Graham Greene: The Tenth Man

In the introduction to The Tenth Man (revised and published 1985, written 1940s), author Graham Greene said that in “1948 when I was working on The Third Man I seem to have completely forgotten about a story called The Tenth Man which was ticking away like a time bomb somewhere in the archives of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in America.” He had written the story in story form as a basis for a screenplay, much like he did with other stories, but this one apparently slipped his mind. It wasn’t until 1983 that a stranger purchased the rights to the story and offered to let Greene revise it and publish it in novel (well, novella) form. With most writers I would not be excited to read a story they themselves forgot about. But from one of the best writers of the twentieth-century, I was more intrigued than put off.

This is a short novel tightly packed into four parts. The basic premise is this: thirty Frenchmen are in a German prison camp during Word War II. Among them is “a Paris lawyer called Chavel, a lonely fellow who made awkward attempts from time to time to prove himself human.”

I don’t know how much work Greene put into revising the story, but when the book began I knew I was in good hands — it was so well put together. The first small chapter introduces the characters and the prison, but it is focused on watches and time in general; the prison itself is almost incidental. Two of the prisoners, one of them a mayor, have watches and they constantly bicker about whose has the correct time. On this particular day, the mayor’s watch stops because he forgot to wind it the night before. It is incredibly amusing to read Greene’s account of the mayor’s anxiety about finding some privacy in a small prison to wind and set his watch without being noticed, and thus losing his clout as the keeper of the correct time.

But that day was marked permanently in the mayor’s mind as one of the black days of terrible anxiety which form a private calendar: the day of his marriage; the day when his first child was born; the day of the council election; the day when his wife died.

Though this is an amusing account, it is also a great vehicle Greene uses to describe the setting and mentality of the prisoners: “Prison leaves no sense unimpaired, and the sense of proportion is the first to go.”

The tone of the book changes quickly when the guards come to tell the prisoners that three of them are to be executed the next morning — the prisoners can choose for themselves who it will be. To accomplish this impossible decision the men draw lots.

Some men drew the first slip which touched their fingers; others seemed to suspect that fate was trying to force on them a particular slip and when they had drawn one a little way from the shoe would let it drop again and choose another.

They draw lots in reverse alphabetical order, so one of the last to choose is a lawyer named Chavel. It’s a great scene as we watch Chavel calculate the odds. First, 10:1. Then the first to draw chooses the marked paper, so the odds suddenly change to a comfortable 14.5:1. However, as more and more choose, the odds increasingly point to Chavel. Of course, he draws the marked paper. In a fit of anxiety Chavel offers all he has to someone willing to take his place.

Surprisingly, someone accepts.

Here the psychological story begins.

Philosophers say that past, present and future exist simultaneously, and certainly in this heavy darkness many pasts came to life: a lorry drove up the Boulevard Montparnasse, a girl held out her mouth to be kissed, and a town council elected a mayor; and in the minds of three men the future stood as inalterably as birth — fifty yards of cinder track and a brick wall chipped and pitted.

It seemed to Chavel now his hysteria was over that that simple track was infinitely more desirable after all than the long obscure route on which his own feet were planted.

It may seem like I’ve given away a lot of the novel, but this is merely the stage setup. The rest of the novel is concerned with that “long obscure route” that Chavel has chosen. But where most novelists would be content with this clever psychological game and would then simply show episodes where Chavel felt guilty or hollowed out, Greene explores so much more. Sure, there’s guilt and shame, but what about the possibility of love, of getting back all he signed away, of losing something even more valuable than his possessions and his life? Of having the opportunity to sink even lower?

However, the joy of this short book is in the plot and the clever writing. It’s not a nuanced look at any psychological issues, politics, or anything else really. Perhaps in preparation for filming, the scenes are basic, the characters few. But despite that, it is densely packed and feels like a novel of more substantial size. It goes without saying that if I’m this intrigued by a story that Greene forgot about, I’m in for a treat when I read the ones he didn’t almost discard.

A few, spoilerific, afterthoughts:

I know Graham Greene was a bit annoyed at being categorized as a “Catholic writer” rather than as a writer who happened to be Catholic, but the ending of this novel makes it hard to escape that classification. It was obvious the whole time that the book was moving toward Chavel’s redemption by death, though the path was unclear.

Sadly, for me, the ending didn’t excite me as much as the rest of the book. It was a bit too convenient for my taste. And now I’m thinking of another “Catholic” writer whose stories always moved toward redemption but whose endings were less . . . uh . . . convenient: Flannery O’Connor. Remember the ending to “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” to “Good Country People,” to “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” O’Connor had the ability to execute her theme of redemption in shocking and upsetting ways. Always unexpected, her endings were perfect, both stylistically and in the context of the story. Though I loved reading The Tenth Man, I will never dwell on its resolution. It wasn’t shocking. It wasn’t strong. It is forgettable when compared to the rest of the story. And isn’t that a shame when the theme is redemption?

5 thoughts on “Graham Greene: The Tenth Man

  1. A shame the ending disappoints on this one, Greene was often a master of the devastating final sentence, which sometimes would cast new light on all that went before.

    Brighton Rock has one of the most terrible final sentences I’ve read, terrible because of the sheer misery it portends. Our Man in Havana manages with the very final sentence to turn the novel from a quasi-comedy into a quite unfunny tragedy. Similarly, although most readers I think guess the revelations of Travels with my Aunt long before they are made, the ending still reverberates backwards changing what has gone before and raising difficult questions about whether the protagonist has really escaped the closing walls at all or merely changed to a different but equally confining room.

    Much as he may have disliked it, the Catholic writer tag is fairly appropriate. Redemption is a common theme in Greene’s work, this one sounds perhaps less successful than some of the others and while I think Greene’s best work is of higher quality than he himself used to ascribe to it so too I think he did some novels which are merely ok, worth reading and enjoyable but lacking the power and indeed the grace of his best work.

  2. Isabel says:

    I’ve never read any of Greene’s books, so now I have to start

  3. Max, it was too bad about the ending of this book. You know, it almost felt like the first two parts were well edited and revised. The tone was excellent, the pacing superb. But the ending just didn’t satisfy as much. I’m not familiar with much of Greene’s work, so I’m anxious to start up a good relationship with him. And this book definitely didn’t turn me off – I’m anxious to read his more substantial works!

    Isabel – you and me both! I’m moving on to The Quiet American shortly.

  4. Any of Travels with my Aunt, Brighton Rock or Our Man in Havana would be a good place to start, with respect to the better stuff. There are also many excellent, but less substantial, books which can be worth a visit. To my shame, given I have read a lot of Greene, I haven’t yet read The Power and the Glory or The End of the Affair – both are well regarded but I can’t personally speak to either.

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