Monday, May 19, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.  

“THE MAN WITHIN’ by Graham Greene (first published 1929)

            It’s almost impossible to reconstruct how the first readers would have reacted to the first work of a novelist who subsequently became famous for other and greater things. We are so used to thinking of Oliver Twist as an established classic, for example, that we’re apt to forget its author was a 25-year-old kid whose first real and closely-plotted novel it was (even if he was already famous for the picaresque Pickwick Papers). If we were the first readers of Oliver Twist, would we have said this Dickens fellow was a literary genius, likely to be read for a couple of hundred years at least? Or would we have said he produced promising stuff, perhaps, but no more than that?
            Too often I’ve read literary biographies that tell me how undiscerning the reception of a great author’s first work was, always implying that the biographer (and we) would have recognised greatness when we saw it.
Thinking such thoughts, I sat down and thought how I
might have reacted had I, in 1929, been among the first readers of the first published novel of Graham Greene (1904-1991), the man who was England’s most recognized author for about thirty years and who, notoriously, deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature but never did.
Let’s just say, for example, I was a publisher’s reader for Heinemann, and this manuscript from an unknown 25-year-old came across my desk.
How would I have judged it?
            The Man Within?” I might have said “Curious choice of title. I recognize it from that 17th century chap Thomas Browne when he was talking about the voice of conscience. I think I’m in for some youthful agonizing.”
            Then, like the good publisher’s reader that I was, I would have taken out my writing pad and started making a few notes.
            As a professional literary person, I hope I would have recognized the influence of Joseph Conrad on this young writer, especially as Conrad had died only five years previously (in 1924). “Yes,” I might have said, “it’s a story about smugglers and it has at least something to do with the sea. It has a strong tendency to psychological analysis of a flawed main character. He is stricken by a guilty conscience and in flight from the consequences of something bad he has done. He is like a version of the main characters of Conrad’s Lord Jim or Under Western Eyes. And yet it is set sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Perhaps this young author has been reading late Conrad, like The Rover, which came out just a few years ago – in 1923 – and which also has such an historical setting.
            And as I came to the novel’s conclusion, with villains closing in on a man and an idealised woman in an isolated place, I might have said, “Hmm, more Conrad. It’s more than a little like the denouement of Conrad’s Victory.
            And maybe I would have smiled at some passages of lush description, which had a Conradian flavour to them, even though the young author tended to write in curt one- or two-clause sentences that had a staccato effect, not really like Conrad’s melodious prose. I might have noticed the heavy symbolism of landscape and setting, making me wonder if young Greene hadn’t been dabbling in the works of Dr Freud. There’s that dark wood the main character runs through in the opening chapter before he comes to the safe haven of a lighted cottage inhabited by a sympathetic woman. The wild, isolated conscience yearning for domestic peace but not finding it, etc.
            I suppose, at some point, I might also have struck my forehead in annoyance at myself for not noticing sooner something else about the novel’s plot. “Of course this novel is not for children,” I might have said, “but the central plot situation of an impressionable young man drawn into the smuggling game by a more experienced older man does have at least a whiff of J. Meade Falkner’s classic for adolescents Moonfleet. I wonder if this young author has unconsciously recalled some of the reading of his childhood?
            But I hope, as a publisher’s reader in 1929, I would have had the wit to give young Greene points for not laying on the period details with a trowel, but allowing the story’s historical setting to be suggested by a phrase here and a brief comment there about the “Gentleman” (=smugglers). And I would, I hope, have admired him for not burdening his characters with false “Ye Olde” dialogue, but letting them speak colloquially, except when they are consciously quoting from the old translation of the Bible.  Well, in a rather prolonged courtroom scene the protagonist does suddenly give vent to rather stagey, melodramatic phrases, just as he and the woman he admires do in the final scenes. Even so, the dialogue is muscular.
            All in all, then, I might have said it was a competent job. Romantic, certainly. Overwrought in its conclusion. Saturated with youthful agonizing about God and about character, but at least telling a story with a clear beginning, middle and end.
