- Graham Greene's Narrative Strategies: A Study of the Major Novels
The subtitle says "the major novels" but this is a bit misleading. There are two main themes in this book, one being the problem created by the collapse of "the traditional hero whose validity had been so severely weakened by the new concepts" (14), and the other Greene's deployment of techniques for conciliating readers unsympathetic to religious belief and potentially hostile to his advocacy of Catholicism. These seem also to be the two criteria for judging what gets included in this study as a major novel. They rule out Greene's so-called "entertainments" or thrillers, including Brighton Rock, which Roston is too ready to take at Greene's own dismissive valuation (though there is certainly a case to be made that a modest "entertainment" like the brilliant Stamboul Train is a better novel than the self-important The End of the Affair). Roston is a little sheepish about his omission of Brighton Rock but maintains it does not belong among the major novels because it contains no hero, only a villain. He also rules out The Quiet American. He concedes this is a powerful work, but says its main interest is political, so he is not going to discuss it-which is a pity, since his focus is on narrative strategy and The Quiet American has some of Greene's wiliest narrative [End Page 135] moves. This then is a book in which the argument is already foreclosed by the choice of subject matter. These major novels exhibit the strategies, and the presence of the strategies qualifies them as major. This is itself a strategy, and a narrative of Greene's work, which could have done with a bit more unpacking.
One salutary aspect of this book is Roston's impatience with the often reductive biographical approach to Greene's novels, the assumption that he translated his own experiences into his fiction. Roston notes, of course, that such an approach does not respect the essentially transformative nature of the fictional imagination, and he adds that in any case Greene was notoriously unreliable, whether out of self-protection or just mischief, in what he told people about himself. He tormented investigators like his unfortunate biographer Norman Sherry with misleading hints and blatant untruths, sometimes issuing denials of earlier statements which were in their turn unreliable.
Still, while Roston is right to want to move beyond biographical readings of the novels, I am not sure that this practice is as firmly entrenched in contemporary Greene studies as he supposes, though Greene's dubious status as a Catholic writer does keep dragging a certain kind of critic back to questions about his own beliefs and loyalties. This book, however, wants to draw attention back to what Greene wrote. Its textual focus is underwritten by a Jaussian version of reception theory in which writing is seen not simply to direct the reader's response but to struggle against it, "a process of seduction whereby the text lures the reader away from his or her preconditioning, from the established concepts brought to the work, in order eventually to ensure the adoption of a new set of criteria by which the actions of the fictional protagonists are finally to be judged" (7). These established concepts in this case amount to a modernist despair occasioned by the collapse of ethical precepts and socially approved paradigms of living. After Darwin, Freud, world war, and the rest, the virtues that Roston believes typified the heroes and heroines of nineteenth-century fiction no longer commanded respect, or even belief. With the general collapse of these values, a twentieth-century novelist had to create an entirely new kind of protagonist, and Greene does this with the creation of the modern anti-hero (7)-specifically in The Power and the Glory, "the first effective portrayal in literature of the twentieth-century anti-hero" (15). His fictions then go about disabusing his readers of their modern lack of faith in heroism.
Roston sets about the business...