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How on Earth did I get through this? (Part 4)
on 9 November 2010
Here's another one I put aside at first but then decided, as part of a New Year's resolution, to return to and finish. When it didn't grab me from the start, as Graham Greene's novels normally do, it was partly because this particular Penguin edition has just about the smallest print it is humanly possible to put to paper and still read.
While beautifully written, of course, it is not Graham Greene's most impressive and convincing novel. The main character, Scobie, is a police inspector in some fictional West African British colony at the outbreak of WWII. This very much reflects Greene's own experiences at the same time. Still, I find it hard to believe in this social environment where no one seems to care or worry even remotely about the situation in Europe. The exact time frame isn't quite clear, but we do move from 'The Phony War' (after the German invasion of Poland) into talk about the Vichy Government (apparently the neighbouring colony is French), meaning that we are well into Battle of Britain times. You would think these people were at least occasionally debating things at home, worrying about relatives, not to mention the fact that at this point it looked very much as though the Germans would win the War. Even from a one hundred percent egotistical point of view this would have changed everything for them. Yet Scobie and his fellow Brits live in their own little world of intrigue, jealousy, matrimonial quibble and career struggle (it's as though they already know it will all end with an Allied victory, as indeed Greene knew at the time he wrote the book). On top of that Scobie, a middle aged married man, falls in love with a nineteen year old girl, still emotionally shaken from the loss of her husband. He doesn't refrain from having sex with her on their first ever one-to-one meeting, and subsequently on numerous occasions. We assume he must enjoy it since he continues the relationship, but in between he gets submerged in guilt and worries about how he will be spending his afterlife according to his faith.
Mentally, Scobie is under attack on several fronts. He is deeply in love where he shouldn't be, he is marred by his extremely active conscience and by his religion. Here we find another of the novel's weaker point. How a man of this kind can bear being a police inspector is a bit of a mystery, as this part of his life is severely underrepresented in the novel. Criminal justice can't avoid at times being rough and unfair, particularly in an environment like this. Furthermore, at no point does Scobie doubt the British government's right to rule rigidly over other people thousands of miles from the home land. I suppose you could say all that is irrelevant since this is a psychological novel, not a political story. Still, there must be a limit to how much you can isolate the two. Certainly in later novels, such as 'The Quiet American', Greene manages masterly to combine them.
What this novel has, however, is a lot of insight into the Catholic mind. To an outsider it looks inconsequential and hypocritical, as represented by Scobie's young mistress, Helen, a daughter of a Church of England minister. Her lack of understanding adds to Scobie's desperation, to a point where you get the feeling that behind all his correctness and goodness there is also an element of self-righteousness. For him to exist he needs to do everything morally and formally right, and as soon as the small breech is opened the whole construction on which he has built his life crumbles, mentally and physically.
Then there is perhaps the real theme of the novel; the theme, perhaps, that has appealed to aging university tutors over the years; the theme which Anthony Burgess in his short Ernest Hemingway biography describes as 'the middle-aged man's desire to be born again', i.e. to take a young mistress. Hemingway, in his novel 'Across the River and into the Trees', utilised this theme as a platform for a storyline around the same time as Graham Greene. It's not an easy theme at all. Old men with young female lovers are generally ridiculed: he's having a midlife crises, she's looking for a father figure or perhaps even for his money. However, this is a serious trap for aging men to fall into, and Greene is not at all wrong in suggesting that the outcome can be suicide. There is a feeling that on some partly unconscious level he wrote this novel to warn himself of a dangerous situation, yet when later on he used the theme repeatedly there seemed to be no moral second-thoughts involved. Make of that what you want. (Incidentally, Burgess suggests the aging male artist approach the problem as Hemingway seemingly did: by making her his muse and keep sex out of the relationship.)
In conclusion, I would say that unless you are particularly interested in the issues of Catholic guilt, some of the secondary themes in this novel are probably better dealt with in other Graham Greene novels such as 'The Quiet American' or 'The Human Factor'. Still, even non-perfect Greene is better than no Greene at all and despite its shortcomings this is a wonderfully written story delivered in straight-forward, lucid, unpretentious sentences as one would expect from one of the very best authors of this era.