The book you meant to read; The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene
Saturday 19 October 1996
Theme: "This is the patent age of new inventions for killing bodies for saving souls, all propagated with the best intentions." The epigraph is taken from Byron. In a fallen world, Pyle's heartless idealism is as evil as Fowler's narcotic detachment. Only Vigot, whose work is a "calling", can have any chance of salvation.
Style: Despite the exotic location, the writing is grainy and monochrome, like old film. Here is a world where nobody belongs and "nothing is fabulous and nothing rises from the ashes." The prose can match the pace of a popular thriller.
Chief strengths: The clearest and most convincing analysis of the American involvement in Vietnam. No other writer conveys the shifting effects of bad conscience with such precision and enthusiasm.
Chief weaknesses: The misanthropy and disillusionment sometimes crumbles into caricature: the gloomy phases are so pat they turn mechanical.
Even Morse doesn't read Pascal.
What they thought of it then: In England it was deemed a success. Evelyn Waugh thought the book "vigorous" and the Tablet gave its blessing. The Americans were narked. Newsweek thought the whole enterprise an act of spite, perpetrated because Greene had suffered from visa trouble.
What we think of it now: Greene's reputation lurched badly after his death. He was dismissed as a Thirties' dinosaur who had never recovered from the obsessions of his schooldays. Nevertheless, all his novels remain in print and they continue to sell.
Responsible for: The fascination with betrayal which haunts the works of Le Carre and Deighton. Conversely Greene's pre-occupation with the intricacies of Catholic theology has not proven fertile ground for the contemporary thriller.
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