Orient Express, by Graham Greene
The entertainment novels of Graham Greene are an intriguing lot, and this one may be the most cinematic of them all. To be sure, this novel is not without its controversy, not least because it features at its core a prudential and flamboyantly Jewish businessman named Carleton Myatt and features more bad politics on the part of Greene in terms of his framing. Even by the modest standards of Graham’s characterization, the cast of characters included here are charitably viewed as stock characters of almost cardboard flatness. Even so, this is an enjoyable novel and one that even if it made for some bad movie adaptations can be read with a great deal of enjoyment as light reading. Far more than any other Graham Greene novel, this one is a light entertainment, with only some political murders and romantic intrigue providing for the darker and more cynical elements of the book. One can hardly expect Greene not to be cynical, although such cynicism as is provided here in at least two ways runs afoul of the contemporary sensibilities regarding its characters, both as relates to the question of sexuality as well as the portrayal of Jewishness, both of which are problematic here.
The structure of the novel is, as might be imagined, its strongest part, aside from a compelling enough plot. Beginning in Ostend, the characters wind their way through Cologne, Vienna, Subotica, and Istanbul (called Constantinople here) dealing with a variety of intrigues. An obviously butch journalist seeks to gain a scoop for an article about an idealistic socialist doctor heading for his quixotic doom, a lovely dancing girl finds some flirtation and even love with the pragmatic Jewish businessman on his way to Turkey, and we find some anti-Semetic petit-bourgeois who show the uglier side of European character. We even find a socialist thief and murderer finding at least some redemption in Yugoslavia. By and large, the characters show themselves to be remarkably intriguing despite the fact that they are strangers who meet on a train, and the last two betrayals are perhaps the most intriguing of the lot, although I will not spoil the surprise for those who read it. Suffice it to say that nobility is found in the most unexpected places, and the workings out of the plot are done in a way that will not be pleasing to contemporary views of sexuality.
About these matters something more must be said. The novel’s portrayal of its Jewish characters leaves something to be desired. While Greene is adept at using reversals for humorous effect, his attempts to show himself as not being anti-Semitic come off as being a bit too try-hard. Most cringey is his tone-deaf comment that a Jew should feel comfortable visiting in 1930’s Germany, a comment that shows the occasional blindness even a sharp-eyed observer of foreign trends like Graham could have. Likewise, the author’s approach towards sexuality is convenient in the extreme, as the force of the ending depends on the reader’s ability to believe that a young woman who had just been involved in an affair with a butch lesbian for two years would be willing over the course of a week to commit herself to a marriage with a decent-minded Jew to seal a business deal between her uncle and someone who had spent the entire train trip they were both on flirting and bedding a variety chorus girl. This may strain the credulity of many contemporary readers whose ideas of marriage are more romantic than that shown by the novelist, who is nothing if not cynical about the connections of human hearts and bodies and wallets.