Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2011 October 07 • Friday

Graham Greene's The Last Word and other stories was published the year before Greene's death. The writing inside is from as early as 1923 and to as late as 1990, the year of publication.

I bought it on the street (from the same table that had Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes as well as John Buchan's Greenmantle, which I also bought) mostly because I wanted to read "The Lieutenant Died Last", which is included here and was the basis for the movie Went the Day Well?.

Greene notes in his Preface that he was unable to see the movie based on his story. Cavalcanti's film was really good and quite an extrapolation from Greene's very short tale. "The Lieutenant Died Last" and "The News in English", the other World War 2 story in this collection, were both written during wartime and both serve propaganda purposes while retaining an almost subversive complexity.

The hero of "The Lieutenant Died Last" is haunted by the fact that he kills not just a soldier but a husband and a father. Not only is the hero of the story unrewarded for his actions, he can't even be proud of them. I wonder how this moral complexity was received at the time. (It wouldn't be welcomed these days.)

"The News in English" celebrates patriotic sacrifices while at the same time attacking motives for patriotism. It's about an Englishman who poses as a traitor in order to pass on vital and secret information from Germany. His wife is the only one to realize what he's doing and is able to alert military intelligence so they can take advantage of his coded radio broadcasts from Berlin. The man's own mother is happy to believe in his treachery. When his wife pleads with her, "'You're his mother, aren't you?'", the mother's response is, "'That's not my fault. I didn't choose — like you did'". By the end of the story the mother is saying, "with a kind of delight, 'He ought never to have been born. I never wanted him. The coward'".

And so it seems to Mary Bishop, the man's wife, that "Duty … was a disease you caught with age: you ceased to feel the tug-tug of personal ties; you gave yourself up to the great tides of patriotism and hate".

I wonder how people felt about that in 1940.

The title story takes place in a future where religion has been completely abolished and the Pope is the last Catholic on Earth. "The Moment of Truth" is about a lonely waiter who thinks he has a special connection with two of his customers, American tourists.

"A Branch of the Service" is sort of a cloak-and-dagger parody or pastiche, in which an agent literally doesn't have the stomach for his work. His job is to eat in restaurants and watch for exchanges of information between enemy agents, but he suffers from indigestion.

"An Old Man's Memory" is strange. It speaks to us from 1995, six years after the story was printed in the Independent. It's a first-person narrative in which the speaker recalls the horrific terrorist bombing of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. The actual tunnel was opened in 1994 and the story serves as a negative advertisement for it. Greene stresses how much time the terrorists had to prepare, how the tunnel's construction "had been like an open challenge to the terrorists to do their worst".

"The Lottery Ticker" is about an English visitor to a small South American village who wins the lottery and gets involved in local politics, with depressing results. "The New House" is about an architect who sells out. "He was trapped, held fast by the ropes that bind all, his wife, the family, the world. Soon he would come slinking back, mouthing embarassed apologies, to perpetrate the betrayal."

"Work Not in Progress" is a parody of musical comedy with an ecclesiastical theme. It's the only story that fell flat, as far as I'm concerned. I didn't like anything about it.

"Murder for the Wrong Reason" was first published in 1929. In the Preface Greene writes that he includes it because "Reading it more than sixty years later, I found that I couldn't detect the murderer before he was disclosed". I can't say that I detected the murderer but I did guess who the murderer was. The story is rewarding for its stylistic strengths, demonstrating how powerful, how lyrical and how imaginative Greene can be.

"An Appointment with the General" is about a reporter interviewing the leader of a Latin American country. She's sent on the assignment by the British government and has half of her mind on the best way to end her unhappy marriage.

My favorite story was the brilliant and absurd "The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower". The first line is "It was not so much the theft of the Eiffel Tower which caused me difficulty; it was putting it back before anyone noticed". This is one of the best first lines I've ever encountered. The last line is just as good and a rewarding conclusion to a brief but dazzling display of creativity.