The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

One can see why this 1943 work is often considered both an “entertainment” and a novel. Because it is both. The entertainment is the story, the intrigue about a gang of spies and a secret microfilm they are trying to sneak out of the country. The novel element exists in the way the story is told, in the mood of wartime London during the blitz and in the probing depth of the various characters, especially that of Arthur Rowe, the main character.

When we meet Rowe he has just been released after the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. He is filled with guilt for what he has done, and the reason he has killed her, he believes, is his sense of pity. This may well be Greene’s first use of that sense, which will culminate with Scobie. Indeed, it is so prominent that Greene’s initial title for this work was, The Worst Passion of All. In the novel, note, these words are followed by, “we don’t outlive it like sex.” But Rowe’s guilt also grows out of a pity for himself, that perhaps it was not his wife’s suffering that bothered him but a doubt of his own ability to witness that suffering.

This is a rich novel whenever we share Rowe’s emotions or his intellect. Indeed, he is a mix of guilt, love, redemption, and memory loss. He has lost his memory when a bomb explodes nearby, and he spends much of the novel not sure he wants to regain it. For he is happy, and he does not want to lose that happiness. Nor do the villains, for they do not want him to remember the cake he has won in a lottery, a cake which contained that microfilm they want to get out of the country.

The mechanics of the plot require Rowe to move about abruptly from setting to setting. Thus, he moves from the charity bazaar to his bombed home; from a séance to a hotel room to a sanitarium after he has lost his memory, being held there by the spies; and finally from tagging along with Inspector Prentice as he pursues the spies to a climax in which Rowe pursues them on his own. Each scene is completely believable, but the transition in each case is somewhat arbitrary. This is especially so when Rowe is trapped in a hotel room and opens a mysterious suitcase, whereupon an ellipses ends the scene. The next scene has Rowe being treated in the spies’ sanitarium for his loss of memory. One critic declares that a bomb has been dropped on the hotel. But is that one bomb too many? For an earlier bomb has dropped on Rowe’s home, enabling him to escape the spies a first time.

There is also a love story, and a not entirely convincing one. For the woman Rowe meets, Anna, the sister of Willi Hilfe, the spies’ ringleader, is not complex enough. In fact, as I recall, Greene was often criticized for the weakness of his female characters. Is she so elusive in this case because Greene, to create suspense, does not wish to reveal which side she is on and how much she can be trusted? In any event, she starts helping Rowe so quickly that her allegiance to him rather than to her brother is not convincing. Nor is the vestige of loyalty that she still has for her brother near the end—introducing a false complexity with no repercussions. But a fine Greene touch at the end offers that the two lovers, Rowe and Anna, will have to lie to each other until the end of their lives (about how much Rowe has regained his lost memory and how much he knows about her brother’s fate).

The Ministry of Fear, one character speculates, is a government agency that rules people through fear, much as Rowe in the sanitarium is being ruled by a fear that his recovered memory will end his current happiness. The psychology of his captors, however, is not entirely convincing, as they try to persuade converts that one’s loyalty is owed to individuals and mankind rather than to a particular society or country.

Arthur Rowe, the main character, is a complex man worthy of Greene. As William Du Bois wrote in 1943 in the Times: “Few writers can distill drama from a twisted soul with more skill than Mr. Greene; few experts in the field would dare to combine all the elements you will find in The Ministry of Fear. The novel begins as a case-history in psychiatry, and ends as a spy hunt…Arthur Rowe is Mr. Greene’s illustration of the schizophrenia that is corroding the world today. Probably no one else would have chosen Rowe as a protagonist. When he ghosts into the novel, he is dank with malaise….And yet, when the story ends, he has developed a strange courage.”

I have not read this novel in nearly 60 years. My first review ended: “In other words, this book can stand a rereading.” And now that I have, I find my reaction to be remarkably similar. That the melodrama, such as the opening auction mix-up and the séance murder, is overshadowed by the literate writing. And I also agree that “the espionage plotting seems worked out by Green to control his hero’s life as much as by the spies themselves.”

Regarding pity, I said: “This novel reaches its peak only when Rowe has forgotten his pity. Why? Perhaps pity is too deep and too real an emotion to supplement a fully external plot, especially when pity seems to be used to give Rowe the character he has and the lonely circumstances he lives in. The pity is turned chiefly on his past, moreover, not onto the events taking place.”

However, I do not agree that the pity applies only to the past. Rowe seems to have some pity for Anna, for this Austrian woman, this refugee who identifies more with English justice than what she has left at home. And he also has pity for Stone, his fellow victim at the sanitarium, as well as for some of the staff. His action at the end even reflects pity for Willi Hilfe.

To sum up, this is a beautifully written melodrama of espionage. Its author introduces various twists, but what follows each twist works. And the novel itself works because Arthur Rowe is complex and believable. He faces dire situations with uncertainty and fortitude, and outmaneuvers shallowly drawn villains. And Greene is always there to probe the novel’s heart, with such lines as: “If one loved one feared.” That one could lose love. And: “Perhaps after all one could atone even to the dead if one suffered for the living enough.” That there is redemption after a mercy killing, but one must earn it. No, Greene never ignores one’s conscience, one’s soul. (June, 2015)

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I have put off reading Morrison for many years, simply not drawn to her portrait of black society. But this is supposed to be one of her best, I thought, so let’s give it a try.

Once I started this 1987 book, however, I was immediately lost. Who is Baby Suggs? What is the relationship among these people? What is going on? Fortunately, there is a Foreword, and in it Morrison explains that she has deliberately dumped the reader into the middle of a complex situation. Because this is what life is, especially for black people, who must react to the world around them, often without help.

However, the relationships among these people remain unclear for some time. Especially when Beloved arrives on their doorstep, a young woman whom Denver, daughter of Sethe, relates to. Who is she? Is she a ghost? Because another baby has died earlier. And this new arrival not only has the same name but is the title character. So we know she is important.

There is also a white woman named Amy, who helps Sethe on the day she bears a child. Sethe is grateful, and learns her last name is Denver, which she likes. That baby appears to be Denver, now a teenager. What is clear is that this episode takes us back in time, that we are dealing here with events on different time levels. Which adds complexity to the relationships.

For a long while we have no reference point for the memories and interaction among Sethe, Beloved, Paul D, a former slave, and others. But with more detail, the relationships begin to come together. This is Faulkner territory to a degree, as we bounce around in time. Thus, Paul D escapes from a Georgia chain gang, moves in with Sethe, boots out a baby ghost, and then runs into the opposition of the newly-arrived Beloved, who suggests both that banished baby and a past returned to haunt the present.

Confusion is amplified as the story continues to move about in time, even introducing a new character, Stamp Paid, a ferryman who brought Sethe to freedom. He tries to persuade Paul D to make a realistic appraisal of Sethe, whom Stamp once found with two children, one covered with blood. Nothing is clearly stated, but the implication is that she has killed one child in order to preserve it from the life she has known. But, unlike in Faulkner, where confusion reigns but is eventually clarified, my frustration continues.

Until we remain in the present, where new details finally begin to make sense. That Stamp Paid stopped Sethe from killing Denver, after she had killed her other child, presumably Beloved, and tells this to a distraught Paul D. That Paul D and Beloved hate each other, and she is triumphant when he leaves after learning this. That Sethe still loves Beloved, and now tries to justify what she did by emphasizing the plight of fellow coloreds. But Beloved refuses to listen; and, as they argue, Beloved gains control over her mother, for Sethe is fearful Beloved will leave.

The climax occurs when Denver seeks a job with Quaker abolitionist Bodwin in order to support Sethe and Beloved, but to get that job she has to reveal the situation at home. Which riles up the local woman, who gather at the house to pray just as Bodwin arrives to pick up Denver. At the height of the action, Sethe rushes from Beloved’s side to attack Bodwin, thinking he is a slave catcher. This act also frees her from Beloved. And from her past?

A chapter later, we learn what happened and that Beloved is gone. The house also appears empty, except the faithful Paul D finds Sethe lying in bed, as grandmother Suggs did before she died. Who was Beloved, the town asks. Did she really exist? A final chapter recalls how she has been forgotten.

To sum up, this novel’s mysteriousness and misdirection certainly hearkens back to Faulkner. Why did Morrison take this approach? Partly, I think, because so much of the action is internal, and that while the life of the colored people is vividly captured, not much happens dramatically in the novel’s present. What happens is offstage or in the past, and often told indirectly, with the emphasis on the reaction to those developments.

As presented here, my interests were too much distributed among Sethe, Denver, Paul D, and Stamped Paid. Might the latter two, in fact, have been combined? And Beloved, torn between being real and being a ghost, is not vivid enough. She is described more through others reacting to her than through her acting on them. She thus becomes a symbol more than a real person. Especially when she is naked at the end, and some outsiders see her and some do not.

This work does not urge me to seek further Morrison. I must work too hard to understand what is going on. Which is deliberate, as I said, for the Foreword states: “I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.”

