Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Stamboul Train was the novel that made Graham Greene’s name. Published in 1932, it catalogues a train journey that, a few years later, would have been impossible, a journey across Europe that was about to be changed for ever. The novel is set in a time when the Orient Express travelled from Western Europe to Constantinople across several borders, each of which that presented its own different challenge. 

Seventy-five years ago the continent was neither bifurcated by ideology coupled with allegiance of necessity, nor united by a desire for greater capitalist integration. It was also not a stable place, with the short-lived tensions of the Treaty of Versailles less than fifteen years old. To reflect this, Graham Greene presents Stamboul Train as a journey, almost a travelogue, with the setting of each part offering an informed relevance to the action. So we progress from Ostend to Cologne to Vienna to Subotica to Constantinople. 

The book is highly cinematographic in character and is cast as a tangle of almost separate stories acted out by characters that mingle along the way. People join and leave the train. There’s a love affair in a sleeper. A Jew is on his way to do deals in currants. A wanted criminal boards and leaves. A young thing is on her way to a job as a dancer. There’s a political refugee fomenting revolution in his homeland. There’s a lesbian journalist seeking to interview a famous popular writer. Stanboul Train is clearly not the eight fifteen from Pinner. Or maybe it is… 

The action is both on and off the train as the characters’ stories weave together to create a novel. And it is possible to read the book as an almost linear story, where everyone, as in a soap opera, is pre-occupied with their present to the exclusion of all other time. But Graham Greene goes further than this and gives us vignettes of political, historical and social comment. Miss Warren’s interview with Savory, the writer, is an example. Savory the writer is playing a part of being a writer. He has made his name selling books written from a Cockney point of view, at the time a euphemism for a down-to-earth, working class, perhaps therefore honest perspective. 

But Savory is unsavoury. His Cockney credentials are false, since he was born in beautiful Balham, far south-west of Bow Bells, and he claims an aspiration to achieve a re-creation of Chaucer’s spirit to counter the gloom and introspection of modern fiction. But Savory reveals himself to be “a man overworked, harassed by a personality which was not his own, by curiosities and lusts, a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown.” 

And Miss Warren, his interviewer, hates dealing with the impersonation that is stardom, the necessity to deal with another person as a commercial creation, a lie in the form of an advertisement. She earns a living from writing about such people, but yet she despises consumerism for its own sake, derides its pulpy products. She yearns to tell Savory that his books are rubbish, destined for the dustbin as fickle taste moves on, reorders consumer sentiment to ridicule its current eager choice. And here, perhaps, we have Graham Greene revealing his own self-destructive, self-abusive darker side. He feels as unsavoury as Savory, producing these entertainments just to sell books, to make money, to indulge in his weaknesses.

But what Greene’s deprecatory self-analysis apparently did not like to admit was that he was always doing more, much more than this. 

View this book on amazon Stamboul Train (Vintage Classic)

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