Monday, 12 April 2021

Reading: The Comedians by Graham Greene

The Comedians is the 14th or 15th novel by Graham Greene that I have read in the last year and a half. I find him entertaining and I admire his diligence - although I suspect he would hate that second adjective: I have the impression that effortless, politely disdainful, insouciance, what we might now call cool, was the effect he was aiming for. In this regard, as a figure he reminds me a little of Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens - all three were or are aiming fairly obviously to appear nonchalant (although why an attitude that borders on indifference and apathy is so often charismatic is something difficult to comprehend - perhaps it was a useful attribute when we were hunter/gatherers). Of course, the very fact that an effort, however faint, is discernible, means that none of them ever were or will transcend being poseurs and reach the state of true and genuine cool. 

All three do manage to be icy to some degree though - and, speaking of icy, Greene remained friends until the end with the coldest man ever to come out of the fairly chilly culture that is upper middle class England - Kim Philby. Greene's loyalty to a monster is something that I cannot understand.

But let us return to The Comedians - it is not the best (or the worst) book that I have read by Greene, who is definitely patchy. However, it is, like almost all his work, diverting, not least because of its setting, impoverished, terrorised Haiti during Papa Doc Duvalier's violent reign. 

The story begins at sea, on a boat that is on its way to Haiti. In the closed world of a ship, amid some typical Greenian grotesquery - most notably the desk "littered with great swollen phalluses ... like a massacre of pigs", which is the result of the ship purser's decision, given the lack of balloons onboard, to blow up condoms as decoration for the shipboard party - and some fairly heavy handed hints of impending menace - "the flat grey sea ...seemed to lie ... like an animal, passive and ominous in a cage waiting to show what it can do outside" - we are introduced to the three main characters: Messrs Brown, Smith and Jones. As their names suggest, Greene is presenting the reader with emblems as well as characters. 

Brown is the narrator, a man born in Monte Carlo and claiming to be detached and rootless as a result, a condition he seems to regard as something to be proud of. I think he is confusing indifference with Romantic alienation, just like those who wish to be cool. In his apathetic self-aggrandisement, Browne quotes possibly the worst line of all Romantic poetry, the bit about "rocks and stones and trees", from Wordsworth's A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal. 

Habitual readers of Greene will recognise Brown - he is a new iteration of the narrator in The Quiet American and, like that figure, for all his claims of detachment and having "forgotten how to be involved", he is very involved - even obsessed - with a woman he knows will never wholeheartedly love him, partly because she has a child whose name is Angel. Presumably Greene thought the allusion would help to remind the forgetful or unenlightened among his readers that all women in his fiction, even the prostitutes, are really the Madonna.  

Brown tells us the tale of the interweaving experiences of the three men - Brown, Smith and Jones - during their time on Haiti. His tone is world weary and melancholy, everything is in a minor key - indeed, very little Greene wrote is not steeped with this minor key melancholy; even Monsignor Quixote, despite that book being essentially a comedy. Brown explains that his world-weariness has only come to full maturity since - and in part because of - the events he tells of in the book. At the time of which he tells, he admits, "I still regarded my future seriously", while now he can no longer be sure that it is possible to "describe as serious the confused comedy of our lives". Looking back, he sees that as far as Haiti and life there goes, the novel's central trio "were only a subplot offering a little light relief". 

The character called Smith is another Greene retread. If Alden Pyle from The Quiet American had grown old he might well have become something like Smith, an evangelical vegetarian who once stood for US President. In the 11 years between The Quiet American and The Comedians, Greene's attitude toward Yankee naivety seems to have become more nuanced. While Smith is seen as largely laughable and naive, he is also allowed to display determination, courage and integrity. "Wasn't it possibly a flaw in character to believe so passionately in the integrity of all the world", Brown asks himself about Smith, but ultimately he sums him up as "an old man with beautiful manners", adding that "suddenly I realised how much I missed him", somewhat undermining his claim to be entirely emotionally null and void. 

