The Comedians by Graham Greene
It’s been years since I’ve read a Graham Greene novel and I’d forgotten how much I like the fine moral distinctions that Greene draws. The story is about 3 men named Smith, Jones and Brown. It’s narrated by Brown who was born in
On a ship bound for Port au Prince, Brown meets Jones (a supposed war hero and soldier of fortune—of sorts) who has a similar background, who’s also made his way in the world, like Brown, not completely honestly, and Smith, an American who ran for President in 1948 for a vegetarian party. Brown is going back to run his hotel and take up again with Martha, the wife of a South American ambassador and daughter of a German official hanged by the Americans after the war. Jones has a letter of introduction to some official and some hush-hush scheme up his sleeve (which Brown, who knows
The distinction Brown draws is between those who are truly committed, like Dr. Magiot, and those with shallow beliefs or who have opted out, like Brown—the comedians. “I had forgotten how to be involved in anything. Somehow, somewhere I had lost completely the capacity to be concerned,” says Brown. Smith, who is initially committed to his vegetarian message, gives up on
It being a Graham Greene novel, the Catholic Church of course plays a role. Remember Brown was educated by Jesuits (whom his mother stiffed for the fees, but then they hoped to get a priest out of it). At the end of the novel, having read a letter from Dr. Magiot received after his death, Brown muses on his own detachment from life, “When I was a boy the fathers of the Visitation had told me that one test of a belief was this: that a man was ready to die for it. So Dr. Magiot thought too, but for what belief did Jones die?” In a dream he asks Jones why he is dying and Jones answers, “It’s in my part, old man, it’s in my part. But I’ve got this comic line—you should hear the whole theatre laugh when I say it. The ladies in particular.” But when Brown asks about the line, Jones can’t remember.