Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the Orient express makes its way from Ostend To Istanbul, the passengers on this long journey find themselves thrust into a kind of intimacy where secrets are revealed and character flaws are laid bare. Myers is a Jew in the currant business, going to Istanbul to supervise the purchase of a rival company. Coral Musker is a dancer, going out to join a dance group to replace a girl who has fallen ill. Mabel Warren, a journalist and a drunk, who is in the station at Ostend to see off the beautiful woman she loves, spots a man whom she recognises and jumps aboard as the train is about to leave. The man is travelling as Richard John, a teacher from a school in England, but Mabel knows he’s really Dr Czinner, who fled from Yugoslavia five years ago after giving evidence in the trial of a General in the ruling regime accused of rape. Czinner was then a prominent figure in the opposition to the dictatorship and Mabel realises that if he is now returning to Belgrade, there may be a story here that could get her a coveted byline on the front pages of her paper.

The book is set in the 1930s, and gives a real sense of the political unease throughout Europe in this between wars period. Through Czinner’s story, we see the rising clash of extreme right and left ideologies that scarred the twentieth century and, while Greene gives a sympathetic portrayal of Czinner as a man and an idealist, he indicates little belief that leftist regimes would be any better than the fascist dictatorships springing up across the continent. Poverty and inequality, Greene seems to suggest, make people open to any leader who convincingly promises to make life better, and those at bare subsistence level don’t much care what ideology that leader may be professing. Czinner wants to love his fellow man, and perhaps more importantly wants to be loved by him, but man is a fickle beast who will tend to follow the leader he fears most.

Greene’s treatment of Myers, the Jew, is undoubtedly problematic to modern eyes and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, if the reader can look past the surface, Greene is actually giving a remarkably sympathetic portrayal for that time. While accepting the perceived negative characteristics of Jews as actuality, Greene is seeking to show how, in Western Europe at least, they have developed in response to the discrimination and prejudice Jews have had to deal with on a daily basis. Jews, he suggests, who have run from pogroms before and fear that they will be driven out again from their new, uncertain places of refuge can hardly be blamed for their love of gold, as a form of portable security – a deposit against the need to buy acceptance in the now or future refuge elsewhere. We see Myers in a constant conflict of emotions. He is proud of his wealth and importance as the owner of a successful and growing business, but at the same time there is the constant anxiety of what we now call micro-aggressions and the growing fear, soon to be tragically justified, that those aggressions might at any time turn to violence. The race memory of centuries of persecution never sinks below the surface, and so he ingratiates himself to people he inwardly despises, and despises himself for doing so. Although I found some of this difficult reading, I felt that Greene was appealing for understanding and tolerance rather than intentionally contributing to the stereotyping that has done so much harm.

Mabel is also problematic as a character, in very similar ways. Greene is frank and open about her lesbianism in a way that was rare in literature as early as this. But he is a male author, writing in a time when lesbianism was still not openly discussed, and I felt again his portrayal relied too heavily on stereotypes, as if he was writing about something he didn’t properly understand. Like Myers, Mabel has more than her share of negative characteristics – she drinks, she hates men, she manipulates young women, she uses people without caring about the impact she may have on their lives, she wallows in self-pity. She is desperate for love, but Greene, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that lesbian love is doomed to be sordid and impermanent. Again, though, it seemed to me that he was seeking to elicit sympathy for her from a readership who largely would have no knowledge of the world of lesbian love and would mostly be heavily prejudiced against it. Mabel, he seems to be saying, is a horrible person, but how could she not be when her whole life has been one rejection after another, when the world treats her as a living perversion?

Graham Greene

Coral, happily, is considerably easier to like and to pity – a young woman alone in the world and tired of the insecurity of poverty. She may seem weak and some might judge her immoral but she has her reasons, and in the end she’s the one who shows herself to have the warmest heart.

The story itself is excellent, taking the characters into unfamiliar and frightening situations that will reveal them to themselves as much as to us. As with most Greene, it’s not exactly uplifting – in fact, in some ways it’s downright depressing – and there are no real heroes. But there is warmth and sympathy here, all under the already looming shadow of the horrors soon to be unleashed across Europe. I considered deducting a star for the stereotyping problems, but having allowed the book to settle in my mind for a few weeks, I really feel that it deserves to be cut some slack for the time of writing and for what I feel were Greene’s good intentions; and the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the humanity of it put it up there amongst Greene’s best for me.

