The Futility of Buying Life to Escape Death

El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May 1808) by Francisco Goya, 1814. Photo: [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

The Tenth ManThe Tenth Man by Graham Greene

This novella by Graham Greene was written in 1944 (first conceived in 1938) as a screen play that was somehow discarded and lost in the MGM archives. Greene was unable to make a living from writing books and took a contract with MGM to write screenplays, and before the main story, the book includes a couple of screen sketches. In 1983, the story was found and MGM sold the rights to a publisher, hence this book.

Reading other's unfinished work is a great learning experience, and it is useful to see how the plot and structure of creative writing emerges from different authors. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon is a book I wish I had read while writing my PhD - the thought process is clear, but the details are still being threshed out. Seeing how Fitzgerald did this has left a powerful impression on me.

In the first part of Greene's book, he tells the story of what he was doing before and after the war, and how the story came about. He then introduces two film sketches that remained unfinished. It is interesting that in just a few pages, the outline of a movie appears. Greene added the film sketches because he had largely forgotten about The Tenth Man, thinking it was only (p. 10):
...two pages of outline but [it was] a complete short novel of thirty thousand words.
He then went through his own archives and found two other sketches - although less complete - that he had also forgotten about. (Wouldn't it be lovely to have written so much one had forgotten some of it?)

The main text, The Tenth Man, reads as a complete novella - there is certainly nothing undeveloped there. But the introduction sets out how the novella began as a few sentences outlining an idea. The two film sketches, which are incomplete, provide a bridge to Greene's process from a few sentences to a complete story.

As for the story, the cover blurb says it all: a rich man in a German prison draws lots to see who will die. (The Germans are going to execute 1 in 10 prisoners, and the prisoners have to decide who it will be.) The rich man loses, but offers all of his wealth to stay alive. Another prisoner, thinking of his family, takes up the rich man's offer.

I recall from reading Hemingway's letters and various articles how he developed a story out of a simple idea. For example, The Sun Also Rises is a story to answer the question, What would happen if your penis was shot off during the war? Greene's story follows a similar process: What would it be like to pay somebody else to die for you, if you gave up everything to live?

The story isn't so much Faustian, for the poor prisoner insists that the rich man sticks to the deal (after the rich man has an attack of conscience), and there is much more to the story after that.

In many ways, it addresses questions of life and death, and whether we control our fate or whether it matters or not. Or indeed, if we think we can thwart destiny, think again. Maybe the moral of the story is amor fati?

I've been reading and thinking a lot about death lately, especially the idea that all fear can be reduced to a fear of death, and, because we all die, there is nothing to be afraid of - it is a given. Perhaps it is not a topic Australians discuss in any philosophical sense, unlike what I have read by the Stoics, Albert Camus or what is explored in Mexico's Festival of the Dead

I think this aversion to thinking about death is philosophically limiting. But rather than Camus, which might be a little confronting for the uninitiated, Graham Greene deals with the topic in a way that makes it hard not to reflect on one's values, the purpose of life, and, I suppose, that death accompanies life.

It is certainly macabre, but there is much to learn from this novella. The story was made into a TV movie starring Sir Anthony Hopkins in 1988.