This is a valid purpose. And the work is beautifully written. But the approach makes it difficult to identify with the characters, as the author both moves from one character to another and moves back and forth in time. This is another case in which the events are not told sequentially. Often this is to hide the lack of a dramatic cause and effect, but here it is also because Morrison is emphasizing the significance of the events rather than the events themselves, and the repercussions of the events rather than their causes.

I can understand why Morrison is thought of so highly. Her message, her portrait of where today’s black society came from, is important. And perhaps requiring the reader to dig for that portrait and its repercussions is a valid means to impress that history on the white reader. But I for one would rather have been so immersed in the fate of these characters—instead of having to figure them out—that the same message would have been implanted in my emotions as much as in my mind. Which, I suggest, is the more traditional literary approach. And one that I am more comfortable with.

I regret my reaction to this work. I am still a conservative in literary terms, however, even if I am liberal in social and political terms. (June, 2015)

Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks

While Banks is one of my favorite authors, I had put off reading this 1998 novel. Who wants to read about John Brown and his violent end? Who wants to relive that history? But I finally picked up this novel, perhaps out of a sense of dedication to Banks, and I was immediately hooked.

Because the work begins with a point of view!

Now, Banks makes clear before the reader begins this work that he has written a novel, not history. So the point of view is that of the narrator created by Banks, which is Owen Brown, one of John Brown’s sons. Owen narrates this story, he says, because he is old and near death, and because he wants the truth to be finally told about his father.

The first truth the narrator establishes is Brown’s commitment to religion, and to the Protestant Bible. Which re-enforces his commitment to honesty, which, in turn, is re-enforced by his strict discipline. The second truth is his blend of ambition and economic incompetence, as both Banks and the narrator seek to firm up the complexity of Brown’s personal, social, and religious convictions.

Frustratingly for Brown, he is too poor to devote all his time to ending slavery. He must first support his family of thirteen. Which leads him into land speculation, at which he is a complete failure and ends deeply in debt. And yet this sympathetic man, who loves his family, and is kind when dealing with others, will completely lose his temper when he feels victimized.

To implement his business ventures, Brown moves from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Massachusetts, a loving but desperate father. Finally, he is given the job of training city Negroes to become farmers; and his two missions come together. This sends him to the Adirondack Mountains, and there is a marvelous description of a long uphill trek with his family and their animals through rain and snow into their new home.

Once in the Adirondacks, Owen moves the emphasis from narrative movement to character, to Brown’s commitment to the Negroes. We see the father’s good heart, with little reference to the violence to come. Meanwhile, Owen reveals a little of himself. Such as what he sees as his weaknesses: that, unlike his father, he has difficulty in seeing black people as human beings, the same as him, and, even more, a difficulty in regarding women as human beings, rather than mysterious persons of the opposite sex. And he also notes that, unlike his father, he does not believe in God.

Which raises a question. Why is Owen the narrator? At first blush, it legitimizes Brown’s portrait by offering a contrast in character. Indeed, after Brown transports one black couple on the Underground Railroad, he thanks Owen for making him aware that he should not kill a bounty hunter. Which is followed by Brown himself defending accusations by the locals against his helping the Negroes. He gives a lengthy church sermon in which he compares himself to a Job who refuses to deny God, despite the evils imposed on him. He will endure, like Faulkner’s Dilsey does.

Gradually, Banks introduces the potential for violence. Brown and his son rescue the newly arrested black couple, and in the process two white men are wounded and a Negro killed. Mercy and justice have their price. Then, Brown and Owen stop in Boston on the way to sell wool in England, and a resentful Owen is beaten by anti-abolitionists he challenges.

But he has acted on his own, and a change comes over him. Then, on the boat to Liverpool, he encounters a girl in despair, and their brief but fascinating conversation awakens him further to his potential, to being independent from his father, even as he continues to believe in him and to support him. And when the father’s strategy to auction his wool in England fails, Owen convinces him to forget his efforts to recoup his wealth and to concentrate instead on his life ambition of freeing the slaves.

The Fugitive Slave Act upset many abolitionists, because any Negro could be arrested and sent South on suspicion of having escaped its owner. Owen (or is it Banks?) speculates that this is what turned his family more radical, more violent, convincing it that it needed to be more active, to stay ahead of the abolitionist curve. Which suggests a rationalization. In any event, Brown sends Owen back to the Adirondacks to run his farm, which is now disorganized.

Owen manages the farm well enough, but then becomes involved with the wife of his father’s black aide, Lyman Epps, a development that is initially not convincing. For it seems to set the stage for some later melodrama. But when Brown, the father, arrives on the scene, he takes over, and the melodrama does not develop. I should have known Banks better.

