Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Complete Short Stories of Graham Greene

If you are familiar with any of Graham Greene's short stories, it's probably "The Destructors," the story that Drew Barrymore discusses with Jake Gyllenhaal's English class in the film Donnie Darko. Gyllenhaal uses the story, which is about a gang of teenagers destroying an old man's house from inside, to find inspiration for his own acts of vandalism. Gyllenhaal is led to do these things by visions, but they ultimately exhibit a sense of purpose (though convoluted). In Greene's story, there is no purpose, no why; the Destructors are goaded into their actions by a sadist named T who pursues the destruction of the house with a single-mindedness that only the teenage psyche can possess. The story is a brief, bitter pill, a meditation on the nature of evil, suggesting it exists as a means to perpetuate itself. It's wonderful and Greene-like--Brighton Rock compressed to a diamond.

Greene has never been well known for his stories, except perhaps this one. And rightly so, as far as I can tell. Few of these stories really live up to the spiritual agony that characterize his novels, and some are downright bad. Conspicuously, the earliest and latest stories seem to be the worse offenders, and Greene seems to have had the habit of using the shorter form to tinker with various one-note and half-baked ideas, some of them quite stupid, like "Alas, Poor Maling," which is about a civil servant whose stomach rumblings imitate real-world noises. Really.

But there are a few, like "The Destructors," that can safely be placed among his best work:

The End of the Party -- One thing that Greene exhibits in these stories that he doesn't in his novels is a fair ability to write from the perspective of children. I might also have mentioned "The Basement Room" here, which is from the perspective of a child trying to understand the bitter marriage of his caretaker, but there is something grimly absurd about "The End of the Party": Two identical twins are invited to a birthday party, which fills one of them with fear because at this girl's party every year they are forced to play hide-and-seek, and he is deathly afraid of the dark. His cooler-headed brother tries to figure out a way to get out of it, but the other descends slowly into a hysteria that seems like it might afflict one of Greene's adult characters.

A Visit to Morin -- This one isn't quite as good as the others here--too much of it is a single, long conversation--but I think that it provides a key to understanding something of Greene's own mind that few of his novels permit. M. Morin is, like Greene, a writer well-known for being a Catholic, though an idiosyncratic one. When the narrator meets him, he is a recluse who has turned away from belief, his spirit destroyed by his fellow believers:

He said, 'A man can accept anything to do with God until scholars begin to go into the details and the implications. A man can accept the Trinity, but the arguments that follow...' He gave a gesture of rejection. 'I would never try to determine some point in differential calculus with a two-times-two table. You end by disbelieving the calculus.

English Catholics are a minority, unlike their Continental counterparts, and Greene tended to compound that outsider identity by focusing on characters who were non-believers. I think that M. Morin gives us a glimpse into what I would call a cherished loneliness, Greene's unwillingness to identify with the faith that his work obsesses over.

May We Borrow Your Husband? -- This one might have left Greene open to charges of homophobia--as rightly it would have in a lesser author--but Greene is a deft creator of characters and the story succeeds because the predatory homosexual couple in it are so strongly themselves, and not of a type. The narrator is a loner staying at a seaside resort in Antibes who falls in love with a beautiful woman honeymooning there. The couple, Tony and Stephen, discern that the woman's new husband harbors a repressed homosexuality, and hatch a plan to seduce him. This is an act of unparalleled awfulness, but the story is really about the narrator's inability to do anything to stop it or help the woman. He can't prevent it without dragging the unspoken into the open air, and unable to do anything constructive he most choose the least destructive of destructive paths: Stay silent.

Under the Garden -- I have left this one for last because it is the best. It is one of the finest short stories I have ever read, and to be honest it is not much in Greene's mode at all. This makes it a greater achievement still, because Greene really has a very narrow set of hallmarks that he rarely steps outside of in his longer fiction.

It is a flashback story, nested in a frame in which the protagonist, Wilditch, is informed that he is dying of cancer. He wants to go back and see his childhood home, where his brother now lives. It's a difficult decision, but it is predicated on one of those transcendent sentences that Greene keeps in his back pocket to remind you that he is capable of them:

Why then go back now and see it in other hands? Was it that at the approach of death one must get rid of everything? ...He had the will to possess at that absolute moment nothing but his wound.

There he discovers a story that he had written as a child called "The Treasure on the Island." The island is a small one in a small lake which is part of the old estate; in the story it is much bigger and a young boy there finds a secret treasure.

The story is poor and Wilditch dislikes having written it, not because it is childish but because it bears no likeness to his memory of what actually happened on the island. In the actual story, as he now recounts, Wilditch discovered a cave upon the island that led to a massive underground captain. An old one-legged man named Javitt resides there with his wife Maria. Javitt claims to be hundreds of years old and possess a great treasure; Maria can only say, "kwahk." Javitt attempts to keep Wilditch in the cavern as some sort of heir, instructing him in all sorts of complex nonsense:

'You are a bit scared still of Maria and me because you've never seen anyone like us before. And you'd be scared to see our daughter too, there's no other like her in whatever country she's in now, and what good would a scared man be to her? Do you know what a rogue-plant is? And do you know that white cats with blue eyes are deaf? People who keep nursery-gardens look around all the time at the seedlings and they throw away any oddities like weeds. They call them rogues. You won't find many white cats with blue eyes and that's the reason. But sometimes you find someone who wants things different, who's tired of all the plus signs and wants to find zero, and he starts breeding away with the differences. Maria and I are both rogues and we are born of generations of rogues. Do you think I lost this leg in an accident? I was born that way just like Maria with her squawk. Generations of us uglier and uglier, and suddenly out of Maria comes our daughter, who's Miss Ramsgate to you. I don't speak her name even when I'm asleep. We're unique like the Red Grouse. You ask anybody if they can tell you where the Red Grouse came from.'

This is sustained absurdism, and I wouldn't have thought Greene capable of it. Like the best nonsense, it expresses somethings amid the nothings but provides few clues to determine which is which. Is it madness to be "tired of all the plus signs and want... to find zero," or is it wisdom?

Surely this story cannot be true, so why is it so embarrassing to the adult Wilditch that he wrote down a different story entirely? We are asked to differentiate between false fictions and true fictions, to understand that "The Treasure on the Island" is an outright lie and the story of Javitt something near to truth. The child Wilditch reduced his experience in Javitt's cave to something he could understand, but in understanding it he deprived himself of its most immediate qualities. Is the story of Javitt a religious one, a truth beyond truths? Have we reduced God to a poor story because we have been too frightened of truth's strangeness, its refusal to bend to reason and understanding? In the end, what seems irrefutable is that Wilditch has found something to hold on to, to possess at that absolute moment other than his wound.

These are just a few; I have left out probably a half-dozen great stories and another handful of very good ones. Also compiled here are the first twenty pages of an abandoned novel and a brief treatment of a musical Greene wanted to write about criminals who kidnap a bunch of bishops and take their places. You could argue that it's a shame that Greene never really got the chance to show his versatility, or you could argue that he was a man who knew what he was best at. In either case, this is worth picking up for "Under the Garden" alone.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

This sounds really good. I got an odds and sods collection by Greene once, and most of the stories weren't so great. Several of thee sound really interesting though.