Hot on the heels of #greeneforgran, I have been lured into reading another of the great man’s works – this time, by an odd little Culture Show special on the BBC, which featured writers who stayed in London during the Blitz. It covered the obvious suspects – Greene, Bowen and Henry Green, plus poet HD, but strangely enough focused on “Ministry” and not “The End of the Affair” – the latter being only briefly mentioned. However, I did like the sound of “Ministry” very much and was inspired to track down a copy.

First, a word about Greene’s description of the book. His works are notoriously divided into what he called his ‘entertainments’ and his more serious tomes. However, it does seem to be that the two often overlap, and although ‘Ministry’ is described as an entertainment, I don’t think it is. It’s certainly extremely enjoyable, and entertaining, but it’s quite a deep, thought-provoking work – but more of this later…

“The Ministry of Fear” is set in London in the middle of the Blitz, and our ‘hero’ is one Arthur Rowe – a vague kind of man, who lives in a rented room and wanders round the city. He comes across a charity fete, in aid of the Free Mothers (an organisation to aid mothers of the free allied nations) and in a surprise fluke wins a guess-the-weight-of-the-cake competition. However, the people running the fete seem surprisingly reluctant to let him take it away, trying to buy it from him or persuade him to donate it back. However, Arthur sticks by his cake and returns home, and immediately life becomes even stranger.

He is instantly pursued, and a strange, high-shouldered man turns up at his lodgings, ingratiates himself and tries to poison him. Rowe is saved by a bomb dropping and damaging the house, and determines to try to find out what is going on. He approaches the Free Mothers organisation to discover who is behind the fete, and meets two refugees, Anna Hilfe and her brother Willi. They enthusiastically encourage Rowe along, and the action spirals into odder and odder events – a séance where there is apparently a murder, a flight through the ruined city, a further encounter with Anna Hilfe where they are trapped in a hotel. And then suddenly the action switches to a seemingly different character in a rest home, with a lost memory. But as this character’s memories start to return it is clear that he is not who he (and we) think and there are even deeper layers to this conspiracy. Our hero fights to retain some kind of sanity, solve the spy mystery and save Anna – will he succeed?

But there is another, major strand to MOF, and it is the character and past of Arthur Rowe; the events in his life that have led him to where he is now, and made him the unfocused, lost individual he has become. Arthur is burdened by an inability to deal with feeling extreme pity, so much so that he murdered his invalid wife rather than see her suffer. He classes himself as a murderer, despite the fact he was tried and acquitted, and he has cut himself off from his immediate past, existing only in the innocence of his childhood or the present. This is why he is vulnerable to the kind of memory manipulation in the second part of the story, and this tendency also allows Greene to explore deeper themes within the setting of a spy chase novel.

Pity is presented as a strong, almost debilitating emotion and I can empathise with the way Greene portrays Rowe’s feelings. Certainly, the older I get, the more of an effect pity has on me and it becomes harder to bear. Therefore, a sensitive man like Arthur Rowe (who even exhibited this inability to cope with the emotion in childhood) would never be able to handle being married to someone who is suffering. And as Arthur desperately tries to make sense of what is going on around him, he does eventually come to some kind of resolution, reaching a point in his life and a state of mind where he will be able to survive – even if he is not being truthful to himself and those around him.

Of course, as this is a Graham Greene novel, the writing is wonderful – he really was a masterful novelist. The atmosphere of the Blitz, the fragmented nature of life in the bombed city where you could lose your life at any time, the confusion and strangeness of not knowing who is friend or enemy; all brilliantly portrayed. He captures the human psyche so well, and one chapter in particular stands out – “Between Sleeping and Waking”. Rowe has gone underground – literally, while the bombing is going on, and metaphorically, while he believes he is being hunted for murder. As he attempts to sleep fitfully while sheltering in the tube, Greene captures brilliantly the experience of dreaming, half-waking, drifting off again and not being sure what is dream, thought or reality.

“He lay on his side breathing heavily while the big guns opened up in North London, and his mind wandered again freely in that strange world where the past and future leave equal traces, and the geography may belong to twenty years ago or to next year.”

Once again, Rowe visits his past but rejects it, acknowledging the changes that have come over the world in recent years:

Lying on his back he caught the dream and held it – pushed the vicar’s wife back into the shadow of the pine – and argued with his mother.

‘This isn’t real life any more,’ he said. ‘Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.’

As you might expect, there are no traditional happy endings and plenty of moral dilemmas – would you expect any less from Graham Greene? However, the conclusion is satisfying and convincing, leaving us feeling that Rowe will have some kind of future, and that we leave him in a better mental state than he was at the start of the book – this section is not titled “The Whole Man” for nothing!

I loved this book – for its atmosphere, the sense of living through the Blitz, its excitement and the mystery, its memorable characters and thought-provoking exploration of human character, and the wonderful quality of Greene’s prose. I can see why Simon’s Gran was such a fan!