A few nights ago a man who sat next to me at a dinner party said he’d always wanted to write fiction—as I do—and that he’d like to collaborate with me on a novel of international espionage.
He was an Israeli by birth, spoke accented English, but has a PhD from a good American university and a long list of non-fiction publications in his special field, which is the Middle East.
I said, “What is your idea of an excellent book—something you’d like to have written yourself?” His reply, without hesitation: The Third Man.
Okay, I thought, Greene is one of my favorite writers, and I had never read The Third Man, only seen the movie, so I’ll get a copy and see if it’s as good as the movie, which is a quiet masterpiece of intrigue in post-WWII Europe.
In short, the movie is better, but there’s an odd story about that. Greene wrote the screenplay, but to prepare himself to do so, he wrote the novella first…and after the movie came out, he published the novella.
This is an interesting mode of composition, whether Greene pursued as he normally did by writing exactly 500 words each morning or not.
I usually recapitulate the plot of a book when I comment on it, but this book, through the movie, is so well known that I’ll cut to the chase: the action and plot twists get in the way of Greene’s superb prose, which normally is both evocative and beautifully cadenced.
Here there are bursts of dialogue, undeveloped characters, characters wearing toupees who don’t need them, and a passionate outbreak of love in the main character that surprises the reader as much as it apparently the woman towards whom it was directed.
Both the movie and the book suffer from one defect, and it’s pretty serious: the villainous Harry Lime (Orson Welles) stages his own death early in the action and then returns after it’s been established by hearsay that he makes his money distributing and watering down penicillin on the black market. He’s cool and untroubled about this; that’s his flair, I suppose. But objectively speaking, his activity is hideous…and yet we never really have an opportunity to probe his motivations and personal corruption.
Of course, Greene writes well and cleverly enough to tell a tale worth reading, but again, it’s not as good as the movie, and for me that is almost never the case.
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