Monday, 25 May 2015

Twenty-One Stories

Graham Greene Twenty-One Stories (1954)
Here I am once again finding myself in the embarrassing position of having remained mostly unmoved by the works of an undoubted literary giant, thus sneering forth from the conspicuously unlofty position of my massive pile of Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica tie-in novels: Graham Greene is okay but he's no Terrance Dicks.

This collection was on the syllabus of my English literature 'O' level class taken back in 1785, and I remembered enjoying it, and making occasional mental notes to find a copy and read it again some day, and there it was in the book store, the same edition with the same cover and everything. More recently I took several shots at Greene's The Power & the Glory, giving up each time, finding it simply too depressing; so I was hoping this might constitute a sort of combined reintroduction and inoculation by which I might give the cunt another go because I dislike giving up on a book, particularly when I'm fairly sure it has some value which I am simply unable to appreciate, for whatever reason.

Anyway, I guess maybe we only read one or two of these as part of our class, there being very little which rings any significant bells. On the other hand, I am reminded of the difficulty I had with The Power & the Glory, namely that while I don't think it's really necessary to either like or identify with characters in order to appreciate their stories, there are some seriously disagreeable fuckers here. The Destructors for example tells of a bunch of urchinous types destroying someone's house, working so as to systematically reduce it to a pile of rubble in the owner's absence. It's weirdly fascinating, and the point is that destruction can be a creative act, according to some bloke on the internet, but it makes for some fucking depressing shit when read in a hospital bed whilst hooked up to a drip during a thunderstorm, as I was. I realise Graham Greene wasn't directly responsible for my hospitalisation, but he might at least have shed a little light upon the darkness from time to time.

His theme seems to be salvation under appalling circumstances, finding the small but beautiful in even the most relentlessly grim of situations. Mostly he succeeds, I suppose, but I was left wondering if it was worth the trouble in many cases. There's the girl in A Drive in the Country seeking to escape her miserable suburban existence, driven into the arms of a man who suggests a suicide pact as an alternative to the certainty of everything being shit forever, which in turn drives her back to a miserable suburban existence which she now accepts as liveable shit. Woo hoo. Is that a Huey Lewis & the News album I hear playing in the background?

There are powerful and poignant moments, and bags of atmosphere, and a tremendous sense of place with stories set in Africa and Mexico, and it's quite clearly myself in the wrong here, but I simply expected more. Instances such as the crushing yet wonderful conclusion of The Blue Film, for example, seem bogged down with the greater aggregate weight of horrible people doing horrible things for no good reason. The Hint of an Explanation seems to offer some sort of redemptive message in the priest having found God and by extension his calling, true happiness and so on during a confrontation with profound malice, but it would be more convincing if that malice weren't such a cock-obvious pantomime villain - a man named Blacker who wants to get hold of a communion wafer in order to defile it, as it was implied in my English class back in 1785.

'What do you mean, sir?' someone asked, as I recall.

'Who knows?' Dave Rodan, our teacher, responded. 'Maybe he wanted to shit on it or something?'

Yeah, because that really happens, just like all those Muslamic gangs kidnapping human babies and selling them to Chinese restaurants innit. Facetiousness aside, Greene's need for some negative force within his narrative sometimes seems to undermine the integrity of the whole, and so the whole effects to smother whatever small light he may have wished to shine at the end of the tunnel.

I don't know. He was patently a great writer with a wonderful technique and clear compelling prose, but I just expected to enjoy it a little more than I did. I loves me some grim as a rule, but this made me want to watch Mexican daytime television shows.

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