Sunday, October 31, 2010

2,598: 1,001 Book Challenge - the Third Man by Graham Greene

I subscribe to a belief (no doubt shared by many) that films of books tend to be worse than the original book, whereas books of films tend to be worse than the original film.  Now this is not to say that they are bad in absolute terms,  merely  that they tend to be worse.  The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, for example, an excellent set of films but is simply not as rich as the original book trilogy.  In this light, the Third Man could be viewed as an exception to the rule – a novel improved by the film adaptation, which, let’s face it, is one the great films of the 20th Century.

This view would, however, be misleading as the novel was, in fact, initially not intended for publication by Graham Greene but as a way for him to develop the story before he wrote the screenplay for the film.  The novel was only published after the release of the film, together with the Fallen Idol, another short Greene work.

Following completion of the screenplay, the director, Carol Reed, and Greene developed it through a collaborative process, resulting in the final film.  Although it remains remarkably faithful to the initial novel treatment (taking into account the change of nationality of several of the lead characters), there are some key alterations that make the film a superior beast.  The most obvious of these is the ending, which was the subject of a major argument between Greene and Reed (supported by the producer David O. Selznick).  Greene felt that ,

an entertainment of this kind was too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending. Reed on his side felt that my ending — indeterminate as it was, with no words spoken, Holly joining the girl in silence and walking away with her from the cemetery where her lover Harry was buried — would strike the audience who had just seen Harry's death and burial as unpleasantly cynical.

Reed and Selznick had their way and, as Greene himself acknowledged, the darker ending to the film undoubtedly improves the story.

Turning to the novel, it is, first of all, a fine story and Greene skilfully evokes the seedy and oppressive atmosphere of a post-war Vienna governed, like Berlin, by the Four Powers and populated by soldiers, spies, racketeers and ordinary people trying to survive in the war-ravaged city.  As with many of Greene’s best works, the Third Man addresses issues of personal morality.  There is the changing of perceptions of Harry Lime’s morality, which range from the almost hero-worship by Rollo to the cynical view of him held by Major Calloway, perceptions which shift further as the nature of Lime’s activities becomes apparent.  Greene also shows how individuals come to make compromises with their own morality.  A constant theme of Greene (a notable Anglo-Catholic) is how even the best of us are obliged to come to an understanding with our consciences, to make the little concessions and compromises that chip away at our sense of our own goodness.

In this sense, the Third Man fits with much of Greene’s oeuvre but in all fairness, it is not one of my favourites.  I can’t help feeling that there is a certain lack of substance to it and it left me slightly unsatisfied and a bit disappointed.  If you are a newcomer to Greene, there are others of his novels that are far better starting points.

The Third Man was listed in the first edition of 1,001 Books but was then dropped from the 2006 edition.  Its dropping is unsurprising, what is more peculiar to me was its initial inclusion.  Yes, it is a perfectly good short novel but there is no way that it should be in this kind of list.  I can only think that the compilers were blinded by the film, as they appear to have been with a number of other books in the list.  One point of curiosity about 1,001 Books is the number of books that became films that have been included and I can’t help feeling that, in many cases, there are other books that could have been included.

And this brings me neatly back to where I started, talking about books that are better than their films and films that are better than their books.  What films can you think of that were better than their source novels and are there any novelisations at all that are an improvement on their source films?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Get out of jail free card 1

When I decided to read through the 1,001 Books list, I immediately realised that there were some books I simply couldn't face reading so I gave myself a little "cheat" - the get out of jail free cards.  I am allowing myself to choose not to read up to 50 of the 1,001 Books but, instead, to replace them with books that are in other editions of the book not the 2006 edition from which I have taken the list.

The next book on my list from the 1,001 Books was supposed to have been Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.  This is a 19th Century family saga about the gradual fall from grace of a prosperous Hamburg family.  Now I am not a big fan of family sagas in general.  Netiher am I a big fan of German literature, as I have previously mentioned on one or two occasions.  So, when the RNG threw up Buddenbrooks, it pretty much ticked all of my least favorite boxes.  I could try and overcome my prejudices or I could take the easy route and use the get out of jail card.  Guess what I did.  Yes, that's right.  I played the card.  No more Buddenbrooks.

Instead I have chosen to replace it with the Third Man by Graham Greene.  One of my favorite authors but not one I have read.

The review will be coming up soon.

Friday, October 22, 2010

2,599: Banned Book Challenge - Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Before reading Metamorphosis, I had never read any Kafka.  I’d always had this vague idea that he’d be dark, gloomy and miserable and that his books would be thoroughly hard work.  How wrong I was.  At times, I found the descriptions of Gregor Samsa’s behaviour as he adapted to life as an insect and the reactions of his family to border on farce and I finished the novella (it’s too short to qualify as a novel) far too quickly.

