Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

This 1938 work is generally recognized as Greene’s first serious novel. And justifiably so, I will now agree. It had not impressed me, however, when I first read it perhaps sixty years ago.

And now I can see why.

Because this is not written in the beautiful, rich style of the serious novels that followed. It features a very gritty style, with metaphors that emphasize the ugliness of nature and the world. But it is nevertheless a true Greene work, as well as his first successful one. Because it is about evil. And about love. And about the two in conflict, the boy Pinkie being evil and the girl Rose not seeing the evil because she is in love.

It is a theme that will become richer, and more subtle, in subsequent Greene novels. It is a theme that naturally rises out of the newly acquired Catholicism of the author as well as the Catholicism of these two characters he has created. But it is not a visible theme until the second half, when Rose’s love blinds her. Indeed, Norman Sherry writes in his biography of Greene that the author had intended that this book to be a thriller, but as he passed the 30,000-word mark, he saw the possibilities in writing about more than a murdering punk; it could also be about a punk who personifies evil.

The story until then revolves around two murders initiated by an ambitious Pinkie. He seeks, through the power of his gang, revenge on a man who has betrayed his leader, who was also a father figure; but he also plots to avoid being blamed for the first murder. Greene explores the Brighton underworld and Pinkie’s efforts to survive it for a greater part of the novel, an approach which frankly turned me off in my first reading long ago. But this time I found it provocative because it was unclear how deep the evil went, and I was curious about where this novel was going.

Where he was going was Pinkie’s conviction that Rose could be a witness against him for the murder that opens the novel. He then pursues her, thinking that if he marries her she cannot, by law, testify against him. And Rose, being both unattractive and untutored in the wiles of men, succumbs to his attention, and then falls in love with him. What makes this relationship even more fascinating is that Pinkie is physically repelled by her, as well as by all women. For he has not only never experienced women, being a virgin and terrified by the idea, but also appears to be a latent homosexual. Or, perhaps, not even latent in Greene’s mind.

And so we have another example of Greene’s fascination with characters torn by internal conflict. Pinkie hates physical contact with women, but must seduce Rose. And Rose wants to live with Pinkie, but soon is convinced she must die with him. Indeed, the climactic moment when Pinkie plots with her to commit a suicide pact together—and we know he does not intend to fulfill his side of the bargain—is the most intense and most accomplished scene in the book.

The resolution of that scene, however, is not convincing, for Greene has taken the easy way out. He has three characters arrive fortuitously on the scene, and interrupt Pinkie’s plans. The most important of the three is Ida, whom we have been following at intervals throughout the novel. She was with the initial murder victim at the start of the novel, and seems to feel some responsibility for letting it happen. She is also, in contrast to the lovers, a very secular person, a believer in Right vs., Wrong, rather than, like the Catholic lovers, in Good vs. Evil. In any event, she is intent on seeing that justice is done and that Rose is saved. Indeed, she has been in pursuit of Pinkie for the second half of the novel. Which does lead to her presence in the climactic scene, when she arrives with a little help from the author.

The Raven of This Gun for Hire and Pinkie here are blood brothers. Each personifies evil, and each is involved with a girl who loves them and prefers to see the goodness inside them. J. M. Coetzee also points out that a death in This Gun prompts the killing that Pinkie commits as revenge at the opening of this novel.

One does ask how Greene could be so effective in portraying these characters on the underside of life. Granted, he wished to explore the nature of evil, and evil flourishes most on that underside. Sherry’s biography clearly shows how Greene researched the Brighton scene, using the race course, the hotels and bars, even the Kolley Kibber character who leaves cards all over Brighton and offers a prize to whomever first identifies him. He also cites actress Mae West, whom Greene recently reviewed, as a model for the spirited, blowsy Ida. As for his knowledge of the evil in these underground characters, Sherry says Greene “was tapping his own fundamental view of mankind and religious belief. What he is demonstrating in the novel is the limitations of religious belief which do not accept the existence of innate evil.”

The title, Brighton Rock, is never explained within the novel. It is a type of hard candy, and critics have assumed that the first murder was committed by stuffing the candy down the victim’s throat. This would make sense, and the title also reflects the hard life for these characters in Brighton. But Greene never makes clear why he chose it, as he chose his other titles.

It seems clear that Brighton Rock marked the turning point in Greene’s literary career. He realized that his new Catholic faith offered the entre with which to explore the contradictions in life between evil and sin on one hand, and human innocence and love on the other. And for literary purposes, this was most present in the sexual desire that drove his own life—desire as an expression of pleasure and also as an expression of love.

This is an ugly work on the surface, in its concentration on evil, in its unsympathetic characters, and in the hard metaphors of its style. But it offers a key to understanding the works to come, especially Power, Affair, and the plays. This is where the external world is replaced by the internal world—and by sin, redemption, and pity. It is where Greene finds his true subject: the contradictions within the human mind and the human soul. (February, 2016)

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)