Monday, November 9, 2015
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 four or more years ago.
“THE END OF THE AFFAIR” by Graham Greene (first published 1951) and “THE QUIET AMERICAN’ by Graham Greene (first published 1955)
Famously England’s best-known novelist from the 1940s to the 1970s, and just as famously the man who never won the Nobel Prize for Literature although he should have, Graham Greene (1904-1991) had an odd mix of Catholicism and Marxism that managed to rub many people up the wrong way. Once he’d brushed off the heavy influence of Joseph Conrad (see the post on his first novel, The Man Within) he produced novels that were either straight thrillers – which he called “entertainments” – or were serious novels always with contemporary settings and with heavy theological or political overtones, but also with the narrative pace and briskness of thrillers. For such a serious novelist, then, it was no fluke that he was also a big bestseller. The fact that he had been a film critic, and learnt much from the pacing of films, probably also helped.
In saying all this, I am probably saying nothing that most readers of this blog do not already know. What amuses me, however, is the way the theological element really irks some people. One of Greene’s greatest admirers is the novelist and travel-writer Paul Theroux. I remember once hearing Theroux, on a radio documentary about Greene, saying how much he admired Greene for his vivid sense of place, pacing and awareness of the contemporary world – but then adding that, whenever the matter of God cropped up in Greene’s novels, he simply skipped a few pages in his reading. This is more than a little absurd in that God is so central to many of Greene’s works, especially the three that are widely regarded as his best, Brighton Rock (1938), with the furious (and therefore religious) blasphemies of its young thug anti-hero; The Power and the Glory (1940), with the paradoxical salvation of its “whisky priest”; and The Heart of the Matter (1948), with its colonial policeman deliberately courting God’s damnation by suicide.
Where these novels are concerned, Theroux’s statement is a bit like saying you like Dickens, but can’t stand his caricatures, comedy and sentiment.
God is part of the deal with much of Greene. And it makes not the slightest difference that (as three or four biographies have already told us in detail), Greene’s desertion of his family and his disorderly and active sex-life (many mistresses and prostitutes) did not add up to what would commonly be seen as a devout Christian life.
And then there is the Marxist side of Greene, which tends to rub up a different set of people. Greene was no Communist (despite having flirted with that secular religion in his student days), but he did often give Communist regimes more benefit of the doubt than some would approve. He had worked briefly for Britain’s spy service in the Second World War and annoyed many by writing sympathetically of his former colleague Kim Philby, even after the man had defected to the Soviet Union. (The title of Greene’s novella The Third Man  was often invoked when people were looking for “the third man” who had helped two other Soviet spies, Burgess and McLean, to defect. Philby was that man.) Greene produced positive portraits of many people who stood in the way of American foreign policy, notably General Torrijos of Panama, about whom he wrote the memoir Getting to Know the General (1984). For some Americans, Greene was a dangerous leftist and definitely “anti-American”.
Add to these objections those fastidious English souls who didn’t like the sordid element in many of Greene’s novels and invented the term “Greeneland” to ridicule Greene and protect their own delicate sensibilities.
So at last to the two novels which I have chosen as this week’s “Something Old”. I choose them because they neatly illustrate how people have reacted to Greene’s religious views and to his political views.
Published in 1951, The End of the Affair is set in London in the war years. It has a complex time-scheme which skips between a time late in the war when London is being bombed and discoveries which the main character makes two years later. The main character is the first-person narrator, the novelist Maurice Bendrix, a bit of a cynic and a libertine as well as a non-believer in God. His affair is with the married woman, and Catholic convert, Sarah Miles. Her husband is the dull, complacent and implicitly impotent civil servant Henry Miles. The novel follows the course of Bendrix’s and Sarah’s guilt-ridden affair. Bendrix asks Sarah to divorce her husband and marry him. As a Catholic, she refuses to contemplate divorce. Then Bendrix is nearly killed in a bomb blast (this is wartime, remember). When Sarah discovers he is slightly injured, but still alive, she immediately gives up their affair and never sees Bendrix again.
Why is this?
Because of a number of the sort of things which made some of Greene’s critics very annoyed.
Sarah dies of a lung infection. As Bendrix discovers only two years later, and while he is reading the pages of her diary which he has acquired, Sarah made a bargain with God at the time of the bomb blast. Real love led her to plead that if God would allow Bendrix to live, she would abandon her adulterous affair with him. Bendrix had been jealous enough to suspect her of abandoning him for another lover, but God was the third partner of their love triangle. At the time of her death, Sarah was widely reputed to be a devout and pious person by people who knew nothing of her love-life. Bendrix is therefore very cynical when he eventually reads her diary. But then, after her death, apparently miraculous “coincidences” happen, including the disappearance of a birthmark from the face of the atheist ideologue Smythe with whom Sarah sometimes conversed. We are, by the novel’s later sections, presented with a Bendrix who is drawn kicking and screaming towards belief in God, even if he still hates God. Yet Greene is a subtle enough psychologist to leave open the possibility that this form of “belief” is simply the result of his imaginative guilt and grief.
