Saturday, February 26, 2011

Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield

According to Humphrey Carpenter’s book The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends, Graham Greene’s 1934 novel It’s a Battlefield is the only thing written by a member of Waugh’s set which took the politics of the 1930's seriously.

During the Great Depression, if you considered yourself to be an intellectual, it was the “in thing” to be a Communist. Greene alludes to this when one of his characters says in response to the statement that a former friend has become a Communist, “It’s fashionable.”

It’s a Battlefield is about Jim Drover, a bus driver and member of the Communist party, who has been sentenced to death for killing a police officer. Actually the novel is not really about Drover so much as it is about the impact of Drover’s death sentence. Drover’s imminent execution not only affects his immediate family but also the highest levels of the British government. Drover himself never really appears as a character in the novel. He is glimpsed at a distance in prison by officials and is discussed by his wife and brother, but never actually appears as a character in his own right.

Because this is a “serious novel” about the lives of the English lower classes during the Great Depression, there is a lot of misery and despair. Drover and his wife Milly go to a Communist Party rally which turns into a riot. Drover stabs the policeman to stop him from hitting Drover’s wife with a nightstick.

Greene intentionally draws parallels between the life of the inmates in the prison where Jim Drover is confined on death row and the life of the workers in a match factory where Drover’s sister in law, Kay, works. Because this is a Graham Greene novel, there is a lot of illicit sex which just makes everybody more miserable and nobody seems to enjoy.

The Home Secretary wants the Assistant Police Commissioner, who is never identified by name but is “the Assistant Commissioner” throughout the novel, to find out if it is better for the government politically to go through with Drover’s hanging or to grant him a reprieve. The leaders of the local Communist Party want Drover to be hanged because it will give them a martyr. Milly wants her husband’s life spared but is despondent because if he is reprieved he will serve a long prison sentence away from her. Drover’s brother, Conrad, is in love with Milly and wants to be with her. Conrad wishes that Jim would be hung so that he could marry Milly and be happy with her. Milly’s sister, Kay, has a dead end job in the match factory and her only consolation is to hop from the bed of one man to another.

Milly eventually goes to bed with Conrad. After committing adultery with her husband’s brother, Milly is miserable, which then makes Conrad more miserable. Conrad is already miserable because of the pressure of his job as the chief clerk in an insurance company. Because of Conrad’s low social status, he is always having to look over his shoulder because the middle class boys he supervises are always trying to take his job. Conrad was always jealous of Jim, so he buys a gun and attempts to assassinate the Assistant Commissioner. Conrad is mortally wounded by the police and dies shortly thereafter. Drover’s sentence is commuted to 18 years in prison. Knowing that his wife will never be able to remain celebate for 18 years and will cuckold him, Jim attempts to commit suicide. The Assistant Commissioner wishes that he was still a police official in India where life was a lot simpler. And they lived miserably ever after. The End.

In his immediately previous novel, Stamboul Train (1932), Greene had set about to write a pot boiler in order to make money. Stamboul Train was a success and saved Greene’s career as a writer. As a popular thriller, Stamboul Train is fast paced and entertaining, with interesting characters and situations. In fact, Stamboul Train is everything that It’s a Battlefield isn’t.

Throughout most of his career, Greene divided his long fiction into what he called “entertainments” and what he considered to be his “serious” novels. As opposed to the “entertainment” Stamboul Train, it appears that Greene was trying much too hard to produce “a serious novel.” Whereas the reader is sitting on the edge of her seat throughout Stamboul Train, the reader is mostly bored out of her skull throughout most of It’s a Battlefield. By the end of the novel, I actually came to hope that His Majesty’s Prison would go ahead and hang poor old Jim Drover on schedule and put him out of his misery. None of the characters in this novel gripped me to the point that I cared one way or the other what happened to them.

Although there were also a lot of characters in Stamboul Train, Greene did a good job of tying their stories together so that the reader cares about what happens to them. It’s a Battlefield, on the other hand, seems to have no real cohesion. We get to hear about Kay’s dalliances with the head of the Communist Party, who makes love to Kay underneath a portrait of his deceased wife who was a celebrated artist, and about Conrad’s lust for Milly and jealousy for Jim, and Milly’s misery that she knows that she will go on running around on good ol’ Jim while he’s in prison. We are placed inside the Assistant Commissioner’s brain for page after interminable page where he wishes that he were back in India where things were simple and he didn’t have to get involved in politics or make decisions about “Justice.” Although Graham Greene is one of the greatest English novelists of the twentieth century, this book just doesn’t seem to work. It has some good episodes, and there is a lot of good writing in it, but all together this is definitely one of Greene’s lesser efforts.

COMING SOON: Continuing our travels in Greeneland, the next stop will be Greene’s 1935 novel England Made Me.

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