Manners and Mysticism
Ugly is a word appearing quite often in Graham Greene's short stories, whether as a judgement of a face, a room or a situation. However it is also a word that can seem like a short-hand description of these very things, as if the term were loaded with an assumption that Greene's semi-pulp writing doesn't quite distinguish. Raymond Williams is an especially harsh critic of the writer's use of language, but James Wood is happy to add some remarks too. In a chapter in Reading and Criticism Williams looks at a few passages of prose from Meredith, Joyce, Greene and others, noticing in Greene's a prose style much less searching than in Joyce, even if not as purple as Meredith's. In Greene's work Williams reckons what "has lapsed here is the fundamental faculty, of definition and communication. These achievements have been replaced by a mechanical recitation of atmosphere which is intended to excite the reader into acquiescence." Wood (in How Fiction Works) chooses to discuss Greene's lazy 'reference code', "in which the author makes confident generalisations, something nineteenth century novelists do a great deal", but which as a mid-twentieth century novelist Greene should have escaped from.
The reference code involves using language which allows numerous presuppositions to sit behind the words without feeling very obliged to unpack them. The passage Williams quotes includes "There lay the horror and the fascination. One escaped surreptitiously for an hour at a time; unknown to frontier guards one stood on the wrong side of the border looking back - one should have been listening to Mendelssohn, but instead one heard the rabbit restlessly cropping near the croquet hoops." "And so faith came to one - shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way. One began to believe in heaven because one began to believe in hell..." "...the sooty newspaper office where one worked at night, passing the single professional prostitute trying to keep the circulation going under the blue and powdered skin..." These are lines from Greene's travel book The Lawless Way, but Williams says "I will risk saying that the method of the passage quoted...is the basic method of all his writings, by which he stands, or (in my view) falls." We do not find it difficult to encounter similar passages in the short stories, as well as novels like A Burnt-Out Case and The End of the Affair.
But it is to the short stories that we want to pay attention, and while we may share Williams and Wood's reservations about the language, we can look at it within a broader sense of not so much failure as limitation. In the passage Williams dismisses there are precise images (like that of the prostitute), but they are intermingled with abstractions we could describe as ontologically lazy at the same time as they remove the immediacy of description. In an essay on Somerset Maugham that could partly describe his own work. Greene says: "an author of talent is his own best critic - the ability to criticize his own work is inseparably bound up with his talent: it is his talent, and Maugham defines his limitations perfectly: 'I knew I had no lyrical quality. I had a small vocabulary and no efforts that I could make to enlarge it much availed me. I had little gift of metaphor; the original and striking simile seldom occurred to me....'" (Collected Essays) Maugham seemed unequivocally a writer of the past living in the present, and the influence of Maupassant on Maugham rarely goes unmentioned. Few fail to enjoy the simple storytelling craft in Maugham's tales, but even fewer are inclined to view him as a writer of any importance beyond basic craft. He is one of those figures every writer can learn from and every reader enjoy, but whose influence for a writer is easily absorbed and whose pleasure for readers, with a few exceptions, can be quickly forgotten.
Yet Greene is more ambitious, more than happy to pepper his work with metaphors and similes, and salt it with spiritual wounds. "All that a poor man could get was lust. Love needed a good suit, a car, a flat somewhere, or a good hotel. It needed to be wrapped in cellophane." ('A Little Place off the Edgware Road') "He looked sideways at her; he had always been open to any suggestion: like some meteorological instrument, he was only made for winds to blow through." ('A Drive in the Country') "Pigeons like old grey tennis balls." ('Two Gentle People') The spiritual side is usually more present in the novels than the stories, with the narrator in The End of the Affair saying: "The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God, and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity of the love we feel for a woman...What do I know of phrases like 'the dark night' or of prayer..." A passage of dialogue from A Burnt-Out Case goes: "And your heart isn't in your wife either. You made that clear to me the first time we met. You wanted someone to save you from St Paul's threat of burning." The New Statesman said after the End of the Affair came out that it would be the last book by Greene that could be understood by a layman.
Yet even if the stories are less religiously inclined, religion hangs over a number of them. 'The Basement Room' ends as if with a final confession. The story follows the young boy Philip Lane and his friendship with the butler Baines, Baines' difficult relationship with his wife, and Baines' love affair with Emmy. At the denouement, Philip can't keep the various adult secrets in his head, and when the police come round after Mrs Baines dies accidentally, Philip babbles on about where she is and implies that the death was all Emmy's fault, and thus Baines's. Baines sees that Philip is only a boy, "it had been hopeless to expect help there; he was a child; he didn't understand what it all meant." At the very end of the story we've jumped sixty years and into the mind of a dying man fretting over his past actions. Philip startles his secretary as he says "'Who is she? Who is she?' dropping lower and lower into death, passing on the way perhaps the image of Baines: Baines hopeless, Baines letting his head drop, Baines 'coming clean'." The old man remembers himself as the young boy who had helped find an innocent man guilty, and feels the full weight of this guilt on his dying day, a guilt we can suppose was hardly absent in the intervening years. He is like a man seeking absolution, offering a final confession before he dies.
In 'The Hint of an Explanation', God is more directly invoked, as the narrator discusses the Deity with a passenger on the train. The narrator informs us that "I have a certain intuition (which I do not trust, founded as it may well be on childish experiences and needs) that a God exists, and I am surprised occasionally into belief by the extraordinary coincidences that beset our path like the traps set for leopards in the jungle, but intellectually I am revolted by the whole notion of such a God who can so abandon his creatures to the enormities of free will." Yet here he is sitting with a believer, David, a man who tells him a story from his childhood where an ugly social outcast, a baker in his hometown, tries to persuade him to get a consecrated wafer from Mass and in return would give David a train set. David is tempted by the offer of a train set, and terrified by this man Blacker's threats to bleed him with a cut-throat razor. Yet though it can seem like a minor misdemeanour, David can see in it a crime of great magnitude: "...the enormity of my act began to come home to me when I tried to imagine what punishment I should incur. Murder is sufficiently trivial to have its appropriate punishment, but for this act the mind boggled at the thought of any retribution at all." Near the end of the story David refuses to hand the wafer over and swallows it instead: as if he had resisted the temptations of the devil. The story concludes with the narrator musing over what David meant by a hint of an explanation, and then sees it in a glimpse into David's bag as he notices "the collar of a priest." The narrator then says, "'I suppose you think you owe a lot to Blacker.' 'Yes', he said, 'You see, I am a very happy man.'"
If we believe 'The Hint of an Explanation' is one of Greene's best stories, it rests in combining elements of Maugham's tale with an ongoing religious fascination, couched in language that allows not for theological hyperbole evident in the passages Williams quotes, and that we find in The End of the Affair and A Burnt-Out Case, but that moves towards a spiritual litotes. The story finds religious purpose out of a small event and justifies the beliefs of David without denying the personal doubts of the narrator. It is a David and Goliath story writ small, with the narrator forcefully doubting God's existence, and David offering an argument that subtly floors the other man's position without being much of an argument at all. He tells simply a story about his own personal belief, and couches it less in relation to God's power than the contrast between a negative human presence, and religious traces. Greene throughout emphasises the religious ceremonies associated with Catholicism: the communion, Consecration, the Confession, the last Sacrament, The Host. These are all ceremonies invoking God that would perhaps have little significance were it not for the tangible evil that presents itself to David in the form of Blacker. David resists what he sees as evil, and thus in his resistance finds himself on the side of good and God. Would he have been able to resist without the possibility of a higher being? Perhaps not. This doesn't mean the narrator has to make the leap into sharing David's belief in God, but it does mean he must respect the happiness and faith of someone else. Where at the beginning of the story the narrator says he is open to conviction, then this is exactly what David offers. This is not the same as being open to persuasion, since the point of David's tale is not to insist that the narrator believes in God, but to illustrate the reason why David happens to do so. Greene absorbs any religious abstractions into the immediacy of form and the plausible justification of one man's belief system. It respects what Greene so admires in Maugham's best stories: "the anecdote to Maugham is very nearly everything; the anecdote, and not the characters, not the 'atmosphere', not the style, is primarily responsible for conveying Maugham's attitude". (Collected Essays)
The language in the story escapes Williams' and Wood's admonitions also. It foregoes metaphysical bluster for narrative immediacy, and while we don't want to propose this eschewal of one for the particularities of the other as a given principle, it is useful when approaching Greene's work. There are other writers interested in the spiritual who constantly forego the story for the questions surrounding it, but where Dostoevsky for example can see distinctly into his characters' being, Greene seems a more psychologically and linguistically pragmatic writer. When he moves towards abstraction he arrives at a litany of lazy terms: as Williams says, "because such words as heaven, hell, evil, prayer, faith are frequently used there is an impression of important experience...its very texture is the limitation of consciousness." Where Dostoevsky's writing expands consciousness (Hemingway's claim in A Moveable Feast that Dostoevsky changes you as you read him), Greene's surely doesn't, and thus he is at his best staying close to the anecdotal.
