Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Graham Greene says that Orient Express is the first book he ever wrote for money; he draws a famous distinction between his novels and his "entertainments" of which this is the first. Faulkner responded to a critical question about the meaning of one of his novels (Sanctuary?), 'I wrote that book because I had a horse I wanted to buy.'--a posture, however artificial, that i like. I went into Orient Expresscurious to see how badly he could write--the answer is, obviously, not very badly at all. Here's the opening:
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.

Not shabby, but not dazzling, to my eye. In the book itself, he seems to swing back and forth between lazy beginnings and virtuoso escapes. He begins with a rash of stock characters--the solitary, greedy Jew, the showgirl with the sweet, weak heart, the heroic, fallen Dr. Czinner (surely the secret agent could find a cleverer code than that?)etc. And then he writes himself inside them--making them rich and, almost uniformly, sweet and sympathetic--Mabel Warren, the drunken lesbian is completely charming and funny. Coral and Myatt grow beyond their rough strokes, struggle genuinely, are whole people before they recede again to types. The minor characters are mostly flat (the soldier who only strives to have something interesting to tell his wife), but some sparkle even so (the mad driver who carries Myatt back to find Coral).

The plot moves well and yet it is here that the "entertainment" side shows--it does not build, but merely resolve--at the end, the pieces slide together with a too-neat click, like the engineered wedding at the end of a minor comedy. It is hard to tell whether Greene has simply given up at the end, or whether he had no great aim as he set out, and merely infused these small pieces with some care and thought--most likely the latter. It is a good read (3 stars), but minor--as, I suppose, Greene intended.


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