A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene
The genre of thrillers and detective stories has strong appeal to deconstructural critics, to whose gimlet eyes its repetitive rituals and devices are wide open. But its more common readers generally make a more downright Johnsonian distinction between those they enjoy and the ones they don’t go for. It is the simple distinction between what is convincing and what is not, what seems “real” and what seems false or made-up. No use the literary lads telling us that it’s all made-up, that the whole thing is composed not of life but of “literariness.” We know what we like, and cling sturdily to the old distinction.
Thus, for me, Raymond Chandler is real, so is even Ian Fleming, so above all is Sherlock Holmes. Unreal and therefore not good are Agatha Christie, Len Deighton, Father Brown, Dorothy Sayers, and too many others. It would take far too long for me to try to rationalize the crude distinction, nor could it be done satisfactorily, but two requirements emerge: one, that the work must have some inner intensity, the need and thus the belief of the writer behind it; and, that the “side effects,” the ones that really matter, should not only have a personal appeal but must exhibit the author’s natural enjoyment, relish, individuality, and curiosity. Ian Fleming’s tense inward phobia contrasts with this pleasure and his capacity for sharing it, so that traveling, drinking, meeting people in his books all become vividly pleasurable to the reader.
Graham Greene has the inner intensity all right, but not, for me, the convincing side effects. All essentially thrillers, his books create their own world, as Conan Doyle’s do, but here the rituals and repetitions are not merely formulaic—a trait common to the genre—but have a deliberate and unremitting monotony about them, like that of the old dentist’s drill. It is as if Greene had hit on the idea of making the properties of the genre itself its penance and its via dolorosa, as if he were telling us that the things we enjoy in thrillers are themselves an earnest of what is most boring, most detestable, and most damned about life. An ingenious device, certainly, for it uses the artifice of the genre against itself, standing the tricks or pleasure and suspense on their heads and making them seem like the monotonous capers of the damned. That, Greene seems to indicate with a sour smile, is how to bring real life into the wholly made-up world of art.
The method has its drawbacks. You cannot parody Conrad, or even, convincingly, Ian Fleming, because the great artist constantly surprises and delights and absorbs us in something new, and even the more modest one has his comparable moments. But a good parody of Graham Greene not only sounds like him but is like him, and would go on being so until the end of a whole book. (Greene once won a New Statesman competition for a parody of …
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Russian Roulette: Bad Bet April 27, 1989