In July I spent some time discussing The Third Man, a film scripted by the English novelist Graham Greene. This reminded me that I hadn’t actually read a lot of Greene’s work, so when the opportunity arose to buy a battered secondhand copy of The Confidential Agent, I took it.
The Confidential Agent was first published in 1939, when the Spanish civil war (1936-39) was fresh in everyone’s mind. Quite a number of idealistic (and left-wing) young Englishmen had travelled to Spain and fought there against what they regarded as Fascist forces.
Greene was, I suppose we must say, an essentially serious writer, but he divided his work into what he called novels, on the one hand, and entertainments, on the other. On the title page, The Confidential Agent is firmly labelled an entertainment, but it is, I suspect, quite serious enough for most people.
The story is told entirely from the viewpoint of the protagonist, who is known to us only as D. He is a citizen of a country, never identified, which is deep in civil war, and he has been sent to England to negotiate a contract for coal with the English mine-owners. If D.’s side get the coal, they will probably win the war; without it, they will certainly be defeated.
The plot is built entirely around the dangers and difficulties which D. encounters in trying to carry out his mission; for there are, of course, enemies all around him. He is watched, chased, and attacked by everyone: the other side in the war, his own side (because they don’t trust him), and, before long, the English police. And there is, what a surprise, a love story built in.
The Confidential Agent struck me as being literate, intelligent, and thoughtful; given the author, it could hardly be otherwise. But it does show its age. Had I not been stuck on a vastly overheated train, which was an hour late, I might not have persevered with it. Overall it is an interesting piece of literary history, but not perhaps a book which I would urge you to add to your must-read list.
Subsequently I read Greene’s account of how the book came to be written. In 1938 he was in the middle of a ‘proper’ novel, The Power and the Glory, which was not going well. Furthermore, it seemed unlikely to earn him any significant money. So, dosing himself with Benzedrine, he wrote The Confidential Agent at the rate of 2,000 words a day, in the mornings, and carried on with his ‘serious’ work in the afternoon.
Greene claims that, when he began the book, he had no real idea of where it would end, but I can’t say that I noticed this improvisatory element as I went along. I did, however, feel that some of the plot devices were decidedly dodgy. Coincidence plays too large a part for my taste; D. will keep bumping into the same people, for no apparent reason. And, since the book covers only a few days, I did find it quite hard to believe that a young, rich, and beautiful English girl would (a) fall in love with him and (b) walk off hand in hand with him into a most uncertain sunset. None of that, however, seems to have bothered the reviewers or readers of the day, and I suppose, when one compares it with what else was available in the thriller line in 1939, one has to admit that it was a classy piece of work.
The Confidential Agent was later filmed, in 1945, starring Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, and Peter Lorre. No doubt the plot and the characters were fiddled with to suit Hollywood purposes. I can’t imagine Lauren Bacall playing a debby young English gel, can you?