A Study in Greene
Oxford University Press, 2006
Reviewed by François Gallix
The title—a subverted version of the first Sherlock Holmes—A Study in Scarlet, the jacket illustration specially designed for Bergonzi, the mysterious Brighton Rock suggesting the probable weapon used by Pinkie to murder Hale, and the pun on the colour name codes that Greene enjoyed making are a perfect introduction to Bergonzi’s book.
Brighton Rock is also Bergonzi’s favourite novel by Greene which he considers to be a modern indecipherable text and one of the masterpieces of the first half of the twentieth century. The first pages set the general tone : “tongue in cheek,“ Bernard Bergonzi, emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick and one of the world’s experts on Graham Greene, explains that he aims at the common reader, hoping that the academics will also get the message! Obviously, his friend David Lodge—another Greenian expert—is not very far off and is, in fact, often quoted. There is therefore no risk of what Greene made every effort to avoid, boredom, in this quest for the Greene Man! Many asides like “In The Comedians, the mortality rate is very high, even for a Graham Greene novel“ illustrate the fact that we are not reading a cold, austere manual of criticism.
The motivation behind this publication is Bergonzi’s impatience after reading the introductions to the new editions published for the centenary of Greene’s birth, which he finds too promotional and biographical, with the exception of Zadie Smith’s, which he appreciates and quotes several times. The refusal of a biographical approach has not prevented Bergonzi from analyzing Greene’s personal mythology, built over the years and transposed in most of his works (his childhood reading, the sense of the frontier, his attraction to suicide and his conversion to Catholicism).
The critic never hesitates to make personal choices. He is not keen on The Quiet American but thinks Our Man in Havana is “a highly accomplished comedy“; he considers The Lawless Roads to be a complex literary text—much more than a mere travel book—and sees The End of the Affair as one of Greene’s few first-person narratives to have a credible female character (like Conrad, Greene was often criticized for the lack of authenticity of his women characters).
Bergonzi prefers Michael Shelden’s caustic biography for its relevant critical appreciations to Norman Sherry’s three-volume hagiography (which, however, in my opinion, remains extremely useful to scholars thanks to the detective work of the biographer and to his extensive knowledge of Conrad—which inspired Greene to select him to be his biographer). The critic refutes some of his predecessors’ arguments, questions what he had himself published in the 80s when he had stated that The Comedians was one of Greene’s best novels, reconsiders what he had written in Reading the Thirties (1978), and gives a greater literary impact to The Power and the Glory amongst Greene’s works.
Bergonzi’s study is essentially critical and literary. Greene’s writing is analyzed through its multiple aspects: the influence of Imagist poetry, of Mass Obvervation (in Brighton Rock, notably), the blending of realism and fables. The considerable impact of his illustrious mentors is constantly recalled: Joseph Conrad, even if Greene feared to fall totally under his influence, Ford Madox Ford, whose Good Soldier he re-read several times.
It is difficult to make a choice from among the very rich pages of Bergonzi’s book. We can particularly select the role of morality and Elizabethean and Jacobean plays in the writing, the themes and the distribution of characters in The Power and the Glory and also the interpretation he gives of cinematic writing, based on Sergei Eisenstein, which inverses the usual assumption and suggests that it is the cinema that got its inspiration from the novel’s narrative techniques rather than the contrary.
It is also a complete inventory of Greene’s works from his first novels to his last books during almost sixty years of writing from 1929 to 1988. All the Greenian themes are evoked and analyzed: betrayal (see Conrad)—as early as The Man Within, a strong leaning towards melodrama, an obsession for suicide. The Greenian figure that comes out of Bergonzi’s book is finally that of an exceptional news reporter, a clear-sighted critic, a crafty script-writer and, above all, an unconventional novelist whose way of writing, hidden under an apparent facility, is in fact that of a dramatic poet.
Bergonzi ends with a wish : “I hope people will go on reading Greene, but read him differently, and perhaps read him better.“ This is certainly not just paying mere lip-service