Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Quiet American and the Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Quiet American and the Novel

Article excerpt

Graham Greene's Vietnam novel The Quiet American (1955) tells the story of a jaded English reporter, an idealistic American diplomat, and an inscrutable Vietnamese dancer who likes to go to the cinema. Or, to put it differently, it is about a man who writes reluctantly, another man who reads too eagerly, and a woman who apparently does not read or write at all, but who is also unreadable. This is a novel much concerned with reading and writing and the relation of both activities to reality. It considers and exemplifies different genres of writing--such as news reports, political journalism, poetry and private letters--and different genres of speech such as debate, gossip, courtship, interrogation, and confession. Appropriately, it is also a text in which different modes of writing mix and jostle for supremacy-the epical story of war and the romance story of love, grimy policier, exotic orientalism, topical reportage (some of it lifted more or less wholesale from Greene's own journalism), existential fable, the monodrama of faith and unbelief. It is also in intertextual dialogue with a whole library of other novels from Don Quixote to Greene's own The End of the Affair. (1) This essay will begin to disentangle some of the genres in The Quiet American by focusing on the theme of writing through which, I will argue, the novel undergoes a process of inventing itself, and emerges as an instance of a kind of writing that is both critical and self-critical. I want to make the case that this is a novel about writing, and that this "auto-criticism of discourse" is indeed, as Bakhtin argued in "Discourse in the Novel," constitutive of the novel form itself. "This auto-criticism of discourse is one of the primary distinguishing features of the novel as a genre. Discourse is criticized in its relationship to reality: its attempt to faithfully reflect reality, to manage reality and to transpose it (the utopian pretenses of discourse), even to replace reality as a surrogate for it (the dream and the fantasy that replace life)" (The Dialogic Imagination 412).

Bakhtin was not really sure whether the novel was a genre at all, since he saw it as a consciously structured hybrid of languages created out of a voracious appetite for swallowing other forms of language. "It is ... best conceived," Michael Holquist suggests in his Introduction to the essays in The Dialogic Imagination, "either as a supergenre, whose power consists in its ability to engulf and ingest all other genres (the different and separate languages peculiar to each), together with other stylized but non-literary forms of language; or not a genre in any strict, traditional sense at all" (xxix). The only great genre that is younger than the book, the novel is not a good neighbor, but is often skeptical and disrespectful of others, as Bakhtin explained in "Epic and Novel." "The novel parodies other genres (precisely in their role as genres); it exposes the conventionality of their forms and their language; it squeezes out some genres and incorporates others into its own peculiar structure, re-formulating and reaccentuating them" (The Dialogic Imagination 5). Above all, and by virtue of what Bakhtin calls its "zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness" (11), the novel subjects other genres to the critical test of contact with what it claims to know as the real. (2)

Of course, for Bakhtin one of the great exemplars of this process was Cervantes's Don Quixote, "the classic and purest model of the novel as genre" (324), which maintains a running dialogue between the exaggerations and delusions of romance and the robust disenchantments of a contemporary actuality; and when we think of the Bakhtinian novel--the novel that seems to answer most productively to a Bakhtinian approach--we may be inclined to invoke big fat garrulous fictions, from Don Quixote to Little Dorrit to The Brothers Karamazov, novels with a large cast of talkative characters, and a complex dialogue among institutions and discourses and styles and traditions as well as among individuals. …

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