April 13, 2012


Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (1943) was written in the middle of World War II and is filled with very specific detail of what it was like to be living through the blitz. The central character, Arthur Rowe, finds himself accidentally caught up in some kind of (ill-defined) Nazi plot and spends most of the book trying to find out exactly what is going on around him. His confusion is compounded after a bomb explodes close to him, producing several weeks of amnesia, a period during which he is spoken to and treated as though he were someone else.

Greene is celebrated for his creation of what people have punningly called 'Greeneland', an odd melange of real geography and an unknown spiritual terrain. His characters travel not only through real places, accurately described, but through memories, dreams and psychological habitats. In The Ministry of Fear these journeys are evident and almost crude, as Greene is here writing one of his 'entertainments', books intended to garner sales rather than critical kudos. As a result, the internal journeys are externalised - Rowe's voyage to discover himself, and the hero he wants to be, is rendered through action as well as internal dialogue. His passage is physical as well as psychological.

This is most plain in the long middle section where Rowe loses his memory and becomes 'Digby', being treated for some unnamed malady at an institute in the country. Rowe must not only recover his true identity by remembering who he was before the bomb exploded, he must also recover his best identity - for early in the book he has been troubled, uncertain and unable to take positive action.

Greene's style creates an intimacy between us and Rowe while we still share his confusion. We understand his thought processes and the rationale for his behaviour but somehow are still able to see him objectively and question his decision-making:
Rowe watched them hesitatingly. But it is impossible to go through life without trust: that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself. For more than a year now Rowe had been so imprisoned — there had been no change of cell, no exercise-yard, no unfamiliar warder to break the monotony of solitary confinement. A moment comes to a man when a prison-break must be made whatever the risk. Now cautiously he tried for freedom.
This passage begins with us 'inside' Rowe's thoughts, hinted at by the 'hesitatingly'. Then immediately Greene inserts himself as the commenting author: 'But it is impossible to go through life without trust'. At the end of the paragraph, he helps us see what Rowe is about to do: 'cautiously he tried for freedom.'

Throughout the book Greene moves in and out of Rowe's consciousness in this way, giving us his thoughts but then stepping back and either generalizing or providing an observation on what's going on. In this section he reverses the motif and gives the generalization first:
There are dreams which belong only partly to the unconscious; these are the dreams we remember on waking so vividly that we deliberately continue them, and so fall asleep again and wake and sleep and the dream goes on without interruption, with a thread of logic the pure dream doesn't possess.
       Rowe was exhausted and frightened; he had made tracks half across London while the nightly raid got under way.
Like Sjowall and Wahloo in their books about Martin Beck, Greene frequently uses Rowe's full name, especially at the beginning of the novel. This serves to pinpoint him, to show him in full, as it were:
There was something about a fête which drew Arthur Rowe irresistibly, bound him a helpless victim to the distant blare of a band and the knock-knock of wooden balls against coconuts ...
Arthur Rowe looked wistfully over the railings — there were still railings. The fête called him like innocence ...
Both of these extracts are from page 2 of the book and are in fact the beginnings of consecutive paragraphs. It's almost as though Greene - by this time in his career a film critic - is seeing his book filmically: the long-shot of the main character as we see him moving amongst other people at the village fête. Slowly we track in to see him in more detail:
He was a tall stooping lean man with black hair going grey and a sharp narrow face, nose a little twisted out of the straight and a too sensitive mouth. (Page 3)
And then we move even closer in to see something of Rowe's past and his childhood:
Arthur Rowe stepped joyfully back into adolescence, into childhood. There had always been a fête about this time of the year in the vicarage garden, a little way off the Trumpington Road, with the flat Cambridgeshire field beyond the extemporized bandstand, and at the end of the fields the pollarded willows by the stickleback stream and the chalk-pit on the slopes of what in Cambridgeshire they call a hill. (Page 3)
So Greene presents his central character - the only consciousness through which we see the events of the book - by moving us in and out of his thoughts. Sometimes he uses the 'close' third-person style whereby the prose represents Rowe's thoughts directly - we read them as he thinks them - and sometimes he simply tells us what Rowe is thinking:
There was something threatening, it seemed to him, in the very perfection of the day.
This isn't the same as writing, 'He felt threatened by the very perfection of the day' - it's at one step removed, fractionally distanced.

With these techniques Greene is able to show us exactly as much or as little of Rowe's inner life as he wishes. When it suits him we can be baffled by events (as when Rowe wakes up to hear people talking about him under a different name). Or he can move away from Rowe's consciousness and offer some generalizations about London or the environment or the war. He is always in charge and in control and we don't get the sense of being caught up entirely with Rowe's sensibility and perceptions.

One of Greene's main tools enabling him to maintain this distance is his use of language, particularly metaphor and simile:
Her face was talcumed and wrinkled and austere like a nun's. 
The old maid watched them with the kind of shrewdness people learn in convents.

She swayed in front of them like a figure-head into a drawing-room all orange curtain and blue cushion, as though it had been furnished once and for all in the twenties.

He was encircled by Mrs Bellairs' enthusiasm as though by a warm arm.
These all appear within two or three pages and illustrate Greene's alert use of language to paint an immediate picture. He could have written, 'She walked in front of them like a figure-head into a drawing-room ... ' but using 'swayed in front of them' is immediately visible, giving us a sense of ballooning size and a languid side-to-side motion that is compounded by the 'like a figure-head' simile.

It's technique like this that keeps Greene in control, providing continual visual clues and editorial commentary so that we see precisely what he wants us to see and take from the text the precise meaning that he wants us to learn. In his serious books - as opposed to these 'entertainments' - that teaching becomes more profound and more spiritual and gives those books the depth on which Greene built his critical reputation.

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