The Confidential Agent – Graham Greene
This is what Greene termed “an entertainment” (as opposed to his “serious” work), so one could expect that he would let up a bit on the gloom and doom. No such luck. Though he put a lot of effort into the prose, the scenes and the characterizations, the plot involves espionage, and here he’s unforgivably sloppy. H. – the confidential agent – is sent to London by his government (which is at war with rebels) to work out a deal for a critical supply of coal. Why they selected such a ninny is, for starters, baffling. H. has very important papers that authorize him to carry out his mission; for sixty pages he’s been guarding these papers with his life. When he leaves for a meeting at the house of the coal supplier, he “put the papers in the breast-pocket of his jacket and wore his overcoat fastened up to the neck. No pickpocket, he was certain, could get at them.” He enters the house, a servant asks “Coat, sir?” and he “let the manservant take his overcoat.” Later, when asked to show his papers, he finds that they’re missing; the servant had lifted them in that briefly described exchange. This feat of legerdemain is preposterous. Also preposterous is a scene in which H. breaks into a vacant apartment; before the police come knocking, he disguises himself (his most notable feature is his “heavy mustache”) by smearing shaving cream over his face. The only razor he finds is a small woman’s, and he goes to the door with that in his hand; the policeman comments on it: “Funny sort of razor you use.” H. says it’s his sister’s, the bobby leaves, and then we have, as with the papers, another magical disappearance: “He cleared the soap away from his mouth: no mustache.” That’s it? With a lady’s razor and with no preliminary clipping with scissors? I may seem to be nitpicking, but it’s incumbent for a writer working in this genre to make things plausible. And it wasn’t just incidentals that are problematic: so are all the villains that pop out of the woodwork. I stopped reading when H. is supposed to change from “The Hunted” (in the first section) to “The Hunter.” I spent a dozen pages with this now-dangerous man, and he was still dithering about.
Late Call – Angus Wilson
You’d think that an author who was knighted for his services to literature would do a better job of structuring a novel. The question of where things are headed arises in the prologue. It needed a revelatory force to warrant its length and intricacy, but when I finally realized who and what it was about it amounted to a mere over-indulgence in narration. Wilson can write well – his disconnected forays, if taken in ten page stretches, were lively enough to keep me reading. Also, in some of those stretches I connected with the main character. Sylvia Calvert is an elderly woman who retires from managing hotels and goes to live with her son and his three grown children; accompanying her is her unruly husband. What undermines Sylvia’s credibility are her inexplicable shifts in mood and attitude; in a space of twenty pages she goes from the depths of depression (immersed in “stunning misery” and “panic horror”) to being upbeat and competent. Such unsubstantiated flip-flopping (and it occurs with other characters) can only originate in the author’s wandering inclinations. Sylvia should be the focus, but Wilson shovels extraneous material into the maw of this novel like a crazed stoker. Secondary characters pop up like jack-in-the-boxes, do something outrageous or semi-insane, and then disappear. There’s a long section in which a mysterious old hunchbacked woman tells her life story to Sylvia (who, like me, is clueless as to its significance). Side-issues abound, such as her son’s efforts to save the town’s Meadow from development; her grandson is flagrantly homosexual (which nobody seems to notice) and one wonders when or if that will be an issue. Finally I concluded that my question of “Where are things going?” doesn’t apply to this haphazard book. At the close Wilson does make an effort to bring some order to the clutter. Sylvia, on one of her walks, saves a little girl’s life and is adopted by a family that immerses her in love; this plot contrivance belonged in a fairy tale. After weathering a series of crises, on the last page a chipper Sylvia contemplates a bright future of independence. A happy ending, unearned. Final note on Late Call: the author tried hard to avoid tags (“Sylvia said”); but, since the many voices aren’t that distinct, it’s often unclear who’s talking. Just another aspect adding to my annoyance.
The Precipice – Ivan Goncharov (Russian)
According to the notes on the back cover, Goncharov (the author of Oblomov) labored over twenty years on The Precipice, and the negative reception it got so embittered him that he never wrote another novel. I’m afraid this review will further his embitterment. The only major character I related to was the aunt, and this was because I admired her diligent concern with the business of running Boris’s estate. When she tries to involve him in his affairs he bluntly refuses; he has no interest in practicalities or material goods (though he lives in high style and never does a lick of work). He thinks of himself as an Artist, and though he has talent as a painter, composer and writer, it’s clear that he’ll never produce anything of substance. Mark, a social outlaw who quotes Proudhon and whose cynicism is all-embracing, refers to Boris as “half a man.” Then there’s the beautiful and mysterious Vera, who Boris falls hopelessly in love with at first sight. She steadfastly refuses to give him a grain of encouragement; all she asks is that he leave her alone. Spying and prying Boris suspects that she has a secret lover. The point at which I quit reading came when her lover’s identity is disclosed: it’s Mark. Of course it’s Mark! She certainly wouldn’t pick someone reasonable to fall in love with. In the first minutes of their encounter she accuses him of being wolfish, malicious and callous. He finds her words amusing. So did I. If he’s all these things, what attracts her to him? The overwrought depiction of tumultuous passions make this novel as dated as a “Perils of Pauline” movie (in which, come to think of it, precipices often plays a role).
The Temptation of Eileen Hughes – Brian Moore
The tension this thriller generates comes not from violence but from psychological forces in opposition. Eileen is a naive young woman who accepts favors, gifts and all-expense-paid trips from her employer and his wife. On an excursion to London she learns what’s behind the generosity: Bernard McAuley reveals his fanatical (though entirely platonic) love for her. Her rejection of him sets off a struggle of wills. While the workings of Bernard’s mind are very odd, they’re also convincing. I believed in his obsession and his sometimes frantic efforts to hold onto someone who wants no part of him. When he says “I will always love you,” these words are both sincere and creepy. His need makes him a pitiable figure; this wealthy, powerful man repeatedly demeans himself in front of Eileen. Despite the temptations (mainly money) dangled before her, Eileen’s determination to shake free never wanes, and as a result she grows into a stronger person. Mona, Bernard’s wife, turns out to be a calculating woman who, in exchange for a life of luxury, acts as an enabler for her husband. There’s a stretch when the book gets mired in plot contrivances (including an ill-conceived scene in which Eileen has her first sexual experience), but in the closing pages Moore rights the ship. Particularly effective is Eileen’s last encounter with Bernard; their meeting needed to have resonance, and it does. There’s a lesson embedded in this short novel: To be under someone else’s power is bad, but so is having power over another person.