Monday, September 05, 2016

Two novels by Graham Greene

On this day of celebrating American workers. I want to talk to you about two fairly short Graham Greene novels, a very serious one, The Quiet American, and a very intentionally comedic one, Our Man in Havana.

To speak just briefly of the second, which was made famous in a film version of the same name starring Alec Guinness in one of his dry and excellent comedies. Greene likes to make fun of spies and especially spies who are spying on spies. His primary target in this novel is the British intelligence network, but he is equally contemptuous of American and Russian intelligence gathering institutions. Guinness plays the role of James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner retailer in Cuba, where the electrical power is so unreliable that selling vacuums is a very questionable enterprise. Wormold’s wife has left him, and he is doing his best to keep up with the rather extravagant tastes of his devoutly Catholic 16 year-old daughter. Almost by accident, he is recruited into the British M16 (into which Greene, himself, was recruited in 1941.) He is paid extra for each new recruit he brings into the fold, and soon is making up names of agents to pad his income. When he senses that his fictitious reports are losing steam with his bosses in London, he hand-draws parts of the atomic vacuum cleaner he sells in his shop, and sends them to his superiors claiming they are drawings of very secret Cuban missile installations going up in the hills outside Havana, though this novel was published in 1958, it may seem prescient given the events of just a few years later. While his network of fictitious recruits continues to grow larger and larger, he is pressed to get actual photographs of the installations. As the comedic elements of the story roll out making Greene’s point that the spy-networks will believe most anything their local sources claim, the reader is treated to more and more of Greene’s skepticism about so-called intelligence gathering.

This is a quick and interesting read, and I would suggest that you read the book before seeing the film version, though both are funny and highly entertaining.

The Quiet American is a much more serious work published in 1955. As is pointed out by almost all commentators, the title itself is a joke. Among the press and diplomatic personnel in Viet Nam during the last days of the French occupation, the claim was that the only quiet American is a dead American. Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in Saigon; he is a heavy drinker and an opium smoker living with a Vietnamese mistress, but in most ways his voice is the moral voice, the voice of sanity in this sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes deadly serious novel. The anti-hero of the novel, Alden Pyle, announces his intention to vie for the affections of Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful but shallow mistress. Greene mentions over and over the innocence of the Americans, especially Pyle. But the meaning of innocence for Greene (and Fowler) is a peculiar one. As Robert Stone says in his introduction to the novel, “To be innocent is to be bumptious and stupid, rude, provincial, inconsiderate: well-intentioned but at the same time conscienceless and murderous.” Pyle is an American CIA agent, who has learned all he knows about foreign countries and foreign policy from books he studied at Harvard. Fowler says that his first instinct was to protect Pyle. “It never occurred to me there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm…He [Pyle] was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance….What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.”

In another section of the book, Fowler says of Pyle, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

Fowler, like Greene, is old and cynical with at best a tenuous grip on life. When he loses his beloved Phuong to Pyle, he gives into the most nihilistic of existential rants, and the bitterness he expresses seems to disclose an equal bitterness in Greene. While the love-triangle in the novel, and the senseless exploits of Pyle are meant to be humorous, there is a dark seriousness that broods over this novel. Rather than telling you more of the story or quoting more passages, let me end by again quoting Stone in the introduction.
…The Quite American’s metaphorical power is undeniable; it carries a weight of truth that America and American readers will have to live with. Greene witnessed the beginning of a terrible mistake, a deadly mistake, the mistake of a great power armed to the teeth attempting to inflict its will in a part of the world to whose language and gestures it was tone deaf.
Graham Greene is one of the finest writers of the 20th century, and these two little novels are excellent examples of the many forms his literature took.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

As I’m sure must be true of many dedicated (perhaps I should say obsessive) readers, when  I find an author I really like, I tend to read up everything of theirs I can find. William Boyd is a reader’s delight not only because he is an excellent writer, but because he has written so much. Today I want to talk to you about one of his most ingenious novels published in 2004, Any Human Heart. He begins with a quote from Henry James, “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”

Boyd proposes to describe what he can of one human heart, that of Logan Mountstuart, by giving the reader a set of intimate journals beginning in 1912 when Logan is six years old, and ending with his death in 1991. What is amazing to me is that while these journals really read as if they are memoirs, the character and the journals are spun out of air. Boyd takes us through nearly the entire century: The School Journal (boarding school), The Oxford Journal, two London Journals, World War II Journal, a New York Journal, an African journal a French journal and several others. The imagination required to create and flesh out this life simply stuns me, and Logan meets many of the writers and artists of the century who then play into the complexity of the story; Boyd has done his homework as he takes his character through a long and complicated life.

