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Greene, Graham

novels brighton rock set

(British, 1904–91)

As a young man of 19 Greene took a revolver onto Berkhamsted Common and played Russian roulette, in order, he professed, to escape boredom. It was this same impulse, perhaps, that led him to scour the world restlessly in search of excitement and danger, and which provided material for over thirty novels and travel books.

He was educated at Berkhamsted School (where his father was headmaster) and Balliol College, Oxford. Soon after, he converted to Catholicism, and questions of faith and the dilemmas of personal morality came to play a central role in his writing. He himself stated that his theme was perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again—an apt summary of Brighton Rock (1938), set amongst the razor-slashing racetrack gangs of pre-war Brighton. Teenage gangster Pinkie Brown is like a cornered rat, unpredictable and extremely dangerous. A devout believer in hellfire and eternal damnation, he corrupts everything he touches; everything except Rose, the innocent young waitress whose purity of love for him is like an insult to Pinkie, and ultimately the cause of his downfall. The novel is stamped through like a stick of Brighton rock with what makes Greene such a distinctive and powerful writer, in particular its sleazy atmosphere of brooding menace.

Both Brighton Rock and The Ministry of Fear (1943) are examples of what Greene defensively called his ‘entertainments’ (as opposed to his more serious novels: he later dropped this label when it became recognized that his thrillers and murder stories were among his best work). The Ministry of Fear is set in the blitz and the black-out, and we follow Arthur Rowe, one of life's bystanders, as he is drawn slowly yet inexorably into a murky half-world where sinister organizations pursue their mysterious, murderous ends. The story, while realistically told, has the texture of a waking nightmare. The monstrous Mrs Bellairs, who conducts seances, is a chilling creation. A Gun for Sale (1936) is a revenge thriller about a hired killer, Raven, an embittered outcast of society in whose dark soul a young woman kindles alien sparks of decency, honour, even tenderness.

The term ‘Greeneland’ was coined by critics to describe both the physical and metaphorical terrain of his books. His view of human nature is bitter and sardonic, as of someone turning over a stone and poking at the life squirming beneath with fascinated disgust. Several of what he regarded as his serious novels are set in the heat and squalor of tropical locations: Vietnam in The Quiet American (1955), which relates how Pyle— the naïve young American of the title—with righteous zeal and the very best of intentions, blunders in and causes the deaths of innocent people. The End of the Affair (1951) is one of Greene's most personal novels. Told in the first person by a middle-aged writer, Bendrix, this is a brutally honest account of his affair with a married woman in London during the war, with a plot that turns grippingly on the terrible price of jealous revenge and a ‘deal’ made with God.

Greene achieved the rare distinction of being critically lauded, engaging important themes, and being also extremely popular. Many of his novels and short stories have been filmed, and he wrote original screenplays, notably The Third Man (1950), later published as a novella.

Piers Paul Read, V. S. Naipaul, Patrick Hamilton, Brian Moore.


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