I thought I’d read Graham Greene’s first novel a few years ago, but it turns out that Stamboul Train was Greene’s fourth, not first, published piece of book-length narrative fiction. Greene’s actual first novel, The Man Within, I hadn’t heard of until I saw it for sale in one of the many bookshops I visited on my birthday this year, and enjoying this trashy pulp cover I added it to my bulging book basket.
The Man Within is Greene’s very first novel, and fuck me does it show.
The year is 1929, and during the decade of Woolf, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Hemingway, etc, Graham Greene slaps his dick on the table and leaves more than just his lovers underwhelmed.
Weirdly, The Man Within sold pretty well and got some OK reviews, so unlike Greene’s second and third novels – which bombed – he didn’t make as aggressive an effort to repress this one as he did those two (which are still unreissued).
Having read the early novel that he DIDN’T think was so bad he couldn’t bear to have people read it, I shudder to think of the quality of those slightly later books. Because The Man Within is, to be blunt, shite.
Though it is markedly a Greene novel in a few of its thematic concerns (e.g. spiritualistic Catholicism, big lust, great shame post shagging, barely veiled hetero male fantasy), it is very much a green novel. As in unripe.
It’s about Francis Andrews, a privately educated 20 year old who dropped out of school to join the family firm when his father died a few years earlier. It was only at this point that he discovered where all the money for his fancy schooling came from: poppa was a smuggler.
A few years in the smuggling game and young Andrews is bored to shit and pissed off by the crew constantly comparing him – a weak poshboy – with his dead, weathered, hard man daddy. Instead of just leaving the crew and fucking off to London to use his Latin and Greek, he decides to grass them up to the local police (or whatever). The coast guard (or whatever) turn up when the crew lands with their boatload of duty free European liquor, Andrews scarpers and in the fracas one of the customs officers (or whatever) is shot and killed. Some of the crew also get away and begin hunting down Andrews, who finds shelter in the cottage of an insanely beautiful woman who he falls in love with but doesn’t fuck. At her encouragement, he heads to the local big town, Lewes, to offer himself as a witness for the prosecution when the murdering smugglers come to trial. Andrews gets cold feet when he meets the prosecuting lawyer, but the lawyer’s mad sexy mistress is all like “testify and you can fuck me afterwards, I’m a great lay” so Andrews does, but because everyone loves smugglers in the South East, the jury fails to convict the smugglers and Andrews realises they’re going to come straight for him, so he runs back to the first crazy hot woman but realises the smugglers remembered he was leering at her before but she realises too and sends him to like get some water and then the smugglers arrive and the woman kills herself to protect Andrews from the the smugglers, but the smugglers decide to let bygones be bygones, honour among thieves etc (despite Andrews being a fucking narc) and head off, but in order to like martyr himself (and also cause he’s really sad he never got to bang the now dead phenomenally attractive woman) he hangs about next to the dead body until the police (or whatever) arrive, and because she stabbed herself with Andrews’ monogrammed knife, the rozzers believe he definitely did it and so he’s carted off towards gaol and the inevitable gallows. The end.
The plot is stupid.
The characters are paper thin (and think of especially thin paper when considering that cliche), especially the two women.
Greene avoids one of the pitfalls of horny men trying to describe attractive women by not just going on about tits, but he does use such vague descriptions of the hotness of these women – and both are viewed as near goddesses by all male characters – that he presumes a) a universal standard of beauty and b) gives barely any description of how these women actually look. Greene describes the physicality – and the character – of both of these women in no more detail than telling us that most men would be turned on as soon as they’re in the same room. That’s bad writing.
The novel is set in some kind of weird but undefined 19th centuryish past, in that same Golden Era England that Tory voters imagine when they’re shagging their mutually-hated spouses in the dark. It’s all smugglers and buxom wenches, public schools and pubs, horses and the South Downs and honourable criminals and criminal lawyers. It’s a mess of a vision, of a world, and it’s unvarnished male fantasy.
Of course, Our Man in Havana and The End of the Affair are [acclaimed] male fantasies (“an expat with younger lover gets embroiled in consequence-free espionage” and “a lonely middle aged bachelor makes friends with a man as they grieve together for the man’s dead wife, who was the bachelor’s mistress” respectively), but those two books work – structurally, literarily – as novels, too.
The Man Within is weak in description, and it lacks any kind of unexpected plotting to make it satisfying merely as a non-literary diversion. It’s trashy, forgettable, pulp fiction, and as a reader I am thankful that Greene didn’t accept his youthful mediocrity and continued pushing himself until, barely more than a decade later, he was writing truly great novels.
I suppose it’s kinda fun, but it’s not really worth reading unless you’re desperate for a little bit of Greene… Meh.