There is one obvious background fact about this novel, which it is now de rigueur to mention.
The affair of Bendrix and Sarah Miles was clearly based on Graham Greene’s ongoing affair with his longest-term mistress Catherine Walston. Maurice Bendrix is a novelist, like Greene. Sarah Miles is a Catholic convert, like Catherine Walston (and Greene). Greene and Walston began their liaison during the war and Greene survived a near-miss when a house he was renting was destroyed by bombing. The first (1951) edition of the novel was coyly dedicated “To C.” The first (1952) American edition of the novel was openly dedicated “To Catherine”. It strikes me as a bit on the nose that Greene chose to call the novel’s cuckolded husband Henry, as this was the first name of Catherine Walston’s cuckolded husband, the Labour Party peer Baron Henry Walston. (On the other hand, Henry was also Greene’s first name – he dropped it when he starting publishing novels so that he would no be confused with the older established novelist Henry Green.)
I first read this novel – missing much of what it was about – when I was a teenager. I can remember even then finding it a bit of a cheat that the narrator was a novelist, allowing him to make neat novelist-like character analyses of other characters. I was also irritated by the device of having Bendrix read about all Sarah’s inner feelings in her diary. Somehow, I intuited that this was a structurally-crude way of giving us, all in one lump, Sarah’s view of the same affair which we had hitherto seen only from Bendrix’s viewpoint. On the other hand, I found the guilt and the greyness and the distress of wartime London very convincing.
But it was the God part that got Greene’s harshest critics down.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At which point, but with reason on my side, I cut crudely to another matter.
At one time or another, nearly all of Greene’s novels were filmed. The only ones I can think of that were never filmed were It’s A Battlefield (1934) and A Burnt-Out Case (1960), but all the others got the business. Wikipedia informs me that, exclusive of TV adaptations, 29 films have been made from Greene’s novels and stories. Greene had a very pragmatic attitude to these films. On the whole, once the screen rights were sold, he allowed the filmmakers to do whatever they pleased – although he reserved the right to criticise the results. (I have this information from Quentin Falk’s guide to Greene-based films, facetiously entitled Travels in Greeneland, published in 2000.)
Five of Greene’s novels have been filmed twice. They include The End of the Affair, and to compare the two films tells us much about how attitudes to Greene changed.
The first film version was released in 1955, directed by Edward Dmytryk and filmed in black and white. I have only the vaguest recollection of this film, which I saw on television years ago, although I have subsequently seen a few short clips from it on Youtube. It starred Deborah Kerr as Sarah Miles but, to woo the American box-office, it cast the American Van Johnson as Bendrix. Greene was appalled by this casting and said very rude things about the film. I cannot imagine the under-talented Van Johnson as a hard-bitten and cynical novelist. Apparently the 1955 film left much of the God stuff intact, but (given the censorship of the day) toned down the nature of the affair so that audiences could almost believe it was a passing flirtation.
Having read the novel as a kid, I re-read it in 1999 when I was a film-reviewer and ahead of the release of Neil Jordan’s re-make. The re-make made the fullest of the affair and Ralph Fiennes was perfectly cast as a cynical Bendrix. But – oh woe! – the American box-office still had to be placated, so this time it was an American, Julianne Moore, who played Sarah Miles. Her acting was adequate, but with the novel fresh in my mind, I noted how the story had now been skewed another way. To extend the sex stuff, the film had Bendrix and Sarah getting together for another fling once he learns the news that she is dying. There is no such reunion in the novel, but the director was able to have Sarah state her motives in dialogue rather than having Bendrix discover them in her diary. The 1999 film missed the novel’s touching scenes between Sarah and the atheist Smythe, because it eliminated Smythe from the story and merged his character with the novel’s quite separate character of a priest. This meant there could be only very abridged discussions on theological matters. Also the birthmark “miracle” was presented more peremptorily and crudely than it is in the novel, and transferred to another minor character.
My chief impression was that the theological element embarrassed those who produced the re-make. What they wanted was a doomed love story in a wartime setting, and that essentially is what they produced.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Quiet American (first published in 1955) is one of Greene’s most overtly political novels. Again its main character is the novel’s first-person narrator and again he is transparently based on aspects of Greene himself. Between 1951 and 1954, Greene spent part of each year in Saigon, reporting for The Times and Le Figaro on France’s Indo-Chinese war. The novel’s narrator, Thomas Fowler, is a cynical British journalist stationed in Saigon during France’s Indo-Chinese War.
From the opening pages, we know that the American “aid worker” Alden Pyle, the eponymous character, is dead. Going into flashback mode, the novel tells us how Fowler came to hate Pyle, and eventually how Pyle died. Apparently idealistic and naïve, Pyle claimed that Vietnam could be saved from both the colonialism of the French and the Communism of the insurgent Viet Minh if only a democratic “Third Force” could be found. Or manufactured. For it is soon evident that, far from being an innocent “aid worker”, Pyle is really an operative of the OSS (i,e, the earlier form of the CIA). Pyle becomes actively involved in terror activities in order to provide provocations. He arranges for bombs to be set off, so that the destruction they cause can be blamed on the Viet Minh and used in anti-Communist propaganda. In the event, the bombs cause many civilian deaths. Pyle brushes this off as collateral damage in a good cause.
