Monday, August 11, 2008

Review of The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Before I get too far along, if you're the sort of irresponsible reader who (like me) has gone this far without reading The Quiet American, be advised that this review contains spoilers. Normally, I don't get too worked up over ruining the suspense of something over fifty years old, and canonical (or if it's not on the short list, I agree that it deserves to be), but here's one where the ending caught up to me late. It took the author's hand to make me realize that there was depth to the mystery of Alden Pyle's death, and I'd offer another reader the chance to still get that feeling of awakening as Greene bolts his so theme neatly into place. But that theme is a lot of what I feel like discussing, so consider yourself duly warned.

The novel takes place in Viet Nam during the French occupation, rather notably before the American one, and it's a nation whirling in colonial and civil conflict, with bloody front lines protecting unsteady cosmopolitan zones of Vietnamese urbanites, Chinese businessmen, French authorities, American missions of various types, and any number of international correspondents. Pyle, as the title says, is a quiet American, a bookish, well-bred kid from Boston who is set apart from his loud, uncultured countrymen by what the narrator, Thomas Fowler, repeatedly calls innocence. Part of Greene's brilliance is in setting up a contrast between what's shown and what's told, and to pick apart Pyle as a character (about half of my scribbles are attempts at dissecting him) takes some serious wringing of that noun. Pyle is far from guiltless, and if he's deluded, he's got unusual blindnesses, it's not right to say he's naive about human suffering. Here's Pyle poling his barge alone in the dark up a river swollen with floating corpses, here he is wooing Fowler's girlfriend, there he is reducing lives to bloody bits exactly as planned. Pyle does those things competently, and without damage to his self image. His ego is not fragile, and if there's innocence, it lies wrapped up in childish beliefs about the value of love, chastity, friendship, the magic of growing up, and, perhaps especially, of Democracy. His courtship must be played out on a fair field with unspoken rules, a friendly competition, but the lives of soldiers and bystanders are beneath his notice. If Pyle were written as a caricature, he'd be funny, but he's taken seriously by Fowler and certainly taken seriously by himself. If his warped morality is an affectation, Greene never lets the shell break, not even under the force of Fowler's exquisitely bitter verbal assaults.

Pyle's interest in war is an academic one, some febrile understanding of grand currents of ideas (democracy and communism, a "third force"), and Greene is good at pointing out how reputed grand designs reduced to practice: young soldiers huddling in a guard tower, casually murdered families, a peasant boat obliterated without warning from the sky, the banal lies about necessity of murder. There is no countervailing notion of nobility of the soldier's duty, and the stronger message comes from the fact that Fowler has a better view of the civilian sphere, both in terms of policy and of consequences, he can see how the former is empty, and the latter is hopelessly violent. Fowler is a reporter, a professional cynic, and maintains a stated neutrality on the conflict. He witnesses horrors with a steady eye, but every one adds up and weighs on him. On the outside, it could be believed that his betrayal of Pyle (there's the spoiler) was over romantic contention, but it's clear by the text that the man had seen one too many children killed for idealistic ends. Pyle is not the man that's forced to grow up in this novel.

The political and the romantic are not separate conflicts. It's important here that Pyle is American, Fowler is English, and Phuong, their mutual love interest, is Vietnamese. I read it as representing a larger contention between the old colonialists (as Pyle calls the British) and the new, and a great deal of the mixed-up love and contempt that Fowler feels for the young man is brotherly. They share some common traits, their bad dancing overlaps in their respective pursuits of Phuong, they keep themselves apart from their peers (from other reporters and other Americans respectively), and undertake a patronizing sort of love for Phuong, neither quite able to understand her character. And they are undeniably drawn to one another. Pyle feels a depth of friendship for Fowler that is incongruous with how the men treat one another, and Fowler, in his personal asides, takes more protective notions about Pyle's evident guilelessness than the young man earns. Together, they sniff and bat paws like contenders for alpha male status, but remain members of the same pack. If Phuong also represents her nation, her character remains unpenetrated by either of the overly intellectual men, and for the abuse she receives, she remains lovely and simple. But surely Fowler is as wrong to regard Phuong as innocent as he is Pyle.

On that allegorical plane (sorry Kevin), it can't have been lost on Fowler (who'd reported in India) that Britain has as bloody hands as any Empire. Indeed, his self-awareness is his misery. While Greene, through the journalist, makes brilliant rhetorical points on the American character, the difference between the older and younger world-spanning brothers is one of style, the distaste is for the particular set of lies Americans tell themselves as they repeat another bloody cycle of imperial history. Fowler's cynicism is based on experience, his contempt is for youth as much as for anything else, and not just Pyle's youth, and maybe not just America's. Near the end of the novel, Fowler finally sees fit to reminisce on his own idealism in context of the dead young American's. Fowler claims neutrality in the local events, but it's really just a different version of Pyle's put-upon innocence, a more developed, grown-up version of it. Fowler's neutrality, his love, his very horror at the conflict, also have the consequence of murder.

At the heart of a cynic, you'll often find a broken romantic. Greene's touch is often droll, and while love, pain and guilt are what this novel is about, the main characters habitually hide these things behind various masculine (and probably undiscovered feminine) disguises. It's spare, it's bitter, it's witty, but it's not that Hemingway he-man crap, there's no hidden nobility in the pose. When Fowler admits that he hurts, that he causes hurt, it's the more powerful. This is a novel to break through detachment.

