In my younger days I used to pick an author and work my way through their oeuvre before inevitably growing weary of their voice, becoming increasingly annoyed at the repeated themes and overused words and phrases that would crop up in many of the writer’s novels. I tired of Alice Walker’s relentless anger; J.G Ballard’s over use of similes; Jeanette Winterness’ opaque prose and George Orwell’s bleakness. (I’ve gone back to them all, and have learnt to love them again).
But despite hoovering up as many Graham Greene books as I could lay my hands on (i.e., as many as the library had) it was still never enough. There are so many Greenes, and, even with the religious thread weaving its way through many of his later novels, his narrative and themes were varied enough that I never felt that I’d heard it all before. There’s the funny, satirical Greene (Travels With My Aunt and Our Man In Havana), the shady, murky Greene of The Quiet American where as much lies in the shadows as on the page; the brutal, thuggish Green that reared its head in Brighton Rock (my least favourite) and the obsessive, love-struck writer of The End of the Affair (my favourite).
The Stamboul Train, nabbed from a friend’s bookshelf while cat sitting, introduces some of his major themes. It has traces of the same murky, secretive, claustrophobic world of The Quiet American, with a streak of violence and a smatter of religion-angst that will appear with greater force in other well-known Greene works.
The story is set on the Orient express as it weaves its way through a snowy Europe with a cast of characters each with their own demons and desires that all slot together as the train nears its destination. Dr Czinner, a Serbian dissident communist leader, is on his way back to lead a revolt, that, unfortunately for him, kicks off a few days early while he’s barely through Germany. To add to his woes, a British journalist, Mabel Warren, a ferocious bulldog of a reporter, recognises him in Cologne and attempts to blackmail him into giving her an exclusive story.
Myatt meets Cora Musker and, attracted by her slim figure, lends her his compartment and, later, his bed. But he’s also got one eye on the elegant Janet Pardoe, Mabel’s paid companion, who’s also caught the attention of cockney writer Mr. Savory.
Jumping on board at Cologne is on-the-run murderer Josef Grünlich who is a downright bad ‘un, but crafty enough to continue getting away with it. Josef, along with Cora, gets caught up in the arrest of Dr. Czinner just over the Hungarian border in the Serbian town of Subotica, which, from Greene’s descriptions, is the most desolate place in the world. Greene’s not one for hyperbole and his stark prose can sometimes stripe the humanity from his characters, but at this point, he builds the tension to the point where my heart was beating as loudly as Cora’s as she huddled in amongst empty grain sacks in a barn with only the dying Czinner for company.
There are, as is so often the case in novels pre-dating the 1960s, some uncomfortable racial and gender stereotypes. Myatt is the caricature literary Jew that you can trace back to Shylock – all big nose and shrewdness. To make it even worse, Greene congratulates both himself and his characters on liking Myatt despite him being Jewish. How kind! This is particularly ironic considering the book was published in 1932 and, as we all know, the world took a very, very large anti-Semitic step backwards.
Equally as objectionable was the portrayal of Mable Warren, the predatory lesbian who hates men and becomes obsessive about the women she loves (who are rather too beautiful to love her back). Had our Graham ever met a lesbian? From this shoddy representation, I doubt it.
There are plenty of loose ends – Greene wouldn’t want to make things too neat for us would he? Does Cora survive? Will Myatt, who did rather heroically try and rescue her only to balls it up and come back with Josef instead, now marry the glamorous (and half-Jewish!) Janet? And will Josef ever get his just deserts?
Greene originally filed The Stamboul Train under his ‘entertainments’ and admitted, in 1974, that he wrote it to make a bit of money. “In Stamboul Train 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 devil looks after his own and I succeeded in both aims”.
So while The Stamboul Train may not up there with his very best – although he still casts a fascinating web of intrigue and duplicity – it gave him enough financial freedom to allow him to go on and write some of the finest novels in the English language.