In Search of a Character – Graham Greene

You are all probably going to get most bored of the expression ‘this reading by whim malarkey throws books you weren’t expecting in your direction’, yet it is proving to be the case and I am sure will remain so throughout the year. As usual I have completely over packed, in terms of books, for a week at Gran’s. I brought four thinking that a) as the journey is 4 – 5 hours each way so that is really a book each way, roughly b) I will have plenty of time to read with her or when she is asleep. Well in truth a) I tend to end up watching all the beautiful scenery and listening to peoples conversations, don’t pretend you don’t b) it is just non stop at Gran’s. I am only managing to write this as she has been sent to bed, well sort of sent, ha. The other thing I had forgotten was whim and Gran’s bookshelves have proved too tempting in the hunt for some short reads to gobble down when I can. That is how I came to Graham Greene’s ‘In Search of a Character’ a book I didn’t even know existed until I spotted it yesterday whilst having a nosey.

*** Penguin Books, paperback, 1961 (1981 edition), non fiction, 106 pages, from my Gran's own personal library

*** Penguin Books, paperback, 1961 (1981 edition), non fiction, 106 pages, from my Gran’s own personal library

‘In Search of a Character’ was never really meant to be published as it is a (very short) volume of two sets of his journals that he kept on two visits to western Africa. The first, a trip to the Congo in 1959, was the setting, researching and seed sowing of ideas for his novel ‘A Burnt Out Case’ (which I haven’t read), the second in 1941 on a convoy which inspired ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (which I also haven’t read, oh dear). As he keeps his journals he interweaves them with the ideas he is having about the books he has in the periphery of his mind and so really we are shown the internal workings of Graham Greene’s writing mind. He puts it best in the introduction…

“Neither of these journals was kept for publication but they may have some interest as an indication of the kind of raw material a novelist accumulates. He goes through life discarding more than he retains, but the points he notes are what he considers of creative interest at the moment of occurrence.”

Regardless of whether you have read the novels that the period Greene describes in these journals they do make for interesting reading. Firstly there is the way that such a famous authors, though I am sure it is similar to less well known/budding authors too, mind works. He tells of overhearing the case of a man who spied his wife having an affair with his clerk, saved up enough to buy a old car that he used to run the clerk down before then deciding full of remorse to kill himself – he then later puts this into ‘A Burnt Out Case’ as a small side story that manages to solve another gap in plot strands. It also shows how much doubt goes through his head as he writes, and indeed how little he really knows and how slowly his own story reveals itself to its author. As someone who loves books and the crafting of them I found all of this fascinating.

“Perhaps the first argument concerning X will be whether he should be classed as a leprophil. At the moment X stands still in my mind: he has hardly progressed at all. I know only a little bit more about his surroundings. Perhaps it will be necessary to name him – and yet I am unwilling to give him a definite nationality. Perhaps – for ostensible reasons of discretion – he should remain a letter. Unfortunately, as I learnt before, if one uses an initial for ones principal character, people begin to talk about Kafka.”

The other thing that I found equally fascinating was the subject of leprosy in the novel. Greene doesn’t just watch from afar by any means. He finds himself working closely with a specialist doctor of leprosy and indeed living amongst the lepers himself, which at the time many people thought was sheer madness as they didn’t understand how contagious or not it was. Occasionally it is not for the queasy reader but it highlights a period in history that I knew very little about, and one that wasn’t that many moons ago. Here, through Greene overhearing tales he doesn’t use, we discover how infected men will drag their wives with them regardless of the fact their wives may catch the disease yet how if a wife catches it she is abandoned, unless she takes a lover and all hell breaks loose. We also learn how people started to figure out how the disease worked and how they might be able to cure it, which also lead to the novel Greene was writing’s title.

“Leprosy cases whose disease has been arrested  and cured only after the loss of fingers or toes are known as burnt-out cases. This is the parallel I have been seeking between my character X and the lepers. Psychologically and morally he has been burnt-out. Is it at that point that the cure is effected? Perhaps the novel should begin not at the leproserie but on the mission-boat.”