Another good example of this anecdotal approach is 'The Case for the Defence': "the strangest murder trial I ever attended." It appeared the defence had no case at all: "No, this murderer was all but found with the body: no one present when the Crown counsel outlined his case believed that the man in the dock stood any chance at all." As the main witness is brought out the narrator refers to Mrs Salmon as the ideal witness, "with her slight Scotch accent and her expression of honest, care and kindness." She looks at the accused and has no doubt that she is looking at the murderer: she had seen him come out of the house wearing gloves and with a hammer in his hand. Yet when the counsel asks someone in the court to stand up, a man who looks identical to the one in the dock gets to his feet. Can she still be so sure she has the right man? The accused is acquitted on lack of evidence, but the "extraordinary day had an extraordinary end". Leaving by the front entrance one of the twins goes under the wheels of a bus, and the narrator says the other twin gets to his feet, crying. The story concludes without the narrator or anyone else knowing whether it was the innocent or the guilty that died. Was it divine intervention or devilish mischief; was it happenstance that had no need of religious interpretation? Greene leaves the story open, and the anecdote expands into metaphysical speculation without at all insisting upon it.
In each story Greene allows his interest in the theological to remain personal in the first instance and ambiguous in the second. If the first offers conviction, the second indicates we can take it anyway we wish. They might seem minor stories, but they resolve the problem of the assertively theological quite well, and perhaps better than in the novels where the religious is more forcefully present. They also both possess a metaphysical echo, and perhaps the danger for Greene is between fiction that makes the spiritual too manifest, and the tale that doesn't quite find a theme that can reverberate beyond the page. In both these stories we feel the balance is well caught.
An example of a perfectly acceptable story which nevertheless fails to offer this resonance is 'Two Gentle People'. A couple meet on a bench in Park Monceau in the 17th arrondissement in Paris, a wealthy district often perceived as a quite stultifying part of the city. They are both middle-aged and neither is inclined to cherish, we are told, an illusion of possessing a lost youth. He is described as better looking than he would have believed, and she was prettier than the mirror ever told her. Greene sets them up as a modest pair, and the man with his sensitive features, and the woman with her long and lovely yet unsensual legs, slowly assume a familiarity with each other after the man goes over and strangles a pigeon: it was left badly wounded by two passing teenagers when one of them gave it a kick.
The story develops as a tale of emotional understatement as Henry and Marie-Claire have a more meaningful moment than they may have had in years, but where the reticence of their personalities, the lack of self-belief in their attractiveness, and their sense of obligation to their partners, indicate that they will feel that even sharing a meal together later that evening flirts with the shameful. Their moral compass will navigate them back to their spouses no matter how unworthy of their devotion the respective wife and husband may be. It is a story of stunted lives contained by constrained sensibilities, and yet in characters for whom disclosure is rare, much of the frisson in their discussion is carried by "a strong current of revelation". The revelations are hardly revelatory: "He learned how she always bought her cheeses in the Place de la Madeleine...he on the other hand bought his cheeses in the Rue de Tocqueville, only round the corner from his apartment." The emotional high point of expressing their feelings comes when she says, "I suppose one is always sorry to have missed something" and he replies: "I'm glad I did not miss the Parc Monceau today". She says: "Yes, I am glad too." The story ends with them going back to their respective homes, and the narrator making clear that Marie-Claire's husband is given to homosexual encounters paradoxically behind her back and in front of her eyes: usually there is a man in the house but he would wait for her to return before anything happened. "If he had heard her come in her husband would soon proceed to action: it excited him to know that she was a witness." Henry returns to a jealous wife who says: "I can smell a woman off you", as the story sketches in the details of Marie-Claire and Henry's existence that leaves each of them similarly placed yet emotionally distinct. Marie-Claire's is one of acceptance within the explicit. She is no sexual innocent, even if it is chiefly because of the perverse pleasures of her husband's life. Henry's appears more straitened: the narrator mentions the table between the twin beds. The two gentle people we might surmise live more or less celibate lives in very different circumstances, but they are dispositionally unable to do much about it. The story ends with Henry telling his wife that "I was only thinking that things might have been very different". The narrator concludes: "It was the biggest protest he had ever allowed himself to make against the condition of life."
