29 December 2016

Review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

Trade paperback, 157 pages
Published 1999 (originally 1950)

Acquired and previously read January 2007
Reread September 2014
The Third Man by Graham Greene
"What about views on the American novel?"
     "I don't read them," Martins said. (17-8)
Even though this is probably a novella, I knew I wanted to teach it in my class on The Modern Novel. Like many novels I am obsessed with, it is itself about novels: the protagonist is Rollo Martins, a writer of paperback westerns who discovers that actual conflicts between good and evil are not so much like the ones he writes about every day. As a result, there's a lot of meditation here on knowledge: how do we know things and where does our knowledge come from? I see a lot of resonance between The Third Man and the later Justine; I guess it's no coincidence I read them in the same course as an undergraduate, or I taught them together myself.

Martins's emotional knowledge conflicts with the well-researched factual knowledge of Cab Calloway. Martins says, "I don't suppose anyone knows Harry [Lime] the way I do," causing Calloway to meditate, "I thought of the thick file of agents' reports in my office, each claiming the same thing" (27). Martins means 'as well as I do,' but there's a second sense you could take it in: that Martins's way of knowing Lime is distinct from all other ways of knowing Lime, and two pages later, Calloway thinks, "It was odd how like the Lime he knew was to the Lime I knew: it was only that he looked at Lime's image from a different angle or in a different light" (29). Martins is always meeting people whose views of Lime conflict with his, and he doesn't know how to deal with this. Lime's girlfriend Anna suggests to Martins, "There are always so many things one doesn’t know about a person, even a person one loves—good things, bad things. We have to leave plenty of room for them.… [S]top making people in your image. Harry was real. He wasn’t just your hero and my lover. He was Harry. He was in a racket. He did bad things. What about it? He was the man we knew.… [A] man doesn’t alter because you find out more about him. He’s still the same man" (114-15).

Some would say that the detective story—especially in its quintessential, Sherlock Holmes style—suggests that truth is a findable, achievable, objective phenomenon, but that’s not what’s up in The Third Man: all truth is mediated, through time, through personality, and we can never have access to the whole thing. Anna argues this is okay, but Martins seems to believe it’s something to be mourned. And, indeed, Martins doesn't solve his epistemological dilemma by reconciling or even acknowledging his way of knowing was unsophisticated; rather, he kills Lime, allowing him to return to his old paperback-style worldview. Lime threatened it, but Lime has been destroyed.

A subplot concerns Crabbin, a literary snob who accidentally invites Martins (whose pen name is "Buck Dexter") to speak to his literary society instead of the literary novelist he meant to bring (Benjamin Dexter). It's a source of good jokes, but it means more; Calloway closes the novel with a reflection on Crabbin, of all people: "Poor Crabbin. Poor all of us when you come to think of it" (157). No one is ever who you think they are. The story is mediated through Calloway to make sure we get this, to make sure we understand that the world is vastly more complicated than we can ever understand. Most of the characters in The Third Man, like Crabbin and Anna, know that they do not have the world solved, that any way of understanding life is only a fiction-- except for the one who writes fiction.
What a strange world unknown to most of us lies under our feet. (148)

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