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.
‘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?