Tuesday, May 08, 2007

More Greene

Just off Essex Road in Islington is one of those increasingly rare all-purpose junk shops: dusty and distressed furniture, foxed mirrors, worm-eaten gilt picture frames, chipped shepherdess figurines, rusted Oxo tins . . . And books too, of course. There’s always a rack of them set up outside, and on Sunday I bought a couple of Penguin paperbacks for less than the price of a pint of beer. A post-war Mr Polly, the spine a little chipped but the red cover still bright, and a slightly waterstained edition of two of Graham Greene’s stories made into films, ‘The Third Man’, and ‘The Fallen Idol’.

Rereading ‘The Fallen Idol’, I was struck afresh by the vivid precision and precise concision of its structure and imagery, and the brilliant conceit of using a seven-year-old boy as the viewpoint in a story about an adulterous affair involving the boy’s parents’ butler. The boy is damaged for life by what happens, but it’s the butler’s wife comes of worst, in all senses. It’s necessary for the story that she be unsympathetic, of course - as far as the boy is concerned, she’s a figure of unwelcome authority that spoils his fantasies, a nightmare intruder who at one point is described as a witch. And because she is such an unsympathetic character, we are able to feel sympathy for the butler, betrayed by the boy’s innocence. Yet I can’t help wondering about how different the story might be if the child left in the care of the butler and his wife had been a little girl; how she might have colluded with the cheated wife instead of the cheating husband, and how she might have been ruined in quite a different way.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Sergey said...

Wow, Paul, Graham Greene is one of mine favourite English writers. Brilliantly translated in Russian.
His prose is so visual, atmospheric, bright... There were some fims based on prose by Greene(I saw new "Quiet American"), but IMHO his texts are much more impressive than the imagination of the film-directors.

May 14, 2007 8:39 PM  
Anonymous Paul McAuley said...

Hi Sergey,

Well, you can't beat The Third Man and The Fallen Idol for good writer/director collaboration. I think the Ministry of Fear is pretty good too, and The Comedians has its moments. But on the whole Greene hasn't done too well out of the movies (and of course his career was almost wrecked by an injudicious review of a Shirley Temple movie). The new Quiet American was pretty good, though; shame the distributors had a failure of nerve post 9/11. Greene still looks prescient today. And he doesn't waste a word, does he?

May 16, 2007 8:40 PM  

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