Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Study of a psychopath…

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Kolley Kibber has come to Brighton on a publicity campaign for his newspaper. He will walk the streets and any lucky reader who spots and challenges him will be given a cash prize. But on this day, Kolley Kibber – real name Charles “Fred” Hale – is scared. He knows that a Brighton gang he has written about is after him, intent on killing him. He feels he’ll be safer if he’s not alone, so tries to pick up one of the female day-trippers down from London to enjoy the beach and the bars and the sunshine. Ida Arnold is a kind-hearted good-time girl, who takes pity on this lonely stranger. But she leaves him for a few minutes to visit the public toilets and when she returns he’s gone. Later she hears that he has died, and doesn’t accept the report that his death was natural. She sets out to investigate. Meantime, Pinkie Brown, leader of the gang, is worried that one of his men may have done something that will give them all away just when it seems they have got off with murder. As his paranoia increases, he becomes caught in his own trap, every action he takes to avert the danger seeming to diminish his options more and more.

I loved Graham Greene with a passion back in my teens and twenties, but on a couple of recent revisits I’ve been a little disappointed. This is one I’d never read before and I’m delighted to say the old magic returned in full force as soon as it began. The first chapter is a masterclass in writing, creating fully-rounded and empathetic characters in Kolley Kibber and Ida Arnold, portraying wonderfully this seedy, poverty-ridden seaside town in the 1930s, and building a terrific atmosphere of tension and suspense. Although Kolley Kibber only appears for this short space of time, his disappearance and death hang over the rest of the book, so that his character becomes as unforgettable as those who are present throughout the whole book.

Ida is also an exceptionally well-drawn character, the beating heart of the book, with her warmth and joy in the act of living giving it the humanity it needs to relieve the otherwise pitch-black noir of the story. Later we will meet Rose, a young girl whose background is of such deprivation, both materially and emotionally, that she is easily persuaded to fancy herself in love with any boy who shows her attention, easy prey for Pinkie who comes to see her as a threat.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Carol Marsh as Rose in the 1947 film of the book

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Pinkie, the boy gangster who too readily sees murder as the solution to all problems. This has to be one of the best character studies of a psychopath ever written. Greene gradually shows us what has brought Pinkie to this point – his unhappy childhood, the poverty and lack of opportunity for boys like him in the grim Depression-era world, the guilt and punishment inherent in his Catholic religion. Pinkie believes in Hell but can’t quite bring himself to believe in Heaven, at least not for the likes of him. His disgust at the idea of sex raises all sorts of psychological questions – is it because he lived in a house so small that as a child he could hear his parents performing their weekly conjugal rites? Or is he a closeted gay, closeted so deep he’s unaware of it himself? Or is he simply scared to show any kind of vulnerability, to perhaps fail at the crucial moment? Greene raises all sorts of questions about what may have made Pinkie who he is, but wisely leaves open the possibility that it’s simply a matter of nature. And yet, rotten though he is, Greene gives him a terrible humanity of his own – a lost and damaged soul for whom it’s impossible not to feel sympathy, to wonder whether if circumstances had been different he might have been saved, by man or his implacable God.

The suspense in the story comes from two angles. Will Ida succeed in learning the truth and getting some kind of justice for the man she briefly met and scarcely knew? And Rose – what will happen to Rose? All she wants is to be loved – is that too much to ask? But loving a boy who dislikes and fears her and who has already killed more than once – what will happen to Rose? As Pinkie fingers the bottle of vitriol he always carries in his pocket – what will happen to Rose? The tension of worrying about Rose becomes almost too much to bear.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Samuel West, and he does a wonderful job. Every word is clearly enunciated and while he doesn’t “act” the characters, he breathes life into their varied personalities. He lets the words speak for themselves, never letting his performance get in the way of the writing.

Graham Greene

Beautifully written and with a quartet of distinctively unforgettable characters, this has leapt into the lead as my favourite Greene – high praise indeed from a lifetime fan of his work. While it’s one of his “Catholic” novels, the religious aspects avoid the silly mysticism of The End of the Affair, reminding me more of the faith struggles of the priest and Scobie in The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter respectively. And they play only a small part in what is first and foremost a brilliant noir depiction of a psychopath in a superbly evoked time and place. A fabulous book which gets my highest recommendation!

