unravelled made the story line startling and surprising in many ways: after several chapters of carefully building up an image of Castle’s staidness and his loathing of risks, as opposed to Davis’ restlessness, it is casually revealed that Castle is in fact the double agent. The suddenness of Davis’ death serves both as a shock and as a reality check to the reader and to Castle. It also seems to put paid to any doubts of the senior management involved (especially as Castle gives the planted information meant for Davis to the Communists, thus damning Davis in Percival’s eyes), and the pace naturally slows a fraction, until the tension is abruptly heightened again by Muller’s announcement that he believes Castle to be guilty – an assessment that is unfortunately taken seriously by Hargreaves. The starts and stops to the rising tension in the novel, which, to be fair, never entirely goes away, makes the plot exciting and unpredictable.

Even so, I think what I like about this book the most, is the care that Greene put into the characterisation; each individual has been created with extraordinary skill, and the ability to breathe life into paper people is Greene’s greatest achievement here. Each character has been made so vulnerable, and so believable, that one cannot help but empathise and even understand them, no matter how distasteful they seem, or villainous.

Though we know that Castle is technically a double agent, he is redeemed by his love for Sarah and the straits he will put himself through for that love.  His absolute desire for a peaceful existence, contrasted with the nature of his job (and the fact that he leaks information to his supposed “enemy”), gives the reader a picture of touching vulnerability; this is very much enhanced by his secret alcoholism, and Greene’s choosing to reveal his inner thoughts, thoughts which prove him to be a man greatly troubled by the secrecy his life is necessarily shrouded in. Naturally, the idea that all of Castle’s actions are motivated by a sense of gratitude for the Communist who helped him and Sarah escape Africa (a sense of gratitude corroborated by a childhood episode told by his mother), is a finishing flourish that has all the hallmarks of Greeneland genius.

The peripheral characters greatly add to the solid foundation started by the protagonist’s profile. The restless loneliness and almost silly romanticism of Castle’s junior colleague, Davis, adds a nice contrast to the Castle’s sobriety. His flippancy, carelessness, and wild ideas of adventure are what, unfortunately, contributes to his unnatural death, but these traits endear him to the reader, and there is no difficulty in relating to a character who feels stifled by a dead-end office job.

The warmth and humanity generated from these two characters is sharply juxtaposed with the fantastic coldness of Dr Percival, a character whose almost-psychopathic tendencies, are, to me, an object of great fascination. The clinical way in which he endeavours to investigate the security issues, validate his so-called evidence, and then eliminate the risk as discreetly as possible, is terrifying, and yet strangely compulsive reading material, especially when his matter-of-fact conversation is frequently interspersed with obsessive comments on fishing and gourmet food. The sangfroid with which he shrugs off his contribution to Davis’ death, and the possibility of the invalidity of his circumstantial evidence is as shocking to Daintry as it is to us, and this determined detachment is refreshingly dissimilar to the uncertain emotional messiness that pervades the rest of the book and its characters.

Yet, it is the characterisation of Daintry that is the most skilful in this novel. Both straitlaced and easily shocked, both “dull” and self-loathing as a result of it, it is this character that takes the most of my sympathy; he is just so swamped in a mire of loneliness and conflict. This is evident in several scenes: the shooting weekend and the awkward conversation with Hargreaves and Percival that follows; dinner with his daughter, when he spots Davis and is tongue-tied; begging Castle to go with him to his daughter’s wedding; trying to ring his daughter and getting her married name wrong; the disaster that was his attendance at the wedding; breaking his wife’s ornaments and causing pandemonium at the wedding reception; and his tortured dilemma after his revealing conversation with Castle, to name but a few. All of these aptly portray the conflicting ideas within poor Daintry that are tearing him apart. Though Castle is the protagonist, it is Daintry who is the living embodiment of all the loneliness, fear and doubt that is hinted at throughout the book.

However, though the novel has many good points, its faults still have to be addressed. The pacing of the story was relatively good for a significant part of the novel, but I found that the novel ended rather suddenly, and as such, the tensions created from the getaway and Castle’s stay in Russia was abruptly stopped by the ending of the story, rather than it fading away gently. I came to the end of the book genuinely expecting to have thirty pages more or so to read, and the fact that I didn’t left me uncomfortable and slightly winded. There was no resolution of the problems within the novel, and moreover, there didn’t seem to be a hope of any.

I think this feeling of hollowness was very much accentuated by the fact that the concepts discussed didn’t exactly reach out to me. I did think that the characterisation and conflicts of the novel were beautifully written, yet The Human Factor did not cause me pain to read, and it did not make me think upon my actions, my thoughts, or my interactions with those around me. For example, the actions and decisions of Fowler in The Quiet American left me thoughtful and troubled for days afterwards, with the same question revolving around and round in my head: did he make the right choice? Though The Human Factor displays the vulnerabilities that characterise being human very well, that, to me, was all it did: it displayed human emotions in all its glorious ugliness, but didn’t question or test them, simply accepted them as defined axioms, and built a plot from them.

What makes Graham Greene such a fantastic read is the incredibly fresh nature of his ideas: his exploration of the concepts of honour, love, morality, and fear, and the conflicts that ensue when these clash, is so contemporary as to be as relevant to readers today as it was thirty years ago, and it will be equally relevant to future generations. However, I feel that Greene’s superior ability to display, in breathtaking detail, the countless shades of assorted emotions, has been better showcased in other novels. Though this book is a good read, and a successfully seething mass of tension, paranoia, and all-round uncertainty, it is not as deserving of its popularity as, say, The Power and the Glory, which to me, is a masterpiece. It is heart-warming in places, and gripping in others, but it has many of the human flaws that make it a truly flesh-and-blood drama, and it did not manage to attain the godlike heights of perfection. Nevertheless, The Human Factor was certainly an enjoyable foray into Greeneland, and one I certainly do not regret.

Girl, 43: A tribute to Kingsley Amis’ scathing critique on the rollickin’ 70’s.

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Book: Girl, 20.

Author: Kingsley Amis

Date of Publication: 1971

Type: Novel (240 pages).

Though I chose to name this blog “Greeneland Revisited” in deference to two of my all-time favourite authors, I can’t help but reserve a special little place in my heart for the wonder that is Sir Kingsley Amis. Bigot and misogynist he may be, but he is a bloody funny bigot and misogynist. The views and opinions of his characters (which I often suspect is just Amis expressing his own views through a conveniently placed mouthpiece) are said with such outrageous humour that one almost laughs involuntarily whilst furtively risking a quick glance  around the library to see if anyone is looking at you disapprovingly. Such is the magic of Amis, and I found it inexplicably appropriate to write my first review on this blog-spot about him.

I had read a reasonable amount of Amis before Girl, 20, and already very much admired Amis’ sheer diversity. It is true, his books often have an overweight has-been husband as its anti-hero of sorts, who often has a prolonged date with boozing, serial adultery, and gluttony (whoever said that literature shouldn’t mirror personal realities and relationships obviously did not get his memo to Amis). However, his entire oeuvre shows a staggering dedication to his Art, as his range in genre and in subject matter is exemplarily broad. His works include a supernatural ghost story (The Green Man), a campus drama (Lucky Jim), alternative history with a predilection towards Roman Catholicism (The Alteration), and a murder mystery (The Riverside Villas Murder), just to name a few. The breadth and depth of this range is no mean feat, and his calibre as an author is once again proven when one understands the almost obsessive detail with which Amis regales his reader about the world of contemporary and classical music.

This is very much the world of Girl, 20, a novel which traces the trials and tribulations of Douglas Yandell, music critic and helpless arbitrator in the marital woes of the Vandervane household. If any one book made you realise the impossibility of not taking sides in marital breakdowns, it is this one. Kitty Vandervane, wife of the “radical” conductor Sir Roy Vandervane, enlists a reluctant Douglas to help her out as her husband has another one of his “goes” (a term used to describe Vandervane’s extramarital affairs). The husband, in turn, uses a much beleaguered Douglas to help him as he embarks on an affair with the 17 year old Sylvia, who seems to make a point of being outlandish and provocative. The complications and disasters that develop as a consequence prove to be both farcical and tragic in equal turns, creating a work of surprising complexity and poignant humour.

The result is almost bittersweet, and I was smiling resignedly through a haze of tears as I came to the final pages of the book. Though it is not my absolute favourite from Amis, it is certainly a superior piece of work, which manages to combine comical dialogue, sharp satire, farcical scenes, and nuanced characterisation, which turns it into a pure Amian comedy.

The dialogue of the book, is, as usual, top quality. The level of humour injected into the colloquy between the different characters is evident in several of their interactions. The tussles between Meers and Yandell is worthy of note, as Meers’ absolute abhorrence to the mere mention of anything remotely related to Communism in his magazine inevitably makes Yandell’s critiquing of such musicians extremely problematic – his periodicals consequently suffer heavy editing or complete omission, much to the chagrin of poor Yandell. Yandell and Vandervane’s awkward conversations about Vandervane’s ‘goes’ are also highly risible, with Vandervane alternately confused and annoyed by Yandell’s apparent obsession with his pants (‘Bugger the pants! You and Kitty are obsessed with the bloody things’). However, Amis’ ability to spell out irregular pronunciation is what makes Sylvia’s vapid, incoherent dialogue comedy gold. Notable examples include,  “Ah, piss awff”, “you old buhg”, “nice fluht”. The phonetic spelling of these words makes it so much easier for the reader to visualise Sylvia as she frames these words with her mouth, and the result of mentally imitating her adds another layer of comedy to Sylvia’s random dialogue.

Amis’ distaste for the current trends in pop music and political ideologies is also a great driving force behind the humour of the plot. His ability to channel this disapproval into a few important pivotal scenes increases the acerbity of Amis’ condemnation. The embarrassing concert of Chapter 8 (Pigs Out) is a scene of pure comedy, and we can almost feel the severe violation that Yandell’s sensibilities undergo as he “devoted himself to the horrible task of listening to Elevations 9“, which, to quote Yandell, was a “complete flop”. The character’s distaste is evident in his every thought process, and we share his pain as we also survey the destruction wreaked by modern pop music. After all, the lament of the older generation concerning the younger’s mores and tastes will never become stale.

The description of the awful club that the quartet went to in Chapter 3 (The Night of the Favour) is no less worthy of mention, and Yandell’s relief as they leave the place to go onto another is almost palpable. Again, Amis draws on a very human experience (reluctantly carrying out an obligation and hating every minute of it) and manipulates it into a hilarious and integral part of his novel. The agonizingly uncomfortable confrontation between Lady Vandervane and Sylvia in Chapter 5 (Absolute Rock)  is magical in its display of Sylvia’s callousness (Sylvia: Yeah. I’ll think about it.’ Kitty: Oh, thank you, thank you.’ Sylvia: ‘You’re welcome, you’re welcome. Right, I’ve thought about it. The answer’s no.’) and Yandell’s discomfort, though the tension of the scene is aptly dispelled by Sylvia’s exhibitionist stripping in front of a shocked Kitty and an equally gobsmacked Yandell (‘This is what he sees in me!’).

Amis uses the opposing characters of Meers and Vandervane as foils of each other to prove the absurdity and pointlessness of extremes in ideology. While Meers is a bigoted fascist whose beliefs veer dangerously to the right of the political spectrum (so much so he bans the mere mention of Communism and leftist ideologies in a supposedly apolitical music magazine), Vandervane’s risible attempts at leftist liberalism is very much evocative of the Champagne Socialists of the 20th Century, who love to espouse liberalist theorems without much active practice of the aforementioned beliefs. Through both characters, Amis cleverly lampoons, not ideologies in themselves, but the individuals of the time who make a mockery of politics, by talking intellectually and loftily without doing much else. In this way, Girl, 20, though superficially light in tone, is actually an acute political satire on the pitfalls of intellectual theorising and the inevitable hypocrisy that follows.

Yet, in my opinion, Girl, 20 is a triumph because of the success of its characterisation: each character is a caricature without any traces of excessive stereotyping. Sir Vandervane is the main target of Amis’ acid tongue, representing in one single human being, all that is wrong  in worshipping Youth Culture. He is shallow, selfish, and perennially hypocritical, choosing to idolize and adopt all the trendy aspects of contemporary thinking and habits without following any of these intellectual convictions through. He has no shame in asking both his friend and his daughter to help him cover his tracks so that he can have a proper liaison with his paramour, and sheepishly admits that he doesn’t mind hearing Yandell’s criticisms about his professional or personal conduct, as he has no intention of deviating from his set course.

Sylvia is unattractive, sullen, rude, often incomprehensible, and deliberately provocative, and yet Vandervane is willing to love her in spite of her absolute lack of appeal, suggesting that his love is for all she represents (his Lost Youth), rather than a liking for her as an individual. His character profile thus make the old adage “There’s no fool like an old fool” ring true,  and paints a rather sorry picture of a rather pathetic individual: an adulterous has-been who is clinging onto his youth and vigour through erroneously embracing contemporary ideals and fashions.

The narrator’s less-than-altruistic thought processes add a touching vulnerability to the narrative, since he unashamedly and unreservedly admits to several things: firstly, trying to sleep with Penny Vandervane even though he has girlfriend (of sorts); secondly, preferring the breakdown of the Vandervanes’ marriage to the release of the disaster that is Elevations 9, cheerfully showing the importance of Music over Morals to his mind; thirdly, admitting to failing to maintain the fine balance between being Roy’s confidant and the Vandervanes’ family friend, resulting in mishaps and double-crossing.

Even Vivienne and Gilbert, despite their apparent prudishness and occasional disapproval of Yandell, respectively display a certain sexual licentiousness and predatory lustfulness that is at odds with the initial portrait of the character. Vivienne is by turns perverse and straightforward, and admits to Yandell during her engagement party that she is both relieved and piqued that Yandell didn’t push her harder when she ended their relationship, and acknowledges to her own contrariness. Gilbert is immediately defensive, assuming that everyone he meets has a tendency towards racism and prejudice, much to the bemusement of Yandell when first introduced. These superb character sketches of Amis are wonderfully accurate in depicting human nature in all its complexity, and this all contributes a masterpiece of incredible detail and skill, with each scene serving to either build upon a certain character or to drive the plot forward.

Even so, what makes Girl, 20, superior to many of his other works is its nuanced nature. Despite being a very funny book that smartly reveals all that is wrong with 70s culture (the increasing promiscuity; a decline in good taste; the deterioration of manners, etc) , there is a certain underlying sadness that sets the book apart, thus making it a satirical book with a very pertinent message. The antics of Lady Vandervane in trying to keep her husband may seem tragic to the unsympathetic reader, but the reality of her mental breakdown and hysteria is all too easy to relate to. Penny’s bald admission that she has “gone onto the hard stuff now”, and that Vandervane did them a favour, leaving them “all free now”, has a resigned and hopeless ring to it, despite Penny’s false brightness. Amis has achieved something very rare indeed:  he has made his characters, situations, and circumstances relatable, and relevant. Despite the glitter and hilarity of the Vandervane world, there is a certain hollowness underneath it all that seems to make the pursuit of happiness in such a superficial and shallow world entirely pointless.

The book is both sad and funny, and this perfectly reflects the tragic farce that is living. What Amis excels in is showing the flaws of human nature in all its glory. In the case of Girl, 20, every embarrassing vice, each individual imperfection, is shown in glorious multicolour.