Vintage Greene

The other day I was moaning about how I had too much to read, and how I couldn’t stop buying books. Still, although I should probably cut down somewhat, I’ve just been reminded why I got hooked in the first place.

Vintage Books is an imprint of Random House with impeccably stylish covers such as this one. My recent acquisitions from their fantastic range of classics include Catch-22 (since it was about time I had my own copy), The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka, and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

There is a devastating sense of inevitability about the events of the novel, as though there is nothing the protagonists can do to avoid their nature, and hence their destiny. All that differs between individuals is their circumstances, and the ways in which they fail.

Set in Vietnam during the death throes of the French occupation, Greene’s message in The Quiet American seems to be that one cannot remain uninvolved; that our very presence involves us in events. The idealistic American official, Pyle, embraces this involvement: meddling in local politics, he seeks to create a democratic “third force” in the country. He is counterposed, in almost every way, by cynical journalist Thomas Fowler, who pours scorn on Pyle’s naïveté—but in the end, even Fowler’s outspoken desire not to be engagé crumbles.

Greene’s masterful prose transports one completely to the world he creates, the immersiveness created through layers of detail and observation, but also through this feeling of involvedness: of seeing the world through a man’s eyes, of noticing the things such a man would notice. Such is the subtlety of this effect that when it is brought into the foreground—when Greene draws back the curtain and reveals the true sharpness of his pen—I couldn’t help but pause, and put the book down, breathless, before resuming. The Quiet American is not only a classic, but a book that will stay with me personally; I plan to start on the rest of Greene’s work in short order.

Only one thing about Vintage’s publications bothers me, and it’s pretty minor. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose seems to be available both in their Classics range and in their Future Classics range. Maybe I’m just being picky, but how on earth can a book be—at the same time—a classic and a future classic? The term “future classic” seems to imply that the book will become a classic at some point in the future. But if it’s already a classic, how can it become one? Perhaps they’re trying to make some deep point about the metaphysical implications of Special Relativity: in some frames of reference the book’s already a classic, but in others it’s not a classic yet…

Last updated 13th Jan 2009