Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Love Among the Ruins

LOVING GRAHAM GREENE; A Novel; By Gloria Emerson; Random House: 180 pp., $22.95

October 15, 2000|EDWARD W. SAID | Edward W. Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of "Out of Place: A Memoir."

"It was always in honor of Graham Greene, who would have been faintly amused if not encouraging, that Molly carried out various subversive misdemeanors which not even her mother would have thought possible." This odd, not to say perversely indirect relationship between a wealthy and eccentric Princeton woman with a family fortune from oil, Molly Benson, and Graham Greene, the extraordinary English chronicler of problematic places like Haiti, the Congo and Vietnam, is the subject of Gloria Emerson's witty and brilliantly imagined first novel. A passing acquaintance with Greene blossoms into an elaborate one-sided veneration that leads Molly from a hilarious escapade (planting fingerprints of white paint on the Salvadoran U.N. ambassador's apartment door) to a full-scale rescue operation of a brave writer in a civil war-torn Algiers: all because she imagines Greene would have approved had he known about the scheme (which he doesn't since he is already dead when the novel's main action occurs). "Loving Graham Greene makes her want to see a world different from the one she knows, and find out new things about people," says her brother Harry, a journalist who is killed in San Salvador, and whose apparently pointless death she imagines for herself "in a ludicrous scenario--a version of the catastrophe that bestowed some solace." Like Greene, Molly "always understood the persistent pull of the Third World and how, even in discovering what could go wrong, to find some happiness in exploring a region of uncertainty, in guessing where roads went."

The reason for Molly's restlessness is, on the surface at least, her dissatisfaction with her own country, "too loud, too brutal, and too much is wrong." With her friend Bertie Einhorn, whose dentist husband takes a very dim view of their escapades together, and a large young English graduate student in history, Toby Plunkett, Molly therefore undertakes voyages to unknown places, where troubles ("poverty, malnourishment if not famine, AIDS, overpopulation, unemployment, and appalling hygiene and health care") draw her in and arouse her passion to set about doing good, rather like a Protestant, but no less militant, Dorothy Day. It isn't surprising, however, that Molly's efforts will go comically awry. Algeria, for example, is too messed up, its politics and society too complicated for her undeniable charity and lunging quixotic gestures to help. Her noble schemes are almost routinely botched, even though this does not diminish her appetite for new ones.

Besides, her own circumstances are far too encumbering for her to be as free an agent as she thinks she can be. Married to Paul, who is in Japan endlessly making a film while sending her letters full of trivial details meant to cover his dalliances with his editor--he doesn't appear in the novel until the main action is over--she balances her loyalties and loves with an engaging fervor. And this gives Emerson the opportunity to confect a wonderful array of characters and situations for Molly to negotiate with considerable clumsiness. There is her disapproving mother, a Princeton matron living in an unheated house who nevertheless assists her daughter to make contacts in Algeria through Pierre, her hairdresser; Lucien and Eugene, two aging Frenchmen who have stayed on in Algiers after independence, who seem like priests (they are actually members of a lay order founded by the legendary Pere de Foucauld, a real-life Catholic mystic and missionary attracted to the North African desert) and house Molly and her entourage; a small cast of Algerian men and women--students, thugs, a lawyer, a couple of families, an editor--with whom Molly and Bertie become entangled; a larcenous assistant, Elsie Blodgett; an aged Frenchwoman in Algiers who with her luridly blond hair and screechy voice may have been a prostitute in the old days and remains confined to her upper storey flat; and the three missing men who somehow inhabit her mind and feelings, her brother, her husband and Greene, whom Emerson weaves into the novel with remarkable virtuosity by way of his few encounters with Molly, his novels and stories, photographs, an obituary and his letters (written from his small Antibes apartment, typed and re-sent by a sister in London), his friends (Kim Philby), characters and situations. These drift in and out of the tale quite naturally, as if he were a real presence instead of a recalled and venerated example for Molly and, by extension, for Gloria Emerson.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|