Balzac, William Maxwell and Jane Austen

Balzac, Domestic Peace cover

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Domestic Peace and Other Stories. Penguin, 1958. Translated from the French by Marion Ayton Crawford. Don’t you just love those old Penguin Classics covers?

Most of these early stories were originally published 1830-32. The title story is the best, a nasty tale of aristocratic sexual predation in the pre-Revolutionary world of aristocratic ‘easy manners and moral laxness’. The Revolution and the Terror features in most of the other stories, too, with plots involving summary executions, cruelty, treachery and retribution.

‘Colonel Chabert’ also stands out. A Napoleonic officer reported dead at the battle of Eylau returns to life in Paris during the post-Revolutionary restoration to reclaim his old identity – and wife. She has remarried, and with callous cynicism refuses to acknowledge him. This well crafted story, much redacted and revised by Balzac, was filmed several times.

‘The Abbé Birotteau’ is more of a Trollopeian clerical comedy with a dark edge. Unlike Warden Harding, our Abbé’s innocence is no protection from the harshness of his world, or from the landlady he unwittingly upsets.

Mostly, though, the stories are rather dour and stodgy fare. The world Balzac depicts is dyspeptic.

Maxwell Chateau coverWilliam Maxwell (1908-2000) The Château (1961). Is this a travel book or a novel? At times I felt it was the former, as accounts of life in bomb-scarred France just after the war (1948) became just a little too detailed. A few too many new French acquaintances are introduced.

The young American Rhodes couple, touring Europe for four months, are charmingly flawed: desperate to be liked and accepted, to savour the culture and language of France, with which they’d ‘fallen in love’ – but never quite able to lose their essentially alien Americanness: “you don’t really understand one another,” reflects Harold on how difficult it is to be friends with somebody, “no matter how much you like them.” Is it ever really possible to know another person really well? (the narrator ponders near the end).

In ration-hit, austere postwar France Americans are seen as annoyingly rich.

Maxwell writes polished sentences – sometimes overpolished (why ‘it had commenced to sprinkle’, rather than ‘it had started to rain/drizzle’?) But here are some good aphorisms:

The poppy-infested fields through which they were now passing were by Renoir, and the distant blue hills by Cézanne. That the landscape of France had produced its painters seemed less likely than that the painters were somehow responsible for the landscape.

Hang on, though; is that as good as it seems at first sight? Or is it just superficially clever, ostentatious?

There’s a strange, not entirely congruent postmodern, reflexive element throughout (spectral narratorial questions, answered just as mysteriously), as here at p. 63, on the Rhodes as tourists; why go to Europe, asks this inquisitor, in italics:

it’s too soon after the war. Traveling will be much pleasanter and easier five years from now. The soldiers have not all gone home yet. People are poor and discouraged. Europe isn’t ready for tourists. Couldn’t they wait?

No, they couldn’t…they are unworldly, and inexperienced.

This feature is more pronounced in the ‘Explanations’ section at the end where that intrusive, teasing narrator enters into dialogue with an imagined reader who’s keen to fill the gaps in the narrative, which the narrator coyly sidesteps, or fills in as if completing a questionnaire. Very odd.

There’s a nasty racist exchange with an unreconstructed Frenchman about white America’s treatment of its African-Americans, topped with spectacular casualness by Barbara Rhodes (pp. 201-02).

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a much more successful Maxwell novel (1979-80).

Austen N Abbey cover

I dipped in to my old OWC edition from time to time to check the details

Jane Austen (1775-1817), Northanger AbbeyAfter eye surgery I wasn’t able to read much, so I listened to this as a LibriVox audio book. I hadn’t read it in years. It’s as delightful as I remembered.

There’s the usual Austen wit (and terrific, character-revealing dialogue) and crystalline perception. Yet this was first written probably as early as 1798-99; it wasn’t published until 1818 (along with Persuasion), after Jane Austen’s death.

Here’s Catherine Morland growing up into adolescence and womanhood after a rollicking tomboy childhood: her eyes ‘gained more animation, and her figure more consequence’:

To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

Now that is how to do aphoristic prose while establishing character and narrative poise. The author also directly or indirectly refers, in metafictional touches that make Maxwell’s look rather awkward and mannered, to her task of presenting her heroine in a novel of sensibility, with the constraints of contemporary novelistic convention subtly subverted. Thus when the boorish Mr Thorpe claims never to read novels (Catherine had just asked him if he’d read her favourite, the hugely popular but ‘horrid’ Gothic Mystery of Udolpho), sniffing that they’re ‘so full of nonsense and stuff’, the reader is alerted to his duplicity (he’s too stupid to read anything), pomposity, shallow nature and lack of empathy with our enthusiastic ingénue heroine. Her innocence and unworldliness is quietly conveyed in such passages, along with her charm and lack of coquetry – she’s far more suitable heroine material, our narrator shows, than the superficially more glamorous but essentially monstrous Isabella (more on her coming up).

The first half of the novel gives a deceptively muted satirical critique of the society that gathers at the fashionable spa town of Bath (including the gloriously flirtatious, devious and selfishly catty ‘friend’ Isabella, who Catherine has to learn loves only herself despite her protestations of affection for her new bff – as I believe young people say).

Girls like Catherine, attending her first ball, are desperate to be danced and flirted with, vulnerable to odious frauds like Isabella, but clearly destined to find happiness with the upstanding chap she dotes on.

The Gothic satire section at his medieval abbey was less interesting than I recalled, and rather laboured.

Reading Jane Austen is an experience that’s perfect for a convalescent. Pity the range of readers on my free LibriVox version was so uneven.

 

Erasures and absences: WG Sebald, The Emigrants

WG Sebald, The Emigrants (Vintage Classics; first published in German, 1993. Translated by Michael Hulse)

But certain things, as I am becoming increasingly aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.

The particular thing Sebald is referring to in this, the first of four sections (as in Vertigo) of semi-fictional (auto)biography/travel writing (I can’t find a suitable term for Sebald’s genre) – ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’ – is found in a report in a Swiss newspaper that catches his eye: the remains of alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, ‘missing since 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later.’

Naegeli was a close friend as well as mountain guide to Dr Selwyn, the elderly Lithuanian-Jewish emigrant owner of the crumbling Norfolk house that the narrator, presumably Sebald, rented with a woman named Clara – presumably his wife, although in real life she was called Ute. The method in most of Sebald’s fiction (for want of a more accurate word) is to present places and exiled people he encounters that interest him, usually because of something in their history that resonates with the Bavarian-born son of a soldier who served in the Wehrmacht through the Nazi era until the end of the war. He collates oral narratives from people who knew his subjects, or writings in scrapbooks, pictures in photo albums (many of which grainily illustrate this text) and other evidence of their lives in an act of literary bricolage and…what? Atonement? He mentions the ‘lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up’. They had, he feels, collectively erased history.

Sebald Emigrants coverThe people who feature in these four chapters come from Jewish emigrant families, most of whom fled the anti-Semitic oppression that surged in Europe (and beyond) from the nineteenth century and on into the early twentieth. By writing about them and their families, the hardships and hatred they endured at the hands of the bigoted and intolerant, Sebald seems to try to exorcise the aching guilt his nation’s terrible past has caused in him and his compatriots – and all those who were complicit in the Holocaust. These fragments he assembles against ruin – his own, and the world’s. But they are as elusive as Nabokov’s butterflies – a recurring image in this novel. (His autobiography has the Sebaldian title, Speak, Memory).

That revenant mountain guide may or may not have existed in reality; such details are irrelevant and elusive in Sebald’s fictional world. He serves as one of countless instances in this strange and haunting novel, of the way the author’s act of testifying in writing simultaneously honours the sufferings of these victims of ultra-nationalism, while failing to assuage his profoundly melancholy unease. The Selwyn chapter ends with a passage that reminds me of Joyce’s ending to ‘The Dead’:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.

But even as Sebald records these poignant, concrete details from the lives (and deaths) of emigrants, retrieved from the interstices of history (cemeteries and even glaciers can be historical repositories, mute custodians of the disappeared), he conveys the hopelessness of his task. Lives like the eccentric, reclusive Selwyn’s, who eventually killed himself with his ‘heavy hunting rifle’, or the artist Max Ferber’s, with whom the narrator became acquainted during his years in Manchester, or those of his peripatetic, flamboyant Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, whose own ‘infallible memory’ so haunted him he sought its erasure through ECT treatment, or his junior school teacher Paul Bereyter, who committed suicide when his sight began to fail him, but who had become obsessed with collecting his own archive of suicides. These lives are full of incident and similar factual, concrete details, meticulously set down by the narrator. Yet he despairs about his inability to provide the kind of testimony of their existence that he yearns for. ‘Memory’, great uncle Adelwarth had written as a postscript in his ‘agenda book’, ‘often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy…’

In that final chapter on Ferber the artist and the decaying post-industrial city of immigrants, Manchester, that he had made his home, he describes the artist’s obsessive technique of erasure – one that recalls Sebald’s own as a writer:

Ferber had set up his easel in the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades. Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava.

The meticulous accretion of details here, like a scholarly biographer-historian’s reconstruction of a man’s life and its significance, creates the kind of literary verisimilitude that is usually considered essential in a credibly authentic historical account. Near the end of this chapter, and of the novel, Sebald describes his frustration when trying to write this very chapter, using the documents and photos that Ferber had handed him – an archive of actuality:

It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a “final” version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

A postmodernist would doubtless seize upon this as a thrilling example of mise en abîme, a description of the futility of trying to articulate anything with signifiers that fail to adhere to the things they attempt to signify (‘the entire questionable business of writing’). I was discussing this feature with Mrs TD, saying that Emigrants was a fascinating example of Sebald’s self-reflexivity, his frustration with the limitations of language in writing this very novel – the act of narrating simultaneously erases what it tries to record.

She’s very sensible, Mrs TD. That’s ridiculous, she said.

My post on Sebald’s A Place in the Country

One of my earliest posts was about The Rings of Saturn

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, Family History

Published in 1932, two years after The Edwardians (I posted on it here), Family History has the same central themes and milieu. It concerns the familial, sexual and social affairs of the wealthy and privileged upper classes, with the central issue being the struggle for personal authenticity and self-fulfilment, being true to one’s desires, against the negating influence of social convention, family expectations, and the need to maintain ‘standards’ and ‘manners’ in the face of one’s shallow, hypocritical but judgemental peers.

This time, though, the protagonist isn’t male (Sebastian, the young heir to Chevron in The Edwardians): Evelyn Jarrold is a beautiful, chic widow (her husband was killed in WWI) who falls for Miles, a man fifteen years younger. Like Sebastian, she has to contend with that struggle to satisfy her personal desire – she’s passionately in love with him – in the face of their profound differences, and her powerful social ‘training’, which induces her to try to keep up the pretence that she hasn’t lost all sense of propriety by having an affair with a man so much younger.

Even worse, he’s ‘not one of us’, as the Jarrolds see it, and her breeding and upbringing incline her to conform to their self-serving, hypocritical mores. Miles represents everything they fear and despise: he’s an intellectual, left-wing, a rising, progressive Labour politician who writes books and cares for the poor and the downtrodden. They see him as ‘a traitor to his class.’

V Sackville-West, Family History cover

My Vintage Classics paperback 2018 edition

Like Evelyn, however, he’s also a dual personality: he deep down hates ‘democracy’, and is a self-confessed Tory country squire when back where he feels happiest: at his rambling ruin of a castle (presumably based on VSW’s recently acquired Sissinghurst) where he farms a large estate. Yet he despises the affluent, superficial world that means everything to his lover.

His friends are all intellectuals, ‘highbrow’ – a term of abuse when used by the Jarrolds – as it is on one occasion even against Evelyn herself. But he’s attracted to Evelyn by her glamour, not her intellect, and hates ‘clever women’: he prefers his women to be ‘idle’ and ‘decorative’, and becomes irritated by her jealous demands that he immerse himself totally in her and her passionate love. He ultimately values his masculine independence more than her cloying devotion, and can’t understand why she is so demanding. They argue frequently, then make up. He can’t match her emotional fervour, finds it annoying.

And she’s uncomfortable in the company of his bohemian friends, especially of Miles’s closest friends, Leonard and Viola Anquetil (thinly disguised portraits of Virginia Woolf, one of Vita’s many lovers, and her husband Leonard). Viola was the sister of Sebastian in The Edwardians, who chose the ‘highbrow’ path and married the outsider who tried to persuade her brother also to relinquish the deadening world of social hypocrisy and unquestioning acceptance of convention in which they were born.

Evelyn is uncomfortable when they discuss things with passion; instead of the ‘perpetual heavy banter’ and ‘small-talk’, ‘gossip’ about ‘personalities’ of the Jarrold world, these people instead exhibit a ‘desire for the truth’. And ‘their frankness horrified her.’

Glamorous, trivial parties, lavish shopping trips to her society dressmaker’s, expensive trips to exotic watering-holes of the rich, and dull family dinners were Evelyn’s world. They were characterised by superficially good manners – Evelyn was aware of their stultifying vapidity, but struggled to emancipate herself. Here she is, early in the novel, in her sumptuous flat in an opulent part of London, being visited by her teenage niece Ruth, who adores her glamorous aunt:

She [Ruth] chattered. Evelyn lent herself amiably to the chatter; it seemed to her that she was always lending herself amiably to somebody or something, till she ceased to have any existence of her own at all. Would she ever turn round on the whole of her acquaintance, and in a moment of harshness send them all packing? She knew that the necessary harshness lurked somewhere within her; in fact she was rather frightened of it…She disliked it, thinking it ugly. But she felt sometimes that she could endure the emptiness of her friends and the conventionality of the Jarrolds no longer. The two old Jarrolds were real enough, in their separate ways, but the rest of them were puppets, manikins, and their acquired conventions were so much waste paper.

VSW does such a good job portraying her snobbish, shallow world of philistines that Evelyn lacks the strength to escape from that it’s hard to find her sympathetic for much of the first half of the novel (even harder to find Miles much more than a selfish brute). What redeems her from the outset is this faltering awareness of the fierce, ‘authentic’ self that refuses to be completely crushed by the ‘puppets’ and their soul-destroying conventions.

It’s interesting that VSW is dealing with the kinds of existential crises that were to preoccupy Sartre and the rest of the Left Bank set a decade or so later.

As her struggle diminishes her depleted emotional and spiritual resources, Evelyn becomes a sad and almost tragic figure, with a kind of nobility that astonishes even her. Near the end she finally finds the strength to be true to herself, and to be firm in rejecting attempts to placate or reconcile her:

This firmness was mysterious, even to her. It seemed to be the reverse of the medal. The medal was stamped on the other side with self-indulgence, softness, luxury, egotism; now she had turned it over and found a certain austerity, pride, and self-sacrifice.

The final section of the novel is deeply moving, I found – more so than The Edwardians. It’s more authentic.

I’ve written about some other VSW novels:

The Edwardians (1930)

All Passion Spent (1931)

No Signposts in the Sea (1961)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 2

The second volume of Virginia Woolf’s collection of her own essays, The Common Reader, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1932, some seven years after vol. 1 – about which I wrote here, here and here

Again the range is wide; there are essays on Donne, novels of Hardy, Gissing and Meredith, prose writings from the ‘strange Elizabethans’ to Swift, Lord Chesterfield, De Quincey, Hazlitt and more. These include such forms as letters, diaries, autobiography and biography. There are less prestigious literary subjects too, from obscure 18C diarist parsons to rumbustious sporting gents. And Beau Brummell – his sad decline from lionised society dandy to shabby, smelly, neglected, lonely old exile in Calais.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader vol. 2: cover

My Vintage Classics paperback edition of 2003

Woolf’s reading was eclectic and formidable; the notes appended show that for each essay she’d consult a daunting set of sources. For the piece on Donne, for example, her reading included, apart from the two-volume edition of poems of 1896 by Chambers and another in two volumes by Grierson (1912), Sir Edmund Gosse’s two-volume Life and LettersLady Anne Clifford…Her life, Letters and Work by GC Williamson, and The Diary of Lady Anne Clifford.

In another post I hope to consider the essays on some of the women writers Woolf discusses. For now I’ll just note a few high points.

In ‘The Strange Elizabethans’ she notes:

Elizabethan prose, for all its beauty and bounty, was a very imperfect medium. It was almost incapable of fulfilling one of the offices of prose which is to make people talk, simply and naturally, about ordinary things.

But when it descends to down-to-earth matters, it’s filled with ‘awkwardness’ – as when Lady Sidney (d. 1586) finds herself cold at night when staying at court, and writes a letter soliciting the Lord Chamberlain for a better room that could have been put ‘more simply and with greater force’ by a housemaid of the same age.

She traces three main phases in the writing career of John Donne. The ‘imperious lover’ is followed by the ‘servile and obsequious’ figure writing eulogies for wealthy patrons, and all the ‘psychological intensity and complexity’ that characterised the satires and love poems changes. From feeling an affinity with the ‘contrasts’ in those earlier works, ‘he leaves us in the lurch’, and becomes ‘more remote, inaccessible, and obsolete than any of the Elizabethans.’

Here is the quality that shines through most of these essays. Woolf has the capacity to get to the essence of a writer’s or a period’s defining qualities and express her insights in often colloquial, unadorned language, to achieve what that first quotation demonstrates the Elizabethans found impossible. There’s a strong sense of a powerful reading intelligence conversing undogmatically with her reader (she’s particularly good on Hardy) – a critical approach that she delineates at length in the final essay in the collection, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’

There she begins:

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

It’s an approach I tend towards in this blog. I can then, as she does, ‘put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence’ which is the essential quality of a reader. Outside of of the ‘heavily furred and gowned’ authorities in the academy, there are no clear laws or rules for readers.

Readers experience ‘a thousand conflicting impressions’ when reading, which we try to order. Then we turn to Defoe, Austen or Hardy ‘better able to appreciate their mastery.’ All this miscellaneous, eclectic, voracious reading served Woolf – and, by extension, all readers – ‘not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people [biographies, autobiographies, etc.], but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers.’

It’s sometimes asserted that literary critical writing – even in the form of a humble blog, provided it’s done thoughtfully – is a kind of creative writing. In my experience in writing this blog there’s a truth in that final remark of Woolf’s. When we talk about literature we ‘remain readers’. But even readers, as distinguished from ‘critics’, have ‘responsibilities’:

The standards we raise and the judgements we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere [blogosphere?] which writers breathe as they work.

What we readers aver about our reading must be ‘well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere’ if it is to have any value. We must judge ‘with great sympathy and yet with great severity’: this she hopes will enrich the world in some way.

These are exacting standards to read and write by. Being a Woolfian ‘common reader’ requires uncommon commitment, but ultimately one has to be able to say, in Woolf’s resounding words that close this entertaining collection:

They have loved reading.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, vol. 1

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader. Vol. 1, Vintage Classics paperback (2003). First published by the  Hogarth Press, 1925

V. Woolf, cover of vol. 1 of The Common ReaderMany of the essays in this first volume of The Common Reader first appeared as book reviews, many of them in the TLS. She revised and reworked this material and added more essays specially written for this collection. She was seeking to produce a shaped text that resembled the kind of reflective conversation that might be held around a Bloomsbury dinner-table on the topic of the art of reading.

I’m about to go on holiday, so intend returning to an examination of these essays in more detail when I return. As a taster, here’s her short introductory essay that acts as a foreword or preface: it explains her intentions and emphasises  what seems to be the unscholarly, amateur and idiosyncratic nature of her enterprise (she tackles some of the major canonical authors, but deliberately includes many obscurities – she clearly sympathised with the obscure ones). This apparently self-deprecatory tone (highlighted by the ambivalent, gender-free use of ‘common’ in conjunction with the notion of ‘reader’) disguises her true serious artistic and personal role and agency as reader and writer, already adumbrated in the character of Rachel in The Voyage Out, her first novel, published in 1915, in which the protagonist’s choice of reading indicates a spirited and independent determination to avoid the literary choices and tastes of the male-dominated (academic) world and its authoritative canon, favouring, for example, the elemental power and wildness of Wuthering Heights over Jane Austen’s more demure depictions of the emotional life of women (there are essays on both subjects in this first volume).

Here she presents her manifesto for her own canon, defending her own approach and literary philosophy and instincts, later mapped out more broadly and systematically in non-fiction works like ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘Three Guineas’. Being a woman and therefore excluded from the benefits of the classical education enjoyed by males of her class, she was conscious of her ‘outsider’ status as a critic  – despite being formidably well read, having access to her father Leslie Stephen’s extensive library – she too was determined to exercise the right to choose her reading and to express her views on what she’d read. Despite the ‘amateur’ tone, then, of this opening essay, she had a serious and positive aesthetic. More on this in later posts, hopefully.

The Common Reader: introductory essay

There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. “ . . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

This could almost serve as a template for those of us who attempt to write blog posts on literary topics: we acknowledge our deficiencies and the superficiality or eccentricity of our criticisms, but strive to ‘write down a few of the ideas and opinions’ – no matter how insignificant – that might just contribute to the distribution of bookish honours. Except, to my mind, ‘honours’ is too grand a term for my own enterprise. I’m content to settle for ‘ideas and opinions’, and hope that they will stimulate thought, debate – and more reading.

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.’

‘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.