ADDENDUM: Okay, so I haven't seen the most recent movie adaptation, but I'm interested. Michael Caine is a brilliant choice for Fowler--I can't think of anyone who could better communicate the cynicism, the emotion, and the killer arguments--but unfortunately he needs to be about thirty years younger. I like the idea of Brendan Frasier as Pyle, he looks right, and he may even be an underrated talent. I mean, he really carried Encino Man.

10 comments:

Artemesia said...

Excellent review Keifus..

I think Graham Greene (like many novelists) knows one thing well and would like us to know it too.

Conscience is a quality that is usually faked, imitated, or used to decrease one’s taxes via donations to causes, charity or deductible cultural affairs.

Because real conscience demands empathy and the ability to feel inside another person’s shoes, we have more lies than ever before to justify why we kill, why we hurt others, why we really don’t give a damn. We have stress, not feeling; lawyers and preachers, but no real heart.

Graham Greene goes into the field where conscience could be born, but shows us the arrows of Eros, loosed by Jesus pausing in mid flight: stopped by the crust of duty to one’s class, colonialism and the commandment to know one’s own kind eschewing all others.
A

Keifus said...

Thanks for the intriguing comment. I think you're exactly right about Greene's focus. I've read three of his novels now, and this failure of empathy in his characters, or failure to get past oneself, is a recurring theme in each of them, almost to the exclusion of all others. But I have to give him points for the relevant framing of that point here (Pyle has been promoted, if anything), and also for really good writing.

I think one thing that sets these books apart from other cerebral character studies, is that Greene concentrates on the external consequences so much. And while it's important, I don't think I've caught him actually writing a character's empathy yet. More often, he brings us to a point just short of connection (at great psychological expense to his characters) but he clearly shows his readers the harm caused by its absence.

Artemesia said...

I'd put Graham Greene in the context of writers parallel to his psychological concerns in the portraits and types they presented with their characters: Camus, The Stranger and The Plague, Sartre in his trilogy, The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Troubled Sleep, together called Roads to Freedom.

The Frence are more philosophical and seem to know why their characters are who they are, but Graham has the same questions from a personal moral angle. He was a converted Catholic but did not believe in 'sin' or the Churches prohibitions against birth control..He was in pursuit of grace as a potential for personal revelation and aspiration, but endows his characters with limitations that preclude receiving or arriving at 'grace.' The French have already dismissed religion as the potential for any of their characters, but Graham and the French are equally existential and waiting..in vain perhaps, for any character of theirs to take the next step that would redeem humanity into a new social consciousness and responsibility in their lives and to society as a whole. They are all writers of dilemna..and I think have not been surpassed by the new kids on the block whoever they are.
A

Keifus said...

Thank you for the context, Artemesia. From that list, I've only read The Stranger, but I can definitely take your comparison that far, and see what you mean. About Greene, that's a more succinct and accurate generalization than anything I'd been stuttering about.

It's polite to avoid the temptation of connecting a novel too close to an author's personal story, I suppose, but it's hard to leave Greene's odd biography alone. I was going to add that writing characters who don't achieve grace or that next level of social consciousness (I'd have said empathy yesterday, and felt it was not quite right) may reflect a personal difficulty with those things, or at least difficulty writing them, even as he cares about people in the abstract. I considered calling it a brilliant work-around, writing powerfully about something, without actually writing that something.

Another thing I didn't want to include it in the review (only because I mentioned it in the last one) is that these dilemmas, this richness of character, doesn't extend to women one bit. I don't know that he's mean to them, but it's as if they're too foreign for him or his characters to describe as people, to get in their heads, and if he tries a similar work-around, it's less convincing. There was a little girl in The Power and the Glory who may have broke the mold, but she didn't get to be a Greene woman.

Also, while I'm at it, he takes a similar view of the Law across these three books as well. His police are all basically the same character, but in their case, an interesting and complicated one. They're good people in a way that he doesn't dwell on for soldiers, but the law is an arbitrary and brutal machine, and these complex and affable men, its agents, are not to be trusted. If his protagonists fail at some version of Catholic grace, perhaps these men fail at some version of an Adversary, fail upward that is.

Artemesia said...

Interesting, what you said about Greene's lack of depth in writing about women characters..For many men writers/non writers, women are the pool that their Narcissus gazes into; objects to play off, springboards for their conflicts/heroics or pathos (Hemingway)..

Some writers in contrast to that have been: Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Henry James, Hardy, Dreiser, Somerset Maugham and Flaubert.

The subject of women writers who can create enduring women characters can get too complicated to go into here, so will leave that for a review of yours that may raise that subject.

I see you've left the cosmic allegory for a while! No more bedtime reading?
A

Keifus said...

Well, his primary ones are like simple alien jewels, the overly intellectual men can't really get them, even when they try to. It's not meant to imply that there's nothing inside (I think), it's just that it's really hard for anyone to see it. It could be mitigated if they ever got a point of view.

I may go back to the allegory thingie, or not. I had a few more I wanted to do, but got tired of it. (Bedtime reading?)

Artemesia said...

Bedtime reading..I thought you read to your daughter and that she also recommended books she liked! Didn't you review a few of them a while back?

Keifus said...

My bad. I thought you were talking about the same thing there, and was confused. Bedtime reading with the girls hasn't ended, but what with camps and projects, and really awful schedules (and one daugter bored stiff by it), it's hard to get it in as often as we'd like. Currently, we're almost done with this one. (Cute, but not as brilliant as I remember reading in 5th grade.) I'll be sure to report.

Veronica said...

Laughing at the Encino Man comment. Great review.

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