Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Graham Greene – Brighton Rock


The classic story of the low level gangster trying to break through into the big time has been told many times. Rarely though, has it been told with such a biting cynicism for the human condition. Nor has it been related with such a bleak outlook on a whole town.

The Brighton of the 1930s, so well described in Graham Greene’s classic novel, is a city slowly being swamped by the dreams of those who visit. From the London Day Trippers we meant in the opening chapter – desperately seeking respite from the big city and their dull, boring lives, searching for alcohol, entertainment and love – to those who circle around the visitors on race-day, hoping to make a few pounds to keep their own heads above water, these are by and large a people without hope, with repetitive lives, whose only hope of something better is a lucky break.

The novel has a lot of luck in it – Hale, the unlucky, doomed victim we meet in the opening paragraphs of the book, makes a living from leaving messages in public places on behalf of his newspaper. If he is challenged, his finder wins a prize, as do those who find his message cards. His editor likes him to be found, but occasionally go undiscovered, to save on a few pounds. Sadly, Hales pride in his ability to o the job properly doesn’t allow him to escape his own luck and destiny. He knows, as the opening lines put it, “that they meant to murder him”.

The killers – a small time Brighton mob outfit – have their own dealings with luck. A few coincidences and their ability to get away with the crime will fall apart. Instead, their leader, Pinkie, has to pile crime upon crime, upon murder in a desperate attempt to escape the law. Of course, his own self-belief, means that those around him suffer, and more and more innocents are pulled into this growing circle of bad luck, until the only hope in this ever darker story is a single woman, who herself only met Hale through chance, refusing to belief the official story of his death.

The tragedy of the story is not the individual crimes. Pinkies’ self belief loads the stakes so high that few can escape the final collapse of his plans. The innocent girl he drags into the mess as the story continues escapes almost totally from what has happened. Indeed the reader is led to believe that she has actually, unlike almost everyone else in Greene’s Brighton broken free of the restraints upon her, restraints imposed by class, family and poverty.

The final lines then, “the worst horror of all” aren’t then about her personal pain, nor those of all the victims along the way- it is the crushing of her dreams and the realisation that there is no hope at all, something few of us could really survive.

1 comment:

Max Cairnduff said...

Absolutely, one of the most crushing final lines I have ever read (something Greene was good at), and for the reasons you cite.

Excellent review, I agree with it entirely.