Obviously, the themes of the story are far darker.  At its heart, Metamorphosis deals with alienation and transformation.  The most overt transformation is that of Gregor himself.  From the opening of the story, when he wakes up to find himself transformed into a cockroach-like insect, we track his physical deterioration and increasing estrangement from his family until, at the end, he succumbs to infection and neglect and dies.

Yet this is not the only transformation.  In the beginning, Gregor’s parents and sister are dependent upon his earnings as a salesman and one of his main concerns is how his transformation will affect their ability to live.  We gradually learn that, in fact, they have been taking advantage of him and have been able to save a reasonable sum of money whilst living off his wages.  They then, themselves, transform.  His parents and sister go out and find work and become self-sufficient again.  They find a smaller flat in which to live.  Eventually, after Gregor’s death, the story comes full circle as Mr and Mrs Samsa begin to see Gregor’s sister, Grete, in a new light and realise that she is becoming a woman.

As a corollary to the awakening of Gregor’s family, their love for and care of Gregor begins to diminish.  Grete had taken on the role of caretaker to him and had even tried leaving different foods out for him to discover how his tastes had changed as a result of his physical transformation.  As the story progresses, she begins to neglect him and he is eventually left alone in his room.  His father becomes enraged and tries to kill him, throwing an apple at him which gets embedded in his carapace and causes the infection that will contribute to his death.  His insectoid nature diminishes their love for him until his appearance in front of their  lodgers causes Grete to conclude that he is no longer Gregor, as Greogr would not have been so inconsiderate.

One of the other aspects of the story that really struck me was the lack of curiosity shown by any of the main characters about Gregor’s changed circumstances.  At no point does anyone, including Gregor, ask or wonder why or how his transformation happened.  Even Gregor gives up any idea of changing back very early on.  Everyone’s focus is on the practical implications of his change.  Gregor is constantly trying to work out how to live as an insect, whilst showing (a rather naïve) concern only for his family and how he can be considerate of them.  His family spend most of their time adapting to having to work for themselves and finding ways to conceal Gregor from their lodgers and visitors.  This was probably the oddest aspect of the story for me.  I suspect if I, or one of my nearest and dearest, had been changed into a cockroach, I would be giving some pretty serious thought to what had happened and what to do about it!

Metamorphosis was banned by both the Soviet and Nazi regimes.  It was banned in the Soviet Union for being both decadent and despairing.  I can’t quite work this one out.  I suppose it is a bit depressing in that it shows a family quickly ostracising and then denying one of its members within a very short space of time for having changed into something different and inconvenient.  This could be seen as portraying groups as intolerant and untrustworthy, something which would have been unpalatable to a collective-minded regime such as the Communists.  Having said that, the Soviets were keen on supplanting the family with the Party and so might have seen Metamorphosis as an attack on the family concept.  Furthermore, it is a bit strong to describe it as despairing.

Anyway, I am now a Kafka convert and am looking forward to reading more in future.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

2,600: 1,001 Book/Banned Book challenges - Fiesta: the Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

One slightly odd conceit of mine is that I am convinced that if a writer compels me to finish reading his or her novel despite me disliking all of the main characters, then that writer must be, at the very least, good and maybe even great.  On that basis, Hemingway is a great writer and Fiesta: the Sun Also Rises is a great novel.

The main characters, with the exception of Romero, the Spanish bullfighter, are all part of the expatriate Anglo-American set who hung around Paris in the 1920s, drinking, pretending to be bohemian and having sex with each other.  Ultimately, they are all pretty unpalatable characters – Jake Barnes, the narrator, is an impotent drip who is deeply in love with Lady Brett Ashley, a selfish promiscuous drunk.  She has slept with Robert Cohn, a moody, self-obsessed writer who cannot let go of her, despite the fact that she is engaged to Mike Campbell, a drunken bankrupt who spends his time cadging money or trying to get free drinks.  Enter the beautiful young matador, Romero, during the fiesta in Pamplona, and the scene is set for excessive drinking, fisticuffs and arguments.

In my youth, I would probably have read this and wanted to be one of the young Americans, partying around Paris and Spain, drinking too much and generally acting as if there was no tomorrow.  Now, in my “middle years”, it just makes me a bit tired and the jaded cynicism of the characters grates on me.

It is saved by Hemingway’s style.  The book reads like a hard-boiled detective story by Chandler or Marlowe, all short, staccato sentences, sparse and lean.  There are no literary flourishes, no flowery adjectives or convoluted clauses.  The writing is deceptively simple and therein lies the rub.  Hemingway is simply masterful at conjuring up images from direct language and at building the tension as the fiesta approaches and the group begins to fall apart.

I have also discovered a new word........polysyndeton.  Yes, you read me correctly, polysyndeton.  Now, on the assumption that there are at least a couple of you out there who, like me, haven’t a clue about this word, it describes a literary technique whereby a writer uses multiple conjunctions in close succession, especially where they are grammatically unnecessary.  So, “I went to the bank and took out some cash but was robbed on the way out and so I went to the police station and reported it.” is a (pretty poor) use of polysyndeton.  And the point of this is that polysyndeton was used by Hemingway to raise the pace of his writing and to convey a sense of immediacy.  Although I suspect he wouldn’t have been able to pronounce it half the time, given that he was usually half-cut.

Anyway, back to Fiesta: the Sun Also Rises.  Unpleasant characters, atmospheric writing and Paris and Spain provide great backdrops to the action.  Apparently one of the great 20th Century novels, it didn’t do huge amounts for me and I wouldn’t even class it as one of Hemingway’s best.  Which, I am told, puts me a distinct minority.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

2,601:1,001 Book/Banned Book challenges - 1984 by George Orwell

Comparisons are often made between the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley and Orwell’s vision of the future in 1984.  Huxley created a world of softness, where emotions are muted and human passions, such as love and ambition, are smothered.  By a combination of conditioning and biophysical engineering (not genetic engineering, mind), the citizens of Huxley’s future are politically paralysed by material comfort and the encouragement of hedonistic pleasures.

Orwell’s world is much different.  The three mega-states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia are in a perpetual state of war, with shifting alliances and geographical conflicts being the only signs of change.  Domestically, the Party, led by the possibly mythical Big Brother, crushes all opposition underfoot and is totalitarian in scope, seeking to control all aspects of life.  There is a telescreen in every room so that Big Brother’s thought police can spy on everyone at any time.

There are elements of 1984 that will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Soviet and Nazi regimes of the 1930s and 1940s.  Like the KGB, the thought police come in the dead of night and their victims simply disappear.  There is cult-like worship of Big Brother, an institutionalised distaste for sex and a huge propaganda machine, attempting to control the very thoughts of the people.

In purely literary terms, 1984 is not a great novel.  Its plot is straightforward:  Winston Smith, a minor Party official, commits a thought crime by beginning to write a diary.  From the very beginning, he knows that it is only a matter of time before he is caught and killed.  He meets Julia, another Party worker and they begin an affair.  They meet a more senior official, O’Brien, one of the Inner Party.  He lends them a book by Big Brother’s arch enemy, Goldstein, and enrols them into a secret resistance movement but, almost inevitably, he turns out to be part of the thought police and arrests them.  Under torture, including the infamous Room 101, Julia and Winston betray each other.  At the end of the novel, they see each other once more and exchange looks of hate for each other.  The final image of Winston is as a “non-person”, alive but excluded from society.  And yet, he realises he loves Big Brother, whose victory is complete.

The characterisation is not much better:  almost all of the main characters are shallow, mere ciphers for the ideas Orwell wants to explore.  In pure literary terms, Orwell wrote much better books than 1984.  Try Animal Farm, Down and out in London and Paris, Homage to Catalonia or any of his volumes of essays.  The importance of 1984 lies in its description of the results of totalitarianism and its call for us to resist it.  And at the core of it is what I believe to be Orwell’s core belief – that our best defence and most central value is the truth.  Winston once finds evidence of Big Brother’s fakery of history and this is an epiphany for him.  At the heart of 1984 is the way in which Big Brother and the party manipulate the truth by propaganda, by imposing a new language, shorn of beauty and subtlety and by rewriting history to be consistent with the present.
Oceania has a huge bureaucracy devoted to rewriting newspapers to make the past reflect the present, to persuading the people that they have never been at war with Eurasia despite the fact that Winston clearly remembers that they were.  The Bible may tell us that the truth shall set us free and Big Brother would agree.  So he makes sure that he creates the truth and that the truth shall be flexible and made to fit his needs.

Whereas Brave New World gave us a vision of a soft new world in which people were stroked into compliance through their conditioning and the pleasures around them, 1984 offers a more brutal vision.  For me, one of the most chilling images of the book comes when O’Brien tells Winston, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”  Big Brother forces submission.  He batters beliefs into the heads of the people and demands absolute obedience.  The Two Minute Hate and the torments of Room 101 are just some examples of how Big Brother and the Party crush the human spirit until Winston has betrayed everyone and everything dear to him and, at the very end, when nothing else is left, Big Brother wins the ultimate victory sa Winston capitulates and betrays the last thing he possesses – himself:

“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

1984 is memorable.  It has given us phrases that are now part of everyday language like Big Brother, Room 101, thought crime and Newspeak.  I first read it in 1983 and, although it has clearly not come true, the world Orwell describes had a massive impact upon my beliefs and my political beliefs.  I can completely understand why it would have been banned in the Soviet Union – they would have been crazy not to.  I can’t really see why it was banned in the USA, however.  It may have come about at the time of the McCarthy hearings and there may have been sensitivity about the authoritarian way that Americans were beginning to be harassed for having unorthodox political views.   I don’t know – just a thought.

There are very few books that are more “essential” than 1984, in my opinion.  I suspect you’ve read it too.  I would suggest reading it again, it really is worth it.