May We Borrow Your Husband? (1967)
If you have never before read Graham Greene, then you need to read him now. With the same sense of humour as P. G. Wodehouse and the same innate curiousity about sex, gender and social mores as Oscar Wilde, he delights in this collection of stories – May We Borrow Your Husband? and other comedies of the sexual life – published in 1967.
These are stories about sexuality, about obessions and desires, about the often confused way in which we go about interacting with people we love or lust after. Most of these stories are recounted via the first person narrative – usually a middle aged man observing others – which makes you feel even more so than usual that this must have been what was on his mind at the time.
Greene is not shy about discussing stereotypes as they exist or about lampooning people who live up to them or use them liberally. He does so to show the reader the inanity of what we do and that quite often our emotional feeling and behaviour is not borne out of logic or the reality of a situation no matter how much we would like to believe it is.
In fact he portrays how we view the world through our own biased rose coloured glasses. “My publisher. He said he hadn’t read a first novel in the last ten years which showed such powers of observation.” says the young woman in one of the best stories: ‘The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen’. She later on discredits herself admirably at the end by failing to notice the Japanese men in the restaturant. Greene’s narrator sets the story up for us and allows the characters to show themselves. The woman excited but failing to see the reality of her situation while her fiance genuinely alarmed but reserved attempts to detract her from building castles in the sky. She accuses him of not paying attention to what she is saying and not being as observant as she is but at the end as they walk out the door, he muses: “I wonder what all those Japanese are doing here?” to which she replies: “Japanese? … What Japanese, darling?” .
Up until the end of the story, the narrator’s opinion of the two is not confirmed. The reader sees hints but cannot fully believe in the narrator’s characterisation of the couple. This is common in most of Greene’s short stories. He almost always ends on a note of pathos. You sympathise, you pity but you do not feel that anything has been taken away from the experience of reading the work. In fact, only two stories in this collection end on a happy note: ‘A Shocking Accident’ and ‘Awful When You Think Of It’ .
More importantly, you often go: “Oh, my, I know someone who thinks/feels/behaves/acts just like that!”
My personal picks out of this collection are: ‘Awful When You Think Of It’, ‘The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen’ & ‘Two Gentle People’ . A slight warning however: do not be offended by any stereotypes you come across as Greene describes rather than opines and ‘The Over-Night Bag’ may seem rather macabre to some. In fact, I have to read it again to understand it fully.
I am very much a Graham Greene fan now. Enjoy and post your own two cents in the comments.
- Marisa Wikramanayake