Graham Greene

Twenty-One Stories

Twenty-One Stories - Graham Greene; Penguin, 1983

Twenty-One Stories – Graham Greene; Penguin, 1983

Twenty-One Stories is a 1954 collection of Graham Greene’s (1904 – 1991) short stories/novellas. As expected, it contains twenty-one stories, which is an expansion of the collection published in 1947 aptly named Nineteen Stories. All of the editions that I have come across have the stories in reverse chronological order, which (according to Wikipedia) is typical. I  read the 1983 Penguin edition with cover illustration by Paul Hogarth.

My overall impression of Greene is that he is an excellent writer. He knows what he is doing and he has plenty of published works to prove it.  He is definitely in the top ten list for most influential/important authors of the 20th Century. I also think Greene is difficult to pigeon-hole into some narrow category. I cannot tell you if he wrote noir, espionage, religious-themed, etc. The diversity of his writing is subtle but wide. I also feel this is somewhat descriptive of Greene himself. It seems critics and readers have always debated on Greene’s personality, career, and lifestyle. Regardless, Greene is certainly not some hack writer.

Nevertheless, I cannot give this collection (or, really, any of the stories in it) fantastic ratings.  This is tough, because I can see the quality and effort and skill in these stories. I also understand the symbolism and the contextualization of many of the stories. However, as far as entertaining reads – gripping, thrilling, stunning, or invigorating…. well, I cannot say that these stories fit the bill, so to speak. Most of the stories are good, none of them are great.

  1. The Destructors – (1954) – 3 stars.
  2. Special Duties – (1954) – 4 stars.
  3. The Blue Film – (1954) – 3 stars.
  4. The Hint of an Explanation – (1948) – 3 stars
  5. Greek Meets Greek – (1941) – 2 stars.
  6. Men At Work – (1940) – 2 stars
  7. Alas, Poor Maling – (1940) – 1 star
  8. The Case for the Defence – (1939) – 2 stars
  9. A Little Place off of Edgware Road – (1939) – 3 stars.
  10. Across the Bridge – (1938) – 3 stars.
  11. A Drive in the Country – (1937) – 3 stars.
  12. The Innocent – (1937) –1 star.
  13. The Basement Room – (1936) – 2 stars.
  14. A Chance for Mr Lever – (1936) – 2 stars.
  15. Brother – (1936) – 3 stars.
  16. Jubilee – (1936) – 1 star.
  17. A Day Saved – (1935) – 1 star.
  18. I Spy – (1930) – 3 stars.
  19. Proof Positive – (1930) – 3 stars.
  20. The Second Death – (1929) – 3 stars.
  21. The End of the Party – (1929) – 2 stars.

The Destructors is probably one of the most famous of all of these stories.  It has all the post-war angst and societal symbolism one could want.  Nihilistic, fatalistic, and dark, this is not an easy read.  Well, it is not easy if you have any sort of positive view of humanity and society.  Still, this should not be surprising – the story is titled appropriately. I gave it three stars because I do not think I will forget it, but I do not really want to remember it, either.

Special Duties was a fairly good read. I have to admit, it being about a female secretary’s duties for her fussy male boss – I could not help but think this was going to be an entirely different “dutiful” secretary. I guess in 2015 my mind is as corrupt as yours. Kidding! Anyway, this was an interesting piece – cynical all over the place.  I know that a lot of people probably think this is Greene being critical of the Roman Catholic Church, but that is missing the point. The true cynicism is directed straight-as-an-arrow at humans. Which character is more devious in this story? And, because of that corrupt morality, which one is more likeable in spite of it?  Maybe the characters are not as bad as we think.  Don’t they both just want happiness?

The Blue Film is also a very good read. I would have to say that this is the most introspective and deepest story of the bunch.  Greene manages to give us a rather superficial and bare story, which someone contains a wealth of emotion and psychology.  Of course, it also contains that cynicism and pessimism that we have seen so far in Greene.  If you can only read one story in this collection, I suggest this one.

The Hint of An Explanation is the fourth story. It is one of the most religious-themed stories in this collection.  However, even though the religion is a bit more overt, there is a depth to it that focuses, again, on the human condition and psychology.  If you have heard good things about this story, let me confirm them.  This is definitely worth reading and I would re-read it.

After these first four stories, I felt the rest were not as good.  I found the suggested “humor” of the seventh story (Alas, Poor Maling) to be cruddy. The most popular and well-known story seems to be The Basement Room, which I must admit I found unappealing.  I found the child to be absurd and I felt no sympathy for him. I also felt no sympathy for Baines. The story itself was too long.

At one point, I woke in the middle of the night and could not return to sleep, so I figured I would read whatever story was next in the book. It happened to be Jubilee. Now, I don’t know if it was because I was drowsy or if the story is that odd, but I kept thinking: “what the heck am I reading here?” It was funnily ridiculous. I guess its an “interesting” story, though. Definitely different (particularly in 1936).

Overall, these are good stories. Nothing here is truly awesome. A couple are very worthy reads.  My rating will seem low – numerically. I think that this is an important collection to read. It reads longer than it seems, too, so you get your money’s worth.  While the stories do not get rated super highly, I do think that anyone needing to access Greene’s style and writing, this is a very good starter set.  Reading these stories should let the reader know if they want to commit to any of his novels. Greene is an interesting thinker/writer, even if his stories are not the most entertaining ever written.  He has a distinctive voice and style. And his stories (n.b. I do not say Greene qua Greene) have a recognizable cynicism and pessimism.  I think it is a major point, though, that you understand I do not think Greene has the bitterness that others possess (Cp. Céline).  Greene doesn’t hate humanity and he actually still likes it. A lot.

2.38 stars

The Ministry of Fear

ministry of fearThe 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.

3 stars