Monday 14 March 2011

A Tale of Two Greenes (Lewes Bookshop Bargains): The Quiet American by Graham Greene; Heinemann, 1955

Welcome back.

Now then. This post is one I originally intended to write as part of the recently ended Spy Fiction Fortnight. But as I was reading the novel in question, I came to appreciate that the espionage element in it isn't quite as significant as I thought it was. So rather than shoehorn it into a run of posts on spy novels, I thought I'd let it stand apart and discuss it on its own merits. There is, however, still a link to Spy Fiction Fortnight, specifically to the final post in that illustrious series. Because as with those two editions of Graham Greene's The Human Factor I wrote about on Friday, I've also ended up owning two editions of this book, too. Both were bought in Lewes (the East Sussex town in which I live and work), both within the last few weeks. And the first of them, is this:

A 1955 hardback edition of The Quiet American, published by Heinemann. Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'That looks suspiciously like a British first edition unless I'm very much mistaken'. But looks, as we all know, can be deceiving, because in this instance, you are very much mistaken. It is, in fact, a Book Society edition, published, as the copyright line states, in December 1955 in association with Heinemann.

So while it was, as the copyright line also states, issued on first publication in December 1955, it's not, strictly speaking, a true first. I bought it in Lewes's Bow Windows Bookshop, mostly because I've always wanted to read the novel – I really like the 2002 Phillip Noyce film. And it was fairly cheap, and I was quite happy owning an edition that's effectively a first, even if it's not the original first printing, because it meant I could finally dive into the thing. Which I did.

It is, needless to say, a great book. There's little point my reviewing it in any depth – critiques and synopses litter the internet like spent casings on the battlefields of Vietnam, where the novel is set. (You can read Greene's own thoughts on the book on the Greeneland website, where he notes that there is more reportage in the book than in any other of his novels.) But it's an affecting story, an extended reflection on the old versus the new. The old is represented by Thomas Fowler, the opium-addicted, world-weary English journalist reporting on the conflict, and by the French rulers of Vietnam, the colonial power on the wane. The new is represented by Alden Pyle, the young, idealistic American ostensibly in country in an economic capacity, but in actuality there as an agent provocateur. And caught between Fowler and Pyle is Fowler's lover, Phuong.

For me, the most compelling section of the novel is the middle, where Fowler and Pyle enter a war zone; at one point they take refuge in a watchtower alongside two scared Vietnamese soldiers and engage in a philosophical discussion about Communism, colonialism, the rights and wrongs of the conflict, love, and death. But there are memorable moments and startling imagery throughout the novel – a canal full of bodies, like "an Irish stew containing too much meat"; the horrific explosion in the Place Garnier – and the evocation of a country at war with its oppressors and with itself is stunning.

Anyway, I was, as I say, quite content with the Book Society edition, and I read the novel and put it on the shelf with my other Graham Greene firsts. And then the other day I was in A & Y Cumming, up the road from Bow Windows, and I found this:

You can see the dustjacket there is rather battered, but crucially, this copy of the novel is the true first edition – and first printing:

Plus it was half the price of the other copy. Well, what could I do – what could any unhealthily obsessive, clearly deranged collector do – except buy this edition as well. And as the dustjackets on the two editions are identical – both bearing the "Heinemann" on the jacket spine, both with the "13s 6d" price on the jacket flap intact – I can simply swap them over, leaving me with a perfectly presentable true first... and a slightly less presentable Book Society copy.

I know what you're thinking now, too. And this time, you're quite correct: there really is no hope for me.


  1. Hello. New follower here. It is clear that you have a very intellectual blog. I'm not sure if I can keep up with your thinking but I would like to try!


  2. Thanks for following, Belle. And fear not: honestly, there's absolutely nothing intellectual about this blog; it's just I write as if I've got a broom stuck up my arse, which adds to the illusion I know what I'm talking about. As you'll soon discover, I really don't.

  3. I like the way you write:

    A broom stuck up my arse.

    It will keep me chuckling all day long.

    I just have to read your blog when I'm either fully caffeinated or well rested. Well rested rarely happens though.

  4. You're turning into a Doctor Moreau - type who experiments on books when you create first edition - book club edition hybrids.

    It didn't end well for Doctor Moreau.

    That said, I am kind of in awe of your new first edition of The Quiet American.

  5. "Books -- bright windows in this life of ours, lit by the shining souls of men."

    If you like, I can send you the Book Society edition (with the worn jacket, naturally).

  6. The Phillip Noyce movie is terrific. Never saw the 1950s version; I've been told that it waters down the book significantly, as movies from that era typically did. I'd love to see Noyce adapt Greene again. Tom Clancy, too; Noyce's Clear and Present Danger is second only to The Hunt for Red October in the Jack Ryan film world.

    I'm almost ashamed to admit that The Quiet American is the only Greene novel I've bothered with. I love The Third Man, but I never picked up the novel since it was apparently meant only as an outline for the film and not intended for publication. Anyway, this is another writer I need to explore further, if I can manage to tear myself away from Stark and Clancy long enough.