            So, setting down the pad on which I was making notes, I would force myself to decide whether or not we should accept the MS for publication. “There is a market for this sort of thing,” I might have said. “It’s promising. It’s highbrow period melodrama. I think this Graham Greene might be able to supply us with more intellectual adventure stories, but I do hope he gets over having a main character who snivels and accuses himself of cowardice so much.”
            And I would have taken a punt and decided to publish.
Perhaps – just perhaps – this is how I would have judged The Man Within if I were a publisher’s reader in 1929.

*   *   *  *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Oh well. It’s fun to play this game, but it’s really hard to keep it up when you do know the author’s subsequent career and have read most of his novels. All the time while reading The Man Within, I (unfairly and anachronistically) saw elements of it as rough and tentative sketches for what Greene was to do better later.
His main character, Francis Andrews, is a young man on the run from his former comrades. They are smugglers whom he has betrayed. The smugglers are led by a man called Carlyon, who has been like a father to Andrews, except that Andrews’ real father was a sadistic brute whom Andrews wishes to expunge from his soul. Partly for this reason, and partly because he is tired of being accused of cowardice, Andrews has informed the excise men of the smugglers’ movements. He is exorcising both his deceased father and his substitute father figure Carlyon. In a fight, the excise men intercept the smugglers, but one of the excise men is shot dead and the smugglers are condemned to hang for murder. Except that they break out of custody and come in pursuit of their Judas. Haunted by his own cowardice and his treachery to his comrades, Andrews declares in Chapter 1 “I am a hunted man pursued by worse than death.”
At novel’s opening, Andrews is fleeing through the dark countryside of south-east England. He comes to a cottage where he is given shelter by a mature, sympathetic young woman called Elizabeth who, like Andrews himself, has recently lost a father figure. Pleasingly assertive (at least for a woman in a romantic novel written in 1929), Elizabeth advises Andrews that he can free his soul and prove he is not a coward only if he goes to the assizes in town and, forthrightly and without flinching, bears witness in the courtroom against the smugglers and their crimes. Andrews does so, but the pay-off puts both him and Elizabeth into more serious danger. The conclusion is violent, with Andrews in effect expiating his sins by self-immolation.
Be it noted that the novel’s narrative voice is third-person-limited, with everything seen from Andrews’ viewpoint, and with young Greene indulging in much direct analysis of Andrews’ flawed character.
Be it noted that there is much questioning of an indifferent God. Elizabeth forthrightly believes in God. Andrews is more sceptical, but comes to think of Elizabeth as a “saint” for her understanding of him, and hence comes to feel even more wretched that he himself does not measure up to her saintliness. There are many passages such as the following, in which the “man within”, Andrews’ tormented conscience, is invoked, as is God:
Andrews’s character was built of superficial dreams, sentimentality, cowardice, and yet he was constantly made aware beneath all of these of an uncomfortably questioning critic. So now this other inhabitant of his body wondered whether he had no mistaken peace for inhumanity. Peace was not cowardly nor sentimental nor filled with illusion. Peace was a sanity, which he did not believe he had ever known. He remembered how once, becalmed at sea day after endless day, he had grown to loath the water’s smooth unstirred surface as a symbol of a hatefully indifferent deity. And yet in the week of storm that followed he had longed to regain that quality which he began to regard as peace.”  (Chapter 3)
Be it noted, too, that there is a somewhat perverse sexual subplot. Even with his head filled with the “saintly” Elizabeth, Andrews – in town for the assizes – manages to have a one-night stand with a more sluttish woman called Lucy, and so has more reason to berate himself as “soiled” when he finds his way back to the woman he idealises. Sex is angel or slut. This novel really is filled with a young man’s agonizing.
So how do I, as a hardened Greene-reader, read this novel?
