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'Loving Graham Greene' by Gloria Emerson

Obsession turns to action, with mixed results

Sunday, November 12, 2000

By Ellen S. Wilson


Loving Graham Greene

By Gloria Emerson

Random House


We see the world through lenses, whether political, religious or defined by some other condition in our lives. Molly Benson, the heroine of Gloria Emersonís new novel, sees the world filtered almost entirely through her love of Graham Greene, both Greene the novelist and, due to a chance meeting of a few hours, what she believes to be Greene the man.

For Molly, Graham Greene is more than just the object of a crush or even of a fanís obsessive devotion. He provides Molly with her moral compass, with her entire raison díetre.

Emersonís ironic and oddly complicated novel enters into a dialogue with the works of the writer. Set, as were Greeneís books, in a period of political unrest and repression, it is ultimately about the price of a faith that isolates one from the rest of humanity.

Although Mollyís friends and family indulge her passion to a point, there isnít one who sees it as a good thing.

Molly comes from a wealthy enough family in Princeton, N.J. She lives on a trust fund and manages a small charitable foundation made up of her own money. Her personal needs are so minimal that she is considered odd by her motherís friends -- she has no car and pays no attention to her appearance.

Her journalist brother, guided by a sense of mission similar to his sisterís, was killed in El Salvador in circumstances that are never made entirely clear, leaving Molly without anyone who understands her motivations.

Prompted by Greeneís death in 1991, she decides to travel to Algiers with the vague intention of helping repressed writers in the novelistís name. She recruits her devoted childhood friend, Bertie Einhorn, and a British graduate student, Toby Plunkett, who is invited primarily because Bertieís husband feels the two women need to have a man with them.

At the time of the trip, Algeria is just entering a seven-year period of civil war in which 100,000 Algerians will die.

The trio stays in Algiers at the home of Mollyís motherís hairdresserís brother (such is the tortuous way of human connection in this novel) and his friend, both members of a French religious order who are attempting to carry out their minimal duties without attracting any attention.

Lucien and Eugene are damaged not only by Mollyís intrusion into their chosen isolation, but by her unwitting assistance to a terrorist group. If the stakes were not so high, their mutual incomprehension would be funny.

Her plan is to seek out Algerian writer Tahar Djaout and give him money to hire a bodyguard. She was given his name by contacts in the United States. She does find someone claiming to be Djaoutís cousin, who accepts the money, but the experience proves to be an empty one.

Good intentions, which Molly has in abundance, have such limited efficacy here, and she and her friends are completely unaware of their own ignorance and naivete.

Near the end of their visit, the trio ventures into the Casbah, guided by Lucien, but are attacked by several thugs. No one is too badly hurt, possibly because they arenít worth killing, and it is a mark of Emersonís sharp sense of irony that even here she finds the tragi-comedy that marks the book as a whole.

ďToby was being punched and did not know how to defend himself. Nothing in his life -- choirboy, seeing ĎThe Guns of Navaroneí five times, working at age 16 as a Saturday boy in Bentallís department store, and the years of schooling had prepared him for this moment.Ē

In fact, no one there is prepared for the reality of what is happening in Algeria. There is truly nothing they can do. The only real good Molly does is when she makes a simple gift of money to their driver before they leave.

Back in Princeton, traumatized by the violence they finally felt first hand, despairing over the death of Djaout, which they were unable to prevent, Molly begins to see that their trip was misguided. Even her devotion to Greene may have been misguided, forcing her into a position of immaturity by the driving desire to please someone else. She wonders if she was a nuisance to him, sending notes and clippings of reviews or articles she thought he might find of interest.

Molly has to pack up her documents and letters when her apartment building is sold, and as she looks through them all, she reviews her lost causes: ďI have been mistaken so any times, Molly thought. But at least I have not stood aside, eyes shut, and been a coward.

She may not be an admirable character, but when compared to the smug literati at Princeton who give much advice but no real help, she has a certain nobility.

Emerson invites us to laugh at Molly for seeing intrigue where there is none, but the problems she tries to solve for people are real. Her brother Harry describes her best: ďLoving Graham Greene makes her want to see a world different from the one she knows, and find out new things about people. That isnít such a bad thing, is it?Ē

Ellen S. Wilson is a free-lance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.

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