The Quiet Briton: 100 years of Graham Greene

Graham Greene was born on the 2nd October 1904 in Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire. He was the fourth of six children of Charles Greene, the rector of Berkhampstead school, and Marion Raymond Greene. Graham had a happy childhood in which he recalled that he never felt alone. Banishment from this earthly paradise occurred shortly before his eighth birthday, when Graham began his studies at the school ran by his father. The young Graham felt, as he crossed that threshold, that he was abandoning the familiar terrain of his father's house and crossed over to enemy territory. This feeling was reinforced when, at the age of thirteen, he went to live as a boarder. "So my father was the rector of the school. I was the son of a collaborator in an occupied country. My older brother, Raymond, was a prefect of the school and a fellow apologist. Or to put it another way, he collaborates with the collaborators. I was surrounded by the resistance forces and I could not join them without betraying both my father and my brother". One gets the impression that one is reading 'The Human Factor'. This double bond, at once pupil of the school and son of the rector, is an image that many of the characters of his literary imagination have experienced and in which the blurring of borders, the double lives of spies, and friendship and betrayal all have an important role. The desire to flee from school took various forms such as running away from home at the age of sixteen. This ended in a secret family meeting at which it was decided to send him to Kenneth Richmond, a psychoanalyst in London. Graham lived through those weeks in the capital as if they were an exceptional holiday in which he was given total freedom. Thanks to the help of Richmond, or perhaps the change in the occupying command, Graham completed his years at Berkhampstead without any further incidents, and enrolled at Balliol, one of the most prestigious of the Oxford colleges. During his university years, he was there at the same time at Evelyn Waugh, who was a year older than Greene. However, it was much later on that they became friends. Life in journalism Graham Greene came out of psychoanalysis with no religious beliefs, and by no means cured as the following shows. In the autumn of 1923, whilst on holiday, he discovered his older brother's handgun in his parents' house. In order to fend off boredom he played Russian roulette, over several months, until at Christmas he decided to abandon this dangerous source of excitement and set off on holiday to Paris. He explains in his autobiography that this fear of boredom endured his entire life and lead him to undertakings such as a tough journey through Liberia without having any previous experience of Africa, "to Tabasco during the religious persecution, to a lepers' colony in the Congo, to the Kikuyu reserve during the Mau-Mau uprising, to war torn Malaya and the French war in Vietnam". Out of all these experiences came books such as "Journey without Maps", "Lawless Roads" and after those, "The Power and the Glory", "The Quiet American" and "A Burnt Out Case". Afterwards, Greene went to Nottingham to work as a sub editor on a local newspaper. It was there that he took the first steps towards his conversion to Catholicism as he started seeing Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Catholic girl. A Father Trollope, a former London actor who himself had been converted, instructed him in the Catholic faith. Greene started with a dogmatic atheism: "I didn't disbelieve in Christ, I disbelieved in God. If I were ever to be convinced in even the remote possibility of a supreme, omnipotent and omniscient power I realized that nothing afterwards could seem impossible. It was on the ground of dogmatic atheism that I fought and fought hard. It was like a fight for personal survival." Greene left the Nottingham newspaper and began the golden years of his life: he took a job as editor of The Times with a good salary, he married Vivien and he published his first book, "The Man Within". Its success, selling 8,000 copies, went to his head and he decided that the moment had come to abandon the security of his job at The Times in order to devote himself entirely to literature. There followed tough years in which he failed to produce good novels. In those moments of despair he tried, without success, to return to The Times. "We were expecting a child and I only had twenty pounds in the bank. I was returned to writing, like a lost sheep, by the transient popular success of Stamboul Train." Stamboul Train was an unexpected success and was chosen by the Book Society, meaning an extra print run of 10,000 copies. The thrillers Pushed towards literature by good fortune, Greene then dedicated all his forces to writing. With his extraordinary gifts as a narrator, he then divided his work into two strands: the entertainments and the serious novels. The characteristics of the former are a thriller's structure with tough and dry language and a plot full of action and suspense but with greater moral complexity and profundity. A Gun For Sale (written in 1936 and made into a film in 1942), The Confidential Agent (1939 and filmed in 1945), The Ministry of Fear and The Third Man, published in 1949, are the books in this series. The Third Man was originally a film script (directed by Carol Reed and with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, this is a classic of cine noir). Greene enjoyed a long relationship with the cinema: almost all of his novels were made into films, and he worked as a director on numerous films. However, Greene's oeuvre goes beyond the structure of thrillers and cinematic techniques. "The stories written by Graham Greene", writes Charles Moeller in Literature of the 20th Century and Christianity, "appear to be profane." Nonetheless, "beyond the apparent drama develops another. Graham Greene, converted to Catholicism in 1927, is obsessed by the presence of Satan: the grace, the goodness, the power of God are submersed in an ocean of evil to such an extent that God appears to be dead, crucified once more in a blind and perverse world; his followers are so fascinated by this 'death of God' that they are crushed by it; they are not saints; they are, at times, less than human. The apparent impotence of God explodes in these novels with a force that has not been equalled up till now. The great temptation is in this instance the desperation in front of God's silence." The first serious novel, and according to his English critics, one of his best, is Brighton Rock (1938 and filmed in 1948). In this book Greene confronts a happy and good-natured humanist, whom the writer detests, with a corrupt and violent young criminal whose tragic circumstances are intensified by having received a Catholic upbringing. "In 1937", says Greene in Ways of Escape, "the moment had arrived for me to employ Catholic characters". The triumph of the Power and the Glory It was then that Greene became labelled a "Catholic writer", a term that he thought "hideous." "After Brighton Rock, I found myself obliged to declare that I am not a Catholic writer but rather a writer who happens to be Catholic." Greene goes on to explain his situation in relation to the Catholic Church: "More than ten years had passed since I had been welcomed into the Church. At that time I had not felt emotionally involved, but rather intellectually convinced; I was used to formally practising my faith, to going to Mass on Sundays, going to confession perhaps once a month, and moreover, I read a great deal of theological books in my free time, sometimes fascinated, at others repulsed, but always interested". Thanks to the preface of a book on persecution in Mexico, he was able to travel to Tabasco and Chiapas. In Mexico, Greene discovered "a certain emotional faith" in the midst of the deserted and ruined churches and the secret masses celebrated in Las Casas, and so The Power and the Glory, his most famous novel was born. "I think that The Power and the Glory is the only novel I have written to a thesis", explains Greene in Ways of Escape. The novel centres on the Catholic doctrine according to which the power of the sacraments is not dependent on the dignity of the minister. Therefore, a drunken priest, or one who has committed sins of the flesh, is able to baptise, celebrate Mass and give communion, as does the character in the novel. Greene says that the story was born when he was told the case of a priest who had lived for ten years in forests and swamps, only leaving them at night, and of another priest from Chiapas who was what they called a 'whisky priest'. "I had not found the idealism or integrity of the lieutenant of 'The Power and the Glory' among the police and pisteleros I had actually encountered - I had to invent him as a counter to the failed priest: the idealistic police officer who stifled life from the best possible motives: the drunken priest who continued to pass life on." The Power and the Glory came out in Britain in 1940, with a print run of 3,500 copies which sold out. Its success followed after the war, in France, thanks to the generous introduction by French novelist François Mauriac. The book had a great resonance in French Catholic circles for its thesis, for the complexity (or twisted nature) of its characters, for the mix of social comment and religious persecution and the type of "engaged" Catholicism that transpires. Once it triumphed in France, which at that point was still a player on the world's cultural stage, The Power and the Glory turned into a bestseller. The wild success of the book was became the subject of a report by the French bishops to Rome. "Some ten years after its publication, the Archbishop of Westminster read a letter from the Holy Office to me that condemned the book because it was 'paradoxical' and 'it dealt with extraordinary circumstances'". In his autobiography Greene does not give any great weight to the conflict with the Holy Office, commenting that in actual fact, the Church of Rome treated him with much more kindness than "any of those left or right wing totalitarian states, with which it is often compared." As the author himself states, "the matter was allowed to drop into that serene oblivion that the Church wisely reserves for matters of no importance." In 1947 his marriage to Vivien had broken down, (Greene left her but never divorced), after numerous affairs, one of which was with a married woman, Catherine Walston, which gave rise to his novel The End of the Affair. At the same time his faith was ebbing away, or so it seemed judging by his novels, to such an extent that Evelyn Waugh wrote to him disturbed at the possibility that Greene might have abandoned his Catholic faith. The novels that followed on from The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair, take the religious drama of his characters to the extreme. The first novel takes place in Sierra Leone (where Greene worked as an agent for the English secret services). The chief of police, Scobie, is a practising Catholic, however due to his feelings for his wife on one hand and his lover on the other, he ends up in a trap in which he accepts a bribe, commits adultery, takes part in a murder and commits sacrilege and finally suicide. The End of the Affair takes place in London during the blitz and is the story of two lovers, Maurice Bendix, an agnostic author, and Sarah, a married Catholic woman who promises God that she will leave Maurice if he is saved from a bombing. The miracle occurs and she abandons her lover, only to die of pneumonia. Troublesome fame These two novels made Greene very famous, but they also produced a lot of troubles. "Never had I received so many letters from strangers, perhaps the majority of them from women and priests. At a stroke I found myself regarded as a Catholic author in England, Europe and America -- the last title to which I had ever aspired." Greene was not ready to help those who came to him asking for it: "I had no apostolic mission, and the cries for spiritual assistance maddened me because of my impotence". This situation - "I was like a man without medical knowledge in a village struck with plague" - lead him to create the figure of Querry, who is a Catholic architect tired of fame and who dies tragically in the Belgian Congo before its independence and who is the central protagonist in A Burnt-Out Case. "This novel", Waugh wrote to him, "clearly reveals that you are exasperated with the reputation that has overcome you without you looking for it, of being a Catholic writer. I hope that this is the case and that the desperate conclusions of Querry and Morin are purely narrative ones." Greene, who valued Waugh's thoughts replied to him that only certain aspects of Querry, and of Fowler, the English journalist in The Quiet American, were also his: "I suppose that the points where an author is in agreement with his character lend what force or warmth there is to expression", however, at the same time "a parallel must not be drawn all down the line and not necessarily to the conclusion of the line". The exchange of letters concluded with a new letter from Greene in which he questioned whether you could prohibit a Catholic painter from creating a portrait of an ex-Catholic. "There is no doubt that if the character has a certain realism, it must stem from the fact that the author has experienced some of the same states of mind as Querry, albeit not necessarily with the same intensity… if people are so quick to judge this book as recanting then there is nothing I can do. Perhaps they might be surprised to see me at mass. What has annoyed me about some Catholic critics of my work, especially in some books written in France, is that they confuse the duty of a writer with that of a professor of morality or a theologian". Greene and Waugh were a long way apart. Greene felt much closer to the faith of the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in Del sentimiento tragico de la vida (The Tragic Sense of Life), and he says that Querry must be looked for among those whom Unamuno calls "those for whom reason is stronger than the will, those who feel trapped by reason and dragged by force against their will, thereby falling into despair, and because of this despair they turn to denial, and God reveals Himself in them, affirming Himself because of their very own denial". In the realms of tragicomedy Afterwards, Greene distanced himself from the intellectual conflicts of Scobie or Querry to go to "the tragicomic realms of La Mancha where I thought I should be", and from his rediscovery of comedy, together with his experience as a secret service agent, came Our Man in Havana (1958, filmed in 1959), which takes place in Cuba shortly after Castro's revolution and which is a parody of the world of spies and the Foreign Office. Before then he had written The Quiet American, perhaps one of his most accomplished novels, which was about a disenchanted British journalist and a CIA agent in Vietnam in the final years of French colonial rule. His last four novels, The Honorary Consul (1973), The Human Factor (1978, filmed in 1979), Monsignor Quixote (1982) and The Tenth Man (1985), represent a decline. Moreover, in the case of The Honorary Consul the ex-priest who leads the rebel fighters is a particularly sorry figure. As far as the books by Greene which some people have categorised as "spiritual thrillers", the best criticism that you can make of them is that the crises suffered by his characters are often simply artificial. From another perspective, George Orwell, in a critique of The Heart of the Matter, underlined the danger of "damning everything" and the concept of Scobie as the "sanctified sinner". Greene, says Orwell, "appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class nightclub, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only". Do not judge others Finally let us recall Charles Moeller's conclusion in his comments on Greene's novels in 20th Century Literature and Christianity. Greene's work, says Moeller "is nothing more than a commentary on the divine words: 'do not judge others'. Do not judge the world that to you seems abandoned by God: God inhabits it. Do not judge humanity whom it appears has killed God: God has saved it. Do not judge God's downfall, stamped upon by institutions that have given themselves over to Satan, made flesh in the weakness of the sacraments: the power and the glory of God are there present". Greene never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some attribute this to the fact that he was considered to be too popular a writer, others to the rumour that he had an affair with the wife of an important member of the selection committee. Once, when already old and infirm, in one of his last interviews he was asked if he regretted this, he replied that there was only one prize that interested him. Some people think that by giving this answer he welcomed the oblivion of death; others thought he was referring to heaven. A typical Greene ambiguity. Miguel Castellví is a Spanish journalist with an interest in English literature. He is a frequent contributor to Aceprensa. Email: mcv(at) Translated by Frank Mulhall.


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  • Miguel Castellvi