As many of you will know, Simon of SavidgeReads came up with the lovely idea of Greene for Gran, whereby we all read some Graham Greene this month as a tribute to his Gran, a great reader and a lover of GG’s work. Any excuse to read Greene must be a good one, so after a lot of vacillating, I finally settled on reading two novellas – “The Third Man” and “No Man’s Land”. I have several Greenes on Mount TBR, so the decision was quite difficult, but these two go together for reasons which will become clear!

third

The Third Man is one of Greene’s best known titles, as it started life as a film treatment and became the famous Carol Reed movie, starring Orson Welles amongst others. It’s set in fragmented, post-War Vienna, which is being shared between the superpowers and is divided into zones. The place is a ruin, full of black marketeers, and Rollo Martins, a hack novelist, has been invited over by his old school friend Harry Lime who he thinks is going to offer him a job. However, he arrives just in time for Lime’s funeral and runs into the laconic Colonel Calloway, who is actually our narrator. Martins begins to learn the unpleasant truth about his old friend, and comes across quite a selection of characters: Anna, an actress with false identity papers who was in love with Lime; Cooler, an open-faced American who has to be telling the truth, doesn’t he?; Dr. Winkler, Lime’s friend who witnessed his death. There is also a very funny side plot, which didn’t make it into the film intact, where Martins is mistaken for a very different, very literary author and expected to take part in cultural events in Vienna. Martins soon suspects that Harry was in fact murdered and starts to investigate. But other deaths follow, and then Martins has a very strange encounter in the dark streets – who is alive, who is dead, and who is fooling who?

nml

No Man’s Land was another film treatment – Greene always wrote them as stories as that was how he worked – which was written after the success of The Third Man for a possible Carol Reed follow-up. However, despite it being set once more in a fragmented landscape, in the east-west border area near the Hartz Mountains, the feel of this novella is somewhat different. It was never actually filmed and lost for many years until it was rescued and republished by the wonderful Hesperus Press. One again we have a narrator – this time Redburn, a Boundary inspector – who tells the story of one Richard Brown. The area Redburn is patrolling is close to a Catholic shrine, just over the border in the Russian zone, and when Brown disappears into that area he initially claims that he is a writer who wanted to see the shrine. Captain Starhov, who takes charge of the investigation into Brown and his behaviour, is a sympathetic character and inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Starhov’s mistress Clara, who Brown encountered almost as soon as he entered the Russian Zone, falls in love with the Englishman and becomes an unexpected ally. The reality about Brown is gradually revealed and he plans to escape with Clara – will they make it or will Starhov succeed?

I found it absolutely fascinating reading these two stories in tandem, especially bearing in mind the pivotal point of Greene’s career during which they were written. Greene was inclined to dismiss some of his fictions as ‘entertainments’ and I’m not sure whether he regarded these two works as light or serious. However, there is darkness in both tales – the black racketeers in TM are dealing in penicillin and the consequences of their actions are death or madness and deformity. They are portrayed as completely immoral and unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, so much so that Martins’ previous hero-worship of his childhood friend Lime is utterly destroyed – so much so that he is able to apply the ultimate sanction.

“Human nature…has curious twisted reasons that the heart certainly knows nothing of. It eased the conscience of many small men to feel that they were working for an employer: they were almost as respectable soon in their own eyes as wage-earner; they were one of a group, and if there was guilt, the leaders bore the guilt. A racket works very like a totalitarian party.”

Likewise, the plot of NML is concerned with spying – but not for just little, petty secrets, but for information on uranium finds which will have global implications. It would be easy simply to paint the Russians as bad in this situation and the West as good, with Brown trying to gain information for the good guys but Greene is never so banal as this. Starhov is a sympathetic character, bonding with Brown while duelling psychologically with him over their shared love of the works of Turgenev, and both seem to realise that they are very much pawns in a bigger game.

Stylistically the books share many traits, most noticeably the fact that the story is told through an intermediary. In both cases, we have a character/narrator placed between us and the main protagonist (Martins/Brown), where a different author might simply have had the protagonist narrating. This is an excellent way of adding tension to the story because we do not know if the protagonists will survive or not as someone else is telling their story; but we still get the immediacy of events being related from their viewpoint. Galloway and Redburn are perhaps minor characters, but they are both integral to the story and allow the reader more leeway when interpreting the stories. I also realised whilst reading how much I like Greene’s distinctive style of writing!

Graham Greene visual_0
But it’s also relevant to notice the change of tone in the stories and this I think has much to do with developments in Greene’s life. As the excellent introduction to No Man’s Land points out, Greene was involved in a love affair which would have a major impact on his life. The characters of Anna in TM and Clara in NML are representations of this woman, who would become Sarah in The End of the Affair. Greene was going through a great deal of personal turmoil and it came out in his art. There is a shift of emphasis and the narrative voice in NML sounds much more like that of TEOTA – TM is lighter in tone and although it is about corruption and boundaries and a Catholic gone wrong (Lime is mentioned as a Catholic quite early on), the religious element is incidental. But in NML this is coming more to the fore – the Catholic shrine takes more of the centre stage, the religious imagery is present and there is contrast in the final dramatic scenes in the shrine between ‘good’ worshippers and ‘bad’ spies. By the time Greene reached TEOTA the moral, Catholic element was to the fore and pivotal to that book. Sandwiched between TM and TEOTA, NML represents a transitional point in the author’s work, where he was moving towards the representation of his Catholic beliefs and struggles in a more dominant role.

I wish I had read both of these books before I read TEOTA because I think they would have helped and informed my reading of it much more. I also have to applaud Hesperus for publishing NML as I do think it sheds much light on Greene’s development at this particular time of his writing career. As it is, both of these stories are excellent in their own right, gripping and thought-provoking reads by a masterly writer and thanks to Simon and his Gran for this initiative which made me read these two books!

Advertisements