A few weeks ago, on a desultory whim, I watched The Third Man for the nth time. I realised I had never read the book, so I ordered a copy. Graham Greene wrote the screenplay too, but there are some differences in the two versions. The cuckoo clock didn’t get a look-in in the book, but the book’s account of the lecture given to the British reading group in Vienna is different and hilarious – and loaded.
You will recall that Rollo Martins (Joseph Cotton) is a bashed up American writer of cheap westerns. He is in Vienna to check up on his mate Harry Lime (Orson Welles). A member of the British Council named Crabbin thinks that Martins is the distinguished novelist named B Dexter. Crabbin invites Martins to address a meeting of the local British literati. When Martins is more under the weather than usual, he gets picked up and delivered to the meeting. He is very sore and terse. But after a while, he realises that he is making ‘an enormous impression’, least of all when he said that he had never heard of James Joyce. Graham Greene was having a lot of fun, and settling some old scores.
A kind-faced woman in a hand-knitted jumper said wistfully, ‘Don’t you agree, Mr Dexter, that no one, no one has written about feelings so poetically as Virginia Woolf? In prose, I mean.’
Crabbin whispered, ‘You might say something about the stream of consciousness.’
‘Stream of what?’
\A note of despair came into Crabbin’s voice……
Martins ends up signing books by Dexter ‘From B Dexter, author of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe.’ He is trying to make his escape via the dunny when Sergeant Paine patiently collects him to have a word with Colonel Calloway (Trevor Howard).
As condescension goes, Mr Crabbin is a direct descendant of Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. For many, the highlight of the night, which was not in the film, had come as follows.
‘Mr Dexter, could you tell us what author has chiefly influenced you?’
Martins, without thinking, said, ‘Grey.’ He meant of course the author of ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’, and he was pleased to find his reply gave general satisfaction – to all save an elderly Austrian who asked ‘Grey. What Grey? I do not know the name.’
Martins felt he was safe now and said, ‘Zane Grey – I don’t know any other,’ and was mystified at the low subservient laughter from the English colony.
Crabbin interposed quickly for the sake of the Austrians, ‘That is a little joke of Mr Dexter’s. He meant the poet Gray – a gentle, mild, subtle genius – one can see the affinity.’
‘And is he called Zane Grey?’
‘That was Mr Dexter’s joke. Zane Grey wrote what we call Westerns – cheap popular novelettes about bandits and cowboys.’
‘He is not a great writer?’
‘No, no. Far from it,’ Mr Crabbin said. ‘In the strict sense I would not call him a writer at all.’ Martins told me that he felt the first stirrings of revolt at that statement. He had never regarded himself before as a writer, but Crabbin’s self-confidence irritated him – even the way the light flashed back from Crabbin’s spectacles was another cause of vexation. Crabbin said, ‘He was just a popular entertainer.’
‘Why the hell not?’ Martins said fiercely.
‘Oh, well, I merely meant – ’
‘What was Shakespeare?’
Somebody said with great daring ‘A poet.’
Now, all this is hilarious and beyond price. It is a Falstaffian swipe at the snobs of the literary establishment who want to turn the popular entertainer called Shakespeare into a god, who helped to propel poor John Keats into the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and who still so meanly and sadly turns up their noses at the wonderful writing of Graham Greene. Off the top of your head, what writer wrote novels that people enjoy reading more than those of Graham Greene?
It’s as if Greene foresaw his doom. The establishment wouldn’t give him a Nobel Prize – but they would give one to Bob Dylan. Well, at least there’s no bloody doubt about his being a popular entertainer.
It’s idle to compare artists, and it is arrogant to purport to rank them, but this extract from The Third Man suggests to me that Greene may have had one thing in common with Shakespeare – just, say, in the wistful remark of the kind-faced woman in the hand-knitted jumper. You get the impression that it’s just a matter of waiting for some bastard to pull the plug out – and down it all comes. It’s as if, somehow, God gets in on the act. Either way, we have been blessed.