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The End of the Affair by Graham Greene read by Colin Firth

Greene’s God works in mysterious ways indeed…

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When Bendrix meets Henry in the park by chance one rainy night, it takes him back to the time, a couple of years earlier, when he was having an affair with Henry’s wife, Sarah. Now Bendrix is bitter – she left him and he has never really understood why. And Henry, unaware of their affair, now tells him that he thinks Sarah may be seeing someone else. All the old feelings brought to the surface, Bendrix feels he must know – did Sarah ever love him? Or was he just one in a long line of men…

This is a book of two halves for me, and so I must warn those who love it that I am going to be quite critical of it. I’m also going to go much further into spoiler territory than I normally do, so if you haven’t read the book and intend to, then you would be best to skip my review…

The first half of the book is quite wonderful. It’s a study of how jealousy and insecurity can lead someone to destroy the very love that is causing those emotions, and how easily a failed love can turn to bitterness, even hatred. Bendrix, the first person narrator, is arrogant and can be cruel, but he is also self-aware, which makes him tolerable if not likeable. The writing is fantastic from the very first sentences – lean and direct. Greene never tells us anything – he lets his characters speak for themselves, though we see them mostly through the filter of Bendrix’s jumble of emotions. Greene understands the vulnerability that comes with love, the weakness and insecurity that can cause us to seek excuses in advance for love’s failure, and, by doing so, create that failure through our own actions. There are occasional passages of pathos, done with a simplicity that makes them deeply moving without ever verging on the mawkish.

I listened to Colin Firth’s narration of the book and he does a superb job, making it feel both tense and intense. He doesn’t ‘act’ the dialogue, but uses the subtlest shifts in tone to convey the different characterisations. All the anger and bitterness is there on the surface, but he lets us hear the sorrow and love that still underlie those emotions. It’s not at all surprising that he won the Audie Award for Best Solo Narration for this in 2013.

Unfortunately the second half fell away sharply for me – and this is where spoiler territory begins.

Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr as Bendrix and Sarah in the 1955 movie directed by Edward Dmytryk

Many of Greene’s books reflect his own personal struggle with faith and his strange relationship with the Catholic Church, and this book is no exception. But whereas in other novels – The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory – I’ve found that both interesting and moving, in this one somehow it all feels forced and rather… OK, I’ve tried to think of a better word, but the one that suits is… silly. First we find the reason Sarah finished the relationship is because of a promise she made to a God she did not at that point believe in. I could accept that, just about.

But when, towards the end of the novel, Bendrix begins to think that she may be performing miracles from the great beyond, I choked. I hold my hands up – I’m a life-long atheist and that may have affected how I felt about it. But I actually don’t think it’s that – it seems to me the way Greene does it is crass, and I think I’d feel that way, perhaps even more so in fact, if I were a believer, particularly a Catholic. For one thing, we suddenly start being told by all and sundry what a ‘good’ woman she had been. In what way, I found myself asking? We know almost nothing about her except that she has been serially unfaithful to her husband throughout their marriage because he doesn’t provide her with sexual satisfaction. If she does good works or contributes to society in any positive way, we are not told so. And she has certainly never been devout. It seems to me this is a major failure in characterisation. This woman whom I thought I knew – a creature of emotion, a rather weak, shallow personality looking for episodes of love to fill her dull and rather pointless existence, is suddenly being lauded as a saint, in the literal sense of that word.

I could have accepted it had it only been Bendrix who was viewing her that way – love and grief do strange things to the memory and the mind, after all. But other people, even the priest, seem to be ready to beatify her within weeks of her death.

Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in the roles in Neil Jordan’s 1999 version

There’s another suggestion that sat uneasily with me too. We discover late on that Sarah had been baptised as a Catholic, though it happened when she was too young to remember so she lived her life unaware of it. It hovers not quite spoken that this is at the root of her later dalliance with religion and possibly also her posthumous miracle-working. Hmm! I’m not sure even the Catholic Church would think it works quite like that.

So, in short, what starts as a wonderfully truthful depiction of love, jealousy and grief, turns into a superficial and incredible account of some kind of miraculous conversion. My real problem with it is that I have been saying for many years that The Heart of the Matter is one of my favourite books, and have put it on my Classics Club list for a re-read – and now I’m scared to re-read it in case Scobie’s struggles with his faith strike me in the same way. In other words, perhaps it’s this book, or perhaps I’ve just become too cynical for this kind of shallow, sentimental mysticism.

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Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

‘Tis better to travel hopefully…

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Travels with my AuntWhen middle-aged Henry Pulling attends the cremation of his mother, he meets his mother’s sister, Aunt Augusta, a woman he knows only from old family photographs. It seems Aunt Augusta was something of the black sheep of the family, her distinctly racy and unconventional lifestyle making her unwelcome. But Henry finds himself drawn towards her, her frank stories of a life full of incident providing a contrast to his own rather dull and lonely existence as a retired bank manager in the respectable little community of Southwood. And soon Augusta entices Henry to join her on some of her journeys, first on the Orient Express to Istanbul and later to South America.

This is a gentle little comedy without any of the profundity of Greene’s major works but still with a certain amount of charm. Published in 1969, at a time when Greene was in his mid-60s, it does rather read like a tolerant older man’s view of the ‘permissive’ society of the ’60s, with its focus on ‘free love’ and incessant pot-smoking. However, through Aunt Augusta’s stories, we are also taken on a light trip back through the century, though her storytelling technique makes it hard to pin down the truth of any event she is describing. From running a church for dogs in Brighton to her rather seedy career in France, from possibly having something to do with the Resistance to consorting with Nazi war criminals, Augusta’s exuberant zest for life manages somehow to overcome Henry’s normal repugnance for anything not quite respectable. The lesson he must learn from Augusta is the simple one that there is a difference between the tedium of merely existing and the joy of experiencing life.

I went restlessly out and crossed the little garden where an American couple (from the St James or the Albany) were having tea. One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and the dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.

The writing is, of course, excellent, especially the stories of their travels and the various places they pass through. It’s not a travelogue, so there are no tourist brochure style descriptions – instead, it’s a vague, impressionistic picture of the process of travelling and the places passed by as seen through Henry’s untutored, and often uninterested, eye. The reader is more likely to be told about the availability of ham sandwiches than the great architecture of a given town. This changes a little when they head off to South America – in this section, we begin to get a much clearer picture both of the natural world and the strange and rather corrupt society Henry finds himself sucked into.

orient express poster

When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of our long journey were picked up again: a factory was followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas-works by a modern church: the houses began to tread on each other’s heels, advertisements for Fiat cars swarmed closer together, the conductor who had brought breakfast passed, working intensely down the corridor to rouse some important passenger, the last fields were squeezed out and at last there were only houses, houses, houses, and Milano, flashed the signs, Milano.

The humour runs at a consistently gentle level throughout, never becoming riotously funny, but never getting lost either. Unfortunately a good deal of the humour is centred on Aunt Augusta’s younger lover, Wordsworth, a man from Sierra Leone, and to modern eyes his portrayal feels horribly stereotyped at best and somewhat racist at worst. In fact, given Greene’s age and the time of writing, Wordsworth is actually rather affectionately portrayed – indeed, he’s about the only likeable character, the only one with a true, warm and generous heart. But still, I found some of the dialect and his rather childish naivety made for pretty uncomfortable reading in places. Otherwise, however, the contrast between Henry’s buttoned-up mentality and Augusta’s free-wheeling acceptance of all life has to offer gives plenty of opportunity for Greene to quietly mock the society of the time.

The vicar was saying clearly, while the congregation buzzed ambiguously to disguise the fact that they had forgotten the words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, have committed…” I noticed that the detective-sergeant, perhaps from professional prudence, did not join in this plea of guilty. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…” I had never before noticed how the prayer sounded like the words of an old lag addressing the Bench with a plea for mercy. The presence of Detective Sergeant Sparrow seemed to alter the whole tone of the service.

Graham Greene
Graham Greene

This would not be the book I would recommend to people wanting to sample Greene for the first time. Much better to try one of his more serious novels where the depth of the subject matter tends to withstand dating a little better. In truth, I think profundity suits his style better than humour. But, overall, I found this a pleasurable if rather light read – one where the journey is more enjoyable perhaps than the destination.

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(Ticking off the “Orient Express” category for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge.)