Stamboul train, p.1
Stamboul Train, p.1Graham Greene
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Graham Greene
Introduction by Christopher Hitchens
The History of Vintage
About the Book
Carleton Myatt meets Coral Musker, a naïve English chorus girl, aboard the Orient Express as it heads across Europe to Constantinople. As their relationship develops, they find themselves caught up in the fates of the other passengers and drawn into a web of espionage, murder and lies...
About the Author
Graham Greene was born in 1904. On coming down from Balliol College, Oxford, he worked for four years as sub-editor on The Times. He established his reputation with his fourth novel, Stamboul Train. In 1935 he made a journey across Liberia, described in Journey Without Maps, and on his return was appointed film critic of the Spectator. In 1926 he had been received into the Roman Catholic Church and visited Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution there. As a result he wrote The Lawless Roads and, later, his famous novel The Power and the Glory. Brighton Rock was published in 1938 and in 1940 he became literary editor of the Spectator. The next year he undertook work for the Foreign Office and was stationed in Sierra Leone from 1941 to 1943. This later produced the novel, The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa.
As well as his many novels, Graham Greene wrote several collections of short stories, four travel books, six plays, three books of autobiography – A Sort of Life, Ways of Escape and A World of My Own (published posthumously) – two of biography and four books for children. He also wrote hundreds of essays, and film and book reviews, some of which appear in the collections Reflections and Mornings in the Dark. Many of his novels and short stories have been filmed and The Third Man was written as a film treatment. Graham Greene was a member of the Order of Merit and a Companion of Honour. He died in 1991.
ALSO BY GRAHAM GREENE
The Man Within
It’s a Battlefield
A Gun for Sale
The Confidential Agent
The Ministry of Fear
The Third Man
The End of the Affair
A Burnt-out Case
Travels with my Aunt
Dr Fischer of Geneva or
The Bomb Party
The Human Factor
The Tenth Man
The Quiet American
England Made Me
The Power and the Glory
The Heart of the Matter
The Fallen Idol
Loser Takes All
Our Man in Havana
The Honorary Consul
The Captain and the Enemy
The Last Word and Other Stories
May We Borrow Your Husband?
Journey Without Maps
The Lawless Roads
In Search of a Character
Getting to Know the General
Mornings in the Dark
A Sort of Life
Ways of Escape
Fragments of an Autobiography
A World of my Own
Lord Rochester’s Monkey
An Impossible Woman
The Little Train
The Little Horse-Bus
The Little Steamroller
The Little Fire Engine
For Vivien with all my love
Many of the admirers of Graham Greene – those of us, that is, who chose to spend some part of our reading lives in voluntary exile in the exotic locale colloquially known as ‘Greeneland’ – became familiar with the whims of the president of this remote yet familiar territory. One of those whims (benign enough, as befitted a rather lenient and tolerant authority) was the division of his fictions into novels and ‘entertainments.’ And the first-born of the latter category was Stamboul Train or, as it has been variously titled, Orient Express or Stamboul Express. Dr. Samuel Johnson once remarked that only a fool wrote for anything but money, and Greene himself was bracingly candid about the motives for his bifurcation. As he informed the audience of his autobiography, Ways of Escape:
That year, 1931, for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film.
The law of unintended consequences is designed in part for authors who make decisions in this way under the lash of financial exigency: one need only think of those works of Greene’s which were translated into film but which did not begin life as potential scripts. The Third Man (which he actually did write as a treatment) would be preeminent, followed by Brighton Rock, but one should also tip one’s hat to The Comedians, Travels with My Aunt, Our Man in Havana, The Power and the Glory, and The Quiet American. The ‘entertainment’ of Stamboul Train – as I shall call it from now on – was designed and ready-made for motion pictures but nonetheless counts as Greene’s worst filmic flop. Indeed, as he himself so wryly put it, continuing the quoted sentence above:
The devil looks after his own and in [Stamboul Train] I succeeded in both aims, though the film rights seemed at the time an unlikely dream, for before I had completed the book, Marlene Dietrich had appeared in Shanghai Express, the English had made Rome Express, and even the Russians had produced their railway film, Turksib. The film manufactured from my book by Twentieth Century-Fox came last and was far and away the worst, though not so bad as a later television production by the BBC.
When Graham Greene employs a well-worn phrase such as ‘the devil looks after his own’ one does well to look for the trace of irony. Although this book does not belong at all in the category loosely known as his ‘Catholic’ novels, it does contain the themes of self-sacrifice and betrayal, and a sort of Gethsemane as well as a sort of Calvary. Its disgrace as a film was, in his mind, a partial revenge for its catch-penny intentions. But this turns out to be a useful if not fortunate failure, because it enables us to read the book without having to do so through the prism of any later celluloid distortion.
