Saturday, March 26, 2011

Graham Greene's England Made Me

As promised, I have now read Graham Greene’s 1935 novel England Made Me. England Made Me is the story of Anthony Farrant. Anthony is a ne’er-do-well and a rake who has been a failure at one job after another all over the world. Anthony has a very close relationship, which borders on incest, with his twin sister, Kate. Kate is the personal secretary and mistress to Erik Krogh, a wealthy Swedish businessman. Through Kate’s influence, Anthony obtains a job as Krogh’s bodyguard.

Krogh is ruthless and amoral in his pursuit of more wealth and power. A central theme of this book is internationalism. Krogh has no allegiance to any country. His only loyalty is to himself and his fortune. There is a good bit of talk in this novel about how nations and borders will be a thing of the past in the modern world with quick travel by airplane and instant communication by telephone and radio. In retrospect, the premise that nationalism is on the way out is kind of laughable for a novel published in 1935, two years after Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 and four years before the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939. However, it's no more laughable than reading things published in the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell that opined that we had entered a new era of world peace and prosperity.

Krogh is engaged in all kinds of shady business deals to sell worthless stock and defraud shareholders. Krogh also lies to a labor union leader to avoid a strike and then frames the man for wrongdoing and ruins his reputation before firing him. Krogh’s closest thing to a friend is Hall, who has known Krogh since they were both poor young men. Although Krogh has treated Hall badly through the years, Hall is fanatically loyal to Krogh and would do anything for him. Just as Anthony and Kate’s relationship borders on the incestuous, Hall’s infatuation with Krogh borders on the homoerotic.

By far the the most interesting character in the entire novel is Ferdinand Minty, an expatriot Englishman who is employed as a reporter by a Swedish newspaper. Minty is wonderfully eccentric. He lives in a seedy tenement and wears a wrinkled old coat and suit. He is a sadist who tortures a spider by watching it under a glass until it dies. He constantly refers to himself in the third person and is a diehard Anglo-Catholic who is constantly praying to obscure saints. Minty is an alumnus of Harrow, the English public school. When he sees Anthony wearing a Harrow school tie and begins to ask him questions, Minty almost immediately recognizes Anthony as a fraud. Minty’s assignment from his editor is to report on Erik Krogh, so Minty offers to bribe Anthony to leak information to him.

Since this is an obscure 76 year old novel, I think that I won’t be hurting much by spoiling the ending. Anthony is appalled by Krogh’s amoral business practices and decides to leak the information to Minty and then return to England where he plans to have a true relationship with his current mistress whom, up to now, he has used merely as a sex object. When Anthony leaks that Krogh is planning to marry Kate, Krogh realizes that Anthony is about to ruin his reputation and wants to prevent Anthony returning to England. Hall engineers a late night poker game to attempt to have Anthony run up large gambling debts and be unable to leave Sweden. After being foiled in this plan because Anthony already has tickets to sail to England, Hall murders Anthony whose death is made to look like an accident. The End.

If the above plot summary seems lame, let me assure you that this book is just as lame as it sounds. This is not one of Greene’s better novels. In fact, I daresay that if Graham Greene wasn’t Graham Greene, this novel would be long out of print and forgotten. However, England Made Me is still of interest because of the view of the world it presents. In 1935 the world was in the midst of the Depression and no one knew that the world stood on the edge of the abyss of the bloodiest war in human history. This novel is also of interest because it is one of Greene’s early efforts which shows the master honing his craft. Like It’s a Battlefield, the technical execution of England Made Me is very good and there is some excellent writing in it in places. As a whole, though, it just doesn’t really work. Once again, I think that Greene was trying too hard to write a “serious novel” and it just doesn’t deliver the goods.

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