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DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


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British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

The Rescuer of the Story – Graham Greene (1904-1991)


Graham Greene is first and foremost a skilful (not resourceful) story-teller. The Human Factor, 1978, is good proof of that, besides having some small connection with the totalitarian world, which makes it even more interesting. At the time of its publication it was acclaimed as the perfect best-seller. Which, to many, it must have been. To the student of literature, conversant with other Desperado writers, it looks rather flat. While reading it, we may realize sadly that a mere story is no longer enough for some of us. We have got used to sophisticated tricks, our taste has been spoilt. It would be difficult to go back to Dickens or even Galsworthy, at that. We need to see the game, we want to witness the writer’s wit at work. But this Graham Greene is careful to conceal. He builds his plots and rears his characters in the utter silence and obscurity of his mind. He does not share his writing ability, his creative impulse with his reader. He is the hidden – not even the withdrawn – author. Consequently, since our relationship, our friendship with his thoughts is forbidden, we may easily reject the result. It is a well-made story, which we can remember, but which does not alter us. After reading Graham Greene one is still one’s old self.

The story of The Human Factor is uncomplicated, and the end, in Russia, is even appealing to my imagination, though I suspect it of artificiality. While working in South Africa, Castle met and married Sarah, a black woman. He was working for the British, but he was helped to escape with Sarah (whites never married black girls there) by a Communist spy. When he married Sarah, she was already pregnant with somebody else’s child. The boy, Sam, was born in England, as Castle’s son. Castle continued to work for the British espionage, but this time as a double agent. He passed on information to someone he did not know, from the other camp. The leak was discovered and a young fellow of his, Davis, was killed as a suspect. Suddenly Castle comes to know about a large operation (Uncle Remus) and passes on this last bit of information to the enemy, knowing that it must be the end. He sends Sarah and Sam to his mother. He is smuggled into Russia, where he meets several compatriots, who have been doing similar things. He will never see Sarah again, because the British will not give her a passport for Sam, and she will never leave her son behind. The novel ends with their first conversation over the phone, with Sarah’s last words to Castle:

She said, ‘Maurice, Maurice, please go on hoping,’ but in the long unbroken silence which followed she realized that the line to Moscow was dead.

The novel was screened very faithfully. When a novel can be faithfully screened, the reading replaced by watching, by mere suspense and sequence of images and dialogues, I should say there is definitely something wrong with the quality of the text. Greene can always be easily screened, without much loss of substance. It looks as if he himself foresaw the screening and worked as a producer. It might be interesting to notice here that, while the status of the author has undergone so many changes and his game has experimented so much, the film director has so far been quite tame. He has always been behind his camera, arranging scenes silently. It is high time the techniques of film making suffered some devastating shock, or the films may start losing their intellectual audience and confine themselves to soap operas.

The characters are outlined slowly, with a certain eye to suspense. Greene takes his time, his skilled hand chooses the right moment to throw in every detail. Without this slow progress, which arouses our curiosity as to what is going to happen next, the novel would be absolutely dull. It takes the author quite a number of pages, for instance, to reveal to us that Sarah is black. Some things, such as the interests of the British and Russian spies, he never reveals. Which amounts, in the end, to a kind of superficiality, since not even the subject matter of the novel (let alone possible associations) is properly analysed.

All the characters, with the meagre exception of Maurice Castle, are sketched from the outside, like pieces of furniture, like a moving background. Sarah loves Maurice and her child, and acts properly on all occasions. Davis is in love, unhappy because his secretary rejects him, willing to go and work abroad. He can also play hide-and-seek with Sam and is killed by mistake, for what Castle is doing. Castle himself acts as if in constant torpor, he wishes for nothing, he imagines nothing, he reacts to nothing. These literary robots can hardly be convincing to someone who reads with an eye to the game of writing and the fun of reading. We have acquired the taste of being bumped into and baffled by the author’s wild impulses. Maybe this is what is wrong with Graham Greene: he has no idea he could be wild. The story is sacred, and he tells it with an honest directness which kills our curiosity.

Yet, if his books continue to be read by many (or watched as films) with a certain amount of pleasure, there must be something in them which redeems them from utter dullness. I think it is the easy-flowing story-telling ability. For the written text, it is reflected in the structure of the sentence, the masterful use of illuminating dialogue. A book by Greene can easily be turned into a film by merely using these dialogues. Some authors cannot tell a story because they feel too much and resent patterning the feeling on a sequence of incidents (see Joyce or Woolf). Others cannot write properly because they speak too much and come up with a dissertation (John Fowles is not far from that). The hybridization of literary genres looms everywhere. Graham Greene escapes it though, by striking a very delicate balance. He rescues the story. It is a brave thing to do, after experimentalists and the rest, after Joyce & co. and also post-company.
If he had been more gifted, he might have made his stories more typical, more representative, more illuminating. As it is, he is a conscientious builder. Which is pretty much, after the time when the art of novels with a story was so much despised. Greene rehabilitates the narrative, he does so in an amazing number of novels, and should be praised as such. We must not forget that, if the novel had not come back to story-telling, it would most certainly have died.



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LIDIA VIANU | Desperado - Contemporary British Literature


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