graham greene, brighton rock and the art of prose: bringing to light the life hidden in the ordinary


In discussing Brighton Rock, the place, and Brighton Rock, the Graham Greene novel, Alison Macleod offered the following thoughts on the art of prosewith passing nods to Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce: "The life of the story hums in its very things…":


I love Greene’s unflinching eye for detail, for the painfully real glimpses of the harshness of life, as in the boy mob­ster Pinkie’s very fleeting memory of the girl at school who, pregnant, waited for a train that was seven minutes late, with her head on the line. I love the way that everything in Pinkie’s world is marked by a grimy grandeur. ‘The sun slid off the sea and like a cuttle fish shot into the sky the stain of agonies and endurances.’ I can think of few novels that are as physical, as thrillingly palpable. All writers need to draw on our senses to make us feel as if we are experiencing the story ‘live’ but, here, Greene casts an absolute spell—the spell all fiction writers want to cast. We walk into his rooms and smell stale beer or cooked cabbage or the perfume of pomade on hair. Ida Arnold’s big, breasty and giving body is as solid a presence as Pinky’s narrow, bony shoulders under the cheap suit, his bitten thumb nail and the twitch in his cheek. The tide sucks darkly at the piles of the piers. The night is ‘a wet mouth’ at the window of a forlorn pub as Pinkie contemplates the murder of Rose.


The life of the story hums in its very things, things which energize the story with an unstoppable force of their own: the bottle of vitriol—acid—waiting from the start in Pinkie’s pocket, waiting to escape its bottle; the embroidered crowns on a pair of hotel chairs, the memory of which repeatedly taunts Pinkie with an awareness of everything he’ll never achieve; the raw, disposable razor blade taped to his thumb under his glove, ready to ‘carve’ a traitor’s face; the cheap gramophone record waiting for the ear of the gullible, loving Rose—on it, Pinkie’s secret declaration of loathing for her.


Katherine Mansfield once wrote that she felt ‘an infinite delight and value in detail—not for the sake of detail, but for the life in the life of it.’ Here these appar­ently ordinary things actually release the life of the story in an inevitable expres­sion of their own ‘thingi-ness’ (or in what James Joyce called ‘the revelation of the what-ness of the thing’). It’s a deeply sat­isfying experience for the reader, to feel a sense of fate—of unavoidable meaning—even, right there, in the inanimate matter of the characters’ world.


And it’s a strange, larger-than-life life that gets released in Brighton Rock.


Mystery isn’t only of the murderous variety. The poloneys and the bogies, the totsies and the narks, the geezers and the buers, are all inseparable from a spirit as other-worldly as they are worldly, from a sense of mystery that would seem out of place in this sharply realist story if Greene hadn’t made it so tangible: ‘The car lurched back on to the main road; [Pinkie] turned the bonnet to Brighton. An enormous emotion beat on him; it was like something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass. Dona nobis pacem… If the glass broke, if the beast—whatever it was—got in, God knows what he would do. He had a huge sense of havoc…’


—Alison Macleod, “Brighton Rock,” Five Dials, No. 2