Friday, 17 July 2015
NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books round-up.
When I started collecting the 1959–60 Heinemann Library Edition of the Works of Graham Greene a few months back, one of the books I was keenest to acquire was The Ministry of Fear (orig. 1943, Library Edition 1960). It wasn't merely the splendid dust jacket design of the Library Edition – created, like all the other Library Edition wrappers, by Peter Edwards (and I'll have a couple more examples of his work to add to my post on the Library Editions very soon) – that made me want the book; it was also the novel itself, one of Greene's more espionage-inclined pieces of fiction, so I surmised, and therefore of particular interest to me.
But there's a lot more to the thing than mere "entertainment", as Greene himself once styled his more genre-leaning works. Though Greene intended the novel to be, as he put it in his memoir Ways of Escape (The Bodley Head, 1980), "a funny and fantastic thriller" – inspired to an extent by a Michael Innes book he'd recently read – there's an unexpected depth to it as well. In part this is down to the writer's vivid evocation of London during the Blitz, penned while the bombs were falling (although the novel was actually written while Greene was stationed in Freetown, Sierra Leone, having been recruited by the Secret Service) – striking, startling asides peppered throughout the book, of a populace "quite accustomed to sleeping underground", of "twenty thousand people... dead already", of war being "very like a bad dream in which familiar people appear in terrible and unlikely disguises" – which serve to offset the more "fantastic" elements of the story and ground the narrative in a tangible veracity.
But it's also the added undercurrent of pain and suffering which weaves through the story, personified by the novel's lead, Arthur Rowe, an essentially decent man and yet a convicted murderer even so (in fact a mercy killing). At a fete in a city square Rowe comes into possession of a copy of Charlotte M. Yonge's The Little Duke and a cake – he can be seen clutching both on Peter Edwards's Library Edition dust jacket. The cake is important for plot purposes – seemingly there's something baked inside it which leads Rowe to be drawn into a foreign power's plot to obtain secret British government papers and consequently to be accused of another murder and detained in a psychiatric hospital – but The Little Duke, from which Greene quotes lines at the start of each chapter, is significant as regards the themes of the novel: the spirit of adventure and the loss of innocence.
That loss of innocence applies to both Arthur as an individual and Britain as a nation at war – "The little duke is dead and betrayed and forgotten; we cannot recognise the villain and we suspect the hero and the world is a small cramped place" – and is made explicit in a dream Arthur has while sheltering in the underground during an air raid, in which he has tea on the lawn with his dead mother:
"This isn't real life any more," he said. "Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it's not there any more."
His mother smiled at him in a scared way but let him talk; he was the master of the dream now. He said, "I'm wanted for a murder I didn't do. People want to kill me because I know too much. I'm hiding underground, and up above the Germans are methodically smashing London to bits all around me. You remember St. Clement's – the bells of St. Clement's. They've smashed that – St. James's, Piccadilly, the Burlington Arcade, Garland's Hotel, where we stayed for the pantomime, Maples and John Lewis. It sounds like a thriller, doesn't it, but the thrillers are like life – more like life than you are, this lawn, your sandwiches, that pine. You used to laugh at the books Miss Savage read – about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but, dear, that's real life; it's what we've all made of the world since you died. I'm your little Arthur who wouldn't hurt a beetle and I'm a murderer too. The world has been remade by William Le Queux."
Greene reasons in Ways of Escape that in writing The Ministry of Fear "a little of the love [of London] crept, I think, into the book", and this too can be glimpsed in fleeting moments, such as the man feeding sparrows by putting bits of bread between his lips so that the birds "hovered round his mouth giving little pecks at it as though they were kissing him". But the war and the Blitz pervade all – inescapable, searing their terrible and surprising imagery onto the pages: a bomb that destroys Rowe's lodgings, leaving him in the ruins gazing at "an enormous quantity of saucepans all over the floor: something like the twisted engine of an old car [which] turned out to be a refrigerator"; "shell-shocked men" in the psychiatric hospital, "quietly weeping in a corner"; at Paddington Station "season-ticket holders... making a quick get-away from the nightly death"; "a drunk soldier sat alone on a waste of platform vomiting between his knees".
"[The Ministry of Fear] is my favourite among what I called then my 'entertainments'," Greene wrote in Ways of Escape (he eventually dispensed with the distinction between "entertainments" and "novels" in his backlist), although he wished "that the espionage element had been less fantastically handled, though I think Mr Prentice of the Special Branch is real enough – I knew him under another name in my own organisation when I was his pupil". He continues:
The scenes in the mental clinic are to my mind the best in the novel... I think too the atmosphere of the blitz is well conveyed. The three flares which Rowe saw come "sailing slowly, beautifully, down, clusters of spangles off a Christmas tree," I had watched myself, flattened up against the wall of Maple's store on the night of the great raid of April 16, 1941, some months before I left for Africa.
To all of which I would simply add that The Ministry of Fear is the best of Greene's novels that I've read (The Human Factor, 1978, would be a distant-ish second) and by far the best book that I've read this year.