[A lot of people seem to be finding my Graham Greene posts via Google, so I hope my regular readers will forgive the repetition of this first bit (probably my regular readers just scroll past anyway—be honest, you just want me to keep writing about Feist): I've tasked myself with reading all of Graham Greene's books in succession. If you're curious to read my thoughts on any of Greene's other novels, click here and see if I've gotten to it yet. ]<>
Journey Without Maps, Graham Greene's nonfiction travelogue recounting his audacious 1935 trip through Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, is like a wedge shoved deep into his oeuvre. While it is not the book that catapulted him from merely popular novelist to lasting literary influence, it nonetheless signals a shift in his ability as a writer. The seeds of his talent have been present in his last few novels, but the experience of Africa—and the way he wrote about it—feel as if someone has put those seeds in the path of direct sunlight.
Greene has come to be known for novels in which his (usually British) protagonists exist in foreign, underdeveloped—hot—beautiful landscapes: The Quiet American in Vietnam; The Heart of the Matter and A Burnt-Out Case in Africa; The Power and the Glory in Mexico; The Comedians in Haiti; and so on. All of those novels came later. Prior to his trip to Africa, Greene’s first four (actually six) novels all took place in England or, I suggest, ostensible stand-ins for England. The Man Within and It’s a Battlefield both take place inside the country. Orient Express follows a largely British cast (save the Yugoslavian Dr. Czinner and the Austrian Grünlich), but the novel exists outside of any one country as it travels across Europe. The characters exist in a self-contained bubble. Likewise England Made Me concerns itself mostly with twin siblings Anthony and Kate Farrant, Brits who have taken up in Stockholm; but the majority of the action occurs in the context of the global corporation they work for, Krogh’s, a company which conducts its business in English. The Stockholm setting is largely arbitrary; Anthony’s struggle has more to do with his placement within the company than it does within a foreign city. And of course, the title alone should tip you off that Sweden is not the country Greene is most concerned with.>
It’s no surprise that Greene had yet to bring the exotic locations into his novels—though his tentative fictional forays out of England in those two novels (plus Anthony Farrant’s background as someone who had lived in Shanghai, Aden, and elsewhere) do point to some inevitable desire to place his characters outside of the familiar. No surprise, because Greene was a realist writer; from the very beginning he’s had to experience his locations in order to write about them, whether walking from the outskirts of Lewes into its center for The Man Within or taking a weekend trip to Stockholm for England Made Me; and as of 1935 that was essentially the extent of his traveling experience. Paul Theroux’s introduction to Journey Without Maps (which incidentally is a worthy read after you’ve finished the book—he calls bullshit on much of what Greene writes of) spells it out:
[Greene] had hardly traveled. He had made jaunts out of England, but in a hilarious, weekending way, and had never ventured beyond Europe. He knew nothing of Africa, had never camped or slept rough or been on a long sea voyage or a long hike of any consequence—certainly not a trek through the bush. Probably influenced by the journeys his friends and contemporaries were taking, he got it into his head to hike with porters and carriers through an unmapped part of the Liberian hinterland; he did not know exactly how many miles he would have to walk , or how long it would take, or what his actual route would be.
Much odder than this vagueness—to me, at any rate... was Greene's decision to take his young female cousin Barbara with him. She was twenty-three, she had never been anywhere, she'd had a privileged upbringing, she was not much of a walker.
In other words, Greene really had no business attempting this journey. But he did accomplish it—suffering fever along the way—and he considered it a life-changing experience.
Journey Without Maps is a dramatic act on Greene’s part to bring the far corners—the desperate corners—of the world into his realm of experience, and therefore into his writing. Besides being a realist, he was also a devotee of Joseph Conrad, and many other contemporaries (Waugh, for instance) were making similar African pilgrimages in Conrad’s footsteps. On one level, at least, Greene’s trip is a naïve rite of passage—more an attempt to acquire a level of “experience” any novelist worth his salt should have than a conscious act to “change” his fiction. In fact the Liberian trip didn’t factor into his fiction at all, other than a short story, “A Chance for Mr. Lever.” Nevertheless Greene’s subsequent travels, often as ambitious as the Liberian episode, did factor directly into his novels. Within three years he was riding a mule through Mexico, which resulted in the nonfiction Lawless Roads and the novel The Power and the Glory. Soon he would return to Africa, to Sierra Leone, where he lived for a year; here he set The Heart of the Matter. Later in life he would return to Africa a third time with the express mission of researching for A Burnt-Out Case, which takes place in a leper colony.
But I think what may separate Greene’s pre-Journey novels from those that came after is more significant than mere scene setting. Looking back at the pre-Journey novels, all but Orient Express are flawed; they each seem to occupy themselves with a preconceived theme that stamps its way across every page at the expense of realism (in The Man Within), character (It’s a Battlefield), or form (England Made Me—which includes odd forays into stream-of-consciousness interior monologues)—in other words, much of what Greene is best remembered for. Journey, by its very nature, could not suffer in the same way. Greene didn’t know what to expect. All he could do was record what he saw and reflect as went. Thus the heat of Africa and its lush greenery, the natives’ nakedness and alternately strange, stoic, or childlike behavior, became the bulk of the book’s content, colored at every turn by Greene’s very real emotions—anxiety, anticipation, exhaustion, homesickness. After reading the pre-Journey novels, where melodrama frequently forced its way into a scene to derail its believability, Journey Without Maps reads to me almost like a disciplinary exercise for Greene—he couldn’t insert melodrama; he was forced instead to rely on its more subtle cousin, tension. I’ll bet that its no accident that, regardless of their settings, Greene’s string of best-regarded novels followed nearly one after the other directly after Journey Without Maps (not including the noir thriller A Gun for Sale, which was written simultaneously with Journey)—Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and The Quiet American. The fact that England-set Brighton Rock was the first in that succession indicates that exotic scene setting was not the first or only lesson Greene learned through his trip or through the writing of Journey Without Maps.