The voice of Logan is really established in the School Journal when Logan is seventeen, and that very convincing voice is carried throughout. Not only do we meet Logan, but also his two most important male friends, and their lives are chronicled as well in surprising detail.
We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being… The true journal intime understands this fact and doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyze: I am all these different people—all these different people are me.
The voice established in the boarding school journal is that of a bright but rather arrogant, pedantic and judgmental young man, who, with his similarly arrogant friends, is trying to put up with the boredom of their last years in school, waiting for their real lives to begin. They do this by noting the magnificent acts (or sub-magnificent acts) that each perform. Logan insists, however, that they can’t simply wait for these acts to happen. “It was no good, I said, just waiting for the various categories of manificents to happen—we had to initiate them ourselves.” He proposes to do that by having two of the boys think up tasks for the third that must so far as possible be witnessed and documented by the other two. Against the boarding school tradition of addressing other boys by their surnames,  Peter Scabius, Ben Leeping, and Logan Mountstuart begin to call each other Pete, Ben, and Logan. They decide that Leeping, who is Jewish, has to become a Roman Catholic and has to be considered as fit for the priesthood, Scabius is to seduce an older girl who lives on a farm close to the school, a witnessed kiss to be the ultimate test, and Logan, who has a contempt for all sports and sportsman is set the task of winning school colors for rugby, and must make the first team.

While the schoolboy tricks and dares in the first journal make for humorous reading, it is soon apparent that all three boys are more than supercilious students who are contemptuous of their peers and their teachers, as Boyd begins to explore the depths of their very human hearts.

Logan has a particularly close relationship with his father, who is quite weak and frail even as Logan is growing up, and he dies at a young age.
The day Father was buried my faith, such as it was, went with him into the grave. Shelly was so right: atheism is an absolute necessity; in this world of ours. If we are to survive as individuals we can rely only on those resources provided by our human spirit—appeals to a deity or deities are only a form of pretense. We might as well howl at the moon.
The self-absorption and vanity of the  narrator in this pretend-memoir is presented more baldly than were this a real memoir; even in telling of my worst deeds, I think I would be much less flippant in my self-description, self-evaluation. Although in the prologue we are told there will be no analysis or evaluation, only bare description, we feel Boyd’s analysis and value-judging, as we should. In his depiction of the sexual relations between men and women, especially moneyed men and poor women, he describes the times he is writing about in ways that expose the inequalities, the power issues. Still, there is a privileged class mentality in his male characters, even those Boyd seems to want to like, and want us to like. I suppose what I want to say is that there is not sufficient attention paid to class issues. Intellectual snobbery is also a class issue. He sometimes reads a bit too much like Fitzgerald—interesting stories about the complex inner lives of privileged people.

As amazing as Boyd’s understanding of history and incorporating it into his novels, I’m even more amazed by the difference of content and tone from novel to novel. Yesterday, I finished his Brazzaville Beach which has to do with primate behavior and the scientists who study it. It’s hard for me even to imagine the research he has to have done about primatologists, about Jane Goodall and other prominent field-scientists. So his research skills feed his incredible imagination as he unwinds these stories, exposes these worlds. He writes complex spy novels, love-story mysteries, and novels about  murderous chimpanzees. What’s next?

The understanding of 20th century art and art-dealers required to flesh out one of Logan’s personas is evident through several of the journals. We meet (along with Logan), Virginia Woolf, Picasso, Fitzgerald, Sartre, and so many more. As Logan eats handfuls of benzedrine and drinks gallons of liquor, we are led on  tours of Paris’ and London’s writers and artists. Logan’s self-absorbed rambling remains, at least for this reader, somehow charming and deeply human right to the end of this rather long book. Though there are moments?

