Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Art and Craft (1) Graham Greene.

A life long love.

I have loved Graham Greene ever since I was a teenager when I used to pull his slim volumes off our crowded bookshelves. Studying The Power and the Glory for “A” level gave me an opportunity to reflect on his writing in more depth and confirmed for me what a wonderful writer he is.

Greene novels are easy to read: his prose is clear and elegant, his books often quite short. However, his subject matter is always complex - his characters struggle with their flaws and their consciences, making the wrong choices for the right reasons. They live in dangerous and desperate worlds in colonial Africa, South America, Asia. Even when they are in England they are not safe. Greene is brilliant at evoking time and place, people struggling with events in landscapes that are often alien to them. The other great strength of his writing is the undercurrent of politics, faith (religious or otherwise), who we are in the world, and the effects of what we do. His novels are brilliantly crafted and always stay with you long after they are finished.

Green is often described as a Catholic writer, and several of his novels do reflect his understanding of his religious beliefs. He, however, felt he was a writer who happened to be a Catholic, and although some of his greatest works have Catholic preoccupations (The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock), others seem to me to be focussing on his interests in the political questions of his day (The Confidential Agent, A Gun for Sale, The Quiet American, The Human Factor).

Greene was prolific, as well as his main novels, he wrote and adapted screenplays (some of his own work). He was a fine travel writer (one of the reasons that his landscapes are so well drawn), and though he is best known for his serious fiction, he could show a light comic touch. Our Man in Havana is a hilarious account of a local diplomat creating a fictional plot to keep the intelligence services happy, only for it to run completely out of control. (And like a number of his political novels, seems quite prescient). In my view he is one of the finest twentieth century English writers, and I hope, if you haven’t already read him, you will discover it for yourself soon. In the meantime, let’s take a brief look at how he went about it.

A master at work.

You could pick up almost any Graham Greene novel and find evidence of his fine craftsmanship. I am going to concentrate on the openings of two of my particular favourites, The Heart of the Matter, and The Quiet American, which are great examples of his skill.

Introducing the main character through others– Both novels start with a technique that Green often uses. The scene opens as a broad canvas, only to narrow down to particular information and to the person who matters most. Thus,
in the Heart of the Matter, we begin with a character Wilson sitting in a West African hotel, observing first the street below, then interacting with a fellow guest, Harris who draws our attention to Scobie, the novel’s hero, walking down the road. The Quiet American also starts with a street scene (this time in South Vietnam) as the narrator Fielding, waits for his friend, Pyle, who is late. When Pyle doesn’t come, Fielding goes downstairs, where he sees a girl, Phuong. Over the next few pages we discover details about Pyle through their conversation until the police pick them up and take them to the police station. Pyle’s absence hangs over them, but it is only as we near the end of the chapter that Fielding works out why - Pyle has been murdered.

In both introductions, Greene cleverly builds up our sense of the importance of Scobie and Pyle by letting his other characters tell us about them. In Scobie’s case it is Harris who gives us the local view of the man – he “loves” the natives so much, “he sleeps with them”, he has an intellectual, unpopular wife, he probably takes bribes from the Syrians. In Pyle’s case, we have Fielding’s view of him through the prism of his encounter with Phuong – she has changed her hair because of Pyle, he is usually punctual, he doesn’t smoke. Later on Fielding tells the policeman that Pyle was a “quiet American”, he remembers him as being serious, a great reader. As he wanders back to the flat with Phuong, Fielding reveals a last shocking truth – before he died, Pyle was responsible for the deaths of at least fifty people. In both cases, we feel we are not being given the full picture, and that is hook enough for us to want to read more and find out the truth of who Scobie and Pyle are and why their stories matter.