It might seem odd to have read ‘In Search of a Character’ before reading the books that it inspired, though it has made me want to read ‘A Burnt Out Case’ (which I think I have somewhere in the TBR) before the year is out. It might also seem an odd choice as my fourth ever Greene read, my first being ‘The End of The Affair’ followed by ‘Our Man in Havana’ and then ‘Brighton Rock’. Yet it worked for me. I found getting inside the authors head, learning about him and seeing how it all came to fruition really, really interesting. Maybe I missed a few things I wouldn’t have if I had read the books first but I can always come to this one again afterwards at some point can’t I? If you have ever wondered how an authors mind works and where they get their ideas (if that doesn’t make them sound like a rare endangered breed of beast, oops) then I would recommend you give this a whirl, of course if you are a firm Greene fan already it will be a no brainer to pick this up.

Weirdly it seems apt that I dropped reading ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet as it has the same sort of duality as this one, and I think Binet’s is even more fascinating. I will be reading that again when I leave Gran’s and reporting back in due course. Back to Greene though… Which of his novels would you really recommend? Should I read ‘A Burnt Out Case’ next or something else?


Filed under Graham Greene, Non Fiction, Penguin Books, Review

29 responses to “In Search of a Character – Graham Greene

  1. It’s funny how I always think going home or going to Grammy’s (my Gran) house will equal read-a-thon, when really I end up talking to my family *gasp* and forgetting about fictional characters for a while.

    Anyway I loved The End of the Affair by Graham Greene but I haven’t read anything else by him. Do you suggest starting with this one? Or with one of the other two you mentioned?

    • I do exactly the same thing when I go to my mothers or indeed away on holiday. In my head there will be hours and hours to while away reading, never ends up being the case though. Bloody family members and other halves hahaha.

      I would go for… possibly Brighton Rock, this is good if you want to get an insight into a writers brain and leprosy, not really a story though. I feel I now need to try one of his proper stories myself again. I didn’t love Our Man in Havana though I know many people who found it hysterical!

  2. Simon
    I would recommend ‘Travels With My Aunt’ and described by Greene as the only book he wrote just for the fun of it.

  3. Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors, but I’ve never read any of his non-fiction. This one sounds fascinating.

    While his early “entertainments” (such as Orient Express and This Gun for Hire) are fun and I would recommend them as a light read, they don’t have the complexity of his later works. My favorites are probably The Quiet American, <The End of the Affair (which was my first Greene) and The Power and the Glory. Monsignor Quixote was a fun follow-up to reading Don Quixote but I don’t think I’d recommend it otherwise.

    Travels with My Aunt is one of his that I own but haven’t read, although it’s not part of my official TBR challenge. Perhaps on Jenny’s recommendation I will sneak it in.

    • I would say that if you like him already then you will love this as an insight into the author that you love. I found him a very likeable man, it shouldn’t matter but we all know that does.

      Sounds like I have quite some catching up to do on his works and lots of great reads ahead.

  4. This sounds so interesting. I’m not a huge fan of Green’s works, but then again that could have to do with my best friend writing her thesis on his works and talking non-stop about it all. Nonetheless, I should probably give his work a read of my own – I’ve only ever read The Quiet American and that was excellent, so I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy his other works. Great post!!

    • Hahaha, isn’t it funny how sometimes someone has unending enthusiasm for something and instead of it being contagious it sort of gets irritating – I know that I have done that with many a book.

  5. Another excellent blog post. Much appreciated. Kept them coming.

  6. gaskella

    I devoured Greene in my 20s and 30s, but haven’t read much since – I should revisit him. I remember being fond of The Honorary Consul, The Quiet American, The Comedians and The Heart of the Matter.

