The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene was published in 1943. It is the first of Greene’s novels that I have read. Also, of note, this novel was made into a movie by Fritz Lang in 1944; the same Fritz Lang who made the film Metropolis. I feel it was the perfect novel to read after Jünger and von Harbou. All three novels have this wartime presence to them that made reading them back-to-back really “immersive.” (The cover illustration is by Geoff Grandfield and I like it!)
The feeling I got throughout reading this novel was that the author disliked having to write it. At times, it feels like a “practice novel,” not because the writing skill is not exemplary, but rather because I felt Greene added more trajectories to the plotline than were necessary. The book is sectioned into four unequal sections that present the reader with various stages of the main character, Arthur Rowe, and his traumas.
Each chapter begins with a little quote from The Little Duke, which is of significance to the main character (and to Greene). It really does pay to not skim these quotes, because they are apropos of the coming chapter. The Little Duke is a novel written by Charlotte Mary Yonge and published in 1859. It is about Richard the Fearless, a young man who becomes a duke while still in his single digits. It’s obvious Greene found it a poignant read.
In many descriptions of this novel, you will read that it is a spy novel and perhaps you will conceive images of James Bond and Mission Impossible. However, this probably will frustrate you because it is not an action thriller; it is far more esoteric and psychological. And perhaps you will read somewhere that this novel is another “classic dystopia” wherein some form of Big Brother is after the main character. Well, not so much that either. There is a measure of suspense and hidden-ness within the novel which is slightly noir. But it’s true noir element comes from the constant grappling that the main character does with his memory. Arthur Rowe had murdered his wife. I do not want to give any more of the few details away. This fact, though, challenges and colors everything about the main character.
In a lot of ways, like The Glass Bees and Metropolis, there is a redemptive quality to this novel. The main character seeks some sort of redemption – particularly in regard to their beloved. None of these are clear-cut love stories, mind you, however, the angst and self-awareness that comes along in relation to the Other qua beloved. This is not Lord Byron or Barbara Cartland. This is wartime love in the time which was dubbed The Age of Anxiety. Therefore, the lessons learned here do not involve Prince Charming and “happily ever after.”
On dining at a restaurant in wartime:
Even in a crumbling world the conventions held; to order again after payment was unorthodox, but to ask for notepaper was continental. She could give him a leaf from her order pad, that was all. Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering. pg. 59 (chapter 6)
However, throughout this novel the main feeling of helplessness regarding the air raids occupies the characters and the reader. Some characters treat it as matter-of-fact, others are discombobulated. Greene writes a really good treatment of shell-shock and the feeling these civilians have which is like mice running from cats. Again, the Age of Anxiety. A lot can be said about these parts of the novel, because really, these are the most “intellectual” parts, let’s say. PTSD and shell-shock and amnesia all roll through the scenes and characters like bombs from enemy planes.
Describing this wartime psyche:
“This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.” pg. 54 (chapter 5)
Overall, this is truly a four star novel. That would be the correct and proper rating. But I cannot help but feel like the author hated this work a little too much – even if he wrote it like a grandmaster. You can do a thing well and still dislike that thing. And, really, although there really is a whole lot that can be said about all of the elements of this novel, the main thing I am taking away from it, truly, is a fear of cake.