META NAME="Forgotten Classics" CONTENT="neglected novels forgotten authors."

forgotten classics

'Reading neglected writers so you don't have to' A Time Out column and a blog for books that seem to be undeservedly forgotten, from John Galsworthy to Rose Macaulay, from Amos Tutuola to DH Lawrence, from W. Somerset Maugham to Fanny Burney. What books do you think we should revive? If you love a writer who has lapsed in popularity please let me know! Are my choices controversial?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Graham Greene column, Jan 07

Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (1943)


Famous now perhaps for a handful of works – Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene was a profound stylist and experimental writer. His minor novels are often things of delicate and strange beauty. The Ministry of Fear is such a text, an odd, enigmatic work about salvation, memory, guilt and loyalty set during the blitz. Greene’s protagonist Rowe is a conflicted, grief-stricken man racked with guilt for the killing of his wife in an act of mercy – in a powerful flashback we see them both tacitly acknowledging what he is doing. Rowe attempts to cocoon himself away from his past and from his present, living from day to day and rarely reaching out to anyone. The war is not his business, and he lives mechanically. The masterly opening chapter begins with Rowe visiting a rather forlorn wartime fĂȘte in a Bloomsbury square for old time’s sake and ends with him in a daze looking skywards from the basement of his freshly bombed out house. At the fĂȘte he wins a cake which, slowly, it becomes obvious contains something of great value to the Germans, and a series of strange events lead to him being sought in connection with another, more violent murder, before being admitted to a sinister nursing home having lost his memory.

Rowe’s numb existence is disrupted and he is finally roused to action, becoming at least involved in the world around him, if not able to affect things particularly. He repeatedly thinks of himself in a book, specifically a narrative of heroism, but events remain resolutely messy and unpleasant rather than resolving themselves properly; people die randomly, and truth and honour prove to be slippery concepts. The novel’s key atmosphere is menace, the unknown horror that lives below the surface of most people’s lives.

The blitz in this novel is something which Londoners live with, occasionally dying and grieving for those gone, but generally viewing events as something of an irritation which rearranges the road network and prevents them from getting home to central London from the relative obscurity of Battersea. It is this sense of the ordinariness of war, the anti-heroic day-to-day nature of resistance, that is the keynote to the novel. It all concludes in classic Greene fashion – cynically, insubstantially, acknowledging the uncomfortable fragility of happiness. Rowe and his Austrian refugee lover Anna deceive each other in order to stay together, each one knowing the other’s secrets but never revealing them: ‘They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much’. The exquisite bitterness of this conclusion is a fittingly ambivalent conclusion to this novel of hedging, sullen horror.



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