Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Enjoying some English prose - Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and J. R. Ackerley's My Father and Myself


“The greatest English writer of our time” declares the cover of my copy of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940).  It’s a 1982 Penguin, so I assume the “time” is circa 1982, but who knows.  It’s plausible, right, even without looking into the competition (I pick either Penelope Fitzgerald or Michael Moorcock, depending on mood).

Greene’s novels travel the world, feature a wide variety of characters, deal with big philosophical and social issues, have exciting forward-moving plots, and are written stylishly without seeming to fuss over style.  I can see how for some readers – maybe more in the past than now – Greene was the ideal novelist.  These are not my ideals, but I can see the fit.

The Power and the Glory is the one with the Mexican whiskey priest, on the run from the Tabasco police and a regime that is suppressing the Church and murdering every priest it can find.  And the state is also prohibitionist, even worse, especially for an illegal priest performing illegal masses using illegal wine.  As is often the case with Greene, this is all exaggerated, but true enough.  I guess the actual Tabasco state was not so thorough, but Greene’s character is the last priest, so even if a bad priest, a drunk with a child, he is by default a mythic figure.  Whether his courage or sense of duty or desperation also makes him a saint, a sinning saint, is one of the questions Greene works on.

Duty, faith, sin, death, plus chase scenes.  Greene is at this point an expert in what I think of as the flow of the novel, knowing when to shift from one character to another or from inside to outside a character’s head.   How to move characters from one room to another, or make time pass:

They fell silent and time passed, the shadow of the customs house shifted a few inches farther towards the river: the vulture moved a little, like the black hand of a clock. (I.1)

This is just the third page of the novel, so that blatantly symbolic vulture will not murder anyone for a while.  Greene is inventive with metaphor, as here with the first look at our hero the alcoholic priest:

He had protuberant eyes; he gave an impression of unstable hilarity, as if perhaps he had been celebrating a birthday, alone.  (same page)

The metaphors are a good part of the pleasant, mild strangeness that I find characteristic of Greene.

Look at that edition of J. R. Ackerley’s memoir My Father and Myself (1968), number 4 in the NYRB Classics series.  Think of how easy it was to collect them when there were only four.  Ackerley’s book has two strains.  First, it is a straightforward account of life as a gay man in England under a repressive legal regime, the only twists being the author’s neuroses, but who doesn’t have those.  In the introduction W. H. Auden, when not directly summarizing the book, seems mostly interested in exactly which sex acts Ackerley would or would not perform.  I though he was clear enough, so clear that it was easy to understand why the book was deliberately published posthumously.  Auden wanted more, though.

The second strain is the life of Ackerley’s father, especially some late revelations about his active sex life, including the strong possibility that he had for several years been the handsome “kept man” of a rich gay Count.  The memoir has an odd structure, in that Ackerley’s writes about his father’s early life first, then returns at the end, after his father’s death, to the information suggesting that everyone involved was homosexual, but I would guess that most readers figure it all out, and are meant to, right away, so the suspense is all in how Ackerley makes the discoveries.

My Father and Myself would be valuable as a gay memoir even if the father were a more ordinarily dull chap.  But he provides the narrative energy.

Ackerley’s style is the good English literary style of his time, possibly just a bit more direct to increase the rhetorical “hard truth-telling” effect, full of carefully placed phrases and clauses.  Picked almost at random:

I was a cherubic little boy with large blue starry eyes; my first nickname was “Girlie,” and at the public school older boys soon began to make advances to me.  (105)

Why is this better as one sentence than three?  The three clauses each contain information, but connecting them adds meaning.  A little more complexity, a little more meaning.  It is the kind of sentence I associate with Graves, Orwell, or Huxley, more intricate than the standard American equivalent, and always a pleasure to read.


No comments:

Post a Comment