The Quiet American – Graham Greene

And so a little belatedly we come to the second in my ‘Greene for Gran’ series and one I feel a little bit awkward about. In part because I feel a fool for struggling so long with such a short book and in the main because I was severely underwhelmed by it and has it not been in Gran’s honour it would have been a book that would have felt the tough love of my new reading rule. Yet, in fairness I don’t think it was all the fault of ‘The Quiet American’, or even Graham Greene, himself that I didn’t love it, maybe. Let me explain…

Vintage Classics, 1955 ( 2004 edition), paperback, 221 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Quiet American’ opens with Thomas Fowler waiting for his friend Alden Pyle, very swiftly we learn that Pyle is dead and that people suspect that there may be foul play. As Fowler is informed of this he starts to tell us the story of how he met Pyle, himself being British and Pyle being American, in the surroundings of Hanoi during the First Indochina War. Fowler has come as a journalist to report on the war, Pyle is more mysterious yet they befriend each other until a love triangle with Fowler’s, who is married back in Britain, mistress Phuong. Intrigue and mystery are abounds…

‘You sound like a friend of his,’ Vigot said, looking past me at Phuong. A native policeman came in with three cups of black coffee.
‘Or would you rather have tea?’ Vigot said
‘I am a friend,’ I said. ‘Why not? I shall be going home in one day, won’t I? I can’t take her with me. She’ll be alright with him. It’s a reasonable arrangement. And he’s going to marry her, he says. He might, you know. He’s a good chap in his way. Serious. Not one of those noisy bastards at the Continental. A quiet American,’ I summed him precisely up as I might have said ‘a blue lizard,’ ‘a white elephant.’

…Well they should have been, but for me it was a mixture of being very confused to start off with and then finding the ending a little too blindingly obvious. If you haven’t read the book and want to miss a possible hint that could be a spoiler skip to the next paragraph. You see initially I was intrigued then it became so obvious what had happened that I was a bit cross, did Greene think I, his reader, was that stupid? To be fair many people who guessed the ending too would possibly then see this book as a very clever and twisting ‘whydunnit’, I just got confused and bored. I simply couldn’t get a hold on the book both in the plot and in the style.

The plot of the book, once you get to the end, all makes sense – well sort of if you do some googling – but I didn’t feel that Greene successfully explained to you what was going on with the First Indochina War sufficiently, he seemed to expect you to know the setting. Now this of course I imagine is in part because the book came out close to when the war was and also possibly because as Greene had been there himself (which makes the atmosphere so right in the book) he simply assumed you would get it. I didn’t. This also wasn’t helped by the fact that just a paragraph can flip between Fowler telling you something in his present and then flipping to his past and back again. It made me a bit grumpy and I alas I just wasn’t enjoying it, even when things got much better and twisty at the end (as several of you who supported me through it on Twitter said it would), it had lost me.

Now to be fair I will say that the idea of the book, in hindsight, is a bloody brilliant one. It is just that the execution didn’t work for me which meant the clever twists that came, which I admired so much in ‘The Ministry of Fear’ fell on deaf ears. However as always Greene’s prose and his sense of atmosphere was just marvellous and stopped me from hurling the book across the room. (Gran would be pleased with me for trying to find some saving graces here.) I do also think the timing and the way I started reading the book might have had something to do with it all too.

When I started ‘The Quiet American’ firstly I was in the middle of a really stressful, information filled, final bonkers planning week at work and secondly as the book hadn’t arrived I was reading it on my K*****!! I have been dabbling with reading on my devil’s device of late and I am discovering that it doesn’t always encourage full mental focus. If I have been on a computer all week reading for pleasure on a screen isn’t so much pleasure (a whole separate subject) and in this case I think it added to my confusion, my eyes would glaze a bit at the screen and so I was re-reading and re-reading paragraphs whilst having a mass of ‘work stuff’ to digest mentally too. So that probably didn’t help.

I think the best way to surmise and stop waffling is probably to say that ‘The Quiet American’ is probably a very good book but not the right book for me right now. It seemed to be a case of ‘it’s not the book, it’s me’ and as I know it is a favourite of so many I am sure that is the case. One to pop on the shelves and save to read again sometime in the future I think. (Gran would be proud of my attitude here too, ha!)

Who else has read ‘The Quiet American’ and if so what did you think? I would love to hear from some of you who have read it and found it a real favourite, and indeed any of you who like me felt a bit out of their depth. What other Greene’s are you picking up?

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21 Comments

Filed under Graham Greene, Greene For Gran, Review, Vintage Books

21 responses to “The Quiet American – Graham Greene

  1. I’ve not read this one yet, but I do agree with you that sometimes it just isn’t the right time for a book. I have just finished The Third Man and No Man’s Land which are interconnected and quite an interesting example of how Greene was developing as a writer at the time (and also very enjoyable!). Review to follow and I will link it here on your main Greene for Gran post

  2. I read it! This is the first book I read for #GreeneForGran AND the first book of his I’ve read. I loved it. I was a bit confused about the first Indo-China War as well, but I felt like he gave enough info to give me a broad picture of it. I googled what I didn’t know (or couldn’t guess).