Greene's is a fine enough story of understatement contained within yet again a certain type of ugliness, and yet it lacks the resonance of 'A Hint of an Explanation' and 'The Case for the Defence'. The word ugly is used in the story to help explain Henry's appearance, but not as a physical description, more as one capturing Henry's manner and demeanour that is antithetical to such ugliness. "He has what are called sensitive features, and the clich fitted him; his face was comfortable, though handsomely banal - there would be no ugly surprises when he spoke." Though the point of view is neutral here, we might wonder whether it is a reflection of Marie-Claire's perception of him, with the reader finding out at the end of her story that her husband is surely capable of ugly surprises when he speaks, a person who suggests in the sketch we have of him that he possesses none of Henry's discretion. When Marie-Claire returns to the apartment an "abstract painting in cruel tones of scarlet and yellow faced the door and treated her like a stranger", while in the living-room there is a "a little stone phallus with painted eyes that had a place of honour." As she can hear her husband's voice through the wall, we recognize a man of broad appetites and loud presence. He is another of Greene's perverts capable of ugly behaviour against the world's more sensitive.
Perhaps it is through religion that we protect ourselves from this ugliness in its various manifestations, or, if not, through manners. In 'Two Gentle People' it is obviously the latter. Marie-Claire "had been 'finished' at an English school at Margate", and other Greene characters also share a punctilious approach to life that suggests less the holy than the well-mannered. 'Jubilee' opens with Mr Chalfont ironing his trousers and his tie. "Then he folded up his ironing board and put it away. He was tall and had preserved his figure". Much of the description that covers Henry describes Mr Chalfont too. Craven in 'A Little Place Off the Edgware Road', though, is more the opposite, with neither religion nor manners protecting him: he someone who was "aware of the stringy tie beneath the mackintosh, and the frayed sleeves." Emmy in' The Basement Room' is barely described, but when the young, wealthy central character Philip notices "she was thin and drawn, and she wore a white mackintosh", the narrator adds, "she belonged to a world of which he knew nothing." This is the world that will collapse near the end of the story as Phillip feels forced to confront that milieu and implicate Emmy and Baines in a crime they didn't commit, as if it weren't only the grown-up world he has to confront, but also a socio-economic one very different from his own as well. A little earlier in the story the constable says to him: "You're a gentleman; you must come in the proper way through the front door like the master should." Baines hasn't only contaminated him with adult life, but also illustrated the seedy differences in class. Manners can no longer quite protect him, and at the end of the story, many years later, it is as if he might be inclined to call on a higher being to do so after a lifetime of guilt.
Are manners and mysticism the two poles of Graham Greene's work here? "God's grace, in Catholic teaching, is unknowable, unpredictable, mysterious," J. M. Coetzee says in an essay on Greene in Inner Workings. "To rely on it for salvation - to postpone repentance until the moment between stirrup and the ground - is a deep sin, a sin of pride and presumption. One of Greene's achievements in Brighton Rock is to raise his unlikely lovers, teenage hoodlum and anxious bride, to moments of comical yet awful Luciferian pride." Without manners this couple strangely but almost blasphemously hint at the mystical. In Greene's own essays, he includes several articles on that impeccable master of manners Henry James, as well as pieces on religious writers Francois Mauriac and Georges Bernanos, and in his own fiction combines the influence of manners and mysticism evident in these other writers' work. If he admires in James "the fully conscious craftsman", someone whose "technical qualities...have been so often and so satisfactorily explored", he is finally more interested still in concentrating on James' moral and spiritual side, saying "no writer has left a series of novels more of a moral piece". (Collected Essays) He also sees in James someone with an ongoing fascination with treachery that is nevertheless "saved from the deepest cynicism by the religious sense." In Bernanos and Mauriac this religious sense is unequivocal as Greene notices in the former instance work that is "full of faults" but "where literature only exists for him as a means to an end: sanctification," and in the latter comments on Mauriac's prose by saying: "if Pascal had been a novelist, we feel, this is the method and the tone he would have used." (Collected Essays)
Greene is interested in the technical brilliance of James, the increasing technical efficiency of Mauriac that he sees lacking in Bernanos, but finally what he responds to in all three writers is their religious inclinations. Greene even goes so far as to say in the Mauriac piece that "after the death of Henry James a disaster overtook the English novel...for with the death of James the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the importance of the human act." Thus manners might be all very well, but unless there is a purpose beyond, they remain in Greene's take flimsily undernourished. They are characters on a diet of behaviour and psychology, but lacking the raw protein of spiritual sustenance. Would he accept that by his own critical standards 'A Case for the Defence' and 'The Hint of an Explanation' are subsequently better stories than 'Two Gentle People', while we believe that these religiously inclined stories are more effective than some of the novels because of the spiritual litotes rather than hyperbole we discussed earlier? Greene needs the religious but it works best when practised with ambiguity or with personal investment combined with the anecdotal. When it becomes too freighted it starts to possess a lazy reference code, however involved.
