Monday, July 6, 2020

Graham Greene walks through Liberia in Journey Without Maps - I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living.

Graham Greene spent four weeks in 1935 on vacation in Liberia, with a taste of Sierra Leone and Guinea, walking through the upland forests.  His account of the trip, Journey Without Maps (1936), is a peculiar book, misguided and innovative.  The journey, or the book, or both, were a turning point for Greene, or so I have read.  Greene had been steadily publishing books since 1925, but I have not read any of those (I haven’t read any Greene post-1950, either), so I don’t know what turned.  Still, keep reading; it may be visible.

Greene is looking for the aspect of Africa that “acts so strongly on the unconscious mind” (I.1.20), the part of Africa that creates whatever associations he has with the word “Africa,” and since he has to pick a specific spot, not an entire continent, he deduces or invents that these associations are to be found not in Egypt or Kenya but in West Africa, so having never left Europe before Greene picks Liberia.  I would have suggested Senegal, but I believe Greene wants to be near an English colony.

Also, Senegal would not have worked for the conceit of the title, which is that the Liberian forests were unmapped, allowing Greene to feel more like he was Richard Burton or Joseph Conrad or whoever.  Greene is , however, never near anything resembling wilderness, but rather in a long-settled agricultural region, with towns at most a day’s walk apart.  No heart of darkness here.  The region is, though, painfully, desperately poor.  The lack of a decent map was a bureaucratic failure of the Liberian government.  Greene is not an explorer, but a tourist; an adventure tourist, as we would call him now.

He hires guides and porters and walks from village to village for a month.  When I was an adventure tourist in West Africa, I hired guides and drivers, and was driven around, and was under no illusion that I was not a tourist.

As much as I enjoyed Journey, the journey itself often seemed pointless, or merely personally meaningful, which is enough for a good book, but still.  Dubious.  Several dubious ideas here, but Greene learns a lot, about Liberia, “Africa,” and himself.  He is a good traveler.

I suspect Greene wanted to write an innovative book, so although most of it is the usual chronological logistical account of the trip, Journey is studded with separate autobiographical chunks, like an earlier trip to Riga that somehow turns back to Greene’s childhood:

In Nottingham I was instructed in Catholicism, travelling here and there by tram into new country with the fat priest who had once been an actor.  (It was one of his greatest sacrifices to be unable to see a play.) (II.1.101)

Or the wild “dream” digression:

It is the earliest dream that I can remember, earlier than the witch at the corner of the nursery passage, this dream of something outside that has got to come in…

It was only many years later that Evil came into my dreams: the man with gold teeth and rubber surgical gloves; the old woman with ringworm; the man with his throat cut dragging himself across the carpet to the bed.  (III.1.180-1)

The Portable Graham Greene excerpts these and other similar passages so cleanly that I had no idea, when I read them decades ago, that they were from a travel book about Liberia.

Here is the turning point, by the way:

The fever would not let me sleep at all, but by the early morning it was sweated out of me.  My temperature was a long way below normal, but the worst boredom of the trek [see below] for the time being was over.  I had made a discovery during the night which interested me.  I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living.  I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable.

It seemed that night an important discovery.  It was like a conversion, and I had never experienced a conversion before.  (III.4.213)

Some thoughtful skepticism follows, but now Greene sounds like a character in the kind of Graham Green novel I’ve read.  The next book is A Gun for Sale (1936), which I have not read:

It was another five hours’ march to Greh, by a track of appalling monotony.  I tried to think of my next novel, but I was afraid to think of it for long, for then there might be nothing to think about next day.  (III.2.195)

Journey without Maps is obviously a carefully shaped book, art, whatever else it might be.

Page numbers refer to the Penguin paperback.


  1. i haven't read this one; it seems of interest though. I've read some of his gunsel books; i thought they were vaguely Hammetian...

  2. I love travelogues and this sounds so interesting. I've only read a few books by Greene, but they might not have been typical. I loved Travels with My Aunt and The End of the Affair, but Orient Express, not as much.

  3. Orient Express is 1932, so pre-"turn," while Travels with My Aunt is 1969, but not even "late" since Greene has twenty years more of writing in him. A 60 year career! I don't know what is typical, either.

    I've got to try one A Gun for Sale. British Hammett, that sounds good.

  4. Interesting. I haven't read Journey Without Maps either. Sounds like I should.

    I wouldn't say I thought A Gun For Sale represents that much of a change. His thrillers get better as he goes, I think, with A Gun For Sale being my favorite, though some prefer Brighton Rock.

    I'd have said the big change is visible with The Power and The Glory--when his novels become more psychologically expansive.

  5. I assume that A Gun for Sale is pre-turn, really, since it is the one he is working through on his march. William Pritchard, in Seeing Through Everything: English Writers, 1918-1940 (1977), thinks Gun has been under-valued; it is the only Greene novel he writes about in depth.

    Brighton Rock is clearly the hinge, since it is Full of Catholic Ideas. But I have only read his FoCI novels, which are his high prestige books, so I can't see the difference. For what it is, Journey seemed to have an awful lot of Catholic ideas. Greene letting his personality through, I guess.

    Greene himself divided his fiction into "novels" and "entertainments," but I don't usually take the author's wishes too seriously.

    1. I see differences between Brighton Rock & the earlier (perhaps) more purely thrillerish novels; still Brighton Rock for me feels closer to those earlier novels than that what follows.

      I'm not sure anybody takes the novels/entertainments distinction very seriously anymore. I read where even Greene disliked it at the end of his life.

      Interesting about Pritchard--would you say he was good in general? I thought Gun For Sale was rather good as well. I was under the impression it was frequently ignored and I read it fairly late in my Greene history. I only got to it when I was going to see the movie (recommended) and I thought I'd read the novel first.

    2. Greene repudiated the "entertainments" business! Good for him.

      Pritchard is more or less my favorite living critic, based on his regular pieces in The Hudson Review, most of which are not online. This Waugh piece is, though. And here's the most recent one, on T. S. Eliot. Clear prose, clear ideas, enthusiastic reading. A model critic.

    3. Thanks for the links. He does seem interesting. I'll have to keep an eye out.