There is another type of writing- G.K Chesterton's, Evelyn Waugh's, Graham Greene's- which is fundamentally uninterested in reading or being read- Scription being to Oikumene as is Conscription to Empire- because what they aim at is an affect or attitude of an adolescent sort.
Pico Iyer speaks of reading and having been read by Graham Green- 'With Greene, moreover, I always felt that I could have the most intimate conversations with him on the page, in silence. He read me perfectly without ever seeing me. Were I to have met him, it's not just that the public Greene might not have matched the unflinching soul I met on the page; it's that that surface self, making small talk, might actually detract from, and would certainly complicate, the soul beneath the personality I regularly met in the books...With Greene, the kinship lay in some more shadowy ground that was deeper and more unsounded in me: the contradictory feelings many of us have with fathers who were teachers; the school that seems to have shaped me, for better and worse, for life; the unease with commitment that can become a distinct liability. Greene would push me into the abysses I otherwise avoid.
Greene has the sovereign virtue of never giving himself the benefit of the doubt. I thought that the best way of paying tribute to that was trying to do the same in return.
What effect did being read by Greene have on how Pico read the old satyr? The answer is quite extraordinary. Pico reads completely different novels to the rest of us. They aren't better or more complex. Quite the reverse. They are saccharine confections wholly innocent of complex real world agendas.
Thus, in the same interview, he says-
I often tell my friends to begin with The Quiet American, his novel about an aging English journalist in Saigon in the 1950s, the young American who comes into the country, eager to "save" it by destroying it and the Vietnamese woman they both love.Greene, as a Catholic convert of a certain sort, felt obliged to support truly shite Catholic regimes- like that in South Vietnam- with a deeply provincial, paranoid, type of propaganda which made out the true enemy was not the Reds but the State Department.
Post McCarthyite American analysts, however, blamed the loss of China on their having been hoodwinked by corrupt 'Christian' Kuomintang leaders. Despite Kennedy's election, they lost patience with the Catholic dictator- Ngô Đình Diệm- who was assassinated in a CIA backed coup because he and his idiot brother had hopelessly antagonized the Buddhist majority.
Greene, like Morris West- who also wrote a Vietnam novel a decade later- was just doing his bit for Mother Church in a manner its suave but deeply silly plenipotentiaries encouraged at that time.
Pico, however, takes a different view-
Of course, on its surface it offers an uncannily prescient look at the clash of empires,What clash of Empires is Pico thinking of? Britain was out of the Empire business. America had never been in it. Even France had accepted the bitter truth that Imperialism was a mug's game.
Britain mocking America as it feels its own power on the wane,In 1955, Britain's power wasn't 'on the wane'. It was an increasingly distant memory. No Britisher was so foolish as to 'mock' America. On the contrary, the upshot of the Suez crisis was that the 'special relationship' became one with a distinctly Dutch and minatory Uncle Sam.
young America beginning to feel its strength as it goes around the world importing the latest ideas of Democracy from Harvard Yard (and Asia swaying in the middle, seeming to give itself to either and therefore remaining outside the grasp of both).To which country, in 1955, did America 'import the latest ideas of Democracy'? None. Its policy was to support military dictators. It ultimately got rid of the crazy Diem brothers in Vietnam because, quite apart from infuriating the Buddhist majority, the younger was even trying to assassinate Ambassador Cabot Lodge.
Asia was not 'swaying in the middle' of anything. It understood very well that Britain and France were shit. Greene had no illusions on this score- he has the Vietnamese demi mondaine swap a poster of the Grand Canyon for a postcard of Cheddar Gorge- but the comedy here is scarcely deft; it evokes the frigid torments of suburban 'Greeneland'.
It's somewhat typical of Greene that when it was filmed, earlier this century, with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, the release had to be delayed because it was screened for its makers on September 10, 2001, and not long thereafter it seemed too accurate, and incriminating, a portrayal of America's latest adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.This is foolish. Hollywood's first version of the book exonerated the young American and shows the old Brit to have been a dupe of the Commies. The second version was shelved for a year because patriotic sentiment peaked after 9/11. However, it was released before the invasion of Iraq. It couldn't have been an 'incriminating portrayal' of anything at all because the Taliban had given the Northern Alliance a walkover and, for once in its life, the C.I.A was actually looking pretty good.
This is nonsense. An elderly hack who smokes opium and can't get a divorce from his wife back in suburban England isn't in the love business which is why he can so easily get into the betrayal business. But, that's okay coz he can go to confession- or not and just be a great big misery-guts about it.
Yet even as it catches the larger dance of nations as no other work has done so economically—it's barely 200 pages long and written with a taut elegance Greene had honed by writing for the movies—it is also a deeply rending, very private story about how we destroy the things we love, and betray ourselves in going after the things we think we want.
A reader soon comes to see that the Englishman, Fowler, is only mocking the young American, Pyle, because he envies him; the younger man's idealism and innocence and chivalry are what Fowler had himself once upon a time and now he can't forgive the other man for having them.Pyle doesn't have a soul. That is why Fowler mocks him. He has some sort of 'plastic' but it can only blow things up. Greene takes a bitter pleasure in imagining that the crazy Cao Dai cult is the natural bedfellow for these soul-less Americans with their shiny teeth and horn-rimmed glasses and plastic toys that blow kids up.
And Pyle is so driven by pure intentions that he can't begin to fathom a world that's less than pure, and so undoes the very ideals he's come to Vietnam to honor.What is this shite? Pyle is bringing in plastic explosives for car-bombs which will kill innocents and create a panic so some crazy General takes over from the good and virtuous Catholics who are fucking things up.
Why is Pico pretending that Pyle is a preux chevalier? Did some unkind soul switch the book jacket of Graham Green's novel with one by Barbara Cartland? Is that the book Pico read?
But, it's not just 'the Quiet American' which Pico hasn't read properly.
Consider the following-
In his travel-writing, likewise, Greene was always on the outside of what he was observing, ever more English, seated in a corner, pouring abuse and scorn on the alien scene around him. Yet as soon as he worked up the material he'd seen in Mexico into a novel—The Power and the Glory—he was so deeply inside his characters, both the whisky priest protagonist and even the lieutenant in pursuit of him, that he wrote perhaps his most affecting and compassionate novel, and the one, liberatingly, without a single English character in it.The English girl- Carol Fellows- is the moral center of the book. We don't greatly care about the other characters. Only when Carol decides to care for the Whiskey Priest do our own emotions become engaged.
How can Pico not know that there are English characters in one of Greene's greatest novels? The answer, I suppose, is that Graham Greene read Pico and thus turned him into a comic character of a vaguely Racist, Babu, sort.