Sunday, September 4, 2011

By dream train through Greeneland

I am given an exciting new writing assignment, on a high floor of a vast modern complex. In the office made available to me, I discover a gift. It is a copy of the first edition of a novel by Graham Greene that was republished under a different title that is better-known today. The pages are yellowed and the spine a bit cracked, but this book is precious to me. The card with it informs me that it was the personal property of the ruler of an East European country, "as well known as Lenin in his time", who treasured it.

What do you do with a dream like this? Simple. You walk with it to your favorite used bookstore, which just happens to be a few doors down the street, a mixed blessing since the stock is forever moving up the street into my house (I am not the Kindle type). The shelf elf hadn't missed a beat. On top of the new arrivals in fiction was a handsome recent Penguin edition of Graham Greene's Orient Express. I glanced at the publishing history to verify my hunch. Yes. This is the novel that was originally published in Britain in 1932 as Stamboul Train. The American publisher wanted the title change, and Orient Express has stuck.

When I stepped back through the looking glass from my dream situation, a mirror reversal took place. In the dream, I got the first edition of a novel later published as Orient Express. In the bookshop, I got the latest edition of a novel originally published as Stamboul Train. Naturally, I purchased the book, even though I knew it was highly likely that I already had a copy among my sizeable collection of books by and about Graham Greene.

I stayed up until dawn to finish Orient Express. This was no hardship. The book is beautifully crafted and the smallest scenes are etched in memory. Greene called this novel an "entertainment", but it is very noir, shadowed by tyrants and secret policemen, back-stabbings and betrayals.

The main plot device may seem formulaic. The fates of a mixed bag of characters - crook and chorus girl, Socialist revolutionary and scoop-hungry Lesbian reporter - intertwine as they ride a train together. But Orient Express transcends the formulas because of the author's feel for character, which is deepened by the use of dreams. As the passengers nod off on the the train, they slip into dreams. Early in the story, Myatt, the importer of currants en route to Istanbul, sees the crooked dealings of an associate as a set of floating balloons he proceeds to pop.

Held by the police in a Serbian train station on a terrifying night, the chorus girl Coral Musker drifts off into twin dreams:

She dreamed first that she was a child and everything was very simple and very certain and everything had an explanation and a moral. And then she dreamed that she was very old and was looking back over her life and she knew everything and she knew what was right and what was wrong and why this and that had happened and everything was very simple and had a moral.

Greene adds: "the second dream was not like the first, for she was nearly awake and she ruled the dream to suit herself." He is describing a form of lucid dreaming. The brief passage hints at something further. We start out in life with the simplicity of the child; if we live long enough, and grow enough, we rise above the complexities and confusion of adult life and achieve simplicity again.

Greene's own dreams at the time he wrote Orient Express were full of "disquiet" (as he noted in A Sort of Life); they color the moods of the novel and orient its plot. I was reminded that Graham Greene, a consummately professional writer capable of tapping out his daily quota whatever his excesses the night before, and a profoundly worldly and world-weary man, was also a prolific and dedicated dreamer. He benefited greatly from being encouraged to recount his dreams as an adolescent. He has cracked up at school and run away, a huge embarrassment to his father, the headmaster. He was packed off for London for three months to be sorted out by a shrink with an eclectic approach who treated Greene, then 16, by asking him to tell a dream at 11:00 every morning. Often Greene had dreams. When he did not, he would make something up.

The habit stuck. He kept copious dream journals, right up to his death. They fueled much of his creative work. Some of his novels (The Honorary Consul is one) began with a dream. Sometimes a dream would fill in a gap in a plot. Often he would attribute his own dreams to his characters; frequently he felt he was dreaming their dreams. When he was writing A Burnt-Out Case he dreamed as his character Querry and could insert his dream without change in the novel, “where it bridged a gap in the narrative which for days I had been unable to cross", as he reported in Ways of Escape.

Greene gave a ringing testimonial to the creative role of dreaming in a writing life in his memoir Ways of Escape: "The unconscious collaborates in all our work; it is a nègre we keep in the cellar to aid us. When an obstacle seems insurmountable, I read the day’s work before sleep and leave the nègre to labor in my place. When I wake the obstacle has nearly always been removed: the solution is there and obvious – perhaps it came in a dream which I have forgotten."
For a full account of dreams in Graham Greene's life as a writer, please see The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.


nina said...
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susan said...

what a great dream! this post prompted me to request "Orient Express" at my local library. I am not a Kindle person, either, and I am transitioning from being a 'buy it on Amazon used' person to using our wonderful big city library. G Greene's books have been a touchstones throughout my life so I will also get and read his "A Sort of Life." Sorry that I can not add more in the way of dream expertise to this post. perhaps down the road, after some reading. love your blog, Robert. :)