Wednesday, January 16, 2013

hell lay about him in his infancy

He trailed the clouds of his own glory after him: hell lay about him in his infancy.

I’m a bit more than halfway through Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock, a sort of crime novel about small-time hoodlums running protection on bookies in Brighton, England. When Kite, the leader of the gang, ups and dies, his seventeen year-old protégé Pinkie Brown steps into the role as leader to Kite’s three middle-aged hoods. The action begins with the murder of Charles Hale, a reporter who’s briefly come back to his old home town of Brighton for a ridiculous promotional stunt. We learn that Pinkie and his gang kill Hale (for reasons that haven’t been made clear) in a manner that somehow fools the coroners into thinking Hale died a natural death. Ida, the woman Hale spends some time with before his murder, is not convinced by the coroner’s report and realizes that the evidence read into the record is at least partially inaccurate. She’s convinced that Pinkie, briefly glimpsed pursuing Hale, has committed murder. Ida is an unsophisticated busybody who took a liking to Hale for no real reason, but she will see justice done and begins to play the part of amateur sleuth, asking questions all over the waterfront, confronting Rose, a teenaged waitress who has seen too much. The game continues from there. This is not a synopsis or a review.

This is a good book, by which I mean that it’s well-written (imagine Fitzgerald writing hard-boiled noir) and Greene has more on his mind than a crime drama. It’s also a violent book, an unsettling book. The prose is angular and violent, not pretty at all. It’s writing that irritates in a peculiar way:

“I know one thing you don't. I know the difference between Right and Wrong. They didn't teach you that at school."

Rose didn't answer; the woman was quite right: the two words meant nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stronger foods--Good and Evil.


He looked with horror round the room: nobody could say he hadn't done right to get away from this, to commit any crime... When the man opened his mouth he heard his father speaking, that figure in the corner was his mother: he bargained for his sister and felt no desire... He turned to Rose, 'I'm off,' and felt the faintest tinge of pity for goodness which couldn't murder to escape.

Grim stuff, you see. I have watched a few films that were either scripted by Greene or based on his novels, but this is the first time I've read a book that Greene wrote. If you read the Paris Review interview with Greene, you find yourself face to face with a scholarly old Brit, thoughtful and well-spoken and concerned with craft and theme. You don't come face to face with an English Raymond Chandler, is what I mean.

For some reason Greene's prose is making me uncomfortable with my own writing. Possibly it's that Brighton Rock is so concerned with Evil (theological and moral evil) that any violence or sinful acts outside that novel are somehow infected by Greene's thick and poisonous evil and amplified, at least in my mind, at least while I'm reading this novel. What I fail to say is that I made an attempt to start reading the first draft of my novel Go Home, Miss America and I find that I am absolutely hating what I've written. I am appalled by the low morals of my male protagonist, and put off by the violence in the world of my female protagonist. "What a horrid story," I think, less than two chapters in. "Who would write such awful stuff, and why? Who would want to read this?" I've put the draft away for now. I'm not going to look at it while I'm reading Brighton Rock. I have a strong urge to read something pretty and clean and light next, not a contemporary story of middle-aged infidelity and third-world warfare (which is to say, my own novel). I've never hated one of my own works-in-progress before, and it's quite an alarming sensation I assure you.

The similiarities between Brighton Rock and A Clockwork Orange are worth commenting on. There, I've just commented on it.


  1. You might want to read this post today:


  2. Well, yes to everything in the post you linked to. It's just that I'm not so interested in reading more violence right now. Brighton Rock continues to remind me of A Clockwork Orange (and yes I know that BR came long before ACO) and I had, for a moment, the idea of picking up a copy of the Burgess and reading it again to compare to the Greene, but then I remembered how Clockwork makes me feel like humanity is a stench I want to wash off my hands, and I wisely have abandoned that reading plan.

    There's violence in all of my novels except for my most recently-completed first draft of Mona in the Desert. I might be getting tired of violence. There must be other ways to look at humanity. Chekhov and James found plenty to say about people without drawing too much blood.

    Still and all, I blame the poisonous evil in Brighton Rock for my current mood. Mighty Reader was also twitchy when she read it a couple of weeks ago.