‘Brighton Rock,’ by Graham Greene

Brighton RockBrighton Rock by Graham Greene

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Found my copy on a stoop. Was totally worth picking up.

View all my reviews

At the end of this comes, for me, a startling — and strangely calming — quote from a priest. To avoid a spoiler, I won’t provide much context; it is enough to say that the priest tries to comfort someone by saying that

You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.

Graham Greene wrote this novel in 1938, and that line — ellipses included — has had a long, rich life. Longer and richer, I might say, than the book itself, two film adaptations notwithstanding.

It is appalling.

via The Appalling Strangeness | Segullah.

It comes up quite often in essays that traffic in contemporary views on theology. And in books about religion in literature, (e.g. “To Promote, Defend and Redeem,” “Redeeming Modernity,” etc.

“Indeed, if Greene really had instilled a doubt of hell in the reader’s mind, then the spiritual thriller which is “Bright Rock” would cease to thrill.” (p. 124, “The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961” by Ian Turnbull Ker)

Even now, it resonates with bloggers and tweeters. There apparently is a lot of depth to plumb in those few words, if we can believe what we read. Given Mr. Greene’s own, shall we say, interest in writing about Catholicism, there are probably some psychologies between the lines as well.

But the Catholic novelist is more than unhappy

via Faith Noir: On Graham Greene and the Catholic Novel | The Harvard Advocate.

Reading Greene is not a theologically comfortable experience.

via Graham Greene and the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God | BMS World Mission.

I read the words and was struck with a kind of knowing. It was jarring because I was so focused on the book and so near the end. I was racing to the finish with not a little enthusiasm, and hoping to get there before the end of a Very Important Nap. I was sure I had heard that sentence before, and my first thought was the Pauline epistles. It seemed natural, and it was certainly a natural thing for a priest to quote from.

But of course, that is not where I first remembered it from.

“You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive.

via The West Wing Transcripts.

That is from “Two Cathedrals,” Season 2 Episode 22. And it leans a little toward the melodramatic. President Barlett’s grieving for the death of his secretary manifests itself in an angry, one-sided conversation into the echoing stillness of the National Cathedral, complete with an overliterary matzah ball delivered, I imagine, with a knowing smirk from Aaron Sorkin.

If you ask me, and I know you didn’t, I would say about half the power of that scene (see below) comes from the fact that about half the lines are spoken in Latin. It’s a little like how Americans think British people sound smart, whether they actually are or not. Mr. Greene’s main character from “Brighton Rock” tosses out Latin phrases from time to time, too, and these take on a menacing tone a little ways out of proportion with his real-world potential.

So does this quotation, if you ask me. What does it mean — the appalling strangeness —  if not, Stop thinking so much?


Orient Express, by Graham Greene

Orient ExpressOrient Express by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Doesn’t show its age well, but you probably expected that.

Really, what I meant to say was it has within its covers a full dose of anti-semitism, which you did not need me to tell you, I am sure. One of the central characters on Mr. Greene’s express train, which is itself stocked with giddy caricatures and stereotypes, is a Jewish businessman named Carleton Myatt. When Mr. Myatt’s swarthy features aren’t being contemplated by Mr. Greene, his business acumen is.

The edition I read has an introduction by Christopher Hitchens, who spends about two pages and a bit wrestling with whether to apologize for Mr. Greene (on behalf of wig-wearing, tea-suckers everywhere), or just wash his hands of the whole affair. In the end, he trusts “the reader to decide,” but then juts his wine-soaked backside into something like an apology. He explains away one bemusing, paragraph-long passage — “Forty years in the wilderness…” — by shrugging his shoulders: “Whatever this is, it is not anti-Jewish.”

But in fact one needs only read a few pages in either direction to get the “anti-Jewish” all over oneself, for instance the conjuring of the “ancestral marketplace” (Page 141) as Mr. Myatt bargains with a fiddle player.

This is no laughing matter, I know. But what can you do? Orient Express was published in 1932, and Mr. Greene wasn’t exactly known as a closet Jewophile. Read enough and you find Mr. Greene’s ignorant kindred spirits on lots of shelves. Maybe a reader can learn something, be a better person? Perhaps seeing the caricatures brings the reality into sharper focus?

At the least, this served as an ample reminder that Mr. Hitchens could be an ass once in a while.

View all my reviews