Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘The Man Within’ by Graham Greene

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 219 pages; 2011.

First published in 1929, The Man Within was Graham Greene’s first novel.

It’s a relatively simple tale of a young smuggler who dobs in his colleagues and then faces the consequences of his betrayal.

Split into three parts, it follows Francis Andrews who goes on the run after he denounces his fellow smugglers — who are running sprits from France — after a fight breaks out and a man is shot dead.

He seeks refuge in a  Sussex cottage owned by a young woman called Elizabeth (with whom he falls in love), but later returns to Lewes, by the coast, where he stands witness in the trial against his fellow smugglers.

When they are acquitted of murder, he returns to Elizabeth’s cottage to warn her that her own life is now in danger, because he had named her as an alibi.

The ending, which has an unforeseen twist, ties up a lot of loose ends but leaves enough room for the reader to make up their own mind about what comes next.

Human relationships

Central to the story is Andrews’ relationship with Carylon, the leader of the smuggling ring, who has become a father figure to him, but their relationship is fraught and one-sided and Andrews is scared of him.

There’s a definite focus on father-son relationships and what it is to be a good man. Andrews’ own father, who died at sea, was well-liked by others, but feared at home:

His father to his crew was a hero, a king, a man of dash, initiative. Andrews knew the truth–that he was a bully who killed his wife and ruined his son.

The result is that Andrews can’t stand up for himself, considers himself a coward, and now realises that his betrayal, one of the bravest things he has ever done, now puts him at risk, especially from Carylon, who has previously killed other men and won’t be afraid to do the same to him.

But by the same token, Andrews doesn’t take any responsibility for himself — here’s an early exchange with Elizabeth, after he barges into her cottage unannounced:

‘I never meant any harm to you,’ Andrews muttered, and then added with a convulsive pleading : ‘It was only fear that made me come. You other people never seem to understand fear. You expect everyone to be brave like yourself. It’s not a man’s fault whether he’s brave or cowardly. It’s all in the way he’s born. My father and mother made me. I didn’t make myself.’

The way in which he falls for Elizabeth, one of the only women he’s ever had any interactions with without paying for it, seems spontaneous and presumptive. His early conversations with her are littered with cruel sentiment.

Looking down at her dark hair, pale face and calm eyes seemed to infuriate him. ‘You women,’ he said, ‘you are all the same. You are always on your guard against us. Always imagine that we are out to get you. You don’t know what a man wants.’

But when he returns to see her for the second time, he’s convinced himself he’s in love with her and feels at home with her:

‘We get tired of our own kind,’ he said, ‘the coarseness, hairiness–you don’t understand. Sometimes I’ve paid street women simply to talk to them, but they are like the rest of you. They don’t understand that I don’t want their bodies.’ ‘You’ve taught us what to think,’ she interrupted with a faint bitterness breaking the peace of her mind. He took no notice of what she said.
‘I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘a reason why I came back. You can laugh at me. I was homesick for here.’

He also sees Elizabeth as someone who can offer him stability — and sanity.

‘You are so sane,’ he said sadly. ‘You women are all so sane. A dream is often all there is to a man. I think that you are lovely, good and full of pity, but that is only a dream. You know all about yourself, how you are greedy for this and that, afraid of insects, full of disgusting physical needs. You’ll never find a man who will love you for anything but a bare, unfilled-in outline of yourself. A man will even forget his own details when he can, until he appears an epic hero, and it needs his woman to see that he’s a fool. Only a woman can love a real person.’
‘You may be right,’ she said, ‘though I don’t understand most of it. I once knew a man, though, who so forgot his own details as you call them, that he believed himself a coward and nothing else.’

Basic plot

The plot is basic, and relies too much on coincidence to work, and the execution is patchy. Greene, who wrote the book when he was 22, describes it as “embarrassingly romantic” and the style derivative, claiming the only quality it possesses is its youth. And there’s some truth in that.

But it’s good at building tension and the prose is eloquent (in places). There are some beautiful mood-evoking descriptions of place, such as this:

Along a white road a scarlet cart crawled like a ladybird along the rim of a leaf. The Surrey hills peered through a silver veil, as though they were an old man’s face, austere, curious and indestructibly chaste. A cock a mile away crowed with frosty clarity and a lamb bewildered and invisible cried aloud.

But on the whole, The Man Within is a fairly mediocre story although it brims with that same energy, fierceness and psychological insight that underpin the large body of work that follows. Reading it provides a glimpse into Greene’s early interests in topics that recur in his later work: the differences between men and women, religion and spirituality, good and evil.

If you haven’t read him before, this probably isn’t the place to start.

I read this book for The 1929 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, which runs between 24-30 October 2022.