Subsequent images nonetheless do colour the way in which we approach it. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the drama of The Lady Vanishes, and Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love have all put the continental express at the centre of modern romance and adventure. I used to work, in an even lowlier capacity than the one in which Greene had once toiled, at the offices of The Times in Printing House Square, and until it was demolished I always derived a thrill from the chiselled stone facings of the Blackfriars station opposite, which listed the destinations of Berlin, Warsaw, and St. Petersburg. Even in this register, the name of Istanbul, or Stamboul, or Constantinople, would come out top. The Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, the dome of Saint Sophia . . . these evocations have spelled ‘romance and adventure’ since before John Buchan’s Greenmantle (which Greene avowed as an early and decisive influence on
The essence of Greeneland, if one may dare to try and define it, is the combination of the exotic and the romantic with the sordid and the banal. Those who travel or depart, says the poet Horace, only change their skies and not their condition. The meanness of everyday existence is found at the bottom of every suitcase, and has in fact been packed along with everything else. Nonetheless, it is sometimes when they are far from home and routine that people will stir to make an unwonted exertion of the spirit or of the will.
This isn’t obvious at first in this case, because both Myatt and Coral Musker have embarked for mundane reasons (a business crisis and a job opportunity, respectively) and because there are ways in which trains conspire to suspend animation:
In the rushing reverberating express, noise was so regular that it was the equivalent of silence, movement was so continuous that after a while the mind accepted it as stillness. Only outside the train was violence of action possible, and the train would contain him safely with his plans for three days . . .
At the time it was written, this would have recalled to many minds the famous image coined by Winston Churchill, of Lenin being carried like a ‘bacillus’ in a ‘sealed train’ from Germany to St. Petersburg. And on the Orient Express, also, there is infection and illness. It is this which throws Coral Musker together first with the Communist Dr. Czinner, who is on his own private mission of revolution, and then with Myatt, the self-conscious Jew. The encounter with Czinner gives Greene the chance for a beautiful moment of inversion or ‘transference’: Coral awakens from a swoon to see the physician’s face, and imagines for an instant that it is she who is ministering to him:
He’s ill, she thought, and for a moment shut out the puzzling shadows which fell the wrong way, the globe of light shining from the ground. ‘Who are you?’ she asked, trying to remember how it was that she had come to his help. Never, she thought, had she seen a man who needed help more.
Her piercing insight is no delusion. It is registered also, but with much more cynicism, by the hard-bitten yellowpress reporter Mabel Warren, who knows for a fact that Dr. Czinner needs help but is prepared to throw him to the wolves for a good story. How perfectly Greene catches the ingratiating tone of the desperate journalist: ‘Her voice was low, almost tender; she might have been urging a loved dog towards a lethal chamber.’
Greene could be accused of peopling his train novel (or train script) with stock characters – the showgirl who’s seen it all; the political exile and conspirator travelling incognito; the butch lesbian with a weakness for drunken sentimentality – and the charge of stereotype has been levelled with especial force against his portrayal of Myatt. The bitter controversy over anti-Semitism touches an extraordinary number of the novels, poems, and essays written during the 1920s and 1930s (it continues to inflect all discussion of Greene’s early hero John Buchan, for example, but it extends through Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and even Thomas Mann). And Stamboul Train was written just as the Nazi Party was preparing to take power. So one ought not to postpone a confrontation with the question. Michael Shelden, Graham Greene’s biographer, states roundly that Myatt is a deliberately ugly caricature of Jewishness, and that this conforms to other bigoted opinions expressed by Greene in his film reviews. In reply, the novelist David Lodge has argued that Greene disliked the vulgarity of Hollywood, and that it was difficult for him not to mention the preponderance of Jewish executives in this milieu. (‘The dark alien executive tipping his cigar ash behind the glass partition . . .’ as Greene phrased it in the London Spectator as late as 1937.) As for Myatt, Lodge maintains that he is represented as a Good Samaritan rather than a Shylock or a Fagin. (I am paraphrasing his point of view without, I hope, misrepresenting it.)
I trust the reader to decide for himself or herself about this, and I don’t like splitting the difference between the two opposing views, but it does seem to me that to take the points in random order, the reference to the executive above is a cliche at best and a slur at worst. Furthermore, Greene did slightly amend Brighton Rock after the Second World War to make the racetrack gangs seem somewhat less palpably Semitic, and he presumably would not have done this unless prompted by some sort of uneasy conscience. But as for Myatt, I would submit the following excerpt, unmentioned by either Shelden or Lodge. Coral Musker cannot believe that a Jew is offering her his own berth in a first-class sleeping compartment:
Her disbelief and her longing decided him. He determined to be princely on an Oriental scale, granting costly gifts and not requiring, not wanting, any return. Parsimony was the traditional reproach against his race, and he would show one Christian how undeserved it was. Forty years in the wilderness, away from the flesh-pots of Egypt, had entailed harsh habits, the counted date and the hoarded water; nor had a thousand years in the wilderness of a Christian world, where only the secret treasure was safe, encouraged display; but the world was altering, the desert was flowering; in stray comers here and there, in western Europe, the Jew could show that other quality he shared with the Arab, the quality of the princely host, who would wash the feet of beggars and feed them from his own dish; sometimes he could cease to be the enemy of the rich to become the friend of any poor man who sought a roof in the name of God. The roar of the train faded from his consciousness, the light went out in his eyes, while he built for his own pride the tent in the oasis, the well in the desert. He spread his hands before her.
