Grahame Greene and Iris Murdoch
Two of my favourite novelists are Grahame Greene and Iris Murdoch. They are very different but they have in common an ability to imagine and communicate complete worlds to their readers, where their obsessions, their remarkable casts of characters, their off-centre, morally dubious views of human nature are dissected and offered up. Their respective worlds are built up over the whole of their published works. Once you start reading their novels you are drawn further and further in to their dark, dangerous, but often very funny human dramas. I recommend that their books be read if possible in the order they were published, as over time they progress deeper and deeper, darker and darker into the hidden corners of what it means to be a functioning human being with a sense of right and wrong.
Grahame Greene was a complicated man. He was an agnostic who converted to Catholicism at the age of 22, mainly to get closer to the very devote Catholic woman he wanted to marry. He was however, a determined womaniser, who frequented prostitutes and made no attempt to hide the fact. He walked out on his wife and two children in 1947 saying that he had “a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life." He smoked opium in vast quantities on his many visits to South East Asia and he remained a lifelong friend of and apologist for the spy Kim Philby, who had been his boss in MI6.
Two descriptive epithets are very often applied to Greene. Firstly that he was a Catholic novelist. But Greene claimed no special relationship with his readers on the grounds of his religion. He argued that he was a writer who happened to be a Catholic rather than a Catholic novelist. But many of his novels do indeed tackle subjects through a distinctly Catholic doctrinal microscope. This is most clearly seen, I think, in Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory.
All take us on uncomfortable journeys through some very dark places. Loss of faith, sin, confession, forgiveness and redemption are all around us in these books – colouring every act or failure to act on the part of the characters. Here, in The Power and the Glory
a priest is on the run from the revolutionary army in Mexico, intent upon ridding the country of these representatives of a too-powerful church. He returns to the village he had lived and worked in. He is met with suspicion and fear by the villagers but his former housekeeper gives him shelter, showing him into her simple dwelling.
I have saved a little brandy for you.’
He thought: if I go, I shall meet other priests: I shall go to confession: I shall feel contrition and be forgiven: eternal life will begin for me all over again. The Church taught that it was every man’s first duty to save his own soul. The simple ideas of hell and heaven moved in his brain; life without books, without contact with educated men, had peeled away from his memory everything but the simplest outline of the mystery.
If he left them, they would be safe and they would be free from his example. He was the only priest the children could remember: it was from him they would take their ideas of the faith. But it was from him too they took God – in their mouths. When he was gone it would be as if God, in all this space between the sea and the mountains ceased to exist. Wasn’t it his duty to stay even if they despised him, even if they were murdered for his sake? Even if they were corrupted by his example? He was shaken with the enormity of the problem. He lay with his hands over his eyes; nowhere in all the wide flat marshy land was there a single person he could consult. He raised the brandy to his mouth.
Secondly Greene was accused of choosing themes and settings for his novels which conformed to a stereotype that the critics called “Greeneland”. He also argued strongly against this. This is from the second volume of Greene’s autobiography, entitled Ways of Escape. A book which includes a lie or an evasion or a serious omission on almost every page. (Norman Sherry’s biography is however, excellent).
Some critics have referred to a strange violent ‘seedy’ region of the mind (why did I ever popularise that adjective?) which they call Greeneland, and I have sometimes wondered whether they go around the world blinkered. “This is Indo-China!” I want to exclaim, “this is Mexico, this is Sierra Leone carefully and accurately described. I have been a newspaper correspondent as well as a novelist. I assure you that the dead child lay in the ditch in just that attitude. In the canal of Phat Diem the bodies stuck out of the water…”. But I know that argument is useless. They know the world they haven’t noticed is like that.
On the physical level, and in his own words, Greene’s world is “the wild and dangerous regions of the World” while on the psychological, emotional, moral level it is a world of sin, betrayal and moral collapse. Doesn’t sound much fun does it?
Anyone familiar with Greene’s writing will know however that alongside his dark and despairing works, he wrote what he called “Entertainments”. He wrote them solely to make money when he needed more of it than he had available. These are much lighter in tone but because of their plots, characters or settings, they still occupy a little, morally dubious corner of Greeneland. Who can forget Monsignor Quixote’s visit to the Madrid brothel in the company of the communist mayor of El Toboso? I’ll finish with Greene with a brief scene from a collection of short stories written between 1957 and1967. From the paperback publisher’s blurb describing the collection on the back cover, you’ll get a sense of Greene’s versatility as a story-telling entertainer.
Affairs, obsessions, grand passions and tiny ardours….
Famous Author William Harris is spending the fag end of the season at Antibes finishing his first attempt at historical biography, but he becomes more interested and involved in the antics of two homosexual interior decorators intent on stealing Poopy Travis’s honeymoon husband. Which leaves him free to fall in love with Poopy himself.
A widow and a divorcee tipsily discuss the inadequacy of men in general and their husbands in particular, deciding that women have much more to offer each other by way of variety in sexual love.
A wife holidays alone in Jamaica’s cheap season idly hoping for excitement but finding the only man she can have an affair with is far too old and frightened of the dark.
These are the opening lines of another story from the collection entitled A Shocking Accident.
Jerome was called into his housemaster’s room in the break between the second and third class on a Thursday morning. He had no fear of trouble. The housemaster, Mr Wordsworth sat behind his desk with an appearance of perplexity and apprehension. Jerome had the odd impression when he entered that he was the cause of fear.
‘Sit down Jerome’, Mr Wordsworth said. ‘All going well with the trigonometry?’
I’ve had a telephone call Jerome, from your aunt. I’m afraid I have bad news for you’.
‘Your father has had an accident.’
Mr Wordsworth looked at him with some surprise. ‘A serious accident.’
Jerome worshipped his father: the verb is exact. As man re-creates God, so Jerome re-created his father – from a restless widowed author into a mysterious adventurer who travelled in far places – Nice, Beirut, Majorca, even the Canaries. The time had arrived around his eight birthday when Jerome believed that his father either ‘ran guns’ or was a member of the British Secret Service. Now it occurred to him that that his father might have been wounded in a “hail of machine gun bullets”.
Mr Wordsworth played with the ruler on his desk. He seemed at a loss to continue. He said. ‘You know your father was in Naples?’
‘Your aunt heard from the hospital today.’
Mr Wordsworth said with desperation ‘It was a street accident’.
‘Yes sir?’ It seemed quite likely to Jerome that they would call it a street accident. The police of course had fired first; his father would not take human life except as a last resort.
‘I’m afraid your father was very seriously hurt indeed.’
‘In fact, Jerome, he died yesterday. Quite without pain.’
‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’
‘I beg your pardon. What did you say Jerome?’
‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’
‘Nobody shot him, Jerome. A pig fell on him.’ An inexplicable convulsion took place in the nerves of Mr Wordsworth’s face; it really looked for a moment as though he were going to laugh. He closed his eyes, composed his features and said rapidly as though it were necessary to expel the story as rapidly as possible. ‘Your father was walking along a street in Naples when a pig fell on him. A shocking accident. Apparently in the poorer quarters of Naples they keep pigs on their balconies. This one was on the fifth floor. It had grown too fat. The balcony broke. The pig fell on your father.’
Mr Wordsworth left his desk rapidly and went to the window, turning his back on Jerome. He shook a little with emotion.
Jerome said, ‘What happened to the pig?’
You can tell you’re in the World of Iris Murdoch as soon as you see the characters’ names. There’s always something exotic about them.
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
Montague Small, Blaise Gavender, Edgar Demarnay, Mrs Raines-Bloxham
The Flight from the Enchanter
The Nice and the Good
Amongst these characters there is usually a mysterious, sinister, (frequently very rich but from unexplained sources) hypnotic, manipulative…man. It’s always a man. It is well known that Iris Murdoch’s love life was a pretty riotous business, involving multiple affairs with both men and women. Figures from her colourful emotional life, such as her long-time lover, Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti, (my ‘Angel-Demon” Iris called him) reappear loosely disguised in almost all of her novels.
By her own admission Iris also concedes that
“I wish I could create really different people in my novels, but they are all me.” This would explain why many of the central figures in Murdoch novels are civil servants, just as Iris was during the second World War. We should pause to acknowledge that Iris has a remarkable gift for finding passion, high drama and the darkest recesses of human nature among the grey men in suits who creep up and down the corridors of power in Whitehall.
What else tells us we’re in Murdochland? It is a very real world, real places, carefully and accurately described. Iris always specifies precisely where people live. Familiar settings, such as the London locations she very often uses, are described in unsettling and unfamiliar ways. The North End Road, Earl’s Court, Gloucester Terrace, Lowndes Square: by the end of an Iris novel we are as familiar with the street plan of London as a London taxi driver.
When she wants to complicate the plot a little, she’ll often show us these real places, but only partially seen through thick fog, stultifying summer heat or its freezing wintry opposite. Shehas an obsessive sense of place. There are occasional excursions to the countryside, but there is nothing suburban about Iris. From memory, apart from her book The Unicorn, which is set in rural Ireland, I can only think of one scene, in all of her books, which takes place in a foreign country.
In A Word Child the central character, Hilary Burde decribes his home:
My ‘home’ was a small mean nasty flatlet in Bayswater, in a big square red-brick block in a cul-de-sac. Outside the cul-de-sac was a busy noisy street, beyond that street were some modest dingy shops, beyond the shops was Bayswater tube station (District Line and Inner Circle), beyond that was Queensway tube station (Central Line) beyond that was Bayswater Road, and beyond that was, thank God, the Park.
The strangely named people who inhabit this world and the things they get up to are not realistic or natural at all – they are exaggerated or intensified versions of real people as we would usually recognise them. They are all obsessed with philosophical questions about truth, goodness and evil, in ways that are foreign to most of us. This is predictable enough as Iris was a professional philosopher after all, teaching the subject at Oxford. One of her academic books on philosophy is entitled The Triumph of Good. All Iris’s novels contain characters examining the morality of their actions and asking questions like “what does it mean to be good?” and “what must I do to make things right?” “Does the truth always lead us to the right decisions or actions?” Iris’s characters have an unhealthy obsession with telling the truth, even when disaster follows from the telling of it. For example, there are countless examples of illicit love affairs in her books and almost always they are confessed to by one or both of the lovers, rather than uncovered by some third party.
Here, for example, is a summary of the plot of one of Iris’s early novels, A Severed Head.
Martin Lynch Gibbon has an affair with Georgie
Martin’s wife Antonia has an affair with her psychiatrist Palmer Anderson
Martin’s wife Antonia has an affair with Martin’s brother Alexander
Martin’s brother Alexander has an affair with Georgie
Palmer Anderson has an affair with his half-sister Honor Klein
Martin Lynch-Gibbon has an affair with Honor Klein