Now perhaps one reason why the word ugly proves so important for Greene is that it suggests neither manners nor mystery. "The tears of longing came into my eyes when I looked at the [train set] turntable. It was my favourite piece - it looked so ugly and practical and true." ('The Hint of an Explanation') "He bore, as his only sentiment, the memory of ugly deeds committed on park chairs." ('A Little Place off the Edgware Road') "'ugly women in brassieres,' she said." (The Blue Film) "Yes, an ugly customer, one you wouldn't forget in a hurry." ('The Case for the Defence') Ugliness becomes manifest when manners and especially mysticism are absent. Marie-Claire and Henry in 'Two Gentle People' are devoid of the wherewithal to act even if they have the decency to react when the pigeon is kicked by a young thug. They know what appropriate behaviour looks like, but they don't know how to instigate necessary action in their own existence. They both appear to be leading ugly little lives of their own: Marie-Claire conforms to her husband's odd desires; Henry can't stand up to his wife's hen-pecking. Marie-Claire's husband wants her to watch sexual acts; Henry is harassed by a jealous wife accusing him of sleeping with other women. Marie-Claire and Henry both possess impeccable manners, but they lack the capacity to change their lives, as if they themselves were lacking the importance of the human act as Greene proposes it. Their manners are absurd and yet no theological dimension here can save them or damn them. They will continue living their ugly lives, even if there is little that is ugly, morally or physically, about the characters themselves.
In 'The Blue Film' the world is seedier still. Here a long married couple watch some old, dirty movies in a stuffy room and, during the second, the male star of the pornographic show happens to be the husband: "Good God", his wife says, "it's you." It was me," the husband, Carter, replies, as he reminisces briefly to himself when they get home about why he did it. In bed his wife becomes much more passionate than usual, saying, "it's years since that happened." Greene offers a cumbersome coincidence here as the husband's past comes back to haunt him as celluloid offering, but the story ends perversely and ambiguously. After sex with his wife, "Carter lay in the dark silent, with a feeling of loneliness and guilt. It seemed to him that he had betrayed that night the only woman he loved." The blue movie wasn't a moment of youthful error, but one of great feeling and fidelity. The ugliness lies in sex with his spouse; not in the film he has made.
Ugliness exists where spirit is absent and gesture is debilitated. Carter lies in bed at the end of 'The Blue Film' just as Henry sits on his wife's bed in 'Two Gentle People', but while in the former they have just had torrid sex and in the latter no sex at all, the result is the same: the men lost in their own thoughts to the detriment of the women in whose company they happen to be in. The stories have ugly endings in the sense that both men cannot communicate with their wives.
However, thinking again of Williams' and Wood's remarks, has Greene quite communicated with us; does his writing possess what Williams so admires in Joyce's work? Williams notices that a description from 'The Dead' shows "the writing is tense with the effort of definition", while he sees in Greene's, writing "near impressionism - a spiritual rapportage - [that] is rooted in the same sentimentality as more obviously romantic writing." If 'The Hint of an Explanation' and 'The Case for the Defence' are amongst Greene's best short stories, it rests on their anecdotal modesty allied to their ironic ambiguity. They manage to take a story which could be told over a drink and indicate that these accounts possess a dimension of the holy that needs no exclamatory language to offer spiritual possibilities. If we come away from perfectly acceptable tales like 'Two Gentle People', 'A Blue Film', 'The Basement Room' and some of the others with a feeling that the ugliness presented keeps hinting at a broader mysticism than the stories quite earn, then in 'The Hint of an Explanation' and 'The Case for the Defence', the simple manner in which Greene explores religious ritual in the former and legal detail in the latter makes the language more precise. Here, in these instances, the manners of language lead to a mysticism beyond it.
© Tony McKibbin