Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Despite having neither read the novel nor seen either film adaptation, over the years I’ve gained, by osmosis I suppose, my own impression of Pinkie Brown, the central character of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Pinkie is often used, after all, as a benchmark to gauge the depravity of characters in other works, especially younger characters. I had formed the impression of a wholly evil, entirely malevolent young man: and this much is accurate, because Pinkie Brown is undoubtedly that.

But I had also assumed in him a degree of competence that isn’t truly borne out in the novel. Partly, this misapprehension is no doubt due to the fact that I knew that, at the age of only seventeen, he was the leader of a vicious gang in 1930s Brighton: that must surely suggest some degree of malign competency, you would think. But no, not really. The Pinkie Brown of Brighton Rock is, in many ways, a serial failure. Nothing he does in the course of the novel turns out well. He is, at every stage, the author of his own demise. More particularly, though, he appears almost to welcome it, as evidence of his own imminent damnation, a state he predicts on many occasions. In this, I must be honest, I was disappointed. I hadn’t banked on Pinkie being quite so ineffective, and this ineffectiveness dissipates the power of the novel, especially its metaphysical power. And since this is where the quality of the novel truly resides, it is an interesting source of failure. Although Greene was a Catholic, I wasn’t prepared for him creating, like Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes or Tarwater, a metaphysical straw man, but that is what Pinkie Brown becomes.

I do have quite a great difficulty with Pinkie’s religious sensibility. His bland, almost blank acceptance of the concepts of heaven and hell, and sin and its consequences, of his status in life and his fate in death, the certainty of his damnation, all of this feels contrived. He is seventeen years old. He has no education to speak of. There is otherwise no evidence of any semblance of deep-rooted thought by him about anything except crime and his place in Brighton’s criminal underworld. And yet here he is discussing redemption and damnation. Perhaps poorly-educated Roman Catholic children in the 1930s did, indeed, ponder metaphysical dilemmas in this manner. Perhaps every other Roman Catholic boy of the period could and would repeatedly quote from William Camden’s Remains from 1605 (“Betwixt the stirrup and the ground / Mercy I asked, mercy I found.”) Perhaps.

None of this would matter if Pinkie’s religious sensibility, or lack of it, was portrayed as merely a peculiarity of his: it would be easy to fashion an argument that his disbelief in heaven but ready acceptance of the fire and damnation of hell, and his simplistic notions of repentance and redemption are, indeed, the misguided and childish interpretations of scripture his poor education and psychopathic tendencies might have inculcated in him. That would be a viable analysis of his character. But Greene goes further than this. Indeed, at the novel’s conclusion, he appears to go some way towards endorsing Pinkie’s facile view of eternity. Pinkie doesn’t just die at the end: he is engulfed by flames and is “withdrawn… out of any existence” by the divine “hand”. This is so much anthropomorphic nonsense, the act of an omnipotent God meting out justice to a recalcitrant sinner. We are left, then, with those Catholic notions of sin and guilt and damnation. Indeed, Pinkie has opportunities to redeem himself but does not and cannot do so. This, then, would seem to be the message of the novel: man is mired in guilt, his future written in his soul by the hand of God. Such pessimistic determinism is depressing.

This is not to say, of course, that Greene is endorsing Pinkie’s views. That would be ridiculous. Nonetheless, there is in the presentation of the notion here of the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God” something almost anti-human. It leaves me with the same queasiness I have when Flannery O’Connor’s Tarwater achieves redemption by being buggered by the Devil or when Haze Motes is allowed to kill himself in the name of God’s love or the succession of prophets in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy are allowed to expound interminably on God’s mysterious cruelty and mankind’s basic irrelevance.

In Brighton Rock, Pinkie basically sets out to be damned. He decides early on there is no other course for him and settles on damnation, almost as a career option. In contrast, the sweet-tempered Ida, not at all religious, understands only the basic requirement that good should triumph over evil. There is no metaphysical yearning behind this, in the way of the Roman Catholic church, but rather it represents simply a desire to see fair play. In truth, Greene patronises Ida to a significant extent: thus, although she represents goodness in the novel she is still only a qualified heroine because she fails Greene’s tests of Catholic guilt and need for redemption.

Therefore, if Pinkie is a caricature of the damned and Ida a patronising representation of simple-minded decency, Greene presents us with two extremes. One might even argue that the characterisation in the novel is simplified to too great an extent. That, too, would be unfair though, and it is unfair because of the third of the principal characters in the novel, Rose. Rose is another essentially simple-minded girl. She understands right and wrong, she has a sense of duty and honour, but that sense is derailed by her devotion to Pinkie. If Pinkie is too engineered by Greene to be a truly vital character, Rose, by contrast, is a fascinating mass of contradictions, and in these contradictions some of the most interesting questions of the novel are played out.

Rose believes in love, and specifically she believes that Pinkie loves her. She accepts her “mortal sin” of sleeping with Pinkie. She accepts that he is a murderer and believes that, by standing by him in full knowledge of this, she, too, is guilty. She knows Pinkie is bound for damnation but is ready to stand by him:

He was going to damn himself, but she was going to show them that they couldn't damn him without damning her too. There was nothing he could do, she wouldn't do: she felt capable of sharing any murder.

If Pinkie is bound for the darkness of damnation, she concludes, he will not go alone. Thus, Rose becomes the most interesting character in the novel because she is the most real. Where Ida lives in a world of simple decency and Pinkie in one of evil, Rose lives in the world we all live in. This may be, as Greene describes it here, the “disputed territory between two eternities” but it is also recognisably our own world, a world of confusion and fear and misguided hope. Rose is all too human and she nearly pays the ultimate price for her emotional frailty. While, on one level, the ending of Brighton Rock does not satisfy – the hand of the deus ex machina obliterating Pinkie from memory is simply too crude for that – on another level it is a triumph. Our human heroine, Rose, is saved. But saved into what? The horror of knowledge, as evinced by the recording of Pinkie that awaits her innocent attention. I use the word horror deliberately, because her fate is every bit as horrific as Kurtz’s doubled horror at the end of Heart of Darkness.

Rose deserves a tear of compassion. Whether Graham Greene would have shed one for her, though, is open to question.

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