An isolated man on the run through hostile countryside, tormented as much by his inner demons as by his physical enemies? That will be the essential situation of one of Greene’s best novels The Power and the Glory (1940). A young man from a brutalising family, leading a violent life among criminals, and with an extremely perverse attitude towards sex? Sounds like Raven in A Gun for Sale (1936). Sounds even more like Pinky in Brighton Rock (1938). And sinfulness and self-immolation? Surely The Heart of the Matter (1948)? You see, it is very hard to read The Man Within without seeing it as a foretaste of better novels. And the same goes for the religious element. Greene had converted to Catholicism only three years before The Man Within was published, and had not yet worked out the more mature theological questionings, and the Dostoyevskian pairing of sin and redemption, of the later works (The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-Out Case etc.).
I might also note that the psychological motivation for the main character’s actions isn’t as convincing in The Man Within as it is in the later novels. Frankly, I never believed that Andrews would have betrayed his comrades for the rather abstract reasons the novel gives, even if the betrayal suits Greene’s themes and melodrama.
Now for a little bit of background, culled from the standard biographies. Young Graham Greene had an extraordinarily difficult emergence as a bona fide novelist. He actually began writing The Man Within when he was 21, four years before he submitted it for publication, and he worked on it, on and off, for two years. In that time he submitted two other novels to publishers. They were both rejected and he destroyed both. When The Man Within was published, it surprised Greene (and his publishers) by selling well. Greene gave up his day job and thought he could now be a full-time novelist. In quick succession he wrote two more novels, The Name of Action and Rumour at Nightfall. Both of them stank. Both of them hardly sold any copies. Greene himself soon judged both of them to be so bad that he refused permission for them ever to be reprinted, even when he was a well-established literary figure with a large and guaranteed readership. They never figured in lists of his published work. Copies of them are now so rare as to be valuable.
Only when he dropped the imitations of Conrad, and the period settings, did he find his own voice – and he found it by writing a thriller that didn’t pretend to be anything other than a thriller, Stamboul Train (1932). After two good and, I think, underrated novels (It’s a Battlefield and England Made Me) and one more good thriller (A Gun for Sale), it wasn’t until he was in his mid-thirties that he produced his first great novel Brighton Rock. So it had taken two (unpublished) duds before The Man Within, and two (published) duds after The Man Within before he got to his feet, shook off the lingering influence of Joseph Conrad, and began to develop his own voice. I do not believe he ever wrote a novel with a period setting again.
In later years Greene was a little embarrassed by the immaturity of The Man Within. He allowed it to be reprinted, so it appears first in lists of his collected works, but he wrote a preface to a paperback edition in which he judged it to be “hopelessly romantic”. He was right. It is.
But maybe he was being rather harsh on his younger self. The novel shows narrative flair. It begins cunningly in the middle of its story, with Andrews on the run for his sins. It is melodramatic but it has a definite conclusion and at least some sort of moral perspective.
Probably the judgement of my fictitious publisher’s reader is the best. The Man Within is competent and promising. As a first novel, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Corrective footnote: Just to reassure you that I have not given way to fantasy, allow me to note that I am fully aware my story of what a publisher’s reader might have thought about The Man Within in 1929 is entirely fictitious. Having consulted the first volume of Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, I know that Heinemann’s in fact took to the novel most enthusiastically and judged that they had a great new literary star on their list. The novel was a big bestseller, going through three impressions in its first year. (It’s a broken-backed copy of one of the 1929 impressions that sits on my shelf.) It also received great reviews and positive private comments from established authors. Sherry quotes a letter Aldous Huxley wrote in 1929, saying that he thought The Man Within was better than Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It was this enthusiastic reception that made the absolute failure of Greene’s next two novels even more humiliating. Sherry also notes that the saintly figure of Elizabeth was very much based on Greene’s wife Vivien, to whom he had been married for only two years and who had led him into Catholicism. But the “soiled” sex was also part of Greene’s life, in his lifelong habits of having frequent affairs and visiting prostitutes. That, however, is matter for another day’s discussion.

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