“It was the biggest protest he had ever allowed himself to make against the condition of life.”
Ah, ‘the condition of life’ is a phrase apt to sum up Graham Greene’s literary output. “Two Gentle People” is not the best or most exciting story in the Penguin volume, but it demonstrates all of the hallmarks of Greene’s narrative strength: what is said is not said, with the reader as implicated witness; the unintentional slip of speech that betrays one character to another or, the character to the reader; and the often indeterminate and inconclusive ending to a Greene ‘entertainment,’ or novel.
Two middle-aged people, a French woman and a British man, meet and share a park bench. They each have their separate life and each is polite and civilized. They strike up a superficial conversation. A pigeon is injured; falls down, its injury fatal. The man, out of compassion, kills the bird and respectfully disposes of the body. The woman observes and admires him. There is brief moment of silence after the act of violence. They resume their conversation. They get on well. He invites her to lunch. They have lunch at a brasserie. Attraction, as mutual admiration but not lust, bubbles up through the text. He offers to walk her home. She declines. They talk some more after their meal. She uses the intimate tu pronoun form instead of the formal vous form in her French with him when her speech lapses momentarily. Is it a slip? She catches herself. He says nothing and they part.
The story seems almost genteel reportage – a story about nothing — until both characters return home. She hears her husband with the ‘boys.’ She is well off. As she takes off her jewelry, every object she removes and every object on her vanity reminds her of the sexless liaison that afternoon. Is she cheating because the reader knows she had contemplated it for a moment? The man returns home and his wife – named Patience – says, ‘I can smell a woman on you.’ He is late coming home and she thinks that he has been out womanizing at the Rue de Douai. Has he had mistresses before? Does she know her husband better than we, the reader, have come to know him? Is he to be trusted?
Loss of innocence is cited as a common theme in Greene’s short stories and novels. Critics always drag in Greene’s conversion to Catholicism at 22 years old when he was at Balliol College, Oxford University; and critics, especially American critics, can’t refrain from citing Greene’s quasi-acceptance or tolerance for Communism. I disagree. Greene, like many intellectuals in the Thirties, experimented with his politics. The Cambridge Five did. I think it is not acceptance but rather skeptical indifference to politics that better describes Graham Greene’s overall disposition; he is a man who has seen the transitory nature of the world and understands human nature with a degree of compassion that is hard to understand. Might his own character development have been informed by his Catholicism? In light of what we know of him after his death, I think that my assertion might have merit. He was more than an observer who happened to be a novelist.
His novel Monsignor Quixote (1982) is quite possibly Greene talking to Greene through his two characters: a Marxist Catholic priest on the lam with his Communist Mayor friend. GG assumes you are intellectual enough to know the difference between a Communist and a Socialist. His End of An Affair is modern morality play from the three sides of a love triangle; but my assertion about Greene’s compassion and politics is seen in his novels Our Man in Havana (1958), The Comedians (1966), The Quiet American (1955), The Ministry of Fear (1943), The Honorary Consul (1973), and The Power and The Glory (1940), where he showcases individuals trapped by accident, their own devices, or sheer bad luck in worlds that parody human intentions.
Hapless Jim Wormold, the man in Havana, effectively bs’s the upper echelon of British Intelligence with faux drawings of weapons. The drawings are, in fact, magnified vacuum cleaner parts. In The Comedians, Greene is prescient in anticipating the corruption of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier in Haiti and, in The Quiet American, the future consequences of American idealism in Vietnam. Feckless idiots misread a license plate and kidnap the British ambassador instead of the American ambassador in Argentina in The Honorary Consul. Hey, they both speak English, right? That has to count. No, it doesn’t. Greene has a sense of humor.
I think a key to unlocking Greene’s complicated authorial persona is to look at the preface he wrote for Kim Philby’s My Silent War (1968). Howard Philby took the name ‘Kim’ from a Kipling novel of the same name. As an aside: Philby is ranked among the greatest (and most damaging) double agents in espionage history. Philby betrayed nearly everyone during his long tenure in British Intelligence. Among those he betrayed to the Soviets? David Cornwell (aka author John le Carré). He defected to the Soviet Union, unrepentant,where he died in 1988; and Greene visited him and maintained his friendship for the remainder of Philby’s life. I should add that Philby was Graham Greene’s case officer aka ‘Handler’ in M-16, whose existence was not acknowledged until 1994. Greene died in 1991.
Graham Greene was a spy. Some readers may know this and his espionage work informs his writing. Witness the locations of his novels: Cuba, Sierra Leone, French Indochina, etc. What does Greene say in the Philby preface? Note the Biblical phrasing. “He betrayed his country” – yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?”
Is this forgiveness, Christian or otherwise? Is it, instead, wisdom beyond mere appearances after decades of observing human nature through his work as an agent abroad? Is it cynicism of trying to love humanity and realizing that one is only capable of loving one human being? Knowing what we know now of his M-16 background The Human Factor should read especially disturbing as a novel.
Returning to the short stories in this collection. Greene’s writes horror on par with Stephen King in “A Discovery In The Woods.” It is that creepy. “I Spy” and “The End of the Party” are stories from a child’s point of view. “Doctor Crombie” is one of his humorous stories: all those who have died from cancer have also had had sex so therefore sex might be the cause of cancer. His short story “The Destructors” is his novel Brighton Rock (1947) in miniature.
Philby’s memoir is enigmatic in that there is never a sense of the man. Greene, a complicated man, appears to offer more of himself through his writings but I do not think answers are with his Catholicism or his evolving political views. Greene, like his friend Kim Philby, remains elusive and evasive. His prose style is lean by comparison to British authors in his day. Not quite Hammett but it is lean and nuance. Greene is a master of the subjunctive mood. The themes in his novel are what will make his writing durable. As to the man himself, I think the best answer or insight comes from E.M Forester’s essay “What I Believe” which appeared in The Nation in 1938. He states:
“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”