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60 thoughts on “Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

  1. Your review of Stambool Train has made Brighton Rock, which is taking up room in my bookcase, even more appealing. I read your review expecting there to be a murder (Agatha Christie and trains in this part of the world go together in my mind), but even without one, think a train journey is a terrific settling to allow odd people to come together so their stories can emerge.

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  2. So glad you enjoyed this one! I agree with you about the stereotyping issues – I thought it was pretty clear that Greene was trying to criticise bigotry (especially anti-semetism) in Britain at the time, and promote empathy, although he was using harmful stereotypes while he did so. Plenty of writers of the era were just regurgitating those stereotypes without applying any critical thinking to them – so I think his intentions make a big difference. I was less forgiving of what I found to be the very muddled action plot at the end – but I still thoroughly enjoyed this!

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    • Yes, I do feel we should be willing to give points for good intentions, not just back then but now. It always annoys me when people are picked up for using an outdated word or phrasing something in a non-PC way, when it’s quite clear that they intended no offense – often quite the reverse! These stereotypes were pretty extreme, but the fact that I ended up feeling sympathy for both Myers and Mabel is a good indication of Greene’s good intentions, I think. 😀

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    • Yes, I often wonder what horrendous mistakes we’re making today that will be the subject of scorn from our children or grandchildren in future years! Sadly there is a fashion in these things just as in everything else, but we do seem to keep moving forward…

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  3. What an effective way to paint a portrait of the times, FictionFan! And I do like situations like this, where disparate characters share an experience/adventure/etc. There’s something almost…intimate about a train trip, too, so you really get to learn about the passengers. You raise an interesting point, too, about how the characters are portrayed. It may make modern readers uncomfortable; but, as you say, that’s how they were perceived. I’m especially interested in the link you discuss between the way Jews were treated (e.g. relegated to certain professions, not made to feel safe anywhere), and the perceptions of them. I’m sure there are other connections, too, between the way groups of people are treated and how they are perceived. Lots to think about there!

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    • I think trains are a great way to force people into sudden intimacy and then see what happens, and the whole situation in Europe at that point of history had such tension in real life that it makes an ideal background for this kind of thoughtful thriller. On re-reading Greene recently I have found that his portrayal of characters can feel badly outdated, but I remember not noticing that when I read him first forty or fifty years ago, so that always reminds me that it’s we who have changed, not him, if that makes sense. And I still always feel that he’s actually on the side of whatever minority he’s portraying which makes all the difference to my ability to overlook the stereotyping.

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  4. I read this one recently and also thought that Greene was doing the best job he could to expose bigotry with the tools available to him at the time – I doubt he would have had much luck to publish this as a novel rather than a political pamphlet if he had had a more progressive stance. I actually rather liked both Mable and Myers.

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    • I liked them both too – I noticed when I re-read my review that I’d forgotten to say that! Especially Mabel – I found her very believable and sympathetic, despite the stereotyping. I’ve found that with most of my recent re-reading of Greene, that his portrayals of minorities feel outdated but still always feel as if he’s on their side.

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  5. You’ve begun the year with a wonderfully insightful review of what sounds a wonderful book, he seems again to be dealing with outsiders which is a brave thing to do. I can’t wait to get back to Greene!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 😀 I’ve been loving re-visiting Greene. He was my favourite author in my twenties and I read my way through most, but not all, of his books back then. I’m so pleased to find he’s working just as well for me forty or more years later!

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  6. This sounds well worth a read despite its flaws. One does I agree with you have to cut some slack in terms of the period in which particular books were written. I’ve read some of Greene’s books before, and am certainly adding this one to the list.

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    • Greene was my favourite author back in my twenties, but it had been many years since I last read anything by him till quite recently, and I’ve been thrilled to discover he works just as well for me now again, even if some of his character portrayals now feel outdated.

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  7. I’ve never heard of this one by Greene. You do make it sound tempting: anything on a train has a head start for me. You’ve reminded me too, that I started listening to Brighton Rock several months ago and it dropped off the radar. I was about half way through. Superb writing, if somewhat depressing, the latter maybe accounting for why I stopped listening. I must get round to finishing it.

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    • I do love Greene’s writing, and I’m really thrilled to be enjoying him as much all over again as I did when I first read him back in my twenties! But there’s no doubt he can be a little on the depressing side… 😉

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  8. I’m thinking that if Greene was implying that the downtrodden will vote for anyone, no matter their ideology, as long as they think it will lead to a better life, we have a case in point with our former pres. I agree with others’ comments about your fairness in assessing this book. Kudos to you and your review!

