Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Battered Penguins XIIa

My father's final address was a flat numbered XIIa. It took me a long time to realise what it was disguising, but by then it was too late and he was gone.

Anyway, this is my third attempt at Graham Greene. I read Brighton Rock decades ago and hated every minute of it; I read May We Borrow Your Husband, which I thought nasty; and now I've read this collection of four stories, which I actually quite enjoyed.

The first of the stories is really a novella, dealing with the memories of a man who, having received a pessimistic medical prognosis, returns to the place he spent a lot of time in as a child. There he recalls a very vivid dream, which the reader comes to believe may not have been a dream, although it must have been really. In the dream, he lives for a time under the ground with a very peculiar old man who makes him read ancient newspapers out loud to him - "'But the paper's nearly fifty years old,' I said. 'There's no news in it.' 'News is news however old it is ... News keeps. And it comes round again when you least expect. Like thunder'" - and his wife, who doesn't speak, but quacks instead.

The next story is fairly brief, the account of an encounter between a wine merchant and a writer whose lack of belief is, he maintains, 'a final proof that the Church is right and the faith is true.' It contains the interesting assertion that 'One does not feel alone abroad' and a description of someone who has 'skin wrinkled like a stale apple.' In the early part of the story, a schoolteacher responds to a pupil's question about the beliefs of an author by saying, 'A novel is made up of words and characters. Are the words well chosen and do the characters live? All the rest belongs to literary gossip.'

The third story tells of a doctor who refuses to bend the rules for a lonely patient who, in entreating him, says rather movingly, 'if a man is alone in the world he grows to love his habits'. After the patient leaves, the doctor finds his house requisitioned by the army and turned into an illegal casino. His approach to dealing with this is to 'sit on the bed and read a little Schopenhauer to soothe himself.' Peculiarly, the motif of crunching an apple is repeated during the course of the short narrative, although I don't know to what purpose.

The final story is a piece of dystopian fiction that contains some beautiful images and is full of insight about leadership.

Greene's prose is very bare. It seems to me to lack warmth, although I feel that in writing that, without supplying close textual analysis to support my claim, I am straying into rather sloppy arguing. The rare female figures who appear in the volume are described without any sense of sympathetic recognition, and I suspect it is that that may be what I find difficult about Greene. I don't usually subscribe to the idea that works of art can be particularly female or male, but his writing does somehow strike me as coming from an exceptionally masculine perspective. Again, I am aware that I should cite chapter and verse to back my assertion up, and, if really pressed, I suppose I might try to do so in the comments.


  1. Yes, maybe Greene is quite male as regards the limit (as I see it) to how far he appears prepared to be emotionally involved in his subjects, but that's true of many writers, and also perhaps a result of his bi-polar disorder. (Btw, what did your father's final address 'flat XIIa' disguise??)

  2. Are you teasing when you say he had bi-polar? It disguised 13

  3. No, apparantly had severe bi-polar, especially as a youngster, when he tried to commit suicide several times. Blimey I'm thick, aren't I - no wonder I never get anywhere with proper crosswords....

  4. Well, my father lived at that address for probably 25 years before I twigged.