My relationship with Graham Greene’s work has been a bit up and down. I absolutely loved Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter, was largely unmoved by The End of the Affair (even when I tried the audiobook read by Colin Firth in his lovely Colin Firth voice), and have made two unsuccessful attempts to read The Power and the Glory so far. I therefore wasn’t sure what to expect of Stamboul Train. On top of that, this is the first one of Greene’s “entertainments” that I’ve read – his early, lighter, more commercial work that he wrote for money, rather than the literary big hitters he hoped people would base his reputation on. Still, the premise is promising enough: a group of strangers travelling from Ostend to Istanbul on the Orient Express, set against the backdrop of a recently failed communist uprising in Belgrade. The three key players are Coral Musker, a chorus girl travelling for a job in Turkey; Carleton Myatt, a currant magnate who’s going to Istanbul because he’s worried someone in his firm is cheating him; and Dr Czinner, who is a bit of an enigma that gets explored during the course of the novel. There are other characters, too: ageing, antisemetic, alcoholic reporter Mabel Warren, whose primary goal in life is to earn enough to keep her much younger girlfriend from running off with a man; Janet Pardoe, the girlfriend in question (who doesn’t get much character development but certainly deserves better out of life than Mabel); Mr Q C Savoury, a popular novelist who drops his aitches when he remembers in an attempt to seem worldly.
It’s in these circumstances that Coral and Myatt strike up a connection that leads quickly to a romance – or, at least, to an entanglement. Although the romance itself is a bit flat (for me; maybe I’m just cold-hearted), I found the set-up interesting. Myatt feels bad for Coral, who has to sleep in a freezing compartment next to a man who keeps fondling her in front of his wife, so he buys her a ticket for first class. There are no ulterior motives – he’s not especially attracted to Coral, and he just wants her to be somewhere safe and warm. Coral, who’s pretty much been brought up with the understanding that girls trade on their attractiveness for security and can’t fathom a man helping her out of pure generosity, assumes that he expects sex out of gratitude. The section where she’s weighing up whether or not to keep sitting next to a man who’s groping her without her consent, or go with a man who seems a bit kinder but who might be trying to buy her, is done really well. Coral doesn’t appear to have a lot of good options. And when she realises that Myatt isn’t trying it on, the two of them bumble awkwardly into something a bit more genuine and tender. Greene does a pretty good job at portraying how stuck Coral is – how a working class girl travelling alone really is doing a brave thing – much braver than a lady making the same journey by herself, let alone a gentleman.
Class dynamics are threaded through the whole novel, in fact. This is not Agatha Christie’s Orient Express. Although some of the characters are travelling in luxury first class sleepers, others are sleeping bolt upright on hard benches in third, and the complex interaction of class, wealth, and religion in society is one of the themes running through the book. Wealthy Myatt is travelling in first class, but he’s still disdained by working class couple the Peters because he’s Jewish. Coral wants nothing more than to transcend her working class roots and appear to be a lady; Dr Czinner, who’s had the education of a gentleman, feels cut off from his own working class upbringing and is riddled with class guilt – he wants to be a man of the people again and doesn’t know how. Again, this theme is explored well – Dr Czinner in particular, who is adrift between classes, has an interesting perspective on wealth and class, and on his own hypocrisy at times. Not likeable, but getting an insight into why he thinks the way he thinks is fascinating. Honestly, the book could have been substantially improved by more of this, and less of the rather ham-fisted action scenes that get crammed in at the end (of which, more later).
Like many writers of the 1930s, Greene tries to address the antisemetism as a serious issue within British society, while simultaneously reiterating some of the stereotypes he’s trying to subvert. Myatt faces antisemetism from some of the other passengers, and finds it more difficult to navigate things. For example, he has to pay a bribe to get one of the guards to hold a compartment for his exclusive use, even though he’s already reserved one. At the same time, there seems to be an assumption – not just from individual characters, but from the third person narrator and indeed in Myatt’s own point of view – that Jewish people are somehow inherently better at deceiving others, or are naturally sly. Greene is at pains to demonstrate Myatt as a generous and warm-hearted man – explicitly in opposition to prejudices about Jewish businessmen – but there are other prejudices that he does end up repeating. I found Myatt to be sympathetically portrayed, but society in 1932 was antisemetic. Those attitudes seem to have consciously and unconsciously coloured the way he wrote Myatt and the other Jewish men in this novel. Agatha Christie and DL Sayers were both trotting out these stereotypes in their work at the time, and with rather less insight than Greene, so I don’t think he’s alone, but it does leave a sour aftertaste in places throughout the novel.
Overall, despite these quibbles, I enjoyed Stamboul Train and I’m glad I read it, though it’s certainly not Greene’s best work. Threads are dropped halfway through the novel and then only picked up again hastily at the conclusion; characterisation is patchy; in places the action is hard to follow. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, just not tied together terribly coherently. In fact, when I was writing this review, I went to Wikipedia to check that I had all the names right – and found out that a pretty major thing happens towards the end of the novel that completely went over my head. Greene’s “theme” writing is still pretty good here – his exploration of power dynamics between men and women, between people of different classes and backgrounds – but he became much more adept at the mechanics of plot and character later in his career. Brighton Rock is a masterpiece of thriller writing, as well as being an extraordinary exploration of good and evil, so he certainly became capable of doing both simultaneously. I’m not sure that I’ll read this again, but if you’re working your way through Greene’s work, it’s definitely worth picking up.