Loser Takes All in the Art of a Novella

My mother has a strange fixation upon the fact that I might end up with a gambler. Not just someone who enjoys an occasional outing to Vegas or the racetrack, but the kind you find in 50s era movies that have a haunted, burnt-out look and a cheap, crumpled suit.

Of course, this is absurd given that I don’t particularly like to gamble, with the occasional $2 bet on a racehorse (which occurs maybe once a year) and the one time I tried to play Pai Gow poker when I went to Vegas with a friend. I’m much more likely to spend all my money on traveling or shopping, something more tangible and less likely prone to the whims of luck.

It was with these thoughts I was tempted to lend my mother a copy of the Graham Greene novella, Loser Takes All, in which a young married couple throws planning to the wind, goes to Monte Carlo at the chance comment of the husband’s impulsive and moneyed boss, the GOM (aka Grand Old Man), and turns themselves into the crumpled and haggard visions of film gamblers.

Apparently, Greene wrote this novella while writing The Quiet American, and one can assume that the overall chattily 1950s tone was a way to distract himself from the heavy hitting questions of his other work. (It was later made into a film in 1956 and a comedy at that – I’ll have to watch it to see how different it is). In some ways, it is almost akin to a darker Barbara Pym novel, in which love is thwarted due to the stupidity of love and being enmeshed in it.

Yet, Loser Takes All still does not quite escape from portraying the dark corners of humanity that Greene became so known for. Bertrand, the husband, becomes despicable as he throws all of their money away, waiting for his feared boss to appear on the promised yacht that will never arrive. Cary, the impossibly young bride (and Bertrand’s second wife), loses her impulsive charm as she devolves into the shrill and helpless wife of a gambler.

And yet, the moral message of the end of the story (and the twists that come) are far from what makes the novella worth reading. Greene somehow captures the full frivolity of Monte Carlo life and spin it into a captivation language:

I said, “This is our celebration night, darling. Don’t be mean.”

“What have I said that’s mean?” How they defeat us with their silences: one can’t repeat a silence or throw it back as one can a word. In the same silence we drove home. As we came over Monaco the city was floodlit, the Museum, the Casino, the Cathedral, the Palace – the fireworks went up from the rock. It was the last day of a week of illuminations: I remember the first day and our quarrel and the three balconies.

The novella is only about 120 pages long and while not Greene’s best work, an interesting glimpse at both a world lost (most of us do not have rich bosses who offer to whisk us away on their yachts for our honeymoons) and how the dark folds of the world can slowly encroach upon anyone.

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