It wasn’t a plan particularly, but then that’s part of the joy of books – I never have a plan for what I’m going to sink my teeth into next. It is usually just a matter of wanting something different from the one before.
But a couple of books recently have done that self-referential thing: they’re books about books (a bit like U2’s recent self-referential album, I suppose). And it got me thinking about the other books I’ve loved that have done this. Read more
It hardly needs saying, but spying did not stop with the collapse of Communism. But if spying continued, it naturally follows that so did betrayal. The haunting question provoked by every betrayal is, “Why?” Perhaps it was easier to understand during the Cold War. The globe’s ideological map was drawn all too clearly. However flawed the enemy might be, believing in their ideological stance always made it forgiving those flaws much easier. But what about today? Read more
While the world out there is contorting itself into ever more yogic twists about horsemeat being found in burgers, I thought a little contribution from Graham Greene might be valid. I’m rereading his rather wonderful (dare I say it, quixotic) Monsignor Quixote and encountered this little gem in chapter 1.
After coming to the aid of an out of town bishop, the uber-parochial Father Quixote invites him to lunch in his humble abode. Having to deal with this unexpected guest provokes this conversation with Teresa, his housekeeper. Read more
Maurice Castle is the wary protagonist of Graham Greene’s 1978 novel, The Human Factor. He works on the Africa desk for the British secret service. He loves his South African wife and her young son but has a deeply burdened and heavy heart. He is a very sympathetic character – a man who, as his mother cuttingly observed, an over-inflated sense of gratitude. And it is his sense of gratitude and indebtedness that gets him into trouble. But I won’t plot spoil. Read more
It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. Read more
BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera‘s new book, The Art of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service covers ground that will be familiar to all students of the Cold War and spy fiction fans. But he does so in a very readable, engaging but authoritative way. The British Secret Service was in some ways one of the last relics of British imperial glory, with an ability to strut across the world stage despite other aspects of British influence declining. Read more
I love some poetry – but I have to say that sometimes I find that it has been too refined, too worried at, too precious. That’s not to deny its beauty or power, of course. But still…
Good prose, on the other hand, … especially if it occurs in surprising places… I find mesmerising. I love being forced to read slowly, having to chew on it, to reread a paragraph. It’s hard not to be impressed when this happens regularly – the sheer torrent of words that never lose their quality despite their number, the entering of other worlds and other minds, the apparent lack of artifice. And then to have all this as part of a gripping narrative that not only entertains but provokes and evokes. What could be better?
So here’s a little handful of passages I’ve read recently – passages which I found myself underlining or noting in the margin. You might not think they’re particularly special. But I enjoyed them just for their ability to evoke a sense of being in the moment, enabling the reader to smell the air and feel the temperature.
From Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train
The book is sometimes published as ‘Orient Express’, and was written in 1931 as (what he termed) an entertainment rather than a serious novel. The first page of the book, this sets up the narrative of a number of very different people travelling on the Orient Express all the way from the Ostend ferry terminal to Istanbul. One of the book’s themes, presciently, is anti-Semitism, which is alluded to even here. But it is the way that Greene immerses us in this world immediately and completely.
The purser took the last landing-card in his hand and watched the passengers cross the grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks. They went with coat-collars turned up and hunched shoulders; on the tables in the long coaches lamps were lit and glowed through the rain like a chain fo blue beads. A giant crane swept and descended, and the clatter of the winch drowned for a moment the pervading sounds of water, water falling from the overcast sky, water washing against the sides of the channel steamer and quay. It was half past four in the afternoon.
‘A spring day, my God,’ said the purser aloud, trying to dismiss the impressions of the last few hours, the drenched deck, the smell of steam and oil and stale Bass from the bar, the shuffle of black silk, as the stewardess moved here and there carrying tin basins. He glanced up the steel shafts of the crane, to the platform and the small figure in blue dungarees turning a great wheel, and felt an unaccustomed envy. The driver up there was parted by thirty feet of mist and rain from purser, passengers, the long lit express. I can’t get away from their damned faces, the purser thought recalling the young Jew in the heavy fur coat who had complained because he had been allotted a two-berth cabin; for two God-forsaken hours, that’s all.
He said to the last passenger from the second class: ‘Not that way, miss. The customs-shed’s over there. His mood relaxed a little at the unfamiliarity of the young face; this one had not complained. ‘Don’t you want a porter for your bag, miss?’
‘I’d rather not,’ she said. ‘I can’t understand what they say. It’s not heavy.’ She wrinkled her mouth at him over the top of her cheap white mackintosh. ‘Unless you’d like to carry it – Captain.’ Her impudence delighted him. ‘Ah, if I were a young man now you wouldn’t be wanting a porter. I don’t know what they are coming to.’ He shook his head as the Jew left the customs-shed, picking his way across the rails in grey suede shoes, followed by two laden porters. ‘Going far?’
‘All the way.’ she said, gazing unhappily past the rails, the piles of luggage, the lit lamps in the restaurant-car to the dark waiting coaches. (pp3-4)
From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
This famous dystopia was written in 1953 and describes a society which has forbidden books. The title is the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns. Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is not to put out fires but cause them; his job is to burn books secretly stashed by dissidents. But he turns – and runs. This sequence describes the point after he has escaped from the menacing mechanical hound that pursues dissidents. It’s no accident that his life line has been a river, down which he has floated for some distance. As he floats, he reflects…
He saw the moon in the sky now. The moon there, and the light of the moon caused by what? By the sun, of course. And what lights the sun? Its own fire. And the sun goes on, day after day, burning and burning. The sun and time. The sun and time and burning. Burning. The river bobbled him along gently. Burning. The sun and every clock on the earth. It all came together and became a single thing in his mind. After a long time of floating on the land and a short time of floating in the river he knew why he must never burn again in his life.
The sun burned every day. It burned Time. The world rushed in a circle and turned on its axis and time was busy burning the years and the people anyway, without any help from him. So if he burnt things with the firemen, and the sun burnt Time, that meant that everything burned!
Of of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn’t, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago. Somewhere the saving and the putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silver-fish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes. Now the guilt of the asbestos-weaver must open shop very soon.
He felt his heel bump land, touch pebbles and rocks, scrape sand . the river had moved him toward shore. (p180-181)
From Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard
I’m still in the middle of this one but thoroughly enjoying it. Set in 1860 (first published in 1958), The Leopard describes a crucial moment in Italian history. It portrays the life of an aristocratic, Sicilian Prince at the time of Garibaldi’s unification of Italy (the so-called Risorgimento) as he contemplates the inevitable decline of his class in an age of revolution and democracy.
Here, he is spending time in his favourite bolt-hole at home, a tower-room in his palace from which he indulges in his pastime of astronomy.
Such was the calm produced in the Prince’s mind by the political discoveries of the morning that he smiled at what would at other times have seemed to him gross impertinence. He opened one of the windows of the little tower. The countryside spread below in all its beauty.
Under the leaven of the strong sun everything seemed weightless; the sea in the background was a dash of pure colour, the mountains which had seemed so alarmingly full of hidden men during the night now looked like masses of vapour on the point of dissolving, and grim Palermo itself lay crouching quietly around its monasteries like a flock of sheep around their shepherds. Even the foreign warships anchored in the harbour in case of trouble spread no sense of fear in the majestic calm. The sun, still far from its blazing zenith on that morning of the 13th May, was showing itself the true ruler of Sicily; the crude brash sun, the drugging sun,which annulled every will, kept all things in servile immobility, cradled in violence and arbitrary dreams. (p27)
So… A virtual crunchie bar for the best suggested link between the 3 passages…