Their theme, always, is innocence, but it is innocence observed from afar, innocence threatened or already spoiled. Like the worldly Frenchmen that he loved, Greene was a connoisseur of those grown-up truths that make honesty, often, the worst policy, and kindness a form of cruelty wearing a smiling face. In a particular favorite of mine, “Mortmain” (the name becomes more unnerving because it never actually appears in the story), a small chapter of marital bliss becomes a wry story of the Fall. The moments of greatest innocence or hope, these stories suggest, are precisely the ones that portend the greatest doom. Innocence is a liability because it can’t see beyond its rosy expectations.
Greene always wrote of innocence with the knowing poignancy of one who knew better, but sometimes wished he didn’t; with the earnestness, even, of one who longs for a kind of justice, while knowing that infallible justice seldom comes to mortals. He pledged himself to a faith that would always leave him disappointed: in a careworn hope somewhere between the complacency of the solid believer and the nonchalance of the skeptic. In the title story, a biographer of Rochester, like our author, encounters a near-virgin on her honeymoon, and, of course, her innocence begins to corrupt his experience; a part of him wishes to protect her, while another part longs to take advantage of what she has. “The more you love,” a schoolboy paraphrases his doctor, in another story, “the greater the danger.” And the perspective of the story is that of a man close to the end who sees “that at the end of what is called `the sexual life’ the only love which has lasted is the love that has accepted everything, every disappointment, every failure and every betrayal, which has accepted even the sad fact that in the end there is no desire so deep as the simple desire for companionship.” When “Je ne regrette rien” sounds in his head, it elicits more sadness than relief in one approaching death who feels he has almost everything to regret.
All the compression of the novels is alive and rich in these pages (Henry Hickslaughter trudges towards “the shallow end” of the pool), and even the smallest sentences, sometimes, can set off an almost silent detonation. “Suddenly,” he writes of another couple returning from its honeymoon, ‘it was autumn when they arrived back in London.” Autumn haunts everything in these final sunlit tales, whether the boarded-up Striptease parlor on the beach or a nickname (“Poopy”) so funny that it becomes quite sad. The sense of amusement is everywhere, too–you can hear the private hell and horses’ confinement hiding out in the name “Josephine Heckstall-Jones”–but the humor is always spiked and deepened by the sadness. The stiff man carrying an overnight case on a plane claims it contains not embezzled money or illicit drugs, but a dead baby. The name of the “little grey man” is Henry Cooper (in life, that name belonged to England’s most prized heavyweight boxer).
” `That’s wonderful,’ he said sadly, ‘wonderful,’ ” we read in another story, and are reminded of how Greene could violate the writer’s rule never to use adverbs, simply by putting such English on them.
Comedy and human frailty together: that is the particular blend of Greene at his strongest, sitting in the shadows with his “splinter of ice” and quietly mocking the character who suddenly becomes too vulnerable for the author’s liking, or for ours. In perhaps the strongest of all the tales in this volume, “Cheap in August,” Greene introduces us to a scene that seems to offer all the easy satire and simple delight of a jeu d’esprit. A woman is on holiday in Jamaica, and, like many a Greene character, she’s longing for danger and adventure during her rare freedom from a good, clean, all-American husband. “After ten years of being happily married, she thought, one undervalues security and tranquility.”
A Jamesian story in reverse, one thinks: an Englishwoman longing to be educated in some form in the New World. Stories about women alone on holiday in the tropics, and not getting any younger, tend to follow a familiar itinerary. Her search for romance or “ambiguity” will meet with a sticky end, we assume, and our expectations of gentle irony are met when the one redeemer she encounters is an overweight aging American who might be a compound of what Greene, and even his characters, regard as laughable. Even his shoes are of the kind “known as co-respondent.”
We read along, towards the expected comic, perhaps comforting, climax–maybe they’ll find a surprising kind of love together–when the door swings open, and there is exactly what we didn’t expect: a figure of fun seen on his bed in tears, lonely, fragile, and terrified of the dark. Coming from a writer who is writing more and more of death as he nears his seventies, it takes on an extra poignancy and strength. There’s no great concentration on the exotic setting, there’s no particular complication of plot. There is simply a sudden lurch into human frailty and the longing to be held and loved. The reader, embarking on the story with the wish to be amused, suddenly finds that she’s involved. And the person who commands our sympathy is precisely the one we knew was there only as a comic prop. We’re on the border again, we see, but this time we know that it separates something much more universal than just Mexico and America.