Pico Iyer Journeys

Fairy-Tales for Adults

There is a square in Mexico, just across the border, where a foreigner is sitting, looking at the bright lights, the big hotels across the bridge. Like everyone in town, he’s also been watching another foreigner–a reflection of himself, we somehow feel–who is, as it happens, a celebrated con man, in flight from his creditors, now in the habit of taking a walk around the square every day with his dog. The observer feels a kind of kinship with the observed–he, too, we sense, is in flight from something–and seems to relish the fact that, this being Mexico, everyone in town knows the other man is a criminal, except the two foreign detectives sent to find him. When at last they do catch up with their prey, they quickly befriend him, and the crook’s safety looks to be guaranteed.

Then, however, his dog runs away, the foreigner goes across the bridge in pursuit–and is hit by a car driven by one of the detectives. The dog bays pitiably beside his master.

“It was comic and it was pitable,” the narrator says, “but it wasn’t less comic because the man was dead.” Nor, one might add, less pitiable. “It all seemed to me a little too touching to be true,” he confesses, “as the old crook lay there with his arm around the dog’s neck, dead with his million between the money-changers’ huts, but it’s as well to be humble in the face of human nature.” Art, he might be saying, is seldom so neat (or cynical) as one might wish.

To some, perhaps, such a scene might sound almost like a parody of Graham Greene: when an English magazine once ran a competition, asking its readers to send in a parody of Greene, by some accounts, the author himself sent in an entry, and came second. Yet all that is strong and touching about Greene is caught in the short vignette, written before any of the major novels came out: the love of paradox, the surrender to a sense of human frailty that makes all paradox redundant, the position on the wrong side of the border, among the fallen, and the sense of companionship being often no more than a fellowship of thieves, but no less real for that. “The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden,” writes Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian, “lives in mystery and fear.” So, too, Greene might suggest, does the man who knows that the secrets of the world are forever known.

Greene’s ability to weave wistfulness and comedy together, his skill at constructing emotional and political spider webs so intricate that the lightest touch leaves them shaking, has often meant that his short fiction has been overlooked. The classic masters of short stories (Chekhov, say, or Greene’s friend and contemporary V.S. Pritchett) are masters of a single mood, or character, or air of ironic humanity; Greene’s characteristic domain, by comparison, was doubleness. Divided loyalties were his thing, conflicted feelings. To play out the full logic of a man reaching out for a man he distrusts, or a swindler doing good things for bad reasons, he seemed to need the measured space of a tightly plotted novel.

Yet the stories collected at four points in his career, written over a course of sixty years, catch their elusive maker in silhouette, in a way, and sometimes, less distracted by protagonist and plot, show us more of him than do any of the novels. With perhaps typical perverseness, Greene structured his first collection of stories backwards, beginning with the last and ending with the earliest (as if to chronicle a passage towards innocence); but even the smallest of them, like that story on the frontier, have titles (“Across the Bridge”) that suggest they were aiming at something more. Sometimes amusements, sometimes parables, sometimes ways for him to try out a mood or idea, sometimes just “escapes,” Greene’s stories show us the writer in his off hours, less guarded.

You can draw certain conclusions about his development when you read them in one place: noting, perhaps, that he made a more attractive older man than a young one, because his sense of human folly and confinement was mixed with a sense of fun and youth–seen from a distance–or realizing how the youthful stories are often preoccupied with disenchantment, where the later ones rejoice in their freedom from illusion. The earliest pieces here, frank in their restlessness and anger, end often in murder, where the final ones are haunted by death, the damage no longer done to others but oneself. Yet what haunts one most of all, reading them all at once, is how much his concerns were steady from the beginning, even as they took in more tolerance and irony. Nearly all the stories, it seems to me, are about innocence, and turn upon the fact that the innocent, those still inside the Garden, long for adventure, danger, flight; while those on the far side of the fence wish that they could go back again.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Greene was least able to take on this theme, or to approach it, when he was youngest. His earliest exercises are largely set in England, which is to say the familiar and the gray; when wartime comes, with its austerities and precautionary rites, its long bureaucratic corridors and paper shuffling, it seems only to intensify a sense of privation that was there from the beginning. In the first set of short fiction Greene published, initially entitled 19 Stories, and then 21 Stories, the mood is sullen, often violent. The stories with the most everyday titles–“A Drive in the Country” or “A Little Place off the Edgware Road”–are taken up with darkness, a sense of oppression. The mere recitation of English place names–“Maidenhead” is a recurring favorite–carries a kind of salacious charge, and the overall mood can best be caught by the sound of “Fetter Lane” and “Leadenhall Street.”

Indeed, those who know that a Catholic writer is behind the pieces may be surprised at how little solace there is in them–or will have to adjust, at least, to a provisional believer’s sense that redemption is a never-ending if. Greene was as singular a Catholic as he was everything else, and the faith he took on at the age of 23 seems never to have left him with a sense of happy endings. His interest, in fact, is almost never in what is above us, and almost always in what lies beneath, often quite literally. Everything that lies below the conscious mind, or the bland surface of our formal lives: the Underground and the basement. When writing of a king’s jubilee, Greene concentrates, quite typically, on a gigolo (dressed like a “retired Governor from the Colonies”) and a madam, each taking the other for something else, but bound together in a kind of companionship. As the two of them carry on their conversation in a hotel lounge, the most commonplace phrases–“trips to the London underworld,” “I cleaned up the streets”–acquire a happily shaded second meaning. Greene was always interested in the parts of us (sometimes better) we don’t acknowledge.

The archetypal early story, in that regard, may well be “When Greek Meets Greek,” in which all four of the characters, as in classic Greene, are con men, who are somehow innocent enough to believe that their deceits are cunning–and, more than that, innocent enough to fall for another con man’s devices. As a fraudulent schemer pretending to be the head of an Oxford college hands over a diploma to a would-be lord, in some borrowed rooms in London (while the young accomplices of each go off, linked together, just as the older men hoped), one comes upon the perfect Greenian tableau in which lack of virtue is rewarded and errant trust becomes a kind of faith. From here it is not a very long step to the whisky priests of his first great novel, The Power and the Glory, who, for all their shabbiness and impiety, can perform a mass, or administer simple human compassion, as well as any cardinal.

Insofar as Greene was drawn to the shabby or the secret–a charge he always denied–it was because he was always unable to turn away from the human, or to give up on the prospects of even the most motheaten. Many of these early stories are inchoate, or mere scenes almost, but in the richest of them you can see the smiling skeptic of Our Man in Havana or Travels with my Aunt. Greene never had an entirely innocent reading of the world–he seems to have been something of an ironist at birth–and yet he never lost a due respect for childhood and for all the things we do when we don’t know better. And it is the stubborn, recidivist innocence of even the con men in his stories that makes them so endearing; we laugh at them from a distance, and then realize that we’re somehow within them, and on their side.

There is a story in that first collection actually called “The Innocent” and in it Greene reveals another factor that complicated his abiding sense of loss. A character not dissimilar to his maker goes back to his drab boyhood hometown–Bishop’s Hendron–to rummage through the past. On his arm, though, is a woman he’s just picked up, one Lola, who, of course, contradicts with her every movement the search for innocence he’s undertaking. One part of Greene, one feels, was always eager to poke away at what he’d left behind, the root of him, while another was hungry for the worldly and the new. In his finest stories the language of both moods comes together in the sound of a well-bred diffidence trying to tamp down something stronger. “She wasn’t anything in particular,” says the narrator of “Across the Bridge,” of another Lola, “but she looked beautiful at a distance.”

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