Writer of Interest – Graham Greene
I first read Graham Greene in 2002, when I was around 20-21 years of age, at a time when I was supposed to be working on my Honours thesis. I remember this distinctly: in the course of around six weeks, I ripped my way through something like 20-25 of Greene’s shortish novels, very much to the detriment of my neglected thesis. Some time after that, I read a couple of biographies, one of which paints Greene the man in a dim light, but as an artist he is unparalleled. For sheer readability, he is king. I remember reading in one of the biographies that Greene considered 500 words in a day to be a suitable rate of production, including polishing those words. He figured that if he kept this up every day, then he’d have a novel a year or so. It worked for him; I don’t know another writer whose prose is so uniformly strong and succinct.
I’ve just started listening to an audiobook version of one of his early novels, a so-called ‘entertainment’ called A Gun for Sale (the film, which I haven’t seen, is called This Gun for Hire). Over the first third or so, I was just stunned by how clean the words are (even if Greene’s content is often decidedly grubby). He’s a master of the English language. A Gun for Sale does take a small turn for the worse in the second half, in terms of the shift in the behaviour of the central character, but it takes some kind of writer for something this strong to be considered a minor work.
So what’s it about? A Gun for Sale begins as a fast moving crime thriller in which the villain is also the main character: nasty, harelipped James Raven. After killing an official – whose death may precipitate a world war (the book was published in 1936) – Raven flees to industrial Nottwich, where he accosts a young woman called Anne. What follows is an increasingly zany but never flippant series of misadventures. Anne nearly gets suffocated by an obese man with Turkish Delight sugar on his fingers, for Christ’s sake. Only Greene could think of that.
Graham Greene might seem passe or old school, but it’s a mistake to dismiss his work. If you are even remotely interested in pursuing the craft of writing (or you just want something highly readable to sink your teeth into) then you can do far worse than give one of Graham Greene’s novels a spin.