Sunday, December 12, 2010

Burnt-out

Has anyone ever seen a man smile at a woman as a woman smiles at the man she loves, fortuitously, at a bus-stop, in a railway carriage, at some chain-store in the middle of buying groceries, a smile so naturally joyful, without premeditation and without caution? The converse, of course, is probably true also. A man can never smile quite so falsely as the girl in a brothel parlour. But the girl in the brothel, Querry thought, is imitating something true. The man has nothing to imitate.

Not sure what possessed me to read Graham Greene’s A Burnt-out Case at this time. An examination of one man’s faith — in a leper colony — didn’t strike me as the cheeriest of reads. But perhaps I’m a bit like our hero Querry in this respect, fingering a sore.

Definitely in the mode of the Catholic novels, though not considered a major one, it’s somewhat lacking in subtlety. It’s a little too intensely moral (and in sharp contrast to Simenon’s indifferent amorality, which I’ve been gobbling up these last weeks) for my taste. However, it’s still quite worthwhile — it’s relatively short (also, available as an ebook), events take a very surprising turn toward the end, and Greene demonstrates some wonderful turns of phrase.

***********

(The Superior)
...suffering is something which will always be provided when it is required.

(Querry)
Sometime he read, sometimes he simply watched the steady khaki flow of the stream, which carried little islands of grass and water jacinth endlessly down at the pace of crawling taxis, out of the heart of Africa, towards the far-off sea.

...and a girl with a baby on her lap smiled and smiled like an open piano.

The Governor was a very small man with a short-sight which gave him an appearance of moral intensity.

(Rycker)
...he had passed from excessive amiability to dissatisfaction, the kind of cosmic dissatisfaction which, after probing faults in others’ characters, went on to the examination of his own.

(Father Thomas)
...fetching up a smile like a liquorice-stick, dark ands sweet and prehensile.

(Querry)
Boredom is worse in comfort.

(Doctor Colin)
“You’re too troubled by your lack of faith, Querry. You keep fingering it like a sore you want to get rid of. I am content with the myth; you are not — you have to believe or disbelieve.”

3 comments:

Cipriano said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, as I have so many of Greene's others... in fact, this one is my favorite so far.
For me, a significant theme in the book is that it is very difficult to run away from one's true vocation.

My one criticism, well no, it is not a criticism, but.... perhaps just something I considered to be the one (albeit minor) "possible" flaw in the story's denouement, is as follows.
Towards the end, Mme. Rycker has accused Querry of a terrible indiscretion, and this throws her husband into a somewhat understandable fit of rage. The priests also, believing Mme. Rycker's accusations, reject Querry, and he is humiliated and unjustly condemned. Querry knows how serious the situation has now become. But he does not take it seriously. In his defense, he simply claims to Rycker, "I haven't even kissed your wife. She doesn't attract me in that way."
A key fact here is that he is actually telling the truth.
Rycker's jealous rage is unjustified. Another key fact is that Mme. Rycker also knows that nothing happened between them, and talks about that fact freely with Querry just minutes after his tumultuous verbal exchange with her husband.
I kept asking myself... why didn't Querry arrange this interview with Mme. Rycker at a time and place where Rycker himself could have secretly overheard their conversation?
In this way, Rycker could have clearly overheard his wife contradicting the allegations that she had written in her diary! In this way Querry would have cleared his name.
I love Graham Greene though -- and even feel bad saying that one critical thing, above.

Isabella said...

It's kind of mind-boggling, isn't it, that they should all behave this way. And I think that's the great irony of the book -- Querry didn't actually do anything! This time. The way I read it, I think Querry knows he deserves it, not for this thing now, but for his past. And if he believes he deserves it, it means he's, if not necessarily a man who believes in God (we never know if he prayed over that man that night in the forest!), a man of conscience, despite his blustering to the contrary. Or he just doesn't care enough to want to clear his name.

This book is aging really well in my head. I'm glad to know how much you like this book, Cip. I'll be picking up some more Greene in the spring.

Cipriano said...

One of the things I love most about Graham Greene is his use of simile. Here are some examples of what I mean, from my 1962 hardcover edition of A Burnt-Out Case:

At the end a half-sentence had been thrust out into into the void – “I will do anything for you in reason, but don’t ask me to revive…” like a plank from a ship’s deck off which a victim has been thrust. [p.52]

He thought, “I was too late,” and an obsessional phrase bobbed up again, like a cork attached to some invisible fishing-net below the water, “Who cares?” “Who cares?” [p.54]

A small black child hardly more than two feet high walked into the room without knocking, coming in like a scrap of shadow from the noonday glare outside. He was quite naked and his little tassel hung like a bean-pod below the pot-belly. [p.74-75]

The superior opened the door, and there the girl was on the threshold, like someone surprised by a camera in a night-club, looking up at the flash, with an ungainly grimace of pain. [p.78]

Father Jean was tall, pale, and concave with a beard which struggled like an unpruned hedge. [p.88]

“I have heard differently from Deo Gratias,” Father Thomas said, fetching up a smile like a liquorice-stick, dark and sweet and prehensible. [p.98]

The fathers in their white soutanes gathered on the veranda like moths round a treacle jar… [p.100]

His eyes were heavy and bloodshot; he pushed his shoulders forward on either side of his shrunken chest as though they were the corners of a book he was trying to close. [p.109]

The Remington portable had been set up on Father Thomas’s table beside the crucifix. On the other side of the cricifix, like the second thief, the Rolleiflex hung by its strap from a nail. [p.111]

The bed bent below Parkinson’s weight as he shifted his buttocks like sacks. [p.115]

But Rycker was like a wall so plastered over with church announcements that you couldn’t even see the brickwork behind. [p.151]

The whisky was finished and the equatorial sky broke outside the window like something smashed suddenly on the curb of the sky, flowing in a stream of pale green and pale yellow and flamingo pink along the horizon, leaving it afterwards just the plain grey colour of any other Thursday. [p.166]

The thunder came nearer, and then the rain: first, it was like skirmishes rustling furtively among the palm-tree fans, creeping through the grass; then it was the confident tread of a great watery host beating a way from across the river to sweep up the veranda steps. The drums of the lepers were extinguished like flames; even the thunder could be heard only faintly behind the great charge of rain. [p.185]

Somewhere a telephone began to ring – a trivial human sound persisting like an infant’s cry through the rain. [p.185]

He put the receiver down and stood bent like a question-mark over the telephone. [p.187]

The last comment you made is so true, I think really a key thing in understanding the book is that Querry does not even want to clear his name. He just doesn't care. [He's "burnt-out"].
Even in the instance I cited, the only reason Querry could have been as non-concerned about the issue as he was, is because he was so gentlemanly and honorable, he did not want Mme. Rycker to experience the wrath of her husband, and was willing to bear that burden himself.
And bear it he did!