If there were teenage novels in the 1950s, I never found them. Instead the gap between Last Term at Malory Towers and the foothills of serious literature was plugged, most enjoyably, by period adventure stories. Two types appealed. In the first, fair-haired young Englishmen, armed only with a first-class degree from Cambridge and ‘a little Hindustani’, became unwilling players in the Great Game on the North West Frontier. In the second, a rail journey across between-the-wars Europe plunged ordinary men, often from Haslemere, into a maelstrom of violence and treachery.
These tales were the logical next step from Enid Blyton and followed a similar pattern. After danger and uncertainty, and the demonstration of some personal courage, the status quo is firmly reinstated. Blyton’s triumphal ginger-beer moment becomes the whisky-and-soda conclusion in a Pall Mall club or back in Haslemere. (‘Good trip, darling?’ enquires his wife. ‘Oh, pretty average,’ her spouse somewhat evasively replies.)
I first read Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train when I was 12, and the set-up was instantly recognizable – a disparate group of English people thrown together on a rail journey across a snowy Europe in the early 1930s. Their characters are trenchantly and vividly described. The hero appears to be Carleton Myatt, a young Jewish businessman through whose eyes the narrative first unfolds. There is potential romance in the person of 17-year-old Coral Musker, who is on her way to join a cabaret in Istanbul. Though inexperienced sexually she is not naïve – in her world the price of a virtuous woman is not above rubies, it’s round about the price of a fur coat. There is stooped and grey-faced Richard John, ostensibly an English prep-school master but in reality a Yugoslav patriot called Czinner who is returning to Belgrade in the hope of leading a revolution. Other notable passengers include Quin Savory, a popular Cockney novelist. This thinly disguised portrait of J. B. Priestley caused some hasty rewriting before publication in 1933.
Other protagonists join the train en route. Janet Pardoe, a woman of great beauty and complete vacuity, steps aboard at Cologne to visit an uncle in Istanbul. She is seen off by Mabel Warren, a terrifying lady journalist with an Eton crop, tweed suit, collar and tie. Mabel works up and down the Rhine, filing human-interest stories (rape, murder and the death of children) for a London paper. Janet is her paid companion. In the week she’s away Janet is hoping to find something better. Mabel is just hoping to stay sober. Then, as the express is about to leave, she recognizes Richard John alias Czinner and leaps aboard, knowing that the financial results of a scoop like this will make Janet more likely to return. In Vienna a final passenger joins the express – a Herr Grünlich (Mr Green-ish), a desperate man on the run from the police for murder and robbery.
Given this cast of characters, even at the age of 12 I would have had a fairly accurate expectation of the likely outcome of the plot. Yet almost nothing you expect does actually happen. There is a resolution of sorts, but Greene gleefully withholds the whisky-and-soda moment. Instead the perplexed reader is proffered something sharp and rather sour – Epsom salts, perhaps, or flat cheap champagne. I remember being puzzled by the end but didn’t harbour any particular rancour. They were strange coves, grown-ups.
Yet from an adult perspective there does seem to be something almost wilful in the way Greene chooses to write a genre thriller and then deliberately denies his audience satisfaction. After reading Michael Sheldon’s excellent biography of Greene, however, I understood why this highly enjoyable book ostentatiously declines to give its readers the kind of ending they expect.
Stamboul Train was Greene’s fourth novel and he badly needed a success. Married and still only in his late twenties, he had already committed what his family must have seen as career suicide. He had surrendered the status of leader-writer on The Times and the comfort of a coal fire in the subs’ office in order to write fiction. One might quite reasonably argue that a working life that started at four o’clock in the afternoon already allowed plenty of leeway for other writing. But Greene, immensely private, constitutionally restless, was not a natural employee. Furthermore, he had just been cursed with one of the cruellest fates that can befall a young writer – he had written a very well-received first novel.
‘Don’t give up the day job till your fifth novel,’ John (Room at the Top) Braine once gruffly advised me, adding, with the characteristic short ‘a’ of his Bradford upbringing, ‘Frances, you don’t know if you can do it till then.’ But Graham Greene thought he did know, and made the painful discovery that, though one book about your own psyche may interest the punters, three on the trot has them bulk-buying J. B. Priestley instead.
His publishers, Heinemann, were growing restive. So he wrote a commercial book with film potential and it was a great success. Greene’s chestnuts were definitively snatched from the fire. But a part of him hated being forced. Hence, I suspect, his unwillingness to deliver that feel-good moment at the end.
Knowing this, why do I still reread the book with such enjoyment? It’s for the sheer pleasure of the writing, and the vivid and strongly observed characters he creates. Greene’s earliest ambition, right up until the end of his Oxford career, was to be a poet. The apathetic reaction to his only book of verse, the memorably titled Babbling April, forced him to cast around for another literary form. But it is a poet’s eye that recreates the thunderous passage of the express ploughing its way from west to east through a snow-bound Europe.
One of the most powerful pieces of scene-setting – and storytelling – comes in the opening chapter. It is late afternoon on an overcast day, rain pouring down as the passengers leave the ferry and pick their way through the dusk, the cranes looming overhead, the line of blue lights glowing on the tables inside the waiting Istanbul Express. As the train whirls them away Greene describes how the sparks, streaming back from the engine, turn into a shower of scarlet beetles in the gathering darkness.
The fate of Coral – young, vulnerable, plucky – naturally interested me. Yet, strangely, the character who made the deepest impression was the energetic, appalling, unladylike Mabel Warren. Remember, I read this in the mid-Fifties, in a world where to be seen in school uniform without your gloves meant detention.
Mabel was, first of all, a working woman, as I hoped to be, and a successful one too. Her startling and unfortunate resemblance to the late Bernard Bresslaw had clearly not held her back in any way. In pursuit of her quarry she hauled herself on to moving trains, counting grazed knees and a wrenched shoulder a small price to pay if she got the story. Habitually paralytic, she could sober up almost instantly at the faintest whiff of a headline. Most startling of all – she didn’t care what people thought of her. Even at 12, I and my friends were much preoccupied by who we were going to be as adults. The way Mabel lived her professional life opened up a world of possibilities beyond the domestic round endured by post-war women.
But perhaps the main value of Stamboul Train to me was that it made me dimly aware that life does not always yield easy resolutions and a whisky-and-soda moment.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 22 © Frances Donnelly 2009