The Quiet American

The Quiet American

Title: The Quiet American
Author: Graham Greene
Publication date: 1955
Genre: Historical fiction

What’s it about?The Quiet American

Thomas Fowler, an English reporter in Vietnam during the First Indochina War, meets Alden Pyle, an idealistic American. Pyle’s views and beliefs gradually infiltrate Fowler’s world, causing distress and destruction in not only his professional but also his personal life.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the university library again. And thereby hangs a tale…

I discovered an inscription on the title page: the name of someone I knew. After showing her a screenshot of the page in question, it transpired that although it was indeed her writing, she couldn’t understand how the book came to be in the possession of the library, as she still owned her own copy…

At the time of writing this mystery is yet to be solved!

What did I learn from it?

As this was yet another novel set firmly in a historical period, specifically a war setting, I gained more insights into the time in question. I am relatively familiar with fictional representations of the Vietnam War, i.e. the later conflict against the Americans, but was unaware until last week of the details of this earlier war.

The narrator of the novel, Thomas Fowler, is an English journalist based in Saigon. As the English were officially neutral during this conflict, this in theory makes his narrative objective. (His personal issues are another matter entirely…) We see from an outsider’s perspective just how the young American, Pyle, interprets and reacts to the troubles at hand – potentially setting the scene for the later war.

I always enjoyed studying history at school, even though this was in the days when learning texts and regurgitating them for exams was the approved method: in other words, kings and queens, battles and rebellions, facts and dates etc. These days I understand that original sources and the viewpoint of ‘the person on the street’ are more likely to find their way onto the curriculum. I imagine that a novel such as this would not feel out of place if it were designated ‘required reading’. Well, except that it’s fictional…

How did it make me see the world differently?

A prevalent theme in the book is that of choosing whether to take sides in a conflict – especially one that is not directly any of one’s business. Fowler has, up until now, followed a personal policy of isolationism; being politically neutral, he attempts not to involve himself in any debates around who is in the right and who is in the wrong; he is, as he frequently points out, merely a reporter. However, as Pyle’s actions become more and more intrusive, Fowler finds himself unable to remain unbiased any longer – and eventually takes steps that will have as much impact as Pyle’s own machinations.

This resonated loudly with me, as I am a natural introvert and, by default, choose not to take part in many social engagements and interactions; I often prefer to observe from the sidelines. But I am also aware that connecting with others is part of what it means to be human; or at least, what it means to belong to a civilised society. This is a theme I have touched on in several blog posts recently, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it is rearing its head again here.

So I am, yet again, finding myself pondering whether it is healthy to isolate myself as much as I do. Does it conserve my energies, or does it get me into antisocial habits? I think that this is a question to which there are no easy answers, and one I will be mulling over for some time to come. It may be that I need to limit the number of times that I socialise, or restrict the types of engagement I take part in, or simply schedule in adequate downtime and go to as many social occasions as I want. I’m not sure yet. What I do know is that, like it or not, I can’t just shut myself away in my cave and pretend that the outside world doesn’t exist. I need to interact with it – my problem is how to do this without exhausting myself.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Two things:

  1. I’ve realised that I really enjoy reading stories in historical settings, as much for the history as for the stories. I’m therefore going to make an active effort to read more historical writing. As this is going to be in my ‘spare reading time’ between Book Diaries books, there may not be much time to devote to it – but I need to try. I have at least two historical novels lined up on my bookshelves, waiting for me to delve into their pages, and I can’t begin to count the factual books I’ve come across over the years that have made their way onto my mental ‘to-read’ list. So, before the year is up, I’m committing to reading at least one historical book.
  2. The issue of engaging with the world and doing things for other people, as much as looking after myself, has struck a real chord. And I have an idea for something that I could do that nurtures both needs. I’m hesitant to articulate it in too much detail just yet, as I haven’t quite worked out whether it’s going to inspire me or exhaust me, but I will say that I have something on the back burner. Due to work pressures, it’s unlikely that it’ll happen in time for my 3-month update, but do keep an eye on my website and Facebook page, as I’ll be talking about it there when I finally do get going…

A musical interlude

I got a bit stumped on this one for a while. Nothing immediately sprang to mind, and I didn’t really want to post one of the many songs about the Vietnam War, as they tend to be about the second one involving the Americans – and although this book is indeed about an American, the vibe wasn’t quite right.

So I decided to formally hand this one over to my trusty subconscious. I stopped thinking about it, went down to the kitchen to cook dinner, and lo and behold! within a matter of minutes I had it: My Best Friend’s Girl by the Cars. Nothing to do with war, but as the book is as much about the personal conflict between the two men, I feel it fits the bill. Plus I love it, so that’s a bonus!

