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Posts Tagged ‘W.H. Auden’

I’ve had the occasion to perform readings of new works – in early drafts just for the writer and when the work is more polished in front of audiences. One of the more frequent “mistakes” I see novice writers make is to have too many circumstances come to the aid of the protagonist. Some years ago, I read for the writer and later in front of an audience a play called “The Iron Bear.” After the first rehearsal in the writer’s living room, I tried to find a metaphor for how the plotline appeared: “It’s like watching a swimmer in a strong current, but each wave is pushing the swimmer to shore. There are no obstacles. It’s much more interesting to watch a swimmer fight the current than to see one simply washed ashore.”

Recently, I started re-reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I have no idea how many times I’ve read this novel (or any other Graham Greene novel). I own them all and when I can’t remember the plot any more, I pick it up again. Oddly, I forget the plots and characters rather quickly. This is unusual – W.H. Auden described potboilers as the book “you can’t put down at night and can’t remember in the morning” (The Dyer’s Hand). Greene’s novels are compact structures of plot and character. The plots move like a potboiler, but the writing is on a literary par with The Great Gatsby. Oddly, I can discuss The Great Gatsby in great detail – even if I haven’t read the book in 20 years (I don’t think I’ve ever gone 20 years without reading it, but the point is I remember all the details). Greene’s novels, however tend to fade like old curtains -the outlines are clear, everything else has been bleached by time and the sun.

Greene’s characters are never superheroes. They are extremely flawed men (usually) with the odds stacked against them. Fowler, the protagonist of The Quiet American has one expressed desire: he wishes to stay in Saigon with his young female companion Phuong. One of the immediately apparent obstacles is simply Fowler’s age – although Greene never specifies Fowler’s exact age, the character himself frequently refers to the “decade” or so he has left to live. To complicate matters, Fowler has a rival, a young American Economic attaché named Pyle. Pyle is as innocent as Fowler is jaded, hopeful where Fowler is resigned. They are a contrast in character – foils, if you will. Pyle boards Fowler at a restaurant and as his first contact, assures himself that Fowler is a friend. Not that any of this seems to matter to Phuong. She is happy with Fowler, but she is concerned about her future.

The matter would be settled in a minute if Fowler could marry Phuong – but that would be too easy. So the next obstacle is that Fowler is married. And without marriage, can Phuong’s future be assured? Greene ups the ante – not only is Fowler married, but his wife is a devout Anglican who told her fiancé before they married that there’d be no chance of divorce. It went against her beliefs. Pyle, on the other hand, is not married and is idealistic enough to fall in love after one dance with a woman who cannot speak his language (Phuong speaks Vietnamese and the local brand of French) – even to the point of marriage.

The location itself creates obstacles. Fowler, Pyle and Phuong are all living (or stationed) in Saigon shortly before French Indochina collapses at Dien Bien Phu. Fowler is a foreign correspondent who occasionally travels to some of the less secure locations in Vietnam-thus both his and Phuong’s future are threaten simply by his manner of making a living. Even Saigon, where things are relatively safe, has bridges that are occupied by the French during the day and the Vietminh at night. The restaurants foreigners patronize are on second floors-with grill work to guard against hand grenades.

Greene is not satisfied with letting the obstacles halt at this pass. We learn that Phuong has a sister who exerts a lot of influence and wishes to see Phuong married. She had accompanied Phuong to the dance where she met (and continued to meet) Fowler throughout their courtship. Phuong was never let out of her sight and the couple were never allowed to be alone – until the sister came down with a fever. One night. And then Phuong was with Fowler. The sister never forgave them and is still looking for marriage prospects.

One of the more bizarre twists of the story is that as a romantic idealist, Pyle never goes behind Fowler’s back, but insists on informing the journalist of his intentions at every step. Once Pyle discovers that he is in love with Phuong – he makes an arduous journey to find Fowler at the front. Moments prior to an artillery attack, Pyle informs Fowler that he’s in love with Phuong. Once he’s made his secret known, he is relieved. Pyle keeps insisting that he has Phuong’s best interests at heart. Obviously there are parallels in the personal relationship with the colonial and “democracy bearing” powers and the native culture-who for the most part simply wants to be secure and go about her daily business. Is this an obstacle? Think about it – someone is in love with your girlfriend and insists on telling you their every move because you are their friend. Enter conscience – it becomes harder to strike someone who shares their thoughts with childlike simplicity.

Complication next: a telegram comes for Fowler when he’s returning from the front – he’s to be promoted to editor of the Southeast Asia segment of his newspaper back in London. So not only can he not offer Phuong marriage, he may not be able to offer her much more future than a few months. It may be possible to take Phuong with him, so out of desperation, Fowler writes to his wife to ask for a divorce.

In the meantime, Pyle wants Phuong to meet with him and Fowler and to choose between them. Fowler has to translate as Pyle doesn’t speak enough French of Vietnamese to communicate himself. Fowler has not yet told Phuong of the telegram. She listens to the discussion, then chooses Fowler. Pyle is defeated. He will apply for a transfer.

Fowler writes to his editor- he is a reporter, not an editor. He tells Phuong of the telegram. She imagines going with Fowler to London – but mistakes the location of skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty.

On the road from a religious festival, Fowler and Pyle run out of gas and are wounded by an attack. Pyle more or less saves Fowler. While he recovers in the hospital, a letter comes from his wife. Phuong’s sister has gotten a position at the American Embassy (whether through the influence of Pyle is left up in the air). She speaks English.

Up to this point, Fowler has been honorable – he’s told the truth. Perhaps not immediately, but in his own way he honors Phuong with the truth. When he reads the letter from his wife, the answer is a resounding “no.” She will not divorce him. Phuong sits at his side with hope. And? “No definitive answer.” Fowler is desperate enough to lie.

My intention is not to create a plot summary, but a study of a character with desire confronting a series of obstacles. What Greene does so remarkably well, not just in this novel but almost every book he’s every written is to create a character so human – a character with a strong desire who is weak enough that surmounting obstacles takes tremendous effort. Imagine, if you will, that Fowler is standing on the block at a swimming pool. Phuong is sitting on the other side of the pool. He dives. He doesn’t swim well, so he moves slowly and with concentration. Pyle dives into the next lane and begins to ask if the water is safe. A few hand grenades explode in the pool, cascading spray. Phuong hands him an opium pipe while he’s trying to recover from the waves. He smokes (one of the other obstacles I haven’t touched upon). His editor starts to drain the water from the pool. Pyle claims if he gets to the other side first he’s going to take Phuong and marry her. Fowler swallows water and begins to drown. Pyle saves him and resuscitates him, then they are back in the pool again. Fowler’s wife starts to through rocks on his back.

None of this is true in an exact sense, but what I’m trying to communicate is a character trying to pursue his desire in a direct line – and that the more obstacles that come between the character and the goal -the more compelling the plot becomes. I didn’t learn this lesson until later in my writing career. I have early plays with a lot of obstacles and no matching desire. I have characters who are blown through a series of events that happen to them- not the result of their pursuing a goal. Much of the writing is good -smart dialogue, astute characterization – but what makes a story dramatic is the pursuit of a goal through a series of daunting obstacles. Hollywood actors have ruined much of the scripting possibility by insisting on characters without weaknesses, superheroes – when the more severe the weakness, the more daunting the obstacle, the more compelling the story.

 

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