Scene setting – Greene is a very effective scene setter. He uses the tiniest of details to show us where his characters are. Thus in The Heart of the Matter we are told the negresses going to matins are trying to “wave their wirespring hair” – immediately telling us that we are not in England. He tells us we are by the sea, Wilson has recently “emerged” from the port, there are black clerks and their wives, an Indian on the balcony, the rooves are “tin” and “corrugated iron”. The arrival of a “black boy” bringing gin, confirms for us that we are somewhere in colonial Africa. In The Quiet American, Greene is similarly economical. The “old women in black trousers” are squatting, it is February, but “too hot” for them to be in bed at midnight. A trishaw passes, and the lights burn in the distance where American planes are disembarking. This is obviously south Asia, again confirmed by the description of Phuong, with her “white silk trousers” and “long flowered robe.”

Character development – I have mentioned how both openings give us information about the central characters, but they are also very good at building up detail about the subsidiary characters too. The opening paragraph of “The Heart of the Matter” give us some very clear clues about Wilson. With his “bald pink knees”, a “very young moustache” we immediately sense his youthfulness and inexperience. In the next paragraphs we learn that “his pallor showed how recently he had emerged” from the port, that he “had no car” and is “intolerably lonely”. This marks him out as a newcomer to the country and one who doesn’t appear to make friends easily. He likes romantic poetry but keeps this secret. He wants passionately to be “indistinguishable” from the other men, to be more masculine, but his “eyes betrayed him”. They are mournful like a dog's – showing that he is a man of feelings. When Harris mentions Scobie’s intellectual wife, we know Greene is giving us a clue that Wilson will be naturally drawn to her.

The beginning of The Quiet American is most revealing about the character of Fielding. Throughout the chapter, he insists he is anxious about Pyle's whereabouts. Yet this is counterposed with the knowledge that Phuong used to wait for Fielding, that she has left him for Pyle. Though Fielding has the sensitivity not to hurt her by making cruel comments about their new situation, he thinks about bedding her if Pyle doesn’t show up. He says the opium stops his desire, yet he still wishes out loud that he were Pyle. Immediately we are not sure about his motives. When the police come knocking at his door he remembers the stories of people who have disappeared, and reveals he is a journalist. That knowledge and his response to the policeman’s insistence they come, show us he is a seasoned ex-pat who knows the dangers and pitfalls of the country, unlike the na├»ve and uninitiated Pyle. (An interesting reversal of the Heart of the Matter, where Scobie is the old hand and Wilson the newcomer). The encounter with the policeman Vigot, is even more revealing. On the one hand, Fielding claims innocence of Pyle’s death, he has an alibi. Yet his throw away comments suggest otherwise. “ ‘Not guilty,’ I said. I told myself it was true.”, “I told myself I was innocent.” The chapter ends with Fielding asking “Am I the only one who cared about Pyle?” and we are left wondering if this is true.

Foreshadowing – Graham is a master of foreshadowing. He lets us know early on in both novels that we are looking at tragedy. From the moment we see the vulture in The Heart of the Matter, we know this will not be a happy story. Scobie’s first appearance is a lonely walk down the street, and the minute he is mentioned the vulture flaps his wings. Though Wilson doesn’t think this moment is important at the time, Green very economically tells us that it is, ”He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets…
…a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined – the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird”. As he walks out of sight Harris says “Poor old Scobie” and we know he is doomed.

Similarly in The Quiet American, we know the moment Fielding goes down to the street, that Pyle is not coming back. Throughout the conversation with Phuong, we sense something bad has happened. Phuong’s comment that he won’t be long, is intended “to comfort” Fielding, Fielding finds excuses for his absence. The whole scene feels muted and melancholy.When they arrive at the police station, Fielding picks up the sadness in Vigot’s tone, and we know before we are told that Pyle is dead. Whilst this is tragedy enough, the ambiguities that Greene shows us in Fielding’s character hint that there is more to this murder than meets the eye. We are left at the end of the chapter knowing that there is more sadness to come.

I could say more about Greene’s dialogue, his cinematic approach to his writing, the delicacy with which he weaves the personal and the political, but I’ll leave it there I think. If you've read these wonderful books and have anything to add, (or critique me for!) please do comment. If you haven't, I hope I've whetted your appetite for a fine, fine author, at the peak of his skills.

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