Being and nothingness: Graham Greene, A Burnt-out Case

Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case. Vintage Classics 2004. First published 1960

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive’.

Graham Greene’s novel opens with a reference to two themes that will dominate this novel: a character has lost his capacity to feel anything but the most basic physical discomfort. And he’s writing about it.

The passenger, who is the protagonist, Querry, is at the end of his spiritual and vocational tether. Like the masterless samurai who entrusts his choice of route to the fates by spinning his sword in the air and taking the fork in the road down which it points when it falls, Querry has boarded a plane going to the most random and remote destination on the departure board: central Africa.

This is why he is chugging up a tributary of the Congo on a battered paddle-steamer that recalls the one in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ – in fact Giles Foden, in an interesting Introduction to this Vintage Classics edition, points out a number of links with this and other post-colonial Conrad novels.

Another parallel, in terms of Querry’s existential angst, is Camus. There’s a lot of Meursault in Querry. Unfortunately Querry is a much less interesting character, and his angst fails to engage my sympathy. Unlike Meursault, Querry is a lapsed Catholic who unconsciously strives for a kind of salvation. Not necessarily in the Christian sense. He’s more a nihilist or apatheist than an existentialist.

Words or phrases signifying ‘nothing(ness)’ or an ‘end’ are frequently employed; here’s the first, on p. 8; the Superior, who’s also the ferry captain, has talked about not suffering from prickly heat, and Querry finds himself unable to remain uncommunicative any longer, and says

‘Nor I. I suffer from nothing. I no longer know what suffering is. I have come to an end of all that, too.’


‘Like all the rest. To the end of everything.’

The Superior turned away from him without curiosity. He said, ‘Oh well, you know, suffering is something which will always be provided when it is required.’

He’s even taken this ferry trip to the last stop on its route: it goes no further.

But in this exchange what should be an intriguing opportunity to explore and portray Querry’s tortured soul, I feel instead we get a peevish gripe and a complacent priestly aphorism in reply. This sets the tone for the whole novel.

Cover of G. Greene, A Burnt-out CaseMaybe I shouldn’t have read this novel over Christmas. I found it depressing (the main setting is a leproserie, and many of the secondary characters are mutilated lepers or their doctors and priests) and turgid, and the theological soul-searching and debates, like that small fragment I just quoted, which Greene indulges frequently and at length, largely specious.

Querry’s disillusionment with worldly things is largely ascribed in the narrative to his coming to an end with sex. He’s decided his serial affairs with married women, whom he always leaves before any commitment might be required, ends inevitably with the last in the sequence killing herself. But his flight is not, our narrative insists, due to guilt. It’s all about Querry and his emptied masculine soul, his atrophied, once-noble emotions. If anything her death is an affront to him, in some obscure way.

‘I thought you said you had no interest in anything,’ says the Superior to Querry at a later point. He replies: ‘I haven’t. I’ve come through to the other side, to nothing. All the same, I don’t like looking back.’ No, that would require a conscience. And the last letter from his final mistress, now dead, rustles accusingly in his pocket, her words ‘toute à toi’ ringing in his mind; briefly he’d just reflected that ‘one could still feel the reflection of another’s pain when one had ceased to feel one’s own.’ But he keeps the letter in his pocket in a way that a hermit or a monk wears a painful, searing belt or garment to mortify the flesh. This is guilt transformed into self-aggrandisement, distorted by his egotism into just another station of his own route to his cross. The woman’s fate or state is ultimately of less concern than his own desire to end a pain I just called conscience, but which he continues to deny exists any more for him. A nihilist, misanthrope, misogynist. The cosmic scale is all illusion, his own narrative.

Doctor Colin, a rather more engaging character, had ‘long ago, before he had come to this continent of misery and heat, lost faith in any god that a priest would have recognised.’ His spiritual aridity and void seems a product of his close acquaintance with the human suffering and pain of others; Querry’s is largely a result of his own sense of the innate malevolence of the universe towards him personally. He dislikes people, like the ones who enter and admire the buildings, or who worship vacuously in the churches, he’d designed: ‘I wasn’t concerned with the people who occupied my space – only with the space’, Querry declares proudly, unconscious or careless of the arrogance and misanthropy.

