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Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Honorary Consul (1973) by Graham Greene

Michael Caine played Charley Fortnum and Richard Gere played Dr. Eduardo Plarr in the 1982 movie version of The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene
Book Review
The Honorary Consul (1973)
 by Graham Greene

Graham Greene Book Reviews - 1001 Books 2006 Edition
England Made Me (1935)
Brighton Rock (1938) *
The Power and the Glory (1940) *
The Heart of the Matter (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
The End of the Affair (1951) *
The Quiet American (1955) *
Honorary Counsel (1973) *
* =  core title in 1001 Books list

   The Honorary Consul was a late-career highlight for Graham Greene, who many thought was done after a very quiet 1960's.  When you consider that he wrote classics like The Power and The Glory and The Third Man in the 1940's, it's hard not to marvel at his continued vitality over the decades.  To summarize an entire life time of work, Greene is at the top of the chart in the categories of "Catholic novelists" and "Spy novelists."   Obviously, both are but crude summaries of infinitely complicated ideas worked out over a career of popular and critically well received work, but Greene was a little before his time in terms of the spy novel part of his career- more a fore-father then someone, say, like Ian Fleming, who raked it in.

  On the other hand, his experience as an English convert to Catholicism has proved durable, and I would argue it is those books, and the books that overlap Catholicism and espionage, that are his enduring contribution to the canon.  I think that the 1001 Books staff would agree, seeing as one of the few Greene books to be cut between 2006 and 2008 is The Third Man, about as classic a work of spy fiction as you can imagine.

  The Honorary Consul combines Catholicism and espionage in a way that both expands the author's ideas in both dimensions while proving familiar to anyone who has ever read any of his prior books.  It's a kind of technique you might be tempted to call "meta fictional" or post-modern, were those the kinds of things that were ever said about Graham Greene.

  Much of the pleasure in Graham Greene comes from the scenery- hear a remote Argentinian border town near the border of Paraguay, abutting the vast steppe-desert-forest of the Chaco.  The English community there is small to non existent, consisting of Charley Fortnum, the Honorary Consul of the title, a man who squeaks by on his mate plantation and the ability to import (and quickly resell) a luxury car every two years.  The narrator, Dr. Eduardo Plarr, is a half English/half Spanish immigrant from Buenos Aires.  The mechanics of the plot are set in motion when Fortnum, who often serves as a tour guide for visiting dignitaries, is kidnapped instead of the visiting American Ambassador.

  Plarr is called upon by the kidnappers, political rebels from Paraguay, to provide attention to Fortnum, and everything spirals mildly out of control from there.  It's the kind of plot the reader expects from Graham Greene, but not too familiar. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

No Laughing Matter (1967) by Angus Wilson

Book Review
No Laughing Matter (1967)
 by Angus Wilson

  I checked No Laughing Matter out of the San Diego Public Library about three months ago, and it sat on the shelf until two weeks ago.  No Laughing Matter is only 500 pages, but it covers so much time that it feels like twice that many.  Wilson doesn't help matters by switching between six main characters (siblings) and inserting mini-plays into the more conventional narrative.

  What I got out of No Laughing Matter was that there was a writing sister, a gay brother who bought and sold art, a sister who went to prison for swindling an old couple out of a painting, a brother who was a successful radical journalist and then I think one brother who was a conventional rich dude.  Portions of events are memorable- the writing sister heads to the south of France for a casual affair, the writing brother goes to Moscow at the behest of the Communist party prior to World War II, the other sister gets sent to prison for her art swindle.

  But large portions are so impressionistic that I found events difficult to follow.  I had little to no idea what the interstitial plays were about.  Wilson, who was gay for a large portion of his life where homosexuality was still a death penalty offense, writes about the same subject as authors like John Galsworthy with a decidedly more modern take on what essentially are the same sequence of events.  A last portion set in the south of Portugal brings the multi-generational English family drama into the Sixties, capital S.

  Ultimately, there was nothing to make No Laughing Matter anything but heavy, heavy, sledding, for English fiction completists only.

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