Instead, there is a dramatic development in a cave that plumbs Owen’s own sense of guilt and sets him on a violent path. Sent to Ohio to forget that guilt, he encounters his brother Fred who, out of his own guilt, commits further violence, this time on himself. With such violence in the family, Owen turns his path west, toward Kansas, where that new territory is a battleground between abolitionists and slave-holders.

Eventually, Brown, the father, also arrives, and the family begins to confront the anti-abolitionists, the Border Ruffians. While the father plans in the name of God, it is Owen who instigates the actual violence, leading their forces through a drunken enemy army and later shooting an enemy sheriff. But his father decides they need to instigate true terror, to show the enemy they mean business. Which Owen, now a changed man, endorses, and leads.

The result is a massacre of five pro-slavery men in Kansas. It is Brown’s conviction that they are about the Lord’s business, while Owen convinces himself that it is to save the Union. That otherwise, the pro-slavery forces will take over Kansas, and their representatives will tip the political balance in Washington to the South, resulting in the North seceding from the Union, the nation split in two, and slavery made permanent.

Yet even as Owen rationalizes the murders as political acts, he compares it to the death he caused in the Adirondacks. He realizes that he intended that death to happen but for it to resemble an accident, and that he later convinced himself that it was. He will also say, in a casual but provocative passage, that the reason he felt love for the Negro’s wife was in order not to love the Negro himself. And since he remains unmarried, we do wonder about his relationship to the Negro cause.

Owen also here addresses his father’s fictional biographer (and the reader), seemingly to emphasize the politics behind the Kansas massacre, and at the same time to explain that his interest here is the internal story of the Browns, not the historic record of the uprising they fomented among the abolitionists in order to preserve Kansas as a free state for the Negroes.

It now becomes clear why Banks wrote this book, through a further rationalizing by Owen, who concludes that because of him the Civil War was fought and the Union saved. This has happened because Owen first went to the Adirondacks to implement the Underground Railroad, then is sent by his father to Ohio, from which, on a whim, he goes to his brothers in Kansas —where his father follows and exerts Biblical authority to free the slaves but where it is Owen who actually leads the family troupe into battle. Therefore, but for Owen, the Union would have dissolved and Negroes remained slaves.

This is a huge conceit on which to build this novel. But it works. And justifies the novel‘s 700+ pages. For this is the personal story. This is where the truth lies, says Banks. Not on the historic record. Of course, I am not the historian to know how much is historically accurate here, and how much Banks has imagined this personal story to substantiate his thesis. Is Owen truly the terrorist behind his father’s violence?

Before the climactic battle at Harper’s Ferry, Banks obviously wants to establish the theme, the meaning, of this novel. With a quote by Owen, he establishes the dual perspective of father and son: “Father’s God-fearing typological vision of the events that surrounded us then was not so different from mine. My vision may have been secular and his Biblical, but neither was materialistic.” That is, both held to the ideal of eliminating slavery.

But son Owen is clearly the main character, and it is his confession we are reading. He has earlier said that one reason he is making the confession is to free the dead from the purgatory he has sent them to by fomenting the violence of their rebellion. In researching his records fifty years later, he has now encountered an old pistol, and he says that after he has completed his confession, “I will, at last, have no longer a reason to live. I will be ready to become a ghost myself, so as to replace in purgatory the long-suffering ghosts this confession has been designed expressly to release.”

And then begins the attack on Harpers Ferry. It has been carefully planned, and seems to begin perfectly, as Brown’s forces occupy the arsenal, the armory, and the rifle factory. But what does not happen is the expected rising up of the Negroes in the area to join forces with the 15 whites and 5 Negroes on the assault. Meanwhile, Southern re-enforcements are heading to Harper’s Ferry from three directions—tragedy advancing from the wings.

Banks ends his long novel on the right note. After Owen imagines the initial assault on Harpers Ferry that he had overheard, he and the author take us back to a climactic meeting in which Frederick Douglass refuses to support Brown’s plea for Negroes to revolt and join the 20-man raiding force.

Owen then climbs the tallest tree, from where he witnesses the arrival of Southern forces, and watches them gradually kill or capture all of Brown’s men. What is less clear is how Owen escapes from that tree. For he is suddenly spotted, and, with bullets striking all around him, he falls to the ground. But apparently the Southerners have been firing from the town, not from beneath his tree, and so when he falls he falls into darkness, picks himself up, and escapes.

The novel also closes with Owen’s speculation of whether he will actually join his father in death these 50 years later, now that his confession is complete. Or whether there is no light, nothing, after death. That his father’s Biblical belief and exhortations were in vain

To sum up, this is not an unusual subject for Banks. Many of his novels have included life not only in upper New York State but also in the South, in the Caribbean, and even in Africa. And it is the relationships between the black and white races that are often the key in those stories. Moreover, Banks himself is from New York State, where John Brown had his base and is buried, and from where he led his assault on the evils of slavery.

The title, Cloudsplitter, also comes from this area. It is a translation of the Indian name for a local mountain, and is turned into a symbol of John Brown himself. For just as the mountain breaks through the clouds, so John Brown broke through the social norms of his era, first by espousing the anti-slavery movement and then by resorting to violence to enforce his reform.

This novel is about history, yes, but it is also about fathers and sons, idealism and reality, clear consciences and guilt, retribution and justice, ends and means, goodness and evil, the devil and God, man’s fate and man’s hopes, and about eternity and an empty future. It is about absolutism, loss, obsession, and about violence as a tool of justice and self-righteousness.

I now read that little is known about the real Owen, making him the ideal person to tell this story, a character that Banks can flesh out to achieve his purpose. Owen loves his father but resents him, believes in him in one moment then steps away, resists his plans then embraces them, claims he wishes to tell his father’s true story but always has himself at center stage, and ranges from a man of action in his youth to a philosopher in old age.

This is a great novel. It is about 19th century America before the Civil War. It is about a family of that era. It is about secular politics against a backdrop of religious zealotry. It is a blend of history and philosophy and human emotions. It is a work of literature whose subject exists on an immense scale, and yet is recreated on a human scale.

I have not read such an important novel as this in many, many years. And to think I almost did not pick it up. (June, 2015)

Elegy for April, by Benjamin Black

It is interesting to read Black after having just read Banville. This Black mystery from 2011 moves forward quite briskly, and yet there is Banville’s familiar richness in presenting the setting and the characters. Dublin lives on these pages, as do those who are searching for answers, both to their life and to the mystery behind the disappearance of April.

The friends of April Latimer, the girl of the title, are desperately trying to find out what happened to their unconventional colleague, while her estranged family claims to have no interest, indeed wants the others to stop their search. The friends are five young people and include Phoebe Griffin, the daughter of Quirke, this series’ pathologist hero. She asks her father to help them find out what happeed to April, and Quirke, in turn, seeks the help of his friend Inspector Hackett, the policeman of this series.

The other friends are the newspaperman Jimmy, the actress Isabel, and the black, educated Nigerian, Patrick. Jimmy is not a suspect; he is just curious as a reporter. Nor is Isabel, but she catches the eye of Quirke, and a romance adds a potential new touch to the series. And Patrick is too obvious a suspect to be one. Plus, neither they nor the reader know if April has disappeared on her own, or has died at someone’s hand.

On the other hand, all the Latimers act suspiciously, as they try to forestall the investigation. These include April’s mother Celia; her brother Oscar, a doctor; and her uncle William, a government minister who is the brother of her dead father Conor, an Irish revolutionary. Do they know if April is alive or dead? Were they involved in her disappearance? They all do seem to be hiding behind the desire to protect the family’s reputation.

What makes this work so interesting is not really the fate of April. It is the relationships. Of Quirke with his daughter Phoebe. As well as with Inspecrtor Hackett. And also with the actress Isabel. Plus the relationships among the five young people, first April’s with everyone, and then the black Patrick’s with everyone. Not to mention the Latimer family and their various negtive feelings about April.

And as mentioned earlier, the novel comes alive in its descriptions. From the mists of November to the freezing air of December. From Dublin’s streets and cafes to its parks and waterways. From office interiors to mansion rooms to dark stairs in dingy apartments. All of which becomes richer through the responses of Quirke, Phoebe, and Hackett to both the poverty and the wealth that they enounter.

The least effective section of the novel is the denoument. First, because it stems from Quirke’s sudden flash of memory regarding a moustache. The reader is aware of this moustache but has no reason to recall it, because it is slipped in so casually. And second and more significant, because this is another tale in which, once accused, the villain quickly confesses. So conveniently, author Black. And the confession becomes a long drawn out scene in which the villain keeps flashing a gun. Will he use it? How will he use it? And on whom?

The villain’s motive, on the other hand, reveals evil personified. And makes convincing why the Latimer family wanted to conceal the truth of April’s disappearance. But this powerful motive that tries to jar us at the end seems too much tacked on, as if the author decided to come up with something truly evil to achieve a final impact.

And so, yes, one is interestd in more mysteries by Benjamin Black. But less because of the mysteries themselves than because of the people. And less in the solutions to come than in the relationships inside the Quirke family, as well as their always interesting interaction with the Dublin environment. (May, 2015)