Graham Greene’s Wartime Bookshop

From Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear. This is a side-scene: a shop to which our strange, haunted, rumpled and unshaven main character, Rowe, who’s getting pulled deep into some wartime intrigue he doesn’t even come close to understanding at this point, has repaired so he can watch the door to the office of a Mr. Rennit. In other words, Greene doesn’t need to do what he does here; he needs merely a viable spot, any ordinary shop. Instead we get this. 

Nearly opposite Mr Rennit’s was an auction-room which specialised in books. It was possible from before the shelves nearest the door to keep an eye on the entrance to Mr Rennit’s block. The weekly auction was to take place next day, and visitors flowed in with catalogues; an unshaven chin and a wrinkled suit were not out of place here. A man with a ragged moustache and an out-at-elbows jacket, the pockets bulging with sandwiches, looked carefully through a folio volume of landscape gardening: a Bishop – or he might have been a Dean – was examining a set of the Waverley novels: a big white beard brushed the libidinous pages of an illustrated Brantôme. Nobody here was standardized; in tea-shops and theatres people are cut to the pattern of their environment, but in this auction-room the goods were too various to appeal to any one type. Here was pornography – eighteenth-century French with beautiful little steel engravings celebrating the copulations of elegant over-clothed people on Pompadour couches, here were all the Victorian novelists, the memoirs of obscure pig-stickers, the eccentric philosophies and theologies of the seventeenth century – Newton on the geographical position of Hell, and Jeremiah Whiteley on the Path of Perfection.

It’s been a while. I’d forgotten how good he is. 


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