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Graham Greene: The Quiet American

Before you read the book:

My wife noticed that a few of my recent reads have the word “American” in the title, so when I presented her with a few of the books I was considering for my next read, she did not hesitate to choose The Quiet American (1954).  I complied, and I’m glad I did.  Greene is still new to me (I know, and I like to think I’m well read – this type of situation pulls me back to reality).  It was only a few months ago I had my first experience with Graham Greene in his short The Tenth Man.  While I liked that novel quite a lot, I was hoping for more.  I got it here.

The Quiet American takes place in Vietnam in the early 1950s, not long before the French gave up their colonial dominion.  America was warming up to take the baton.  However, attention was still being paid primarily to Korea.  From my own under-aged perspective, it doesn’t seem that Vietnam was a large worry at this point.  The book appears to have been written in retrospect, a decade or two later than 1955, already knowing what was going to happen in Vietnam.  As it was written in 1955, however, The Quiet American is incredibly prescient and equally devestating.

The narrator is Thomas Fowler, an older-than-middle-aged British reporter who has been in Vietnam covering the conflict between the French and the Soviet-supported Viet Minh for some years.  Thomas has found a degree of contentment in cynicism and neutrality.  His ability to avoid any passionate mixup in the battle is strengthened by the fact that he has a beautiful mistress named Phuong who packs his pipe with opium every night before surrendering her body to him.  He would like to marry Phuong to secure her presence, but back home in England he has a wife who is staunchly Catholic.  However, for the time being, his relationship with Phuong provides him with all of the satisfaction he cares for anymore, so he can distance himself – somewhat – from other conflicts. 

Enter the quiet American, Alden Pyle (whom Thomas cannot call by his first name, liking the associations of Pyle too much).  Pyle is that unfortunate combination of idealism and ignorance and Congressional support.  He has a plan for Vietnam: defeat the Viet Minh by supporting insurgent groups (easy enough), install a leader from the insurgent group, and establish a democracy meant to quash the growth of Communism.  That is eerily prescient for how things would be ten years – oh, and (astonishing), even fifty years later.

Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East, which he had known for as many months as I had years.  Democracy was another subject of his – he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world.

Fowler doesn’t want to pick a side in the conflict, but Pyle honor-bound one day comes to tell Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong and will begin to pursue her hand (she and Fowler aren’t married, after all).  It’s not just that he has fallen in love with Phuong; he has fallen in love with saving her, thinking he’s protecting her interests.  Vietnam, apparently, wasn’t a good place for a virtuous woman to transition into adulthood.  Fowler and Pyle have several conversations about Phuong, some amusing, all interesting (showing that the book has more to it than political intrigue – Greene’s got excellent control, style, and timing):

Suddenly I couldn’t bear his boyishness any more.  I said, “I don’t care that for her interests.  You can have her interests.  I only want her body.  I want her in bed with me.  I’d rather ruin her and sleep with her than, than . . . look after her damned interests.”

He said, “Oh,” in a weak voice, in the dark.

I went on, “If it’s only her interests you care about, for God’s sake leave Phuong alone.  Like any other woman she’d rather have a good . . .”  The clash of a mortar saved Boston ears from the Anglo-Saxon word.

A lot younger, a lot wealthier, with no wifely baggage at home, Fowler knows Pyle has a strong chance of winning Phuong from him.  After all, Fowler doesn’t delude himself into thinking Phuong loves him any more than he can provide for her needs, which he increasingly can’t.

Fowler’s weery, self-reflective tone smoothly goes from his relationship with Pyle to the ugliness of the war.  Greene surprised me here.  The Tenth Man was ironic, but sometimes the tone was a bit melodramatic and sentimental, particularly at the resolution.  I had, with no real basis, pegged Greene as a bit of a melodramatic author.  Not here.  His depictions of the war and the dead are properly disturbing.

Thankfully, Greene doesn’t lapse into simple, didactic moralism to attempt to resolve this conflict or any other conflict that is going on, despite the clearly allegorical tale.  On the contrary, Greene recognizes the inherent complexity and irrationality in each conflict he describes, on a global, local, and personal level.  After finishing the book I watched the trailer for Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film adaptation and slapped my head and spit in spite when in just a few of the sound bites the characters reduced the layers of meaning in Fowler’s and Pyle’s relationship with Phuong and with Vietnam down to just a few simple quote.  Greene, thankfully, doesn’t go so far as that, leaving the story to work a wonderful, but not a simply reducible, analogy for the involvement of Europe and America in Indo-China during this period.  It made me reflect – quietly.

23 thoughts on “Graham Greene: The Quiet American

  1. Rob says:

    I read Brighton Rock a few years ago and found it a bit of a joyless experience. That and a couple of dodgy film adaptations have put me off reading anything else. There’s definitely a Greene-shaped gap in my reading, though, so I’m considering trying again, either with this one or with A Burnt-Out Case.

  2. Rob, I’ve heard his best pieces are The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, and The Heart of the Matter. Not sure what Greene afficionados have to say about Brighton Rock or A Burnt-Out Case.

    That said, I found this one far from joyless. Plus, at something like 180 pages, it moves pretty fast. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on him when you return to him. I know I’m becoming a fan, but I’m not yet sure whether I’m ready to read everything he’s written.

  3. John Self says:

    Brighton Rock is a bit joyless, but deliberately so I think. Nonetheless, as the first of Greene’s ‘mature’ novels (as opposed to the five thrillers or ‘entertainments’ he wrote before it), I like it much less than his later books. It does however have a wonderful last line, which I can quote without spoiling it:

    She walked in the thin June sunlight toward the worst horror of all.

    Anyway, an excellent account, Trevor. Greene is readable, quotable and gripping, but never simplistic, and you can’t ask for much more than that. There’s a clear-eyed bleakness to his books which I find extremely seductive, or at least did when I read most of them ten or more years ago. I wonder if I might have changed my take on them now.

    The Power and the Glory is widely regarded as his masterpiece, and I greatly admire it, though it’s not a particularly ‘easy’ book in some ways. The End of the Affair (set in wartime England) and The Heart of the Matter (in Africa) are wonderfully grim – all three make a feature of Greene’s struggle with Catholicism.

    His later stuff – like The Tenth Man – is interesting and usually enjoyable but a lot lighter in style and probably content too. I enjoyed Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party in the same way that I like Roald Dahl’s adult stories. I’m less fond of later ‘entertainments’ which others praise highly, such as Our Man in Havana and Travels with My Aunt.

    Rob mentions A Burnt-Out Case and I am afraid that it’s one that I have read but can’t remember anything about – so probably not the best to persuade you of Greene’s merits. Plenty of his other books will though.

  4. John Self says:

    Oh and I see, Trevor, that you’ve referred to The Tenth Man in your opening paragraph as The Third Man. Greene wrote both, but the latter was a novelisation of his own film script for Carol Reed’s brilliant movie (starring the young Orson Welles as Harry Lime). Both I think would be considered ‘entertainments’ by Greene, which was his categorisation to distinguish them from his more serious novels.

  5. Woah, thanks for the catch, John. Duly edited (I for some reason never fail to mix them up).

  6. John Self says:

    Ah well in that case I’ll not tell you about Greene’s classic story The Seventh Man. ;-)

  7. KevinfromCanada says:

    Personally, I prefer the vastly under-rated The Eighth Man.

    I also quite liked Brighton Rock, despite it being joyless. It was a joyless time and that is what this book captured. Lee made a comment on John’s site about works that are “tangential” to the world they are set in — that’s what Brighton Rock does. Not an easy read, to be sure, but worth adding into the repertory. I have not read nearly as much Greene as I should (got trapped in the entertainments, I would say). Thanks to this review, I’ll be putting him on my Jan.-March catch-up-with-the-greats list, once I finish all the Austers that John has put on my pile.

  8. John and Kevin, you’ve both made Brighton Rock quite appealing to me. I have no problem with joyless books as I’ve just finished Revolutionary Road and found the joylessness of it as compelling as anything I’ve read in a while.

  9. KevinfromCanada says:

    We do have to remember that Greene wrote Brighton Rock in 1938, so it was a pretty grim time (even grimmer than anyone thought) in history. As an absolutely devoted fan of Foyle’s War which I think is better television even than The Sopranos, Greene caught some of the fallout of what approaching war looked like in a most interesting way. One of the reasons that I like The Regeneration Trilogy is that it explores how haphazard and foolish the decision to enter WW1 was. In many ways, Brighton Rock captures an equal lack of knowledge of what the near term future is going to look like — and Greene wrote this before all that took place.

    And if you do take time off from reading books to turn on DVDs and cuddle your children, do rent Foyle’s War. It is almost as good as reading a book and, from me, that is high praise.

    Finally, on a most mundane note, I checked the National Book Awards site and see that the 20-book longlist (that’s a killer) is due out Oct. 15, the day after the Man Booker winner is announced. They don’t seem to have a debate section (not really surprised) so I’m wondering if you could adapt this blog for those of who follow these prizes. I’m certainly not going to read 20 books but would definitely like advice about the five or six that I should read. And I don’t know of any other U.S. source that might provide it.

  10. Kevin, I will definitely post on my sidebar what the books on the longlist for the National Book Award are. Perhaps I’ll also post the longlist in its own blog to encourage people to share their thoughts there. Or I might even figure out how to make a page dedicated to the different awards lists where the books can be discussed individually. I’ll work on it, Kevin! And thanks for the idea!

  11. KevinfromCanada says:

    Thanks for taking on the task. I definitely will be wanting advice — so whatever you come up with is a help.

  12. John Self says:

    Trevor, I look forward to reading your thoughts on Revolutionary Road. I’ve been thinking of revisiting it before the movie comes out and traps Frank and April forever into di Caprio and Winslet-shaped moulds. (For one thing, I keep forgetting how young they are in the book – Frank’s 29, I think – so although I instinctively think di Caprio too young, he’s probably about right.)

    If this is your first Yates, it’s likely you’ll end up reading all of him. Not much more – six novels and two collections of stories. I’d recommend Young Hearts Crying and Cold Spring Harbor particularly. You will find though that certain things recur in Yates books – not least a dissolute, drunken, frustrated-artist mother (which reflects precisely Yates’s own mother). So there is a sameness, and in some ways I’d be hard pressed to remember which of his novels is which. (In some ways his most distinctive ones are the less successful, like Disturbing the Peace -see my blog – or A Good School.) But boy could he write. I keep meaning to reread his others too, as RR is the only one I’ve read more than once. Oddly, I liked it a little less second time around.

  13. Rob says:

    Oh, certainly Brighton Rock was meant to be joyless. It’s just that the actual reading experience itself was joyless too. Actually, I think I read it in Brighton. That’s neither here nor there, of course.

    Now I want to watch The Third Man again…

  14. John, I’ll defer responding to what you have to say about Yates until after my review of Revolutionary Road is posted. Needless to say, however, I’ve already got all of his books in my Amazon cart.

    Rob, I think I might also watch The Third Man. It’s been a long time, and the main reason I watched it the first time was to see if I believed people who said that Orson Welles actually directed it and not Carol Reed. I have to say, it sure looks like he might have stepped behind the camera a time or two. Anyway, now I want to watch it to learn more about Greene.

  15. I loved Brighton Rock, that final line is devastating in the context of the novel and though it is joyless it was as noted above a joyless time.

    Greene was an expert at the devasting final paragraph, often even final sentence, he had a tendency in the last words of a novel to cast a bleak light on all that had gone before.

    Personally I’m very fond of Brighton Rock, I consider Travels with my Aunt to have some very powerful imagery and some wonderful lines (as a man swaps one prison for another, under the illusion of finding freedom), Our Man in Havana has a final sentence that transforms the book from comedy to tragedy though I think its implications are often missed. Obviously I’m fonder of that last two than John, but I would say that Greene’s work varies in my experience from good to great and the good are often more in the line of well written thrillers than deeper novels (of course, he himself called them entertainments as John rightly notes). There’s a lot he wrote that is rewarding to read when you read it, but does not perhaps linger in the memory, but I’ve not read much by him that didn’t at least have a scene or two that have stayed with me over the years.

  16. The Third Man incidentally is worth watching simply as it’s a tremendous piece of cinema. I hadn’t heard the rumour about Welles directing some of it, but having seen Reed’s superb 1947 noir piece Odd Man Out I don’t find it all difficult to believe that the same director was behind Third Man.

  17. Max, I’ll have to look up Odd Man Out. I definitely don’t want to taint Reed’s expertise.

  18. Howard Curtis says:

    The End of the Affair is my absolutely favourite novel of all time.

    There is no evidence whatsoever that Orson Welles directed any of The Third Man, and Welles himself firmly denied it. What he did do, of course, apart from giving a wonderful performance as Harry Lime, was add those famous lines about Switzerland and cuckoo clocks to the end of the speech on the Ferris wheel.

  19. Howard, I think The End of the Affair will be my next Greene novel. It’ll be a bit before I get to it, but it’s already moving above several other books in my pile.

    As far as The Third Man goes, Max’s comment above that refers to Reed’s Odd Man Out hopefully can quell the concern. But, I think, the speculation is inevitable; it was at the time The Third Man came out and will continue especially now that all involved in the production are gone. Speculation which, as you say, has no evidentiary support. We just know that the film was brilliantly directed. The fact that Reed continued to direct brilliantly definitely should be held as some support that Welles didn’t direct.

  20. Like you, Trevor, my reading of Graham Greene has been sporadic. I had not read The Quiet American and did make a note when this review appeared. I forgot about it until Sheila was in Indo-China earlier this spring and called to say she had visited a number of the places the Greene talks about in the book.

    Finally got around to reading it this weekend, so I came back to check this review before attempting my own. It is so good, that there is no way I can even hope to complement it — so thought I would bring it back up on your comment list to recommend The Quiet American to others.

    As your review notes, Greene is not only prescient about what happens in Vietnam after 1955, he has some remarkable insights that are worthwhile more than 50 years later. When America is wondering whether Iraq will restore “order” after its invasion; making threatening noises about Iran; and discovering what the British and Russians had already discovered in Afghanistan, Greene’s thoughts about exporting “democracy” in the form of Pile’s naive, but dangerous, interventions certainly give pause for thought. It is only part of what is a very good novel (as you point out), but does make this book very timely. In some ways, I’m glad I waited so many months to read it. And again, for anyone reading this comment, this review gets 10 out of 10.

  21. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Kevin. I’d still like to read your review of the book but I’m thrilled you brought it back up to attention here. I definitely found more than I expected, and it sits firmly in my mind still. It’s incredible how in this book Greene foresaw the next fifty-plus years.

    The other day I was torn between purchasing another Greene novel (either The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter) but opted instead for William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I don’t think I would have chosen poorly any way around, but I had not yet read Maxwell, so he won out in the end. I hope to get to more Greene soon!

  22. I’ve had a Folio Society volume of The Human Factor staring me in the face for months, so I think it will be next — not likely for some weeks, however.

    I’ve only started with Maxwell and intend to read him chronologically. I think you will find him well worth your while.

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