Finally there is Jones, the unikely beating heart of the novel. Jones, a liar, a conman and a crook is a man who "wore his ambiguity like a loud suit". He admits that "somehow I couldn't find what I was intended to do." In some respects, he is Brown's mirror image. Although Brown owns a hotel, while Jones owns nothing, although Brown, it is implied, is tall, good looking, possibly even debonair (in my mind, he appears as a poor man's Cary Grant or as James Stewart in a very bad mood), while Jones is tiny, "with dark Pekinese eyes" and flat feet, what both men share is a taste for dissembling - they are among the comedians of the title and their relationship is constructed on that basis:

"Interrogation, partly concealed, was to be the basis of our relationship in the short time it lasted: we would snatch at small clues, though in great matters we would usually pretend to accept the other's story. I suppose those of us who spend a large part of our lives in dissembling, whether to a woman, to a partner, even to our own selves, begin to smell each other out. Jones and I learnt a lot about one another before the end, for one uses a little truth whenever one can. It is a form of economy."

Each has a loose understanding of the difference between right and wrong. In an earlier incarnation, Brown sold fake paintings to those willing to be fooled: "I once sold an imitation Pollock to a man who had Walt Disney dwarfs planted in his garden, around the sun-dial and on either side the crazy paving", he confides. "Did I harm him? He could afford the money." 

Furthering the identification between the two, Brown encourages us to believe that both he and Jones at the start of the novel simultaneously reach a crucial moment, the "point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives". 

But there are major differences. Jones, unlike Brown, possesses the ability to make women laugh. Both Brown's mistress and his favourite prostitute mention this aspect of Jones’s personality with fondness. Furthermore, despite the two men sharing a fairly fluid approach towards honesty, Jones may be more reluctant than Brown in his waywardness, if Brown's speculations, articulated in one of the book's most lovely passages, are correct:

"I wondered whether perhaps in all his devious life he had been engaged on a secret and hopeless love affair with virtue, watching virtue from a distance, hoping to be noticed, perhaps, like a child doing wrong in order to attract the attention of virtue."

In addition, unlike Brown, Jones has a guiding dream - in fact he has two: "You have to have two in case the first goes wrong", he explains. One, his back-up, is to set up a golfing resort on a coral reef not far from Haiti, with "a long bar made of coral called the Desert Island Bar". The other is to be a hero.

According to Paul Theroux in the introduction to my edition, the book was written at a time when Greene was short of money, due to the failures of an accountant (Theroux suggests that Jones may be modelled on this figure) and possibly this led to some slipshod stylistic moments. The book's opening line strikes me as stupendously unwieldy, especially from the author of Brighton Rock, which has one of the most arresting opening lines in all fiction. One of the first things we are told about Mr Smith is that he has "large innocent hairy ears"; the concept of innocent ears is one I find hard to accept. There are also dissonant moments I think could have done with cutting, such as the exchange between a young American couple about the female partner's ability to swim the backstroke: it is snobbish and pointless and rings quite untrue. Similarly, there are quite a few clunking similes, such as "The rain was hammered into the ground like a prefabricated wall." 

But there is much to enjoy in the book, including many good lines. Perhaps the one that stands out as being ideal for these times of government imposed restrictions in the name of safety is the narrator's remark that "security can get on the nerves just as much as danger".  

Potential readers should be warned that there are a couple of moments of unutterable racism - my least favourite is "his face dripped with tears like a black roof in a storm". On the other hand, some of the racism goes the other way: a Haitian official observes: " My personal view of every white man is very low. I admit I am offended by the colour, which reminds me of turd. But we accept some of you - if you are useful to the state."

Unlike The Quiet American which takes your breath away with a late twist, The Comedians has no plot surprises. All the same, above all because of the character of Jones, I recommend it. And despite my reservations, including the fact that the character he elects in this novel as the person with true heroic integrity is a Communist, I will go on reading Greene. I think he was utterly mistaken in his hatred for America, his armchair Marxism and his loyalty to Kim Philby (and don’t get me started on his behaviour toward the women in his life) but, in the end, although he was a bit of a swine and a bit of a show off, he was, in his writing, a great entertainer. In other words, he was, in all senses, one of those people he called "the comedians".

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