    • I think I might try The Heart of the Matter next simply because this book ties in so much with that one and it would be a good way back into Greene. Why did you meander of his work more recently, or is it just accidental?

      • gaskella

        It’s funny – I was browsing my shelves and paused at my Greene collection – I’ve at least a dozen, and thought must read him again and then you posted!

      • I was peering over your shoulder at the time. I don’t like to talk about the bookish magical powers I have haha!

  7. This sounds great, a completely different sort of book about books and writing. I’ve not read Greene’s work either, but the quotes and information you’ve included here makes me want to consider doing the same – reading this first.

    • I don’t see why reading this first would be a bad thing at all Charlie. I don’t think that it is in print anymore but I would recommend finding it on a certain site or through your library, though alas older out of print books are getting harder and harder to find in the latter.

  8. Travels with My Aunt, Brighton Rock and, unlike “Sly Wit”, I am very positive about Monsignor Quixote.

  9. David

    Funnily enough, ‘A Burnt Out Case’ is one of the two of his novels that I’ve read, and I liked it very much (it certainly made me want to read more by him). Given that you’ve now read lots of the background to it, why not read that one? The other one I’ve read is ‘Stamboul Train’ which is more of a thriller (what Greene called ‘an entertainment’) and, whilst enjoyable, was a bit – dare I say – disposable.
    He’s one of those writers I really want to read more of. I have a couple of Folio Society boxed sets of his novels, so I’ve no real excuse for not doing either!

    • I think that you are probably right David and I have no realised that I just said to Annabel that I was going to read The Heart of the Matter and in fact I meant A Burnt Out Case, oops.

      What are the perks of the Folio books, I was discussing this with my Gran last week.

      • David

        I got into the Folio books when I was at university. Our bookbinding tutor raved about them and how well made they were, plus the library had a special collections room which had most of the FS books. Many of them are very nice, and it’s true that they are better put together than your standard book (from UK publishers at any rate). My personal interest in them is of course that they are illustrated, and they use a good mix of very traditional illustrations for ‘classics’ with some much more modern stuff where appropriate. If there is a problem with them it is that they are expensive, though they run several offers throughout the year which means, if you’re canny, you can get a higher value of books for free than those you actually pay for. They don’t hold their value though as they do huge print runs compared to most mainstream publishers.
        A couple of years ago I let my membership lapse as their new editor seems to have a think for science fiction, crime and more popular novels like Patrick O’Brien and Douglas Adams that don’t really appeal to me. Prior to him taking over they had been doing a good series of Booker winners which I had been collecting (nice to finally have a hardcover of ‘Midnight’s Children’!).
        The Graham Greene ones are particularly lovely with illustrations by Geoff Grandfield. Others I have that I really like are a complete set of Joseph Conrad’s novels, Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’, all of Jane Austen and the Brontes, most of Hardy’s, ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’, some Evelyn Waugh’… I really must get around to actually reading some of them sometime!

      • Wowsers. Sounds like there’s lots of them and interesting about the change in editor. I think I have seen some in second hand bookshops. Maybe that’s the best way to get a feel for them and see if I think it might be worth getting a few. If they do Du Mauriers for example.

        I like the idea of the illustrations.

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  11. Weird coincidence in that I have just finished a non-fiction book about the last leprosarium in the U.S. and how it closed (I think) in the 1990’s. I hear nowt about leprosy/Hansen’s Disease, and here it is mentioned in two books in a couple of weeks. If you look on Wiki (I know, I know), it’s a really scary disease and one of its vectors is armadillos! Strange but true and they live here in Texas. (Only seen roadkill though.)

    • Oh that is a coincidence! Have you read The Island by Victoria Hislop? That is about a leper colony on an island off the coast of Greece, its based on true historical accounts. It is really good, well worth a read – the start is a little ‘lite’ then it gets really really good.

      What was the non fiction book you read?

  12. Sophie

    The Heart of the Matter is tremendous. Read it years ago, and I still find myself thinking about it now and then.

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