penguins

power and the glory dust jacketSome Penguin Classics have been reprinted so many times in so many formats and years and fads that no further possible textual justification can ever be found for doing it again – instead, publishers have to think outside the book, have to look for nuances of presentation if they want to create something that feels a bit new. And if this is true for classics like Pride and Prejudice or fan favorites like Dracula – books that exists in billions of copies around the world and so, technically speaking, require no further reprinting – how much more true must it be for the millionth new edition of a flaccid and mordantly overpraised book like Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, which has seen hundreds of different paperback reprint editions over the last eighty years while managing to deserve none of them?

It’s a tribute to book-designer Paul Buckley that he can make such an old familiar chestnut look so fresh and inviting. This latest Penguin Classics reprint of The Power and the Glory harks back to some of the very earliest Penguins by having an actual dust jacket, in this case one that overlays a vaguely ecclesiastical gilt-work over a black-and-white cover photo of a soldier squinting to take aim with his pistol – an apt combination of images, given that Greene’s novel is set in Mexico of the 1930s, when the government was using the military to hunt and persecute Catholics in the rough outlying districts where the story unfolds.

That story, as will be well-known to the legions of high school students who’ve had this thing inflicted on them when they could otherwise have been reading Starship Troopers, features an unnamed “whisky priest” who wanders through the aforementioned unnamed provinces in a seedy, alcoholic stupor, hunted by the authorities, suspected by the inhabitants, distrustful of his own faith. In more talented hands, such a plot might have been woven into a great novel (indeed, it largely was – and a free book to the first of you who can identify the resulting huge book, one of the greatest unsung novels in Mexico’s literary history). In Greene’s hands, it’s just another talky, disjointed dish rag of a melodrama, mainly propelled by brevity and snappy place-descriptions – in other words, it’s a thinly-disguised piece of travel-writing.

Greene, always balky at doing anything creative and hence always ready to recycle old material, had in fact already written just such a piece of travel-writing about the brief time he spent in Mexico, a 1939 book called Another Mexico. But according to John Updike, in his 1990 Introduction reprinted with this new edition, Greene, far from recycling Another Mexico (Updike persists in calling it Another Country, and as with so much of the swill he churned out in his career, he wasn’t edited), transformed it into art with a capital “A”:

The tone, too, is transformed: in Another Country Greene is very much the exasperated tourist, hating Mexican food, manners, hotels, rats, mosquitoes, mule rides, souvenirs, and ruins. He even inveighs against the ‘hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes.’ In the novel, as it shows a Mexican moving among Mexicans, and these generally the most lowly and impoverished, all querulousness has vanished, swallowed by matters of life and death and beyond.

Thus prepared for a transcendent novel in which “querulousness” has been purged away, readers will perhaps be surprised to find our man very much still in Havana:

The squad of police made their way back to the station. They walked raggedly with rifles slung anyhow: ends of cotton where buttons should have been: a puttee slipping down over the ankle: small men with black secret Indian eyes. The little plaza on the hill-top was lighted with globes strung together in threes and joined by trailing overhead wires. The Treasury, the Presidencia, a dentist’s, the prison – a low white colonnaded building which dated back three hundred years – and then the steep street down past the back wall of a ruined church: whichever way you went you came ultimately to water and to river.

Maybe Updike – from his Montauk vantage point – could discern a meaningfullucy sniffs greene difference between ‘hideous inexpressive brown eyes’ and ‘black secret Indian eyes,’ but I sure don’t, and this kind of offhand garbage is waist-deep in so much of Greene’s boring, one-note fiction, including here in what Updike refers to as his “masterpiece.”

But, thanks to Paul Buckley, this is the prettiest paperback edition of that “masterpiece” you’re likely to find.

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© 2007-2017, Steve Donoghue