I will leave you with another Loganism, a self-justification dreamed up as simply an essential (wired in) part of his nature. Men must be men, must heed the existential call.
Why did I wait so long? I must never let this damaging frustration build up again. I have to recognize that I’m simply not equipped, temperamentally, to stay at home and live a circumscribed, rural, English life—I’m essentially urban my nature—and also the prospect and reality of travel. Otherwise, I’ll desiccate and die.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A Nigerian woman with the mellifluous name, Ifemelu, writes a blog while holding a fellowship at Princeton. The blog is entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. I could easily review Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah simply by quoting from the many blogs incorporated into the novel. And I will quote a few.

At its simplest, this is a love story: Ifemelu and Obinze meet in grade school in Lagos, and have an essential connection thereafter, though they go to different continents, have other lovers, take on new personas. But while the love-story aspect remains right to the end of this long and intricate novel, this is really Ifemelu’s story, and Adichie has admitted that much of it is based on her own life.

I was reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels as I read this. Ifemelu and Obinze are children of relatively affluent and well-educated parents when Nigeria is under a military dictatorship, and while they both desire to go the the U.S., it is not primarily for economic reasons. Obinze dreams of studying literature at Princeton; Ifemelu is less romantic in her views of the U.S., and much less certain of wanting to leave her country and her family. Ironically, and due to the politics of the times, it is she who gets the visa, and ends up at Princeton. He is unable to get a travel visa, and finally enters England illegally.

When the reader first meets Ifemelu, she has been in the States for thirteen years, and she has  already decided to return to Nigeria, not because she is particularly unhappy, but simply because she wants to go home. Much of the novel, like the blogs, is critical not only of American racism, but of Americanahs, Nigerians who return to Nigeria only to judge it by their learned American tastes. Everywhere she turns her eyes, Ifemelu is analytic and usually critical, but with an underlying empathy.  To note a few of her observations, “She did not understand grunge, the idea of looking shabby because you could afford not to be shabby, it mocked true shabbiness.”
… it was absurd how women’s magazines forced images of small-boned, small-breasted white women on the rest of the multi-boned, multi-ethnic world of women to emulate.  
‘But I keep reading them,’ she said. ‘It’s like smoking, it’s bad for you but you do it anyway.’
There are a wealth of one-liners in this novel that would give you a real taste of its essence, but since the blogs play such an important part in the novel, I want to quote one longish blog to give you an idea of how the author is allowed to step back in some way, even from her lead-character, and adopt a cool, critical voice while reflecting on what it is for a foreign born black  person to live in the U.S.

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism
In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk. 
Second ideology. Liberal and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issues, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable. Third region. The North and the South. The two sides fought in a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North. Finally, race. There is a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place. (Or as that marvelous rhyme goes; if you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around, if you’re black, get back!) Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, “Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,” with a shudder, an actual shudder. Like Jewish was a bad thing . I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. But I learned quickly. You see in America’s ladder of races. Jewish is white, but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing, because I knew this straw-haired freckled girl who said she was Jewish. How can Americans tell who is Jewish? I read somewhere how American colleges used to ask applicants for their mother’s surnames, to make sure they weren’t Jewish, because they wouldn’t accept Jewish people. So maybe that’s how to tell. From people’s names? The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.
Efemilu does return to Nigeria, to Lagos. Once there, she starts a new blog, one critical of Americanahs. As in her American blog, there is humor, but also insight and a social-surgeon’s eye. She also, although not immediately, takes up with Obinze again, who is now wealthy as a land-speculator and married with children. While there are several short sections of the book dealing with Obinze’s life, his illegal entry into England and his deportation, it is really only in the final section that his inner life is fleshed out a bit,his agony over his love for Efemilu and what that means for his wife, his children. The readers believes his inner turmoil. And while the blogs take aim at the sexism rife in Nigeria, Adichie makes it clear that Obinze is genuinely conflicted—loves his wife and family in spite of being unable to put Efemilu and their love behind him. I won’t tell you how the love-story ends except to say that is not idealized.

The lead-character in this novel is remarkably well drawn, complex, with contradictory desires and values. I confess to knowing next to nothing about Nigeria nor its political history, but Adichie certainly does her best to give us a long look at Nigeria as well as England and America. This was actually her fourth book, and I intend to read everything she has written. She is a wonderful writer with a rich global view.