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers

Title: The Three Musketeers (original title Les Trois Mousquetaires)
Author: Alexandre Dumas, translated by various
Publication date: 1844
Genre: Historical fiction; adventure; political thriller

What’s it about?The Three Musketeers

The young D’Artagnan sets out for Paris with dreams of making his fortune and joining the King’s Musketeers. He quickly becomes firm friends with the Three Musketeers of the title – Athos, Porthos and Aramis – and the four of them embark on a series of adventures that brings them into conflict with the King’s advisor Cardinal Richelieu.

Although the story – and the world in which it is set – is a very masculine one, characters such as Constance Bonacieux, Milady de Winter and the Queen of France play no less important a role than do our heroes. The plot is chock full of intrigue, deception and political manoeuvring; but also love, honour and loyalty.

Some of the good end happily, some unhappily; the same is true of the bad: this is not a sugar-coated romance with an all-round happy ending. It is a real swashbuckler of an adventure, with enough politics thrown in to engage those with an interest in the historical developments of the time.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Like The Origin of Species, this came from the collection on my late grandmother’s bookshelves. It has a lovely, musty, old-book smell, which added considerably to my pleasure in reading it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned a lot about the political history of the period in which the novel is set: 17th-century France at the time of Louis XIII. One of the key plot twists even works the fictional story of the Musketeers into a real event (which I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers!). I was so fascinated by this that I had to go and look up the details of the historical event, to see which parts Dumas had invented and which were fact.

I also made some more observations about the ways in which stories are adapted for other purposes. As I myself have been involved in adapting a classic novel for the stage, it was interesting to see how the plot of this one book has been modified to suit the framework of the recent TV series The Musketeers. Some of the events in the novel are very conclusive (i.e. people die), so it’s clear that the story has been tweaked so that characters who might prove to be popular can continue to draw the TV crowds.

(Obviously the story has been through a number of dramatic adaptations. Have you read the book and want to comment on its treatment in film and TV? Please share below – I would love to know what you think!)

How did it make me see the world differently?

My sense of feminism got a real workout when observing the character of Milady. Although at first it was pleasing to see a female character play such a dominant, active role in such a masculine story, I couldn’t help but wonder whether (spoilers!) her ‘bad end’ was an indication that any woman who steps beyond the bounds of traditional feminine decency will be duly punished.

I’m still not entirely sure, but the extraordinary detail with which Dumas describes Milady’s many crimes does make me incline to believe her a true villain. She portrays herself as a victim when she isn’t one, and although it could be said that her original position in society left her with no option other than to commit crimes just to get by, I’m not convinced. Her offences are against other women as much as men, and she is motivated by greed and revenge rather than by a desire for right and liberty.

If nothing else, her part of the story has helped me become freshly aware of the difficulties women still face in the world, especially the male-dominated parts of it. Action needs to be taken – but precisely what form that action should take is still debated to this day.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

One of the overwhelming messages of this book is the importance of standing up for what you believe in, no matter how much antagonism or enmity this awakens in others. It was brought home to me after I finished the book just how difficult this can be. Last weekend I shared on Facebook some thoughts on the political situation in the UK – and was stunned by the level of vitriolic comments this attracted from a very small number of acquaintances.

My reaction at the time was to ignore this, deeming the comments unworthy of a response (in Musketeers’ terms, not worthy of a duel). However, afterwards, I felt disturbed by my lack of action: should I have stated publicly that I found them unacceptable? My usual boundary for deleting comments is if they sink to the level of personal insults – and these didn’t stoop quite that low. They weren’t duel-worthy: just unpleasant and unconstructive. But my lack of input – i.e. allowing them to remain on my timeline – left a nasty taste in my mouth.

I realised that, although I am not scared off voicing my opinions by a few naysayers, it is exhausting having to spend time dealing with the fallout. There are some people who will never agree with what I say, and although I am happy for them to express their own views in their own space (indeed, I rely on having access to other perspectives so that I can constantly measure mine against them and see whether I agree), I do not wish to expend energy having to deal with them, unasked for, in my space.

What I have therefore already done – possibly the first time I’ve made a change even before writing the post – is to unfriend these people on Facebook. I won’t actively avoid them in real life, as it’s conceivable I could have a meaningful discussion with them there – but I will not engage in unproductive to-ing and fro-ing on comment threads. I will instead use my online presence to build up relationships with people who are amenable to my views – and who, I hope, will help me to share them more widely. And if these views reach anyone who feels the same way, but who is feeling bullied into keeping quiet by similar loud critics, I hope they will realise that they are not alone.

I am not a fighter, like the Musketeers. I am not a politician, like Cardinal Richelieu. I do not like conflict, and I do not enjoy manipulation. All I can do is share what I believe, in the hope that my constancy, positivity and determination will ultimately make waves. The changes I may be able to effect may be small – but that does not make them any less worthwhile.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!