Excerpts: The Quiet American (Graham Greene)

I was briefly distracted from my ongoing affair with Graham Greene by other books, but I’m firmly back in the arms of my lover now with The Quiet American.

I always feel somewhat unworthy of commenting on Graham Greene’s books, because it is so blindingly obvious that he knows more than me, thinks more deeply than me and writes with an elegance and economy of words which no commentary of mine could ever have.

So all I will give you is a resounding recommendation, and three very short excerpts which don’t do justice to the book at all, but which can at least be quoted here out of context and still understood. They’re all observations by Fowler, the English journalist. He’s the detached world-weary cynic, and Pyle (referred to in the first excerpt) is the idealistic self-absorbed “quiet American” dipshit who fully deserves to have started off the book by being dead.

* * *

“Dear Thomas,” he wrote, “I can’t begin to tell you how swell you were the other night. I can tell you my heart was in my mouth when I walked into that room to find you.” (Where had it been on the long boat-ride down the river?) “There are not many men who would have taken the whole thing so calmly. You were great, and I don’t feel half as mean as I did, now that I’ve told you.” (Was he the only one that mattered? I wondered angrily, and yet I knew that he didn’t intend it that way. To him the whole affair would be happier as soon as he didn’t feel mean – I would be happier, Phuong would be happier, the whole world would be happier, even the Economic Attaché and the Minister. Spring had come to Indo-China now that Pyle was mean no longer.)

* * *

“It takes a long time before we cease to feel proud of being wanted. Though God knows why we should feel it, when we look around and see who is wanted too.”

* * *

“Who’s Joe?”
“You know him. The Economic Attaché.”
“Oh, of course, Joe.”

He was a man one always forgot. To this day I cannot describe him, except his fatness and his powdered clean-shaven cheeks and his big laugh; all his identity escapes me – except that he was called Joe. There are some men whose names are always shortened.


  1. Oh lord I read this in vietnam last month and was totally blown away. I thought it was almost too precise and that’s why he’s an unfashionable author – we like a bit of ‘artistic’ sloppiness in these lo-fi days…

    Question it totally begs of me, though, is when Greene talks about Phuong’s pragmatism and simplicity through the voice of Fowler is he projecting what he truly believes Asian-ness is in comparison to European-ness, or is it revealing of the fact that Greene thinks Fowler is not nearly so wise as he thinks he is?

    So damn post-colonial…

  2. Dammit, now I actually have to think. People don’t usually respond to my posts about books.

    To me, Fowler and Pyle are part-symbol part-human (and yet still utterly individual, such is Greene’s skill at characterization), and Fowler’s view there is more representative of his symbolic function in the book than any particular idiosyncratic view of his. Whether or not it’s Greene’s view of Asian-ness, I think the point he’s making is that it is the average British colonialist’s.

    Of course, it’s also another opportunity to highlight how the two men are on utterly different wavelengths.

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