Sunday, September 7, 2008

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Though Graham Greene is known best for his books which take place in exotic locales--the scorched earth of Mexico, the jungles of Africa--here is a book which is so fundamentally British that the American reader cannot make sense of it without the notes at the end. First, there is the tradition that British newspapers had of sponsoring "treasure hunts" at seaside resorts, in which a certain reporter (with published photograph) places cards around town that are worth ten shillings if returned, and an even bigger prize awaiting those who find and confront him directly. Second, there is the explanation of the term "Brighton rock"--which actually refers to a long, hard stick of candy sold at seaside resort towns, in which the name of the town is etched all the way through the candy so that it appears on the end no matter where you bite it. The former provides the basis for the plot; the latter provides the basis for the theme.

The book opens on Hale, who is said reporter, on the beat in Brighton, but as the book's first line reports, "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him." Hale, it seems, had some part in organizing the assassination of a Brighton gang leader named Kite at the behest of another gang.

But this is not Hale's story; true to his word, he is dead within a few pages. The true protagonist is his murderer, a boy named Pinkie who has assumed authority of Kite's gang. Pinkie has the misfortune of learning that moments before his murder, Hale--who, like Pinkie, operates in a state of severe and perpetual loneliness--made a local friend named Ida Arnold, who becomes suspicious when she finds out about Hale's death. Suddenly, Pinkie is supremely aware of the witnesses that could damn him: Spicer, the gangster whom Pinkie charged with distributing the newspaper cards after Hale's death to provide their alibi, and Rose, a young waitress who saw Spicer--and not Hale--leave one of the cards at her restaurant.

Greene has a uniquely bifurcated corpus of work. Brighton Rock is usually grouped with his "Catholic novels," along with The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, but also a series of mystery and espionage novels such as The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana. Most of Brighton Rock reads like the latter, as Ida and Pinkie play a sort of cat-and-mouse game regarding Hale's murder that involves gang warfare and internecine violence.

But the book's final third is it's strongest, in which the focus falls almost completely away from Ida and onto Pinkie, who has charmed Rose into falling in love with him and, to his disgust, offered to marry her so that she might not be able to testify against him. It is here that the themes which lurk under the surface of the novel's bulk bubble up into the air. As much as Pinkie despises Rose, they share a similar outlook as self-identified "Romans," or Catholics. To Pinkie, who even Rose admits is explicitly evil, there is nothing so disgusting as a woman like Ida, who cannot be reduced to either good or evil because she is not Catholic. Greene presents us with axes of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong that do not coincide; Pinkie thinks that he must be right to be a Catholic but he has thrown his hat in with evil because it is a much realer presence to him than good. There is a shade of Gnosticism to this novel; what Pinkie and Rose value is the knowledge of God but not the adherence to His will. And what are we to make of a sympathetic character like Rose anyway, who damns herself willingly out of love? Here is a passage:

'I know one thing you don't[,' said Ida]. I know the difference between Right and Wrong. They didn't teach you that at school.'

Rose didn't answer; the woman was quite right: the two words mean nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stronger foods Good and Evil. The woman could tell her nothing she didn't know about these she knew by tests as clear as mathematics that Pinkie was evil what did it matter in that case whether he was right or wrong?

As in The Power and the Glory, Greene shows that he understands the complex question of religious ethics better than anyone. If we are to choose between the benign non-religiosity of Ida and the willful evil of Pinkie's religion, what must we choose? I do not think that Greene stoops so low as to answer this question, but in the epilogue of Rose's confession, he writes that a priest says to her, "a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone. I think perhaps -- because we believe in Him -- we are more in touch with the devil than other people." How refreshing to read Greene in this day and age, when so many use their religious persuasions as a synonym for their moral character!

Brent has told me that he began Brighton Rock but that it could not capture his interest. I will second his assertion that it is a book that begins slowly--but I felt the same way about The Power and the Glory as well. But of course it stands to reason that before we can plumb the depths of man's capability for evil, we must spend some time understanding what he appears to be on the surface. Greene paints Brighton in gaudy, pastel colors, the colors of candy. But while there is an innocence to the Londoners who visit Brighton in the summer, the locals, like Pinkie, seem fraught with the disease of sin and evil. In the final chapters we see Pinkie and Rose take a trip to local Peacehaven, where Pinkie is planning to commit one of the most gruesome acts I can think of from a literary villain, and we are asked to wonder, at what point did we leave behind that innocent, whimiscal town? But herein lies the significance of the title: No matter how far you bite down, it's still Brighton. This, I believe, is a reminder that no matter how deeply you look into Pinkie's soul to find some reassurance that he is a monster made by God from some foreign mold, he is as thoroughly and corruptibly human as we.


Brooke said...

Every time I read one of your book reviews my vocabulary gets bigger because I have to something.

Nihil Novum said...

I'm going to read this soon, probably not until after End of the Affair though.

Carlton said...

Very nice review, Chris.
I especially liked your observation: "..he has thrown his hat in with evil because it is a much realer presence to him than good."

Oshtorombha said...

Liked your book review. It was sorta helpful because I had an objective test on Brighton Rock and although I wouldn't attempt it, I wanted to know something about the plot. Just thought I'd say thanks!

Anonymous said...

i am going to read Brighton rock in my Alevel class would you have and good parts for me to really analyse.

Davey Morrison said...

Tremendous review. I just finished reading it today and was pretty astounded--I'm writing a paper on it for class, and now I'm not sure what to write; you seem to have summed up my thoughts here better than I ever could have.