"Shadow of Abandonment": Graham Greene's The Confidential Agent
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"Shadow of Abandonment"
Graham Greene's The Confidential Agent

When compared with what usually are considered Graham Greene's "major" novels, The Confidential Agent (1939) may seem oddly marginal.1 Unlike such better-known narratives as The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), The Quiet American (1954), A Burnt-Out Case (1961), and The Honorary Consul (1973), Greene's ninth production does not explore in depth any of his characteristic themes—the theological mystery of grace, the ambiguity of love versus pity, the entanglements of postcolonial intervention, the recuperation of existential purpose, and the moral dilemma of responsibility for others. To this can be added the fact that its author categorized The Confidential Agent as an "entertainment," a designation that pigeonholed it along with Stamboul Train (1932), A Gun for Sale (1936), The Ministry of Fear (1943), and Our Man in Havana (1958) as a type of fiction that gave priority to the development of plot rather than character. Further qualifying the text's standing within Greene's corpus are the circumstances of its composition. As recounted by biographer Norman Sherry, in 1938 Greene methodically cranked out 2,000 words per day in the mornings for six weeks, all the while fueling his creative effort with Benzedrine, before laboring more deliberately on The Power and the Glory—at his customary stint of five hundred words—during the afternoons (2: 14). Given these factors it perhaps is unsurprising that Greene's story about "D.," a former lecturer in medieval French literature who endeavors unsuccessfully to negotiate a coal contract in Great Britain on behalf of his unnamed socialist country (Republican Spain), is not as widely read as his "mature" work.

If we recontextualize The Confidential Agent, however, its stature grows. As John Coates has demonstrated, Greene's novel rigorously challenges the "pre-1939 thriller" popularized by Erskine Childers, John Buchan, Dornford Yates, William Le Queux, E. Phillips Oppenheim, and "Sapper" or H. C. McNeile (48). Central to these earlier "Clubland" adventure sagas during the years prior to World War I was a xenophobic "them"/"us" binary that vilified the former while valorizing the latter [End Page 203] group (see Cawelti and Rosenberg 38–45; Stafford 503–04). Repudiating this simplistic dichotomy, Greene reveals how it exploits an ethnocentric premise of cultural superiority while ignoring humanity's shared plight between two cataclysmic wars. Far more keenly than any he encounters in an England still basking in Edwardian isolationism, prolonged by Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, D. understands that "It was if the whole world lay in the shadow of abandonment" (72). The metaphor, of course, is quintessential Greene. Bespeaking his skeptical vision, akin to Thomas Hardy's, of Earth as a blighted planet, it conducts us immediately into "Greeneland," that familiar milieu of seedy borderlands and far-flung frontiers whose degradation highlights the spiritual bankruptcy of a materialistic West. Not accidentally, "abandonment" as well as its cognate forms loom large in The Power and the Glory, appearing (often in combination with the related motifs of "nausea," "hollowness," "desertion," and "vacancy") nearly a dozen times in the novel and anticipating, some two decades later, the experience of Querry in A Burnt-Out Case upon awakening at 6:00 a.m. in an African leprosarium to experience "the panic of complete abandonment" (25). The awareness of some universal dispossession, as T. S. Eliot describes it in Four Quartets (1943), is a well-established hallmark of modernism, and Coates rightly observes that in The Confidential Agent "Greene imports into the thriller … the sense of desolation and impending doom" associated with poetry of the 1920s and 1930s (53).

One might argue that this dimension is merely a staple element of the thriller conceived as a "'metagenre'" (Rubin 4). Such is Jerry Palmer's stance in Thrillers: Genesis and Structure of a Popular Genre, which posits that "bleakness" dominates what he calls the "negative thriller" (39), but his rather haphazard approach fails to define specifically whence that quality arises or what it signifies. Another wide-ranging study published a year earlier, Bruce Merry's Anatomy of the Spy Thriller, takes no note of any historical Angst in "second...