Sunday, 5 December 2010

"The Ministry of Fear" by Graham Greene

What a pleasure to come across a book that one has read many years ago (in the 70s in my case) and find that it really is just as wonderful as you remember it having been. Back then, of course, everybody read Greene, but he seems to have fallen out of fashion. Why is this, I wonder? Perhaps because publishing a book these days is as much about promoting the author's future books as it is about the work in question, and with a dead author of course, there can be no future works. Ditto media rights, although The End of the Affair was filmed as recently as 1999 (Greene died in 1991).

The Ministry of Fear was itself filmed in 1944, though some of the characters' names were changed for no apparent reason, and from the very first pages it has the atmosphere of the sort of wartime thriller that used to be two-a-penny (or, more accurately, two-a-shilling for those of you who remember bobs and tanners). Exactly the sort of story that could have been written by any of the screenwriters who dashed off scripts about menacing men in raincoats standing under lamp-posts, and sudden deaths in mysterious circumstances in darkened rooms.

The difference is, of course, that Greene takes this staple fare but transforms it into a serious novel, often mixing fact, perception, idea and random observation in the same paragraph. We are, we learn dealing with somehow who thinks of himself as a murderer, having been the perpetrator of a mercy killing of his dying wife. Justice has in this instance been merciful, committing him to a mental hospital for a year rather than passing a death sentence. This basic truth about the central character swirls around the book from then onwards, even being present in the final scene when, we learn, unlike in Brighton Rock (the film-makers changed the ending in cowardly fashion) a lie on which a love is based is going to remain steadfastly unmasked.

Love. yes. The feminine interest in this case is a young Austrian girl, who should surely have been played by Alida Valli, since the character is based so closely on the girl in The Third Man (which, unusually for Greene, was a film treatment turned into a novel rather than the other way around), yet one reads with a shudder that the part went to the American actress Marjorie Reynolds, whose main claim to fame was a bit part in one of my favourite films (scandalously unavailable on DVD), His Kind of Woman. Whether she is a "good guy" or "bad guy" remains unresolved until near the end, and even then is shrouded in a certain amount of ambiguity.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Greene was never taken as seriously as he should have been as a novelist because of the accessibility of his writing, and the thriller-type plots which many of his books employ. Yet it is impossible to read more than a few pages without realising that he was one of the twentieth century's greatest novelists in the English language. Again, the fact that so many of his books were turned into films may have perversely worked against him, with many people perhaps contenting themselves with watching the film and thus never actually buying the book. Even public libraries no longer carry anything other than a skeleton selection of his works.

Re-reading this book after such a long interval has made me want to re-experience his whole canon, and one of my New Year's resolutions will be steadily to re-read the lot, starting with The Man Within.

No comments: