23 May 2012

Brighton Rock (Graham Greene)

So the first thing I want to say about Brighton Rock, because I wish I had known this before starting (although boy will my face be red if everyone's like, "Yeah, I knew that"), is that the title's not  referring to a geological formation. For years I'd pictured it on a postcard--Brighton Rock, jutting over the sea, scenic but rendered ominous by its appearance in a Graham Greene novel (would someone fall off of it? Or be pushed?). NOPE! Turns out it's a kind of candy, the Wikipedia entry for which calls it "traditional British seaside tubular boiled sweets," a charming chain of modifiers. "Rock" is chunky and cylindrical, kind of like a large straight candy cane, and generally made with a pattern running through it--such as the name of the resort where it's sold--visible all the way through the stick. Hence its fitness for metaphor:
"People change," she said.
"Oh, no they don't. Look at me. I've never changed. It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature."
(It's also possibly a murder weapon? But Greene being Greene, this catalyzing act takes place offstage, and is never fully described.

The shes above are discussing Pinkie Brown, a yawning void disguised as a teenage boy--the scariest character I've read recently, and I just read a book with Hitler in it. At 17, Pinkie is the leader of a gang, small-time but vicious, part of the racetrack-centered underworld of coastal Brighton. He masterminds the murder of Fred Hale, a former reporter now traveling for a newspaper as "Kolley Kibber"--find him and win a prize! (The killing is revenge for events that take place in an earlier novel, A Gun for Sale, which I haven't read.) Because of his semi-fame, his death makes the papers, though it's ruled a heart attack. Two very different women realize something's fishy: Ida Arnold, a big-hearted, big-breasted lady of indifferent virtue, who Kibber/Hale picked up on his last afternoon, and who becomes the unlikeliest of detectives in pursuit of the truth; and Rose, a mousy teenaged waitress from the Brighton slums who knows that the man she served wasn't the one who died. To protect himself from Rose's possible testimony, Pinkie resolves to marry her, despite his lack of feeling and gut-level revulsion at sexuality.

But while it has the bones of a crime novel, the themes of Brighton Rock are no less than salvation, redemption, and damnation. Both Pinkie and Rose are "Romans"--Catholics--while Ida is cheerfully irreligious: her concerns are with Right and Wrong, whereas theirs are Good and Evil. Greene writes about the central experience of Catholicism, i.e. the consciousness of sin and of oneself as sinner, with borderline obsessiveness--and for my money, better than any theologian. If you want to understand why and how I'm Catholic, read Graham Greene, particularly this book, The Heart of the Matter, The Power & the Glory, The End of the Affair . . . they're his best anyway. (And what the heck, add Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited to the mix.) To me, and I shall flatter myself to Greene, there is deep comfort in the idea that everyone is flawed and fallible, that we are all capable of acts both good and evil: because it means I'm not alone when I fall short of my own standards. And, still more important, that forgiveness is possible--that I, too, can be relieved by what's called in Brighton Rock's final pages "the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."

And there's nothing I can write after that amazing line that won't be anticlimax, is there?


  1. The end of the affair is definitely choice.

    If you're up for serious conversations about religion I'd be interested to chat with you about it. GG makes a good case for, god I don't know an appropriate word right now so I'll say religion, but I never found anything especially catholic in the few books of his I've read. I'm wondering if he speaks to that particular way of interpreting humanity over others.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hmmm, really? I find GG so specifically Catholic as to be overwhelming, but then I'm coming from that background . . . I do v. much enjoy serious conversations and philosophical wrangles!


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