It’s Colin who diagnoses Querry as a ‘burnt-out case’ – the rather callous term for lepers whose disease has run its course and they’d lost all the digits and body parts that it was fated to take from them. Their ‘cure’ is a terrible one. That it becomes a running metaphor for Querry’s condition I find bordering on the distasteful and disrespectful.

In his dedication to the novel before the narrative opens Greene explains that it’s not a roman à clef,

…but an attempt to give dramatic expression to various types of belief, half-belief, and non-belief, in the kind of setting, removed from world-politics and household-preoccupations, where such differences are felt acutely and find expression. This Congo is a region of the mind…

And that’s where my problem with the novel starts. There’s very little of a dramatic nature in the novel until the signposted ending. The alternative types of belief the novel acknowledges are largely dismissed lightly, like the fetishes and spirit-worship of the natives.

The claim that Luc, the nearest town to the leproserie, is ‘removed’ from politics is contradicted in the narrative, let alone in common sense. There are references to riots and disturbances in the capital; Sharpville and other shameful post-colonial atrocities are mentioned in passing – inconsequential to these self-obsessed characters, perhaps, but not to the indigenous inhabitants. The very presence of Belgian Catholic priests and entrepreneurs in this part of Africa, who represent to cast of characters of this politically anaesthetised novel, is a salutary reminder of Europe’s shameful role in the former colonies.

This ‘removal’ of Querry’s spiritual dilemma to a kind of socio-political vacuum is to tip the scales of the artistic-moral balance (to paraphrase an essay by DH Lawrence) in the worst way.

As the dedication goes on, his dedicatee, Dr Lechat,

…will know how far I have failed in what I attempted. A doctor is not immune from ‘the long despair of doing nothing well’, the cafard [cockroach?] that hangs round a writer’s life.’

That ‘unworthiness topos’ beloved of the medieval Christian writers is glaringly, ironically apposite here. I think Greene has failed. And I’m not too sure what he’s attempted in terms of novel-writing. It would perhaps have been better as a theological paper.

I’ve gone on too long, and written too hurriedly and imprecisely. I’d have liked to consider the unsuccessful, spurious metafictional touches that draw further attention to the novel’s shortcomings. ‘You’re not a writer, are you? There’s no room for a writer here’ (Colin addressing Querry when they first meet); ‘A writer doesn’t write for his readers, does he? Yet he has to take elementary precautions all the same to make them comfortable…The subject of a novel is not the plot.’ And explained more clearly my objections to Querry’s spurious dilemma.

I don’t think Greene is guilty of not making his reader ‘comfortable’; it’s of making this one feel a mix of ennui and annoyance.




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8 thoughts on “Being and nothingness: Graham Greene, A Burnt-out Case

  1. This is one of the Graham Greene novels that I haven’t read, and I thought from your description of it that perhaps it came very late in his career, but Wikipedia tells me that he was still writing in 1990 just before he died. In fact he went on to write some very good novels afterwards, so maybe this one is an aberration for some reason?

  2. I haven’t read this Greene either, but I have read a lot of others, and the one I struggled with most, oddly, is The End of the Affair. It was the endless religious soul searching which troubled me most, and I find I often enjoy those he labelled as entertainments more. However, I found his entertainments are often surprisingly deep and thought-provoking. It may just be me misreading him, or perhaps he gets his point across better when he makes it easier to digest.

  3. I read this when I was a teenager – I read everything Greene had written to date – and I adored it, I thought this was what a proper grown-up novel was like, and I found the plot astonishing. I have never read it since, and I fear I woud have a much more measured reaction now! Your thoughts very interesting and cogent, and raising many things I absolutely would not have noticed as teenager…

    • Like you, Moura, I was much more impressed by Greene when I was younger. Maybe we become more demanding as readers as we grow older- or look for more than plot or characters that seem more mature than we are. I admit to bringing my own prejudices to what I read now – a less compliant approach, less easily impressed

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