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    • Thank you ! 😀 I definitely found myself relating a lot of what he was saying to what’s going on over in the US today, and also over here to a different degree. I wish we had this kind of thoughtful author writing now, rather than strident partisans yelling polemics at us from either side!

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  9. I went through a Graham Greene reading period, but I missed this one. Your review makes me want to get back to him, as that period was quite a long time ago.

    It is difficult to read books written during different times of acceptance and compassion — that being” lack of” for others. I was thinking about that this morning, the challenge of high praise for a classic that must also carry a caution, a reminder, of the different times, as you’ve done so well here.

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    • I discovered once I’d started this one that I had read it before, long, long ago, but had forgotten the story almost completely – one of the few benefits of the ageing process! 😉 I loved Greene back in my twenties and am thrilled that he’s working just as well for me now that I’m revisiting him forty or so years later. I do notice the stereotyping much more now but I take that as an indication that we’ve progressed, and writers like Greene, who took a sympathetic approach to “outsiders”, probably played a major role in that progression…

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  10. This sounds good and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ve never read any of his, but as you know, I have a couple on my CC list. I came across another of his mentioned in a book I read last month, so it’s been added as a bonus book to my CC list.

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    • Remind me which ones you have on your list? I’ve been picking up a few both on paper and audio over the last few months, so we may have some in common. I currently have The Third Man, The Power and the Glory, The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana.

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      • The Power and the Glory and Our Man in Havana are both part of my CC list (and tagged in my library app). I’ve added a paper copy of A Burnt Out Case.

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        • I’ve read The Power and the Glory before many years ago and absolutely loved it – it may have been the one that turned me into a Greene fan, in fact. I think I’ve also read Our Man in Havana before but I don’t remember it so well, and I’m not sure if I’ve read A Burnt-Out Case at all. We should try to co-ordinate one of them later in the year maybe? My vote would be for The Power and the Glory… 😀

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  11. This book does sound interesting, and I think you’re right to look at it through both lenses; our modern day lense, and the kind of reader that would have picked it up when first published – how would the reactions differ back then? What were his intentions upon writing it? So much changes in public discourse between decades, it’s hard to ignore.

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    • One of the few benefits of ageing is being able to see how much perceptions have changed. I’m pretty sure that when I read this first, probably in the early 1970s, I accepted his characterisations without any problems at all – probably thought they were very accurate in fact. Now they feel stereotyped, but that in itself is a sign of how much we’ve progressed in the interim, I think. And I suspect that writers like Greene, who showed sympathy for “outsiders” way back before it was fashionable, were probably a major factor in that progression, if that makes sense…

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  12. I understand that the resistant against the rejection of lesbianism or for males being gays stemmed from the rationalization that individuals should be absolutely free do what they like with themselves. However this is should be looked at again at check as it opens the door for having intimate practise with animals too, that can not be approved at least from health reasons.

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    • No, the rationalization is that people should be free to do whatever they choose with other consenting adults, so it doesn’t open the door to sex with animals or any other form of perversion. Consent is the key, as is allowing people to decide for themselves how to live their lives rather than forcing them to live by a moral code other people set for them, usually based on the teachings of outdated religious twaddle. Thanks for commenting.

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  13. Great review! I haven’t read this but I greatly appreciate the works by Greene that I have read. I appreciate the way you examine the problematic sections through the lens of Greene’s own time. It’s so easy to get caught in how books like this appear to us now without remembering how much has changed in our knowledge and attitudes.

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    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I was just saying to Anne that one of the few benefits of ageing is actually seeing how much things have changed. I’m sure when I first read this back probably in the early 1970s, I had no problems with the characterisations – probably thought they were pretty accurate, in fact. Now they seem stereotyped but that in itself shows how much we’ve progressed in the last few decades, and writers like Greene, who showed sympathy for “outsiders”, were probably a major factor in that progression. So rather than blame him now for his outdated attitudes, I feel grateful to him for making us think about how life might be for “others”, if that makes sense.

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    • Funnily enough, those are two of my least favourite of his books! Well, I do like Travels with My Aunt but again it’s all a bit problematic now, although again I think his intentions were good. My favourite is The Heart of the Matter, though it’s a long, long time since I last read it.

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