Fowler is disgusted in this foolish, self-righteous and deluded American college boy. In retribution he arranges for Pyle to be killed by some real communists.
At least, that is the skeleton plot if we miss out half of what happens in the novel. For the fact is that Fowler’s real motives are as murky and questionable as Pyle’s. At first Pyle had got to know Fowler as a source of information. But then Pyle moved in on Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress Phuong and took her away from Fowler. A selfish revenge motive taints the murder, which Fowler might otherwise delude himself is an act of political justice. There are also intimations that in some ways Fowler, like the French, represents the older European colonialism as opposed to the new American variety.
The novel really does work as a condemnation of America’s covert involvement in other nations’ affairs, and the naïve American belief that America itself is not a colonial power. It also condemns the belief that American forms of democracy can be instantly re-planted in other nations which have their own traditions. There are many swings at the type of sententious American journalism which passes as informed commentary. (Pyle is always quoting from a hack called York Harding.) For these reasons, The Quiet American was seen as an extraordinarily prescient novel, especially as it was written years before America was fully involved in Vietnam or fighting its own war there. I recall once hearing a left-wing journalist (it may have been John Pilger, but I’m not sure) saying that to understand the causes of the Vietnam War, all you had to do was read The Quiet American.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Once again, like The End of the Affair, The Quiet American is a Greene novel which has been filmed twice.
The first filming was in 1958, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. This black-and-white production had what could have been excellent casting in the two leading roles, with Michael Redgrave supercilious, cynical and patronising as Fowler and Audie Murphy (despite being middle-aged and a much-decorated war hero) still looking appropriately boyish and gee-whizz as Pyle. (The role of Phuong was played, ridiculously, by an Italian actress).
Unfortunately, this film is notorious as an absolute travesty of Greene’s novel. It half-heartedly follows parts of Greene’s plot, but turns Pyle into a hero – a genuine aid worker who has nothing to do with terrorism, but who is doing his best for the Vietnamese people. The bombs really were set by the Communist Viet Minh, and it is the Communist Viet Minh who murder Pyle for their own motives. The film ends with a title praising the Republic of (South) Vietnam and its great leader Diem.
Greene thought the film ridiculous and said so.
So why was this travesty created? For the obvious reason that no American film made in the Cold War was going to criticise American foreign policy – or raise the topic of covert ops. But why would Hollywood film the novel in the first place? Because Joseph Mankiewicz (who was advised about the script by the CIA chief Colonel Lansdale) realised that with a few tweaks of the plot it could become good anti-Communist propaganda – and counter the effect of Greene’s original novel. There’s the additional silliness that Audie Murphy refused to play the character of Pyle as anything other than an American hero.
Flash forward 43 years later to the re-make of The Quiet American directed in very different circumstances by the Australian Philip Noyce. It starred Michael Caine as Fowler and Brendan Fraser as Pyle (and a Vietnamese actress as Phuong). The film was made in 2001 but not released until 2002 because, when “9/11” happened, American distributors were jumpy about a film condemning American involvement in terrorist activities. As with the re-make of The End of the Affair, I re-read the novel in my capacity as film reviewer ahead of the release of the new Quiet American.
I regret the casting of Michael Caine, who does not have the same sort of cynical condescension that Michael Redgrave could muster. Otherwise, the re-make follows Greene’s political plot fairly closely. Pyle is revealed as a CIA operative responsible for a terrorist act. The three-way romantic entanglement is still there, but Fowler is let off the hook somewhat in the eventual killing of Pyle.
Bearing in mind that the novel was written when America was only beginning to be involved in Vietnam, we have to remember that this re-make was made decades after the whole debacle of the Vietnam War. It is therefore very much an after-the-event film, playing up the political aspects at the expense of Fowler’s inner life. It fades out on Fowler (the journalist) writing despatches over the years as US involvement becomes more and more fatal. He is, in effect, elevated to the status of prophet.
What I did notice about the re-make is that, despite its early 1950s setting, Christopher Hampton’s script plays down the presence of French colonials. Greene’s novel doesn’t focus on theology, but it does have the police inspector reading Blaise Pascal and wanting to talk about his theology. And the novel does end with the atheist Fowler, after having Pyle murdered, saying “I wished there existed someone to whom I could say sorry”, as if he is groping his way towards God. None of this survives in the re-make. It does follow Greene’s ideas and political perspective closely, but at the expense of characterisation – leaving it as something of a tract.
No film ever follows a novel exactly. Film and novel are different media after all. But the four films I have discussed do illustrate how, for commercial as much as political reasons, films have sometimes distorted or neutered what Greene was saying.