Hang about… This isn’t post-war Vienna! No… This is the real world. This is the awful, awful reality of middle class suburbia, a place of pretensions and unrivaled snobbery, where disregard for the highway code is common and even, seemingly, permitted; where someone, somewhere nearby, always has the builders in and makes a hell of a racket at all hours of the day and night and where life makes you want to bash your head against the wall. Certainly, this is not post-war Vienna.
I’ve just spent two hours engrossed in this other world, the world of post-war Vienna- a grime ridden, crime ridden, weary place of cobbled streets, racketeers and dodgy dealings in dark, dank corners. This is not the grand, bohemian melting pot of the early twentieth century, not the elegant, extravagant city that can be strolled through today, this is a snapshot, a brief, gloomy moment in a long and extravagant history and my window into this world where I appear to have become completely lost has been through Graham Greene’s The Third Man- The story of Rollo Martins and how he is swept into the underbelly of this city whilst investigating the peculiar death of his old school friend, Harry Lime. That might be simplifying things a great deal but I don’t want to give away the twist for those who haven’t read the book or seen the film.
He was a writer I had heard of but had never touched, except once when I came across the film of the aforementioned Third Man and I wasn’t overly impressed it. But a few weeks back I was looking for espionage fiction, trying to find someone to replace Ian Fleming of whom I have now almost exhausted with the exception of one book (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) whilst at the same time looking to see what other people had done with a genre in which I myself am a frequent player. I came across Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carre, whom I have briefly flirted with in the past (I read A Murder of Quality in my teenage years, although that is not an espionage work.) Then I came across a quote which struck a chord- ‘A novel based on life in the secret service must necessarily contain a large element of fantasy.’ It was, you can no doubt guess, by Graham Greene and I liked the quote enough to look further into the man and his works.
I ended up buying a cheap, used copy of The Third Man & The Fallen Idol in which someone had gone over bits of the text in pink highlighter. Even though I hadn’t liked the film I thought I would buy that one as it was two stories rather than a single one. I had other books to finish first and when I finally picked it up (Having previously read through the various introductions and prefaces) I didn’t expect that two hours later I would be putting it down again having been through the entirety of the story. And that isn’t like me at all. Normally I will read for no more than half an hour, no matter how much I am enjoying the book. I always reach a point where I decide to take a break and go off to do something else. If I’m really enjoying the book I’ll come back to it perhaps an hour, two hours later but I never read a book in one go like I have this time.
I found myself completely sucked into Greene’s stark but beautiful prose, just like Martins gets sucked into the world of Harry Lime. We have both wandered those cobbled, grime ridden, crime ridden streets of post-war Vienna and neither of us could escape until the final denouement in the sewers of the city. What takes Martins several days to do only took me a couple of hours and as I closed the book, wondering where the blink I was before recalling that this was the real, dull and irritating world of middle class suburbia, I felt like I have just found a new friend.
And our friendship is ensured the very next day when I start on The Fallen Idol (also known as The Basement Room) which I again read in one go, though it is only short so I’d have probably done that anyway- And bugger me if one of its central characters isn’t a butler called Baines! Here we are, me and Greene, writing almost eighty years apart and yet we both come up with the idea to name our Butlers Baines. I thought, when I started writing The Rebels, that Baines was a good name for a butler and obviously Greene had a similar thought. They couldn’t be more different though, his Baines is a deceptive scoundrel whilst mine is a jolly sort of man in a pink suit- I had Matt Lucas in mind when I came up with him and you almost certainly can’t see him in Greene’s butler. Both act as symbols of childhood but whereas Greene’s symbol is shattered by the events of the story, mine remains intact but is lost at the onset of manhood. Our Butlers still connect us, however, and I like that. I feel like our friendship has been cemented because of that connection.
And yes, I have certainly bought more Greene books- Travels With My Aunt, which I really like the look of, Stamboul Train and Monsignor Quixote. However, with a mighty canon of around twenty five novels these three will hardly scratch the surface of what I am certain will be a lifetime affair. Already I am hankering after more, though I have to wait until they arrive. In the meantime I have the last ten chapters of David Copperfield to trawl through, though I am becoming more and more convinced that Dickens just didn’t want to finish it. The story was already 90% complete when Em’ly (seriously girl… Get a vowel!) ran away with Steerforth- And that was four hundred pages back. Now that she’s back with Mr Peggoty the story is pretty much done. But at the other end another adventure with Graham Greene awaits… This is only, I hope, the beginning of a very long journey.