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Fairy Tales for Grown-ups

A foreigner sits in a square in a border town, looking at the bright lights, the big hotels of the land across the bridge. He has been watching, as everyone in town has, a famous con man, in flight from his creditors, walking around the square with his dog, which he kicks daily. The foreigner feels a kind of kinship with the fugitive—he too, we sense, is in flight from something—and savors the fact that (this being Mexico) everyone in town knows the man is a criminal, except for the two foreign detectives sent to find him. When finally they do catch up with the stranger, the two quickly become his friends and the crook’s safety seems guaranteed. Then, going across the bridge in search of his dog, the fugitive gets hit, by chance, by a passing car driven by one of the detectives:

The detective swerved—he said later, weakly, at the inquiry, that he couldn’t run over a dog, and down went Mr. Calloway, in a mess of broken glass and gold rims and silver hair, and blood…. The attitude in which he lay looked more like a caress than a blow.

The dog bays pitifully beside his master.

It was comic and it was pitiable,” the narrator goes on, “but it wasn’t less comic because the man was dead.” Nor, one might add, less pitiable. “It all seemed to me a little too touching to be true,” he confesses, “as the old crook lay there with his arm around the dog’s neck, dead with his million between the money-changers’ huts, but it’s as well to be humble in the face of human nature.” Art, he might be saying, is seldom so neat (or so cynical) as one might wish.

To some, perhaps, such a scene might sound almost like a parody of Graham Greene: when an English magazine ran a competition asking its readers to send in a parody of Greene, by some accounts the author himself sent an entry, and came in second. Yet all that is strong and touching about Greene is caught in the vignette, written before any of the major novels came out: the love of paradox, the surrender to a sense of human frailty that makes all paradox redundant, the position on the wrong side of the border, among the fallen, and the sense of companionship being often no more than a fellowship of thieves, but no less real for that. “The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden,” writes Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian, “lives in mystery and fear.” So, too, Greene might suggest, does the man who knows that the secrets of the world are forever known.

Greene’s ability to weave wistfulness and comedy together, his skill at constructing emotional and political webs so intricate that the lightest touch leaves them shaking, has often meant that his short fiction has been overlooked. The classic masters of short stories (Chekhov, say, or Greene’s friend and contemporary V.S. Pritchett) are masters of a single mood, or of character, or of an air of ironic humanity. Greene’s characteristic domain, by comparison, was doubleness—divided loyalties, conflicted feelings. To play out the full logic of a man reaching out for a man he distrusts, or a swindler doing good things for bad reasons, he seemed to need the measured space of a tightly plotted novel.

Yet the stories collected at three points in his career, written over a course of forty years, catch their elusive maker in silhouette, and sometimes, less distracted by protagonist and plot, show us more of him than do any of the novels.1 With perhaps typical perverseness, Greene structured his first collection of short fiction backward, beginning with the last piece and ending with the earliest (as if to chronicle a passage toward innocence); but even the smallest of them, like the story on the frontier, have titles (“Across the Bridge”) that suggest they were aiming at something more. Sometimes amusements, sometimes parables, sometimes ways for him to try out a mood or idea, sometimes what he called “escapes,” Greene’s stories show us the writer less guarded, in his off hours.

You can draw certain conclusions about his development when you read them in one place, noting, for instance, that he seemed more attractive as an older writer than as a young one, perhaps because the youthful stories are often preoccupied with disenchantment whereas the later ones rejoice in their freedom from illusion. The earliest pieces, frank in their restlessness and anger, end often in murder, where the final ones are haunted by death, the damage no longer done to others but to oneself. Yet what haunts one most, reading them all at once, is how much his concerns were steady from the beginning, even as they became more tolerant and had more use for irony. Nearly all the stories, it seems to me, are about innocence, and turn upon the fact that the innocent, those still inside the Garden, long for adventure, danger, flight; while those on the far side of the fence wish that they could go back again.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Greene was least able to take on this theme of innocence, or to approach it, when he was young. His earliest works are largely set in England, which is to say the familiar and the gray; when wartime comes, with its austerities and precautionary rites, its long bureaucratic corridors and paper shuffling, it seems only to intensify a sense of privation that was there from the beginning. In the first collection of short fiction Greene published, initially entitled Nineteen Stories, and then Twenty-One Stories, the mood is sullen, often violent. The stories with the most everyday titles—“A Drive in the Country” or “A Little Place off the Edgware Road”—are heavy with darkness, a sense of oppression. The mere recitation of English place names—“Maidenhead” is a recurring favorite—carries a kind of salacious charge, and the overall mood can best be caught by the sound of “Fetter Lane” and “Leadenhall Street.”

Indeed, those who know that a Catholic writer is behind the pieces may be surprised at how little solace is to be found in them—or will have to adjust, at least, to a provisional believer’s sense that redemption is a never-ending if. Greene was as singular a Catholic as he was everything else, and the faith he took on at the age of twenty-one seems never to have left him with a sense of happy endings. His interest, in fact, is almost never in what is above us, and almost always in what lies beneath, often quite literally. Everything that lies below the conscious mind, or the surface of our formal lives: the Underground and the basement. When writing of the Jubilee of King George V, Greene concentrates, quite typically, on a gigolo (dressed like “a retired Governor from the Colonies”) and a madam, each taking the other for something else, but bound together in a kind of companionship. As the two of them carry on their conversation in a hotel lounge, the most commonplace phrases—“trips to the London underworld,” “I cleaned up the streets”—acquire a happily shaded second meaning. Greene was always interested in the parts of us (often better parts) we don’t acknowledge.

The archetypal early story, in that respect, may well be “When Greek Meets Greek,” in which all four of the characters, as in classic Greene, are con men who are somehow innocent enough to believe that their deceits are cunning—and, more than that, innocent enough to fall for another con man’s devices. As a fraudulent schemer pretending to be the head of an Oxford college hands over a diploma to a would-be lord in some borrowed rooms in London (while the young accomplices of each go off, linked together, just as the older men hoped), one comes upon the perfect Greene tableau, in which lack of virtue is rewarded and errant trust becomes a kind of faith. From here it is not a very long step to the whisky priests of his first great novel, The Power and the Glory, who, for all their shabbiness and impiety, can perform a mass, or administer simple human compassion, as well as any cardinal.

Insofar as Greene was drawn to the shabby or the secret—a charge he always denied—it was because he was always unable to give up on the prospects of even the most moth-eaten. Many of his early stories are inchoate, or mere scenes almost, but in the richest of them you can see the smiling skeptic of Our Man in Havana or Travels with My Aunt. Greene never had an entirely innocent reading of the world—he seems to have been something of an ironist at birth—and yet he never lost his respect for childhood and for all the things we do when we don’t know better. And it is the stubborn, recidivist innocence of even the con men in his stories that makes them so endearing; we laugh at them from a distance and then realize that we’re somehow within them, and on their side.

There is a story in that first collection called “The Innocent” and in it Greene reveals another factor that complicated his abiding sense of loss. A character not dissimilar to his author goes back to his drab boyhood hometown—Bishop’s Hendron—to rummage through the past. On his arm, though, is a woman he’s just picked up, one Lola, who, of course, contradicts with her every movement the search for innocence he’s undertaking. One part of Greene, it seems, was always eager to poke away at what he’d left behind, the root of him, while another was hungry for the worldly and the new. In his finest stories the language of both moods comes together in the sound of a well-bred diffidence trying to tamp down something stronger. “She wasn’t anything in particular,” says the narrator of “Across the Bridge” of another Lola, “but she looked beautiful at a distance.”

Greene’s next set of stories, titled (mischievously, of course) A Sense of Reality and brought out sixteen years after the first, shows him going back to the same boyhood town without a Lola beside him. The pieces are among the most inward and private things he ever wrote, haunted by a mysterious sense of having been written more for himself than for any reader. Greene was the rare writer of his time and class who went to a psychoanalyst (at sixteen); some years later, going to Liberia, he said, more or less explicitly, that in undertaking a journey to the interior, he was going to explore the subconscious.

In these stories that same impetus is evident, to peel back the official story of our lives we tell ourselves and find its truth. One of the pieces in the first collection actually draws upon that trip to Africa (noting, with typical mordancy, that the man who flees London to get away from boredom may only find a different kind of boredom in the jungle). But the heart of the second collection—and, really, of much of Greene—seems to me to lie in the long excursion called “Under the Garden.” As its title suggests, it is about everything that hides out from the daylight world, all that the child (and then the dying man, returning to his boyhood home) longs to find hidden beneath the respectable surface of bourgeois life. Always a lover of the renegade—in perpetual flight from the wisdom of headmasters (one of whom was his father)—Greene here offers up a counterexample, in the form of a literally underground savant. A middle-aged man, one William Wilditch, is diagnosed as the story begins with lung cancer. He returns to the country house where he spent his childhood summers, comparing himself to a legendary Civil War leader who, mortally wounded, rides away from the battlefield to revisit the important sites of his youth one final time:

  1. 1

    The three collections later appeared as Twenty-One Stories, A Sense of Reality, and May We Borrow Your Husband? This essay will be published in a somewhat different form as an introduction to a Penguin edition of Greene’s Complete Short Stories to be published in February 2005. I’m omitting for the present purposes the almost posthumous leftovers collected in The Last Word and Other Stories.

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