• Email
  • Print

Greene & Anti-Semitism

In response to:

The Lives of Graham Greene from the June 22, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

In “The Lives of Graham Greene” [NYR, June 22] David Lodge does a clever job of defending Greene against various charges raised in my biography. His brief discussion of Greene’s anti-Semitism is especially interesting. Instead of offering readers specific evidence for their consideration, he launches a vague attack against me as a “perverse” critic whose book uses “exaggerated” accusations to harm a good reputation. According to Lodge, the anti-Semitism in the early novels is simply the “kind of prejudice” found in “most English writers” of Greene’s generation.

If Lodge is right, then there must have been many English novelists in the 1930s whose books ridiculed “Jewesses” as “little bitches” or whose essays condemned the cowardice of “large fat foreign” Jews. These are Greene’s phrases, and, unfortunately, they are not isolated examples. I invite Lodge to name one English novelist whose published work of the 1930s contains remarks similar to the following quotations from Greene:

That Semitic expression…above the hooked nose of being open to the commercial chance” (Journey Without Maps); “He had been a Jew once, but a hairdresser and a surgeon had altered that” (Brighton Rock); “She deserved something better than a man named Furtstein…. The domed Semitic forehead, the dark eyes over the rather gaudy tie” (The Confidential Agent); “How the financial crisis has improved English films! They have lost their tasteless Semitic opulence and are becoming—English” (The Spectator, April 7, 1939).

As this last quotation indicates, Greene tried to stir up antagonism toward the “alien” community of Jewish immigrants and refugees in England. In 1936 he used The Spectator to frighten readers with the image of “the dark alien executive tipping his cigar ash behind the glass partition in Wardour Street.” Greene was well aware of the growing threat to Jews in Europe—his brother was the Berlin correspondent of The Daily Telegraph—yet his attacks continued even after the awful events of Kristallnacht.

This evidence, and much more, is presented in my biography, but Lodge does not refer to any of it. Clearly, it would undermine his attempt to make my argument look “exaggerated.” Moreover, it would destroy his effort to create sympathy for Greene as a victim of my “virulent hatred.” The only evidence he offers is Greene’s portrait of Myatt in Stamboul Train, which he contends is not an anti-Semitic caricature. This is an odd view, to say the least. The truth is that Greene’s novel presents Myatt as a “short and stout and nasal” businessman who cares for nothing but money. When Myatt makes a mercenary marriage, the narrative says that he wanted to “set up his tent and increase his tribe.” Surely Lodge—a widely acclaimed critic as well as novelist—cannot really believe that Myatt is convincing proof that “Greene’s Jewish characters are far from being anti-Semitic caricatures.”

Although I greatly admire many of the literary qualities in Greene’s best books, I cannot put a good spin on his anti-Semitism. It is worse than anything in T.S. Eliot or Evelyn Waugh, and David Lodge should be willing to confront that fact, even though his “warm memories” of Greene may suffer as a result. In any case, criticizing me will do nothing to make the unpleasant evidence go away.

Michael Shelden
Department of English
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, Indiana

David Lodge replies:

I wrote in my article: “There is no doubt…that Greene’s early novels betray a kind of prejudice against Jews that would be unacceptable today—but then so did the work of most English writers of his generation. It is perverse to judge this strain in his work from a post-Holocaust position in history.” Probably I should have said “many” rather than “most.” Greene was certainly not unique in this respect; and I still stand by my second sentence. I don’t have the time at my disposal to comb through the fiction of the 1930s to match Mr. Shelden’s gathering of allegedly anti-Semitic quotations from Greene’s work, but in any case merely listing such phrases torn from their context proves nothing. The first reference in Mr. Shelden’s letter, for instance, claims that Greene “ridiculed ‘Jewesses’ as ‘little bitches.’ ” The passage in question occurs in Brighton Rock, and describes Pinkie Brown, the teen-age gangster who is the novel’s central character, waiting in the lounge of a luxury hotel for an appointment with Colleoni, the leader of a much more powerful rival gang:

A little Jewess sniffed at him bitchily and then talked him over with another little Jewess on a settee. Mr Colleoni came across an acre of deep carpet from the Louis Seize Writing Room, walking on tiptoe in glace shoes.

He was a small Jew with a neat round belly; he wore a grey double-breasted waistcoat, and his eyes gleamed like raisins. His hair was thin and grey. The little bitches on the settee stopped talking as he passed and concentrated. He clinked very gently as he moved: it was the only sound.

The description is focalized through Pinkie’s warped, resentful, demonic sensibility, and the word “bitch” primarily expresses his anxiety about his own sexuality, and his conflicted feelings about women. At the end of the novel, he leaves a message for Rose, the young Catholic girl who loves him, using the same word: “God damn you, you little bitch, why can’t you go home and let me be?” Arguably the rhetorical effect of the earlier passage also draws on social and cultural prejudices and stereotypes concerning Jews which were common in English society before World War II, but to label it as anti-Semitic ridicule is crudely reductive.

It would be tedious to analyze every one of Mr. Shelden’s quotations in the same way, but his interpretation of those drawn from The Spectator, where Greene wrote in his own person, calls for comment. Greene was devoted to the cinema as an art form and as a critic waged constant war against the vulgarization and commercialization of the medium by Hollywood and its British equivalent. Since many of the leading figures in the industry were Jews, he was able to exploit British suspicion of foreigners in general and Jews in particular to reinforce a specific cultural argument. This was certainly not to his credit, but it is deeply misleading to suggest that he was trying to “stir up antagonism toward the ‘alien’ community of Jewish immigrants and refugees in England” in toto. There is no evidence that Greene was an anti-Semite in the sense of holding that Jews were an undesirable and destabilizing presence in the state who should be denied full civil rights (as for instance Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton maintained).

As to the character of Myatt, it is absurd to describe him as caring for nothing but money. In the first section of Stamboul Train, for instance, he is shown acting as a Good Samaritan to two other characters. When the political refugee Czinner wakes from a doze in the restaurant car:

something in the sudden change from sleep to a more accustomed anxiety, something in the well-meaning clothes betrayed by the shabby mackintosh, touched Myatt to pity. He presumed on their earlier encounter.

You’ve found a compartment all right?”

Yes.”

Myatt said impulsively: “I thought perhaps you were finding it hard to rest. I have some aspirin in my bag. Can I lend you a few tablets?”

Later Myatt gives the chorus girl Coral, who has fainted, his first-class berth, standing in the cold corridor himself so that she can sleep; and although they later become lovers, this is not presented as a seduction gambit. These are hardly the actions of “an anti-Semitic caricature.” Indeed, no truly anti-Semitic novelist would have made the imaginative effort to adopt the point of view of a Jewish character and to render his experience (including the experience of being snubbed by gentiles) from within.

  • Email
  • Print