random thoughts to oil the mind

Month: October 2012

The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment

Ministry of FearGraham Greene originally divided his works into novels and ‘entertainments’, separating his popular work from those he wished his literary career to be remembered for. In later life, this distinction would be blurred until it was dropped entirely. The Ministry of Fear is one of these earlier works labelled an entertainment. Made a year later into a film directed by Fritz Lang, it was written in the middle of wartime, and on the surface is a typical espionage thriller in the tradition of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, dealing with a Nazi spy ring operating in London during the blitz. On its own, the plot is gripping enough to carry the book through to the end, and those bits we can regard as ‘entertainment’ made their way into the film.

But as with many of Greene’s works, it’s the inner conflict which is missing from the silver screen translation. We learn early on that the main protagonist is racked by guilt over the murder–what we would today most likely see only as a mercy killing–of his wife. This concentration on the individual, amid the scaled chaos of the blitz, makes this short novel so interesting. Much of it seems quite dated now, but there is still plenty of relevance in a society trying to come to terms with the issue of euthanasia.

Aside from the juxtaposition of a thrilling little spy plot and the psychological reflections, this short book is also an advert for Greene’s art. The writing is simply superb, an absolute pleasure to read, full of inventiveness without the overt self-conceit of trying too hard. Another reviewer pointed out that this short novel took longer to read than he had imagined. I’d suggest that comes as a result of needing to read every word and understand it, not skim over lines of trite, repetitive text as in many other novels. To skim would be to rob oneself of most of the pleasure.

For me, Graham Greene remains the greatest English language novelist never to have won the Nobel Prize. As an entertainment, rather than a novel, The Ministry of Fear lends itself as an excellent introduction to his greater literature.

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas ShruggedPerhaps the most significant book in post-war American literature, one which has regained popularity since the start of the economic crisis, Altas Shrugged is the embodiment of an ideal society, the ultimate vehicle for Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Weighing in at over 1,000 pages of tightly-packed print, it’s also one of the longest novels in English literature. Is it any good?

Well, as a novel, Atlas Shrugged unfortunately falls flat, in ways that Rand’s first novel, We the Living, didn’t. There is foremost no humanity in the novel, the characters are dismembered, dessicated mouthpieces to Rand’s philosophical diatribes, with everyone fitting neatly into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camps. Rand herself claimed that using characters as symbols was never her intention: “My characters are persons in whom certain human attributes are focused more sharply and consistently than in average human beings.” But what we are left with are flimsy apparitions, lobotomised automatons fulfilling the roles required of them to extol the virtues of her philosophy. Even this is taken to extremes, with one of the proponents delivering a 60-page long theoretical speech around which the rest of the novel might well be seen as scaffolding.

To complement this set of lifeless characters is a plot which similarly confounds understanding. In an America which technologically resembles the period in which Rand was writing, yet industrially feels set in an earlier period, and borrows heavily from the Great Depression, the main events and the decisions of the characters jar heavily with what the reader knows and expects from society. As another reviewer pointed out, what’s missing is the overt understanding that the story takes place in a parallel world or a different timeframe, to create a genuine sense of credibility. True, there are some hints that push this novel into the realms of science fiction–a super metal alloy, power derived from static electricity, weapons based on sound waves etc.–but the world is definitely our own, even if the people and their decisions are alien. Key to the story is the gradual collapse of the economic system, and the disappearance of the champions of industry. What happens in Rand’s universe when the creative minds of the world go on strike? Apparently, they settle down on the frontier and, working one month a year, create a fully-fledged miniature utopia. Personally, I imagine they’d starve.

A bad book can still be a good delivery vehicle for an interesting message. Yet this unwieldy book fails even to achieve the latter. For its mammoth length, Rand’s message could have been relatively concise, but for the plot’s repetitiveness. If you are interested in Rand’s philosophy, there are plenty of other places to turn which will provide a far more succinct and detailed explanation, without the repetition or padding necessary for its delivery in novel form. Whether you find place for Rand’s philosophy in your own, or like Gore Vidal consider it “nearly perfect in its immorality”, there are simply better summaries available. For the converted, this is probably a wonderful book, but for anyone else it simply isn’t worth risking the investment of time and energy.

No one can deny this book’s enduring popularity. That alone gives rise to curiosity strong enough to keep it fresh in the public consciousness. But it is a far cry from a great piece of literature, and as an allegory, a philosophical harbinger, its ponderous and verbose nature should have the curious turn elsewhere. The novel opens with the question: “Who is John Galt?” A thousand pages of largely disappointing text will reveal the answer, but you’d be better served just reading the appendix.

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