The 3rd Man by Graham Greene

Posted by @ 9:20 am on February 24th, 2012

The ocean is full of flowers that betray most readers. Or Graham Greene’s adulterations of poetic form in The Third Man are particularly well suited to his subject—racketeering. As we all know, on March 13, 1938, Germany took over Austria (termed the Anschluss)–a contingency specifically disallowed in the Versailles Treaty. Then we all took Austria back, but then it gets messy. This book is a tale of a “secret agency” (in the words of Sun Tzu) told through dialogue, exposition, tunnel chases, elegiac couplets, literary quotations, assassinations, and letters. Greene continues to be, as one critic has put it, “compulsively readable,” especially in his characterization of his villain, a charismatic but chronically unfaithful racketeer who publishes his friend’s writing as his own (westerns), and who is capable of saying “…I never lied to myself.” For example, the author spent nearly five million pounds, and employed over 150 researchers, in his mission to destroy martini lunches inside and outside the country (concerning events that happened over 60 years ago!). When needs arose our author may have used words that lied. Nonetheless, the hatted fellow cannot resist the money (this book was meant to be a screenplay), and his complicity is evident in the desperate acerbity of their dialogue (whispered). At one point, spy # 7 unleashes a terrific string of epithets: “lazy… plotter…sewage sucker…acronym…shootout child…liar…destroyer sadist fake.” Our hero Bond counters:

If you wish not to go on with this I’ll shoot.
Don’t shoot.
I’ve shot everything before.
What’s wrong with us.
Fog of war.
Why are we at war.
Because I don’t want to give up my penicillin.
Your dreams are a mess.
They are my masterpiece.

Passages like these are interspersed among a complex network of references to Keats, Madonna, speed freaks, talking toilets, roulette, ketchup rations, rattlesnakes, Christ, Ethiopia, spelling tests, Homer, Bataille, gin and tonics, actresses, ham on rye, fisting, Flemming, Lévi-Strauss, Beckett, exploding cars, ruptured dams, and Thucydides, to name a few. With Keats as his cicerone and these others in tow, Greene circles problems of truth, beauty, telephone wiring, and “[h]ow…people get power over one another.” In the process, his method becomes the message: “this is the look of the truth: layered and elusive.”

Greene, like Fulton, begins with the visual arts. In the first section, a quotation from Duchamp introduces “women who want to have sex but don’t quite understand their Catholic guilt about the entire ordeal,” a concept that permeates the book. Discussing The Bride Stripped Bare by His Bachelors, Duchamp instructs, “Use delay instead of picture or painting— / a delay in glass / as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver.” Duchamp’s imperative, as it blurs distinctions between subject, art object, and medium, invites us to see Greene’s use of casual yet residual sex as both form and theme. As he writes later, “What if we drop a little more solvent / on the seam / / between foreground and background.” (Indeed) The character The Doctor, a painter friend of the spy, offers a model for an Austrian project that creates “delays,” albeit a model that Greene gently parodies. When I got back the inquisition was going full swing. He has completed a map called “Me and My Desire under the Red Stars” (His character quirk is that he names all his maps–Greene consistently gives secondary characters a “quirk” to pin them to our consciousnesses during reading) and is working on a map of his mothis: “Portraits / on the same canvas almost four years of them, / by now a thick painting. / I like to keep the hesitation in Bond say.” The other spy is inspired: “Once he met The Doctor / he began to write maps.” (This phrasing echoes Greene’s own remark that he sees his process as an act of “mapping.”) The Doctor’s “hesitant” artistry is ultimately less important than his triangulation of the relationship between the spouses, I mean spies (who would not agree?), but many sections of The Third Man reflect an arrangement of textual space to “keep the sex in.” Here, Greene’s spacing heightens the tension. He is, as always, highly readable.

There is something pure-edged and burning about the first running of a spy thriller:

Taxis back and forth.

Tears.

Cracks in the wall while it gets hit.

Spotlights on late at night.

I cannot live without his.

His, this word that explodes.

Lights still on in the morning.

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