Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Graham Greene: Sinner Take All
Graham Greene’s damned redemption
By Matthew Price. Bookforum, October/November 2004

From the 1930s until long into the cold-war era, Graham Greene mapped a unique landscape of pain, human frailty, political drama, and moral bewilderment. His tortured sinners, doubting Catholics, furtive adulterers, cynical expatriates, burnt-out cases, and violent criminals constitute one of the most memorable, if disturbing, fictional worlds in modern literature. In Greeneland, the moral weather is perpetually gray. Fidelity and loyalty are impossible ideals; someone is forever betraying a lover, a friend, a creed, an ideology, a God, a country. Salvation is fleeting, while damnation is a permanent temptation, rarely resisted, if not actively courted. “I am damned already—I may as well go the whole length of my chain,” Scobie, the colonial policeman in The Heart of the Matter (1948), concludes hopelessly before he kills himself after he has cheated on his wife and conspired to commit murder. He could be speaking on behalf of half a dozen of Greene’s characters. “Sins have so much beauty,” says the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory (1940), luxuriating in his fallen state.

The Life of Graham Greene: Volume III, 1955-1991, by Norman SherryEvil and decay aroused Greene’s imagination; as Milton did with Satan, he gives his wicked characters and dodgy dealers all the best lines. Who can forget The Third Man’s (1950) deliciously sinister Harry Lime as he defends his bogus penicillin racket? “Victims?” Lime spits back at Rollo Martins, who has accused him of killing innocent people: “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—forever… . In these days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we?” Characterizing fiction’s possibilities, D.H. Lawrence famously called the novel the “one bright book of life,” but Greene’s fiction, as David Lodge insightfully remarked, speaks “eloquently in favor of death.” Even when he’s writing in a lighter vein, Greene cannot resist the macabre touch. Henry Pulling, the retired bank manager of the delightful, picaresque jeu d’esprit Travels With My Aunt (1969), has “a weakness for funerals,” while the ghