The Best in Travel Literature: Graham Greene

In this series, I'll dig into some books to read while on an airplane going somewhere that are actually worth reading.

The typical airport thriller sees (usually) an American thrown into some international plot or dangerous situation overseas, where (invariably) his wits are all that can save him from some dangerous situation or another. It's a sort of fantasy for the types of people who spend a lot of time on airplanes, a fictionalized version of travel that glosses over the airplane lavatory and the jet lag and adds made-up well-armed terrorists or stolen government secrets to spice things up.

In 1937, after penning a review of Wee Willie Winkie that commented on the rather perverse obsession Shirley Temple's fans and managers had with the nine-year-old actress (viz: "Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy" and "Her admirers — middle aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."), Henry Graham Greene OM CH (b. 2 Oct. 1904 Hertfordshire England d. 3 April 1991 Vevey Switzerland) was forced to live in Mexico while a lawsuit from Twentieth Century Fox worked itself out, ultimately bankrupting the publication that ran the review. While in Mexico, Greene was inspired to write The Power and the Glory, about a nameless whiskey priest (a term Greene created ibid.) hiding from anti-Catholic Mexican government forces while performing religious rites he no longer believed in. The Power an the Glory raised hackles with the Catholic Church, which demanded Greene make changes -- Greene's reply was that the copyright was owned by the publisher -- and which led to a private meeting with Pope Paul VI. It is also rightfully considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

Graham Greene is one of the preeminent English language writers of the twentieth century. One piece of advice often given to aspiring writers is "write what you know". Greene wrote about what he knew: lapsed Catholicism (at times Greene referred to himself as a "Catholic atheist), espionage, depression, the dubious behavior and naïvete of major powers in developing countries, private meetings with the Pope. Greene converted to Catholicism after meeting his future wife, whom he was later estranged from but, being Catholic, she refused to grant him a divorce and he took up with at least two other women after he left his wife in 1947. During World War II, Greene's sister recruited him to MI6, and his globetrotting through the undeveloped bits of the world in the 1930s led to his being stationed in Sierra Leone under the supervision of his friend and, it turned out, Soviet agent Kim Philby (a member of the Cambridge Five and one of the most successful Soviet spies in Great Britain after the War.). Greene traveled the world -- prior to the War, Greene had visited Liberia and Mexico, and after the war he would spend time in Haiti and Africa and have a small hand in Castro's revolution, receiving one of Castro's paintings as a gift -- and did all the things he wrote about and probably more that wasn't fit to publish.

His time in Africa led to his book A Burnt-Out Case, about an architect famous for his religious buildings moving to a leper colony in Africa to avoid the spotlight, helping to design buildings for the colony, beginning to find real meaning helping the lepers, and finally being dragged into a tragic ending by the shallow egotism of people who couldn't let the artist be. After he broke off his affair with Lady Catherine Walston, he wrote The End of the Affair. Greene could be accused of lacking in creativity, but he definitely made up for it by writing his own ludicrous biography.

Greene's experiences watching Westerners (and many times Western Powers, by metaphorical extension) misunderstand and then bungle interactions in what we would now call the developing world permeates his more serious novels (Greene divided his books into 'entertainments' and 'novels'). The Quiet American, one of his best works and famous for its prescience about the US policy blunders in Vietnam (The Quiet American was published in 1955, and depicts a naïve American Harvard graduate working to overthrow the Vietnamese government based on some ideas about foreign policy which Greene clearly finds absurd, and yet predicted exactly how this would play out over the next twenty years.), focuses on Fowler, a journalist from Britain who is reporting on the French war efforts in Indochina, while watching his Vietnamese mistress slip away into the arms of Pyle, an American CIA agent working undercover. The title is itself a morbid joke: the only quiet American is a dead American.

Not all of Greene's works were so serious. Our Man in Havana is a Cold War spy farce the equal to Top Secret that focuses on mediocre vacuum salesman James Wormold, who is recruited into MI6 to report on what's going on in Cuba. The whole thing is a parody of the whole 'national intelligence' thing, believing without question reports from local informants. Our Man in Havana is the last of Greene's 'entertainments', and arguably his best.

Greene didn't limit himself to novels, either. He wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, one of the greats of British cinema, where actor Orson Welles added the now-famous lines of dialog:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

to Greene's screenplay. This is only one of Greene's screenplays, and many of his novels, including Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American, were adapted to film (in the later case, twice, once in 1958 starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave, then later in 2002 with Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine, neither of them particularly well-regarded, although the later has the virtue of casting a Vietnamese woman in the role of the Phuong.).

The thing is, despite the heavy topics - the French occupation of Indochina, an affair with the spouse of an English Baron, lepresy... - Greene's books are breezy and easy to power through, written in clear and concise language and none exceeding, say, 250 pages in print. A typical reader should be able to read an entire Greene novel in, say, ten hours, which is ideal for a three day business trip.

Most airport thrillers are written in mills and churned out based on how some ghost writer might imagine a spy might behave. They're hastily rendered facsimiles of the writer's imagination, under a deadline to pump out another one this month. Graham Greene lived the life most of these poor writers aspire to describe -- having exciting adventures in exotic locations -- only he manages to capture the weariness and cynicism that comes from seeing the same damn problems everywhere you go, always with the same non-solutions. Greene's literary fiction is his own autobiography, with thinly masked stand-ins for himself and situations pulled from his life with just enough changed to avoid libeling real people with his characters. He did all this before the age of jet travel, when going to Africa involved boats on sea and river, when living in Havana meant Batista and then Revolution, when even the most modern medicine struggled to contend with the tropical diseases that are now either wiped out or well under control. Airport fiction writers love to imagine death-defying protagonists. Graham Greene was one.