Friday, September 30, 2011

Graham Greene, My Plane and Train Default Author

Graham Greene, the late, masterful British novelist and well-rounded man of letters, is the writer I most enjoy reading when I'm on the road. I'll be taking two Greene novels with me on my upcoming trip to Sweden and Finland: "A Burnt-Out Case'' and "No Man's land.''

Greene was also superb at crafting non-fiction. One of my favorite travel narratives is his "Journey Without Maps'' (the Vintage Classics edition). When I'm on a plane or long-distance train, Greene is my default author. He's whip-smart, a gifted descriptive writer and accomplished storyteller. Greene's books run like well-oiled, beautiful machines. The characters in his novels - think of "The Quiet American'' or "Our Man in Havana'' - always seem to be in over their heads, enmeshed in complexities they don't understand.

In "Journey Without Maps,'' Greene's first travel book (1936), Greene, himself, is in over his head. In Liberia for a month-long walkabout in the backcountry, he is woefully unprepared. In a sympathetic but clear-eyed preface, Paul Theroux observes that Green was afraid of moths and birds, didn't know how to drive a car and didn't know how to read a compass. He also, as the old journalism saw has it, didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Exaggerated or not, this darkly humorous account of rugged walks in the bush, drunken European expats, unfamiliar tribal customs and local despots is an addictive read. Greene may not have known how to read a compass, but he could read people, and he is a lodestone for travelers.

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