Tragic Comedians

The Comedians

by Graham Greene
Viking, 309 pp., $5.75

As one grows older the writing of a novel does not become more easy, and it seemed to me when I wrote the last words that I had reached an age when another full-length novel was probably beyond my powers.”

—Graham Greene after finishing A Burnt-Out Case, his ninth
novel.

He could not have been more wrong. This new novel, his tenth, bears no trace of slackening or diminution, it is not an old hand’s brewing up—though the hand admittedly is very cunning—the mixture as before; it is instead a work of strength and freshness, and in its core there lies the steel coil of compulsion.

It is of course, on one level of excellence, a story, a very good story as we have come to expect (the demands, also, that are made of writers as they grow in age and stature do not become more easy), beautifully deployed; it opens in neat tradition on board ship. On the Medea of the Royal Netherlands Steamship Company bound for Haiti from the United States, the three pivotal characters first converge. Brown, Smith, Jones: “Three names, interchangeable like comic masks in a farce.” Brown, the narrator, represents an essence of a man alone; uncommitted, unattached. He has no family, no country, no home; he has, or so he is convinced, no allegiance, no belief. He is l’homme seul.

Brown is a British subject—one would just call him an Englishman—born at Monte Carlo, educated at a Jesuit college. There he won prizes for Latin verse and composition, and fought an early and abortive vocation (“The sense of vocation hung around me like the grippe, a miasma of unreality…”). Since then Brown’s life appears to have been directed by the more literal turns of chance: an afternoon at a casino, a postcard delivered against odds, and sustained, neither badly nor securely, by his own efforts and wits. (The brief account of his career is both deliciously farcical and already infused with sadness.) Now he has reached the end of his fifties and is warily approaching the dictator-struck island of Haiti because it is the only place on earth where he might be said to have a stake, a love affair, and a piece of property. But the affair is with a married woman and already corroded by distrust, the property an empty hotel (the tourists have vanished from that mini-Naziland), improbably acquired and precariously held. Conversely, Mr. Smith, an older man than Brown, is solid with convictions, marriage, a course of action. He is proposing to visit the Negro Republic to combine a holiday and what he calls, with equal humility and firmness, his mission. “Neither Mrs. Smith nor I,” he says, “are ones for undiluted pleasure.”

…Once we took our vacation in Tennessee. It was an unforgetable experience. You see we went as Freedom Riders. There was an occasion in Nashville on the way down when I feared for Mrs. Smith.

When Brown remarks on that …

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