    I pretty much knew “whodunit” from the beginning, but I had no idea it was going to end up being for that reason. I thought for sure it had something to do with the girl (which it did, kind of, but not totally).

    I’m looking forward to reading more.

  3. I got this out of the library to read next, so I’ll let you know…

  4. This is one that I didn’t get through so I’m saving it for another go in a few years. I did enjoy there’s film ever version with Michael Caine.

  5. I am glad you are reading Travels With My Aunt. I think you will like that one better.

  6. I did enjoy it but it was so many years ago, I can’t remember. However I loved the film with Michael Caine.

  7. headquarters

    I also loved this book — it might be because I am old enough to vividly remember that war and the issues outlined in the book. The best part, in my opinion, was Fowler’s evolution from a man who stayed deliberately non-committal to the personal and the political. He finally realized he cared deeply and became highly committed. Kind of a vague description, but to say more would spoil it.

    The movie is as good as the book, and it’s one of Caine’s best.

    Next is the Ministry of Fear based on your recommendation!

  8. Big D

    Read a fair bit of Greene already and fair to say this isn’t one of my favourites. I do love the “Vintage Greene” series of covers though!!!

  9. Have not read Quiet American but did see the Michael Caine film which is very good. Into Stamboul Train now and enjoying the setting of it on the Orient Express. Looking forward to seeing what intrigue happens on this journey.

  10. Vanessa

    Thank you for your review Simon. I know nothing about the First Indochina War and will have to make a quick study before I pick up The Quiet American.

  11. Well, Simon, I read it five years ago and absolutely loved it. Loved the film, too, which perhaps you would find helpful as it’s very true to the book. I think you were just in the wrong mood and too busy to appreciate it. I’ve just reprised my 2008 review in case you or anyone else is interested in an alternative opinion.
    http://harrietdevine.typepad.com/harriet_devines_blog/2013/08/the-quiet-american.html
    And btw I know less than nothing about that war, and it didn’t matter a jot.

  12. It’s curious that these issues you report with the book…the past and present flipbacks, and the assumption that you know the setting already…these were issues I found with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John LeCarre.

    I also read that he was very much inspired by Greene’s style of writing, so I understand where you’re coming from.

    I still do want to read The Quiet American though. I was planning to join the readalong with you, but unfortunately my library didn’t have it :(…some other time definitely.

  13. I’m looking forward to reading “The Savidge Man” when it comes out in print

  14. Judie

    I used to enjoy Graham Greene and then I read ‘The Quiet American’!… I didn’t care for it at all, and I haven’t read any Graham Greene since, which is a shame because I did enjoy ‘Travels with my Aunt’, ‘The Tenth Man’, ‘The Human Factor’ and’ The Captain and the Enemy’.
    I think I might have to pick up another one of his books; I’ll be looking out for recommendations.

  15. hi simon,

    although i haven’t read “quiet american”, i feel your pain. most greenes i’ve picked up are confusing at first, as it is generally not clear (to me, anyway) what is happening. however, with perserverence, all is explained eventually. the trade-off is usually worth it to me, as i enjoy the writing so much. i started “the comedians” over a week ago and am only half-way through, which is making me bonkers. i can generally rip through books pretty quickly, but this one is requiring me to slow down to digest it thoroughly. frustrating, but, again, the trade-off is one i’m willing to make as i enjoy the writing so much. it’s just difficult to make the transition from normal reading speed to “greene speed”. i liken it to eating a decadent desert – you can’t simply scarf it down as it’s far too rich. instead, you have to nibble it slowly, taking time to enjoy it. if you don’t have that time to spend, it can be crazymaking. so i admire your wisdom that perhaps it just wasn’t the right time for you for “quiet american”. who knows what the future holds – maybe you’ll give it another go in the future when your head is in a different space. maybe not. either way, now is not the time for you.

    i’m going to stick with the comedians, and just try to digest one chapter per day. why is it that readjusting our expectations is so very hard? alas . . . i feel there is some larger lesson here . . .

    pam

  16. Ed

    I have read this book twice and I love it. The second time was after visting Vietnam. It probably helped that I have some familiarity with the first Indo-China war, but my knowledge is certainly not in depth. It is interesting to hear your perspective on it, because it did not really occur to me that detailed knowledge of the war was important to understanding the book.

  17. Mary Miller

    I read this for a book discussion last year. I was the only one who had read other books by Greene. This is not my favorite Greene, but enjoyed how he set the scene. As an American who grew up during the Vietnam War, I especially appreciated his prescience about the traps that lay ahead for any country that thought it could steer the course of history.

  18. I’ve just finished reading it – I agree, I found it very confusing at first, but kept reading and enjoyed it. I like the evocative descriptions, I especially like his shades of grey morality – is what Pyle did worse that what Fowler did? Who is to judge? But I also agree that there was no explanation or background of the war or why they were fighting or what was going on – I’m going to have to google now. It didn’t grab me with the language in the same way that The End of the Affair did, but I still enjoyed it and it hasn’t put me off reading more. It was nice to participate on twitter and see what other #GreeneforGran books people were reading – great idea Simon.

  19. Pingback: The Greene For Gran Gang! | Savidge Reads

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