Whatever this is, it is not anti-Jewish. Indeed the problem may be the reverse: it might be too strenuous a demonstration of sympathy to be altogether convincing. In setting out to counter received opinion, Greene deployed some cliches of his own (the Mosaic wanderings, the blooming of the desert, the stage-Jew spreading of the hands) and lazily repeated the word ‘princely.’ Most of all, however, one notices with a pang that Jews are supposed to feel safe at last, in ‘western Europe’ – in 1931! Still, the plain intent is to defend Jews from defamation, and the taunting anti- Semite on the train – a ghastly specimen of English suburban womanhood – is furthermore consistently represented as vulgar and mean. If this all seems like trying too hard, there is a fine and redeeming one-liner when Myatt, shocked at Coral’s hoarding of yesterday’s sandwiches and milk, exclaims ‘Are you Scotch?’ Another good instance of inversion, or table turning.
The novel deals with class consciousness in two ways. During this epoch it was possible to judge any English person the moment he or she uttered a syllable, and Greene catches this with a most acute ear. All the Brits on the train are either stressing the more refined pronunciations they have acquired with such labour, or making too much of being plain-spoken and unaffected. Not for an instant are they free of the hidden traps of social stratification. An oblique testament to this pervading sensitivity came in the form of a lawsuit brought against the novel by Mr. J.B. Priestley, now rather deservedly forgotten but in those days the very model of the pipe-smoking, no-nonsense bluff man of the people. He claimed, quite rightly as far as I can see, to be the model for the affected novelist Q.C. Savory, a mildly fraudulent character who positively relishes the democratic manner in which he drops his own aitches. (’May I draw a red ’erring across your argument?’) This was the first of many libel actions that paid their own compliment to Greene’s realism.
And then there is class consciousness in the Marxist sense of the term, exemplified by Dr. Czinner. This man – with his surname that of the fallen Everyman – stands for all the idealistic leftists who were then being ground under by what it would be no cliche to call the forces of reaction. All of Greene’s sympathy for the underdog, or perhaps more exactly for the losing side, is mobilised in his portrait:
He had his duty to his patients, his duty to the poor of Belgrade, and the slowly growing idea of his duty to his own class in every country. His parents had starved themselves that he might be a doctor, he himself had gone hungry and endangered his health that he might be a doctor, and it was only when he had practised for several years that he realized the u
Czinner is represented as an atheist, but in what I believe to be the key to this novel he is returning home in order to offer himself as a sacrifice. Confronted in his train compartment and seeing that the mysterious intruder is wearing a silver crucifix, ‘For a moment Dr Czinner flattened himself against the wall of a steep street to let the armoured men, the spears and the horses pass, and the tired tortured man. He had not died to make the poor contented, to bind the chains tighter; his words had been twisted.’ Greene became a Catholic in 1926, five years before he wrote this novel, and had previously had a flirtation with Communism. In Stamboul Train he synthesized the two impulses as he was later to do in several books, perhaps most notably Monsignor Quixote. Just as he often satirised Catholicism and Communism, so he was ridiculed in his turn for these allegiances. (Entering a New Statesman competition for a Greene parody under an assumed name, he found his submission winning third prize. John Fuller and James Fenton, in their ‘Poem Against Catholics,’ lampooned his work as one where ‘Police chiefs quote Pascal/Priests hit the bottle/Strong Men repent in Nijni- Novgorod.’)
But Greene could lampoon his own loyalties. He was to see his work placed on the Vatican’s once-notorious Index of banned books, and when he wished to be sardonic about the Left he could give Coral’s mental response to Czinner’s admission of Communist beliefs:
She thought of him now as one of the untidy men who paraded on Saturday afternoons in Trafalgar Square bearing hideous banners: ‘Workers of the World, Unite,’ ‘Walthamstow Old Comrades,’ ‘Balham Branch of the Juvenile Workers’ League.’ They were the kill-joys, who would hang the rich and close the theaters and drive her into dismal free love at a summer camp . . .
However, a moment of decision is imminent and when it comes, Coral Musker sticks by Dr. Czinner against his tormentors. This is the consequence of a blunder and a misunderstanding, but it is nonetheless a test and she passes it, by declining to leave the sad stranger alone to face his martyrdom. Meanwhile, Myatt also has to confront his own responsibilities. He is given a chance to make it easy on himself, and we are told that ‘he knew suddenly that he would not be sorry to accept the clerk’s word and end his search; he would have done all that lay in his power, and he would be free.’ (It is, by the way, in this very paragraph that he reflects upon the alternative chance ‘to set up his tent and increase his tribe’ – the words most complained of by Michael Shelden.) However, he persists in a rash course of rescue until he can decently persuade himself that he has done all that he can. There’s a thief and a murderer, too, at the end, and some brutal soldiers, too: I think we are being invited by Greene to a subliminal Passion Play where the moment of cockcrow is postponed for as long as is humanly possible—which is as much as to say, not for very long.
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene / History & Fiction / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes