When Graham Greene heard that his lost and forgotten novel The Tenth Man had been discovered in the MGM vault in Hollywood, he said that his first impulse was to prevent its release to the public. He had written the manuscript in 1944 with a potential film in mind: Greene considered scripts to be “dull shorthand” and found it necessary to write a complete story before attempting a screenplay. Still, he vaguely remembered The Tenth Man as only a “sketched idea,” he added, and he was shocked when the MGM discovery turned out to be a polished 60,000-word novel. “I was planning to use all kinds of blackmail to stop its being published,” Greene said last year. “Then, to my disquiet, I found it was really rather good: in fact, rather better than The Third Man.” Most readers will likely agree with that assessment. On a map of the literary continent that some critics call Greeneland, The Tenth Man is located not in the remote reaches of esotérica but instead in the heartland of his best writing.
Certainly, Louis Chavel is as troubled and complex as most of Greene’s protagonists. Incarcerated in a German prison in France during the Second World War, the Parisian lawyer is “a lonely fellow who made awkward attempts from time to time to prove himself human.” But his most human characteristic is cowardice. When members of the French Resistance kill two Germans in a nearby town, the occupying army orders that one of every 10 local prisoners be shot as retribution. The 30 prisoners draw lots to choose volunteers for the firing squad, and Chavel becomes one of the three. Instead of accepting his fatal assignment, Chavel bargains his way out of death. The richest of any of the prisoners, he offers his entire fortune to anyone who will take his place. A sickly young clerk, Michel, accepts the offer, preferring to die a rich man than to continue to live as a poor one. Before his execution, Michel wills his newfound estate to his mother and sister.
With no delusions about entering the kingdom of heaven, Chavel merely wants to buy some time on Earth. But after the liberation he has to deal not only with poverty but also with shame. He cannot resume his life as a lawyer because he would have to explain how he lost his fortune. Assuming the name Jean-Louis Chariot, he returns to the country house where he was born and
persuades the new occupants—Michel’s mother and sister, Thérèse—that he was a fellow prisoner of Michel. Sympathizing with his destitution, they hire him as a handyman.
Chavel is able to maintain his imposture, even in the face of Thérèse’s continual condemnation of her brother’s deadly bargain. “Did he really think I’d rather have this than him?” she says. She vows vengeance on Chavel if he ever enters the house, not knowing that she is addressing the real culprit. Then, Thé-
rèse gets a chance for revenge: one night, the bell rings and a stranger claiming to be Chavel asks to be let in. She spits in his face, and the real Chavel is oddly relieved: “Now, he thought, at last I am really Chariot. Somebody else can bear all the hate . . . .”
The new impostor, an actor named Carosse who had collaborated with the Germans during their occupation, has heard of the Chavel case from another prisoner and plans to use the circumstances to tap into Thérèse’s fortune. Chavel, a man trying to exterminate the memory of the coward he once was, desperately attempts to counter the deceptions of Carosse, a man trying to enlarge a coward into a full-blown agent of evil. As they match wits, the novel becomes an engaging, comic burlesque
until its eventful conclusion. The change of tone from the serious to the farcical is disorienting and it constitutes the book’s only major flaw.
The Tenth Man moves briskly from one short scene to the next with the economy of a well-paced movie. But Greene’s moral insight transforms the work from an ingenious thriller into an illuminating anatomy of human weakness. The characters are all searching for a code of behavior but find themselves in circumstances where normal rules do not apply. In the German prison, a French mayor clings to his watch as his badge of authority; because he is the last prisoner to have the correct time, he considers himself to be the keeper of standards. When the watch stops, he resets it to a rough estimate of the actual time and deludes himself that “his time could not be wrong because he had invented it.” Like the mayor, the other characters cannot find any sort of absolute truth to direct their actions and must invent their own standards. As Greene describes Chavel, “He was a conventional man; nothing affected that. His life provided 2 models for behavior in I any likely circumstance: 5 they stood around him g like tailors’ dummies. I There had been no model I for a man condemned to 5 death.”
After cheating death, Chavel is able to conquer shame by assuming a new identity. What he cannot overcome is guilt. The difference between shame and guilt, Greene once said, is that shame has to do with other people’s view of a person, while “guilt has to do with one’s own view, and what one apprehends to be God’s.” When Chavel finally does redeem himself, Greene demonstrates that fear and guilt may accomplish the same ends as goodness. That conclusion may seem overly grim, a reflection of the horrifying excesses of the Second World War. But 41 years after the writing of The Tenth Man the essential nature of human fallibility has not changed, and Greene’s observations about the price of survival in the 20th century have proved to be disturbingly enduring.
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