The Callow Man Within

When you come to know and love a writer’s work based on his mature output, it can be almost a shock to read his early writings. I first discovered Graham Greene when he was still alive and writing, albeit late in his career (my introduction was The Human Factor, which I read when it had just been published), and I was drawn to his pared down, unsentimental prose and his razored dissection of moral issues. So I was surprised, to say the least, when I turned to Greene’s first novel, The Man Within, and found a very different writer at work. Published in 1929 when he was only 25, this debut bears few of the hallmarks we later come to associate with Greeneland. It is unabashedly romantic (not something you could often say about Greene), a story about menacing smugglers that borrows its sensibility from the kind of adventure stories boys used to read during the writer’s own Edwardian childhood.

This assessment is in no way meant to diminish Greene’s talents—the novel is written with a florid assuredness that is clearly shaped not only by Conrad (whose influence on Greene is often cited), but, perhaps a little more surprisingly, by D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy as well (Hardy, who we think of as a Victorian, died only the year before The Man Within appeared, Lawrence the year after). Greene’s descriptions of the Sussex countryside, often observed at twilight, feel as they could have been lifted from either of these men’s work: “He was almost on top of the light before he realized that its smallness was due to size and not to distance. The gray stones of a cottage suddenly hunched themselves up between the trees. To the man raising his head to see the ramshackle bulk it was as though the uneven, knobbled shoulders of the place had shrugged themselves from the earth.”

The man in question is Francis Andrews, about the age of Greene himself at the time, who is in flight from a gang of smugglers he has betrayed. He seeks refuge at the aforementioned cottage where he finds a lovely, independent young woman, Elizabeth, keeping watch over a casket with the body of an old man who has just died—Elizabeth’s de facto guardian. Elizabeth shelters Andrews, and during one chaste night he falls irredeemably, if a little improbably, in love with her. When she encourages him to return to town to give testimony in the murder trial of his former associates in crime, he does so with a passionate conviction to do the right thing at her behest, even as he is fearful to face his adversaries in public. It doesn’t help that most of the townspeople side with the smugglers, either out of their own fear or indifference. Andrews’s dreams of being a hero backfire, and it is pretty much downhill from there as the story gains speed toward its inevitable tragic conclusion.

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There are glimpses of the future Greene here: certainly the questions about friendship and betrayal, and Andrews’s brief lapse into sexual infidelity despite his heightened ardor for Elizabeth (at least in his head), signal themes that will motivate and haunt Greene’s later protagonists. Andrews shares some of the cynicism of those future avatars, but it is tempered by a sloppy sentimentality that a Querry in A Burnt-Out Case or a Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair would never cotton to (although, perhaps, we can imagine a young Maurice sharing these overwrought emotions when he was a callow young man like Andrews, still finding his place in the world).

The most interesting aspect of The Man Within is the psychological baggage that Andrews carries over his deceased father—an oft absent tyrant—and with Carlyon, his mentor in the smuggling game, whom he betrays. It is all very Freudian, as befitting the era (hello D.H. Lawrence), and it shapes the otherwise maudlin narrative in intriguing ways. With hindsight, Greene himself called The Man Within hopelessly romantic, but he allowed it to stay in print even as his fame grew, a fate not granted his next two novels, The Name of Action and Rumour of Nightfall, both of which he repudiated and would not allow reissued. The Name of Action is next on my reading list. But I’m also going to read some of Greene’s first memoir, A Sort of Life, and maybe gain some insight into that father thing.