Sunday, 29 September 2013

Penguin no. 1695: The Lost Childhood and Other Essays
by Graham Greene

Cover drawing by John Ward
After the death of Henry James a disaster overtook the English novel: indeed long before his death one can picture that quiet, impressive, rather complacent figure, like the last survivor on a raft, gazing over a sea scattered with wreckage. He even recorded his impressions in an article in The Times Literary Supplement, recorded his hope - but was it really hope or only a form of unconquerable oriental politeness? - in such young novelists as Mr Compton Mackenzie and Mr David Herbert Lawrence, and we who have lived after the disaster can realize the futility of those hopes.

The Lost Childhood and Other Essays is a collection of 46 essays, a few of which I had read elsewhere - such as The Lost Childhood with its account of Graham Greene's suddenly awakened interest in writing at the age of 14, an interest induced by reading Marjorie Bowen's The Viper of Milan. And The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard, with its confusingly (mis)stated odds of survival, in which he tells a terrible tale of his efforts to escape boredom during his late teens by playing at Russian roulette with his brother's revolver.

Only a few of the essays recall episodes from his childhood, however, as they are mostly reflections on books recently read, and sometimes discussions of authors, many of whom are now forgotten. The list of canvassed subjects is a long one; it includes Henry James, John Bunyan, R.L. Stevenson, Walter de la Mare, Beatrix Potter, Francois Mauriac, Samuel Butler, Dickens, Kipling, Saki and Ford Madox Ford amongst many, many others.

The essay I enjoyed the most was on a different topic again: in A Hoax on Mr Hulton, Graham Greene recounts the story of a hoax perpetrated in 1744 which he had happened across in an old vellum manuscript book purchased from a London bookseller. The reason behind the hoax, the names of the perpetrators, and even the identity of the chronicler would seem now to be lost to history, for the handwritten account he had purchased was incomplete, with sections having gone missing over the years.

The hoax began in the January with a letter summoning Mr Hulton to an address for the purpose of business, but with the request turning out to be a spurious one. Within days it had escalated, and Mr Hulton found his business premises besieged by a legion of misdirected callers, all similarly summoned by letters, and all intent on supplying some service which he was presumed to have ordered. A doctor was called to his home, and a surgeon, an optician, a shoemaker, an auctioneer, and various purveyors of foods and alcohol, none of them pleased to have their time wasted and their services refused, and many intent on making their displease known to poor Mr Hulton.

The record from March to August was missing and when the tale resumed in September the persecution of Mr Hulton continued, but the scope and complexity of the hoax had increased. An additional victim was within the hoaxer's sights, so that various merchants were now being directed to deliver their wares to a Reverend Thompson (known to history for baptising the child of the conspirator Christopher Layer) at Mr Hulton's expense, the orders signed in Hulton's name. And calumnious letters, also signed by the pseudo-Hulton, were being sent to Reverend Thompson's friends. Each man had endured months of persecution from an unknown party, but they perceived themselves to be the victims of each other. There is no knowing how it all ended as the final pages of the account were missing; Graham Greene observes only that it was an age given to practical jokes.

The tale was intriguing because of its similarity to a hoax carried out in the same city around sixty years later, although Graham Greene made no mention the later hoax. In 1810 it was a Mrs Tottenham of 54 Berners Street who was the randomly chosen and innocent victim of a hoax involving multitudes of callers to her home. In that case, the hoax was short and intense, rather than drawn-out over months, and spectacle rather than persecution was the intention, but perhaps one hoax was the inspiration for the other.

Graham Greene explores several themes in these essays, including the implications of their difficult childhoods for Dickens, Kipling and H.H. Munro, and the tedium of modern novels which use stream of consciousness narration (with Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson mentioned in particular). Most frequently his subject is faith, or the lack of it, and what it means for the writing of the authors he discusses, and it is from this perspective that he considers Frederick Rolfe, subject of A.J.A Symon's fascinating biography The Quest for Corvo and recognisable as the inspiration for the protagonist of The Unspeakable Skipton. Graham Greene devotes three essays to the self-styled Baron Corvo, a man who was thwarted in his ambition to be a priest, and who, in Graham Greene's words "would be a priest or nothing, so nothing it had to be...if he could not have Heaven, he would have Hell". What others have taken as evidence of paranoia, Greene concludes to be behaviour induced by demonic possession; he believed the evidence could be seen in his Rolfe's writing, his appearance, and in the manner he chose to live.

Graham Greene never avers from expressing firm views on what was worthy in the literature of the time and what was not. He can even seem a little cruel at times; he mocks Beverley Nichols, for example, sampling phrases from a travel book to argue the case that 'Mr Nichols' must surely be a pseudonym adopted by an unworldly maiden lady of trite opinions and safe enthusiasms lately permitted a brief holiday from a life usually devoted to the care of her vicar brother. This collection of essays offers an eclectic and wide-ranging survey of the literature of the first half of the twentieth century, though I suspect it would be better sampled than read straight through.

I had intended to post this review in August as part of Simon's Greene for Gran, a shared reading of Greene's works in memory of his grandmother, but I was insufficiently organised. Several links to reviews of works by Graham Greene can be found at this Savidge Reads blog post.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 559: The Lawless Roads

4 comments:

  1. I've read quite a bit recently by and about Greene. I have mixed feelings about him personally, though I enjoy his fiction. This sounds interesting but I don't think I'll be seeking it out -- I'm not really a great fan of essays.

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    1. I'm the other other way round! I usually enjoy essays, but I've never got along with Greene (apart from Travels with My Aunt). I've tried some of his other novels, and never succeeded in getting beyond the first few pages.

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    2. Harriet and Christine,

      These essays are interesting because they are the informed perspective of a contemporary of the writers being discussed - he assumes his reader will know things that I simply didn't know, so I feel as though I have learnt a whole series of random facts I otherwise would never have happened upon: Joseph Conrad had a difficult wife, for example - perhaps not something I needed to know but something I am unlikely to forget; it is for this reason I described the book of essays as eclectic, and I cannot regret reading it.

      I suspect he was a cruel man, though, and that troubles me. As amusing as the essay discussing Beverley Nichols is, it feels like the work of a bully, and that is difficult to countenance.

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  2. After all, Greene has imprinted a fabulous impression on the reader's mind...it sounds informative n interesting as well. I like it so much

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