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Book Review : Greene's Heart of Another Matter

March 20, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene (Simon & Schuster; $14.95)

In 1944, Graham Greene, worried about supporting his family, sold a two-page film outline to MGM. It was about a hostage who escapes execution when a fellow hostage agrees to die in his place on condition that the first man's property go to his own family.

That, at least, is what Greene says he remembers having done. But in 1983, a man named Anthony Blond, who had bought the rights from MGM, sent him the manuscript to look over. At that point, Greene writes in his preface to "The Tenth Man," he realized that the outline was, in fact, a "very readable" novel.

It seems odd, but then Greene tends to surface oddly from time to time, as if his books were writing him . The first time I met him--beside a leaf-littered swimming pool in Haiti in the early '60s--he was concerned about a man who was going about Europe pretending to be Graham Greene. The second time--in Antibes, three years ago--he was being pursued for libel by a reputed member of the Nice milieu. Before long, I was being pursued for libel too.

"The Tenth Man" is the major portion of the book of the same name just published by Simon & Schuster. The rest consists of Greene's explanatory preface and two outlines for films that were never made, although one of them was an early precursor to "Our Man in Havana."

More Than a Curiosity

The publisher describes "Tenth Man" as a major Greene novel and prices it accordingly. That does it no favor. In fact, it is a novella of about 120 pages, and uneven. An expectant reader could understandably grow irritable even if he or she only borrowed it instead of buying it.

That would be a pity, because "Tenth Man" is more than a curiosity. Its first section, 20 pages long, is as fresh and magical as anything Greene has done. Standing alone, it would be a real addition to the author's work. The rest, at best, is an addition to our understanding of his work. It is a rough and patchy variation or prefiguring on the sinner-as-saint theme; and Greene did better by it, artistically, when he forgot it in 1944 than when he rediscovered and revised it now.

"Tenth Man" starts in a prison where 30 assorted Frenchmen are held hostage by the Germans. When three Germans are killed by the Resistance in the neighboring town, the prisoners are ordered to choose three of their own to be shot. One of the lots falls to Louis Chavel, a lawyer and one of the wealthiest of the hostages. Chavel, a self-centered coward, offers to bequeath all his property in his village to the heirs of any hostage who will take his place. One accepts. "I always knew I'd be rich," he says.

The Matter of Time

Greene's portrait of this small world of 30 men, all under potential death sentence, is marvelously delicate and human. There is the matter of time, for instance. Only two prisoners, a mayor and a locomotive driver, have clocks. "Time, they considered, belonged to them and not to the 28 other men. But there were two times and each man defended his own with a terrible passion." The rivalry becomes a splendid vignette.

One night, the mayor forgets to wind his watch. Instead of asking the help of his rival's cheap alarm clock, he decides the time for himself and out of a sense of responsibility to the hostage faction that relies on him. "Better that they should believe they still have the true time with them than trust to their unguided guesses and the secondhand alarm clock."

The Germans' demand that the hostages must choose their victims stirs a beautifully imagined series of tremors in this enclosed world. Should married men be exempt? they argue. Should the oldest volunteer first? Each argues not for but against his particular interest; not from nobility, but from a human need to dominate life even under such circumstances. Argument is more important than life.

Chavel, whose status as a rich man has kept him isolated, makes his offer. It is scandalous, for a moment, shattering the absurd but precious order of the prisoners' universe. A young clerk accepts, and almost immediately he takes on the mannerisms of a rich man, Chavel becomes insignificant and--because of his cowardice--despised.

A Pauper in His Own House

The rest of the story relates Chavel's return as a pauper to his house, held by the dead man's mother and sister. He disguises his identity and goes to work for them as a handyman. It is a double form of purgation: He is a menial in his own house, and he serves two people whose single object of hatred is the mysterious Chavel for whose sake their son and brother died.

The isolation of self he once lived in is gradually dissolved. He falls in love with the sister and, at the end, in a melodramatic and twisted turn of the plot, dies to protect her.

Chavel's wanderings and purgation, the second and by the far the longest part of the book, have the quality of stressed self-torment that we find in such books as "The Heart of the Matter" and "The Power and the Glory." But they lack the relieving irony, the hint of weary realism that gives balance to those far better books. Chavel's voice is too unrelieved, too choked, to lead us through his redemption. His revival meeting is not ours.

What is ours is the silvery complexity of voices, the fine mesh of comedy and tragedy in the first part. Some day, perhaps, an editor will break it out and print it along with Greene's short stories. It would dazzle there.

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