When the Going was Greg: My Final Post of 2014

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Despite my promises that I would post more Gregs (and, slightly more importantly, more book reviews), I’m afraid I simply hadn’t got around to it. I’ve had an absolutely crazy December, what with end of term essays (two surprise ones in the last week!), helping out with department interviews, and doing the college telethon (again!), I’ve been so busy I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone rest. So, as a humble offering to all my “fans”, I present to you my last post of 2014, the next five pictures in my ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek “Fifty Shades of Greg comics.

21 - Theatrical Greg

21. I love musicals. I absolutely love them. I love them so much that I have a collection of soundtracks on my music player. As little Gregoire is essentially just the ursine male version of meself, I decided to project that love onto the more flamboyant…and crazier Greg.

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22. My mother is quite enamoured with Scotland. I’m not quite sure why, she just is. She’s also quite a fan of the film “Highlander” (to be fair), so I am. This Greg is dedicated to her.

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23. Greg has a bit of a sweet tooth. Evidently. This picture is evidence of this, and also proof that, despite being a rubbish cook, he’s not a half-bad baker (thank god for that).

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24. My College Sister L turned 20 in October. As well as a present, I gave her a Greg, a Greg in which Monsieur Le Souflurre meets Barnabus, Jedi extraordinaire, and darling teddy bear of L. She loved her Greg.

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25. Greg is a little (very) pretentious. As you have seen before, he also loves the theatre. The result? A lot of Shakespeare, a lot of strutting, and not much solid work going on. Oh dear, I guess it’s any excuse to be a Titania, isn’t it?

I’m afraid to say that, that’s all for now! Believe it or not, we are now half-way through the projected series, with several simultaneous projects running all at the same time. How exciting (for me anyway).

At any rate, I hope all the readers of this blog have had a fantastic Christmas, and an equally propitious New Year! I am hoping to write one review a month in 2015, a target that I hope I can keep…it’s been absolutely wonderful to write and to improve (hopefully) as a person, and I really appreciate the fact that those who read this blog is here to share the journey with me. So, a big thank you, and Happy New Year.

Best, Hectorella (and little Gregoire)

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.

Put Out More Gregs: a fresh batch of Greg sketches.

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I immensely enjoyed completing these series of Gregs: partly because of the overwhelmingly positive response I have been getting from these sketches, and partly because researching the little details that complete a Greg is so fun! Please find below the next four in the Fifty Shades of Greg series, which this humble illustrator very much hopes that you enjoy!

17 - Sherlock Greg

17. I am one of those annoying Sherlockians. Yes, yes I know. Now you probably think I’m one of those crazy fans that scream every time the letter “B” pops up anywhere (I’m not, by the way). In commemoration of the wonder that is Sherlock Holmes, (modern or otherwise), I drew this cosplay Greg.

18 - Flyte-y Greg

18. I met my friend D in the Trinity term, and we got very close very quickly. Sadly, she was an exchange student abroad, so once her year finished, she had to go back home 😦 I miss her a lot, but we manage to communicate via facebook fairly often, so that’s alright. She’s a HUGE fan of Greg (self-proclaimed), and she’s also one of Brideshead Revisited’s No. 1 fans (a love we have in common). This Greg was done to celebrate her (and Waugh).

19. My father is obsessed with Star Wars. Truly, madly obsessed. He really likes Greg too, and kept badgering me to do a Darth Vader Greg. I kept insisting that that would be quite difficult to do; he began to whine some more. As a compromise, I made him a Princess Leia Greg instead. I’m not sure what his reaction to it is, he hasn’t seen it yet.

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20. I used to practise ballet when I was little. I wasn’t very good. However, my Greg combines my enthusiasm and a dancer’s talent in dancing, and so Ballerina Greg was born. I think he looks really sweet in a tutu, but that’s just my opinion.

That’s all in the series thus far! Please keep your eyes peeled for the next lot (there’s always something being drawn), and again, I really hope you like them!

A Handful of Greg: more sketches of the Beloved Grizzly, as promised.

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In my previous post, I did warn the much abused reader that I would inflict Greg on them at every given opportunity I have. Here are the next series of Gregs (the next four in the series), all showing our wonderful little furry friend in the best possible light. As I’ve said before, please enjoy!

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13. My friend T is a massive fan of Greg, and very sweetly complimented me on my creations, saying it was like “a children’s book gone off the rails” (it was actually meant as praise). In light of his much needed flattery (I’m a narcissist that’s very vulnerable to all and any types of praise), I dedicated this Greg to him. He’s a Classicist, but he’s also a “nerd” (self-styled), and President of the Board Games Society; what else could I do but have a Board Games Greg?

14 - Miserable Greg

14. This was my mother’s idea. She thought it would be funny to have a Cossette Greg, but believed that it would be “too difficult to recreate”. Judging from the smirk on her face when she saw the picture, I think she was proved wrong.

15 - Connoisseur Greg

15. Also another one of my mother’s fantastic ideas. She’s a bit of a fan of French art, so I thought it appropriate to have an excessively pretentious Greg going to a (very) comprehensive Teddy-Bear Art Gallery.

16 - Universally Challenged Greg

16. I love University Challenge. It’s where I gain any snob credibility that I do possess. Also, I liked the idea that my socially awkward ickle grizzly was enough of a knowledge sponge to get himself onto the team (and on television!). Only to embarrass himself horribly by introducing himself in the wrong way (standard Bearlliol Bear behaviour, really).

That’s all, for now! Please watch out for the next lot; I’m constantly creating, and always trying something new. As I said, please comment or post if you have any suggestions/requests.

Blue Mischief : Introducing Grégoire into the World of Greeneland Revisited.

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Despite my promise, and my lofty assertions that I would use this “acclaimed” webpage as a way to showcase my flair for a) finishing a book b) writing about it, I have found that I have discovered a new hobby: namely, cartoon-sketching. This started when I was excessively bored from listening to far too many voicemails during my stint as a telethon warrior. With a pad and blue-ink pen considerately placed in front of me, what else could I do but start something new? And thus was Greg, the socially awkward Grizzly bear with a penchant for dressing in women’s clothes and botching up his dates in a spectacular style, born. Each new sketch will be published on this page, and just so that you are aware of my intentions (how considerate am I?), I am happy to tell you that I probably intend to do a series of fifty sketches, all revealing Greg on splendidly top form. I’m hoping that the little artistic talent and dry wit that I do have can last that long.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these first twelve pictures that I’ve already done. Each should have a brief explanatory note revealing the inspiration and the origins of each little snapshot in Grégoire’s (Greg’s full name!) rather troubled life. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, in glorious non-multicolour, the trials and tribulations of Greg, telethon creation, Oxford undergraduate, and failed Casanova.

01. The First of a long series of Greg sketches

1. Greg was actually meant to be a cat with a bow (I’m not quite sure I was drawing a cat with a bow, but nevermind). He became Greg, experimental hipster and all-round darling.

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2. A friend of mine, who shall be known as V for reasons of privacy, was doing the telethon with me. Whilst trying to “bond” and “build rapport” with the prospective donor, she started talking about mutual interests and hobbies, of which both found a ‘passion’ in photography. V neatly bolstered her claim to a passion for photography by promptly asking whether he had “heard of instagram.” Cue laughs from the entire room. And thus did Greg became a social-media obsessed selfie taker.

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3. This was meant to be a self-referential mock at my own Art “skills”. Greg is supposed to like doodling as much as I do, and the horrendous sketch of the Rad-Cam (draw from the necklace I was wearing), became a self-evident symbol of Greg’s (and my own) issues with proportion and spacing.

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4. I really, really wanted to draw a pumpkin. Also, my mum loves vampires. Thus Halloween Greg was drawn.

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5. A friend from the telethon, who really really loved Greg, had been to Russia during the vac. As a Historian and Russia fan, I thought that she deserved a Greg of her own. D still insists it’s the best Greg so far.

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6. I am an awful cook. Envious of Greg’s rapid popularity, and I wanted him to share the same weaknesses as me.

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7. Greg was created during the telethon. Therefore, what was more appropriate than a telethon Greg? This received huge acclaim from callers and supervisors alike.

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8. I love to dance. I also wanted an excuse to dress Greg up in style. Dancin’ Queen was born. Because no one puts Greggy in the corner.

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9. R is a massive enthusiast for Greg. Deciding that his support had earned him a Greg, I asked him what he liked. He replied “cinema”. This was the rather “racy result”. R still loves it though (cinema and Greg).

10. I’m, at heart, a Sinologist. I love Art, language, and China. This means that calligraphy is literally my soul-mate. I made sure Greg has the same tendencies. Awkward.

Matriculating Greg (11)

Matriculating Greg (11)

11. Greg is, first and foremost, an Oxford boi. And what does every Oxford boi do? Matriculate, that’s what. #whatalad.

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12. My friend A begged me for a Greg, based on “Union hacks”. Uncomfortable with the possibility of being sued, I opted for laughing at A instead. Hence pretentious Greg. Thank God A is very good at taking a joke.

That’s all of them for now! Please look out for future Greg incarnations; I’ll only be posting them on here from now on, as this is the only place where I like to channel my so-called creativity! Please feel free to comment/give advice if anything at all suggests itself to you.

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.