May We Borrow Your Husband? and Other Comedies of the Sexual Life by Graham Greene

This entry is part 15 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though! 

May We Borrow Your Husband?  is a 1967 collection of short fictions—in some cases, they’re in fact extended vignettes, and Greene himself called them “entertainments”—by Graham Greene. The subtitle—”And Other Comedies of the Sexual Life”—isn’t printed on the cover of the Penguin edition I have, but it pretty much sums up the book. It reminds me a bit of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City except it’s much grittier and much, much more meanspirited… in a good way, I suppose, since Greene’s approach appeals to me more. 

Why? I think it has something to do with Greene’s honesty. His mode of observation is quietly empathetic eye, but also mercilessly honest. The result is that his characters are sometimes quite bit stupid,  and a bit tawdry, fairly selfish, and often quite sad and broken as human beings, and yet they’re still somehow unremarkable in this, and Greene doesn’t generally seem to judge them too harshly for it, since—one gets the sense—he seems to feel that the human condition is fundamentally one of absurd ridiculousness, and that there’s little we can really do about that. Accepting their flaws and cruelties and failings even as he lays them bare for us to see almost seems to free Greene from feeling any need to pull his punches with them, and likewise from feeling the need to spare us as readers. Greene understands that his readers are likely very flawed, and almost wants to reassure us that our flaws and our brokenness are deeply connected. 

I guess that is also to say: for the first time, I can see that Greene really did take Catholic ideas to heart in his writing. I never noticed it much in the other novels of his I’ve read, but in this book, somehow, it is hard to miss. Perhaps it makes sense, given the role of sex and sexuality in these stories, I don’t know.  

I find his use of narrative distance from the goings-on fascinating: in just the first few stories, there are multiple seductions, a cheap shot at a lonely old lady with a ridiculously named dog, and a guy who, no kidding, carries a dead baby (his wife’s, but with another man) home on an airplane from France to England in his carry-on luggage as if it were no big deal… “I’ll have to declare it, I acquired it abroad,” he says, as if he were speaking of a handbag, and of course we learn why he’s so cold, and are perturbed by the fact it’s at all understandable he’d be like this. 

Greene may be merciless, but often there’s an older male writer in these stories, and truth be told that older male writer often ends up looking anywhere from ridiculous to terrible. Greene doesn’t push this angle too hard, but one gets the sense that he could skewer himself as well as he could anyone.

Now, there are some stories where light and kindness and sympathy wins out, as much as they ever could in a book by Greene: I expected to dislike “A Shocking Accident” (about a man who struggles through life having to deal with people laughing at the story of how his father died—struck by a falling pig in the street one day in Italy), but it’s actually kind of a beautiful depiction of what love can look like when it really works out, and the ending is just gorgeously written. “Cheap in August” is also well-written and heart-wringing and sympathetic more than it is judging: it’s much less a tale of adultery than it is a tale of loneliness, autonomy, and desperation. I was surprised to discover that several of the tales here were adapted for TV, but maybe I shouldn’t be: after all, the majority of Greene’s novels were adapted to film, so why wouldn’t have producers turned to his short stories next? 

I did feel a few of the tales are duds, and the “Beauty” especially feels like the elaborate setup for a nasty punchline. A few other stories left me wondering whether I’d missed something. Not all of it has aged particularly well, either, but I found it fascinating to watch Greene work with material that he felt was less “serious” than the stuff of his more “literary” works—”entertainments,” as he called them, even if I had a nagging sense that my time might have been better spent reading one of his more serious novels. 

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