Graham Greene never loitered, intentionally or otherwise. The writer who emerges from Richard Greene’s (no relation) new biography let wanderlust transform him into a polymath, comfortable with writing screenplays and film reviews, amiably distant from his children while committed to a Catholicism he on occasion interrogated. Crisply written if often miserly about analysis, The Unquiet Englishman works best as a travelogue: other cultures interested Greene, and the interactions didn’t result in slobbering encomia to empire.
Me, I took a while to warm to him. Once a permanent fixture on high school curricula, his novels still sell, I suppose, because I see minor things like Orient Express on Banes & Noble shelves. The transparency of his prose tends toward vaporousness; he’s best with set pieces, people in flight. Brighton Rock impressed me four years ago, and I found The Comedians a scabrous depiction of Duvalier-era Haiti in which the awfulness of the characters doesn’t mean none are guilty. Otherwise his so-called entertainments like Our Man in Havana have more resonance than the skillful Serious Work (The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter).
Why Open City moved me less than it did James Wood, et. al., despite my affection for André Breton’s Nadja, the novels of W.G. Sebald, and flâneur lit in general, will mystify me for a while. A certain credible accusation hurled at the protagonist troubled me less than the tinniness of Julius’ observations. He diagnoses our culture too well, too on-the-nose, or, rather, Teju Cole doesn’t stop diagnosing: even the banality of visiting a tailor shop becomes an excuse to tag a couple of pensées about privacy and such. We expect prescience from our novelists, alas, so let me at least note this Tea Party-era observation rippled outward a decade later:
A cancerous violence had eaten into every political idea, had taken over the ideas themselves, and for so many, all that mattered was the willingness to do something. Action led to action, free of any moorings, and the way to be someone, the way to catch he attention of the young and recruit them to one’s cause, was to be enraged. It seemed as if the only way this lure of violence could be avoided was by having no causes, by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties. But was that not an ethical lapse graver than rage itself?
Answer your own question. To do so, however, would cause “magnificently” to shimmer with an irony Cole would not have intended. Only an aspirant toward the “isolation” of the mandarin could walk around Manhattan connecting this building and that neighborhood friend to a minor character in a Jane Austen novel or to Nabokov’s Pnin while wondering why a Moslem friend trembles with rage.
Teju Cole – Open City
Elizabeth Taylor – A Wreath of Roses
John Le Carré – A Most Wanted Man
Edith Wharton – The Touchstone
Michael Holt – By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876
Richard Greene – The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Green
Vladimir Nabokov – The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
James Lacey – The Washington War: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Power That Won World War II
Shakespeare – Henry IV, Part Two
Ralph Ellison – Juneteenth
Iris Murdoch – The Black Prince
Charles Mann – 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus