Saturday, 29 January 2011

My Gripe with Greene

"You have to read Graham Greene," he said, "he's the greatest writer that ever lived!"
(Really, I was thinking, is he really the greatest writer that ever lived? There are a couple of others in the running.) So I said: "Really?"
"Yes," came the reply, with a stern nod, "better than Shakespeare."

Well, that's quite a hard sell. What could I do but procrastinate for a few months and then grudgingly get the sneeze-ridden copy of Brighton Rock from the library? Various people - including this particular 'he'- had been hounding me about Graham Greene for ages. And then I found out Rowan Joffé was remaking a film version that I wanted to see, and if there's one thing I have to do it's read the damn book before the film.

Besides, I have been enjoying an imaginary love affair with Brighton for a while now. It was about time I got to know it properly. Just lately it keeps coming up - there are people living there, running away from or moving towards it that I know. In my naive human pattern-finding nature, it rather feels like something is drawing me to move there, or maybe visit it again.

In my other posts I have managed to find the exact copy I read as the picture, but it turns out that Bath Spa University is so retro that the 1970's hardback cover they have is not around anymore. This rather fetching Penguin cover (which has been made into mugs, thermos flasks and even deckchairs by the ever-enterprising publishers) will, unfortunately, have to do. Still, I can't deny there isn't something wonderful about old Penguin paperbacks - indeed I have a framed collage of classic front covers in my flat. (That was a single girl's evening well spent...)

So let's move on: what exactly did I make of the greatest writer that ever lived? Well, it was moody. Really rather moody - I loved the atmosphere, the noir elements, the claustrophobic feel of a seaside town. Pinkie - the young leader of a violent gang (do you get non-violent gangs?) - is a brooding, malicious boy you can't help but feel you're rooting for. It's a bit like the spectator bloodthirst at a boxing match; you're egging him on, with almost no regard for the gravity and violence of his actions. So swept up was I with his irresistible egotism that I found myself callously deducing who had to die next. The drastic measures of covering up a messy murder are so well portrayed, you become a murderer yourself.

Before you all run to your 'delete friend' buttons, I can assure you that I'm not a violent person. It's one reason I thought I wouldn't like this book - so the premise is a group of lads rattling around and knifing each other? No thanks. But it has so much more to it - least of all Pinkie's bizzare repulsion to affection and sex. At first, I didn't believe it. His character is meant to be a boy of seventeen, who clearly has enough testosterone to kill someone in cold blood, but he feels complete abhorrence when it comes to physical intimacy. Is he a psychopath, with no feeling? I have never met a seventeen-year-old (male or female) who would rather never have sex. I guess that is what makes him so interesting - that and the layers of twisted reason behind his repulsion.

Eventually, though, I believed in his character passionately. And I'm not saying that everyone is an instinctual, one-dimension processor: complexity is human nature. But there was something amiss in Graham Greene's novel, I thought - and that was the accuracy of women.

There are two main female characters in Brighton Rock: Ida, whose loose behaviour and sexual morals leave a lot to be desired, and Rose, whose Roman-Catholic upbringing have left her somewhat vanilla in nature. I didn't like either of them - not that you have to - and I didn't like the way they were written. Ida is a big-hearted and bosomed mother figure, who is also a terrible busybody. The image that is conjured of her is too easy I thought - a bubbly, rotund woman with a large sexual appetite. Rose is, of course, a great contradiction: frigid, plain, grey and bleak. I think what I objected to most was that Rose just lets Pinkie walk all over her. I was angry at her passivity, her stupidity.Were there really women like that in the 1930s? I expect so, but to my modern pride it seemed, if not unrealistic, then just frustrating.

Greene's men are spot-on - intiguing, complex characters who draw you in for all reasons. But as the whole book is so masculine anyway, I felt he could have spent more time on the nuances of female behaviour. God knows we've got enough of them.

I'd like other women to read Brighton Rock and let me know if I'm alone here. Looking back, I realised that the majority of recommendations were from men after all, and I know Greene is a very laddish author to read. Perhaps my sensitivity is getting the better of me, and I should just enjoy a good old-fashioned crime novel with fisticuffs.

I did like the ending, though. I thought it was absolutely perfect - that balance of suggestion and knowledge in the reader's mind that let's you play out the final scene all on your own. Can't fault Greene one iota for that.

After this, I moved on to another musty library book, which I must quickly mention before the clock strikes midnight and my blog title is null and void. My father is a huge Aldous Huxley fan, so I attempted to read Time Must Have a Stop. I wouldn't say this is trendy to read - unlike the Graham Greene, which seems almost to be used as a pick-up line these days by English Lit freshers - but Huxley is an author that can't be ignored. I embarked on this novel with a daft sense of science fiction about it (I think it was the title reminding me of Time's Arrow and Timequake) and was only slightly disappointed when I realised it was nothing of the sort.

I love Huxley's wry sense of humour, and painful wringing of reality. The torments of the main character Sebastian are exactly the awkward, selfish worries of (another) seventeen-year-old. This young man is a poet, you see, and all the bashful (but arrogant) sensitivities that come along with it. How he squirms in social situations, and how he constantly stumbles around making faux pas, are a wonderful testament to the type of person I know rather well. That is to say, there were plenty of things about his slightly dislikeable character that I recognised in myself.

But, oh the pace of it dragged like hell! Some plot points you could see coming for miles like a belisha beacon, and getting there was a very slow boat ride indeed. There are also several chapters written from the point of view of someone who has died, and it all gets a bit abstract for me. To give you a taste, here is a sentence:

"The blueness brightened up towards a purer incandescence, the music modulated from significance through heightened significance into the ultimate perfection of silence."

There are whole chapters written like this. When the first happened, I stuck it out, assuming it was the only chapter written like that. But when another popped up a few pages later, I have to admit I did an awful thing and ignored it completely, having perservered for an hour on the other chapter and understanding nothing. The rest of the book had some great moments of irony - almost making it worth it, but not quite.

But I do want you to read Aldous Huxley. And the book I want you to read instead is After the Fireworks - a novella I read a few months ago and completely adored. It's a much better example of his prowess as a writer, and you'll whizz through it in a matter of days. I would love to tell you more, but it is getting late, and I wouldn't want my recommendation to sound crude, especially given the subject matter. But look I've created a link straight through to Amazon, where you can read the brief blurb and decide for yourself. And it is, of course, available from all good bookshops, too. I'd love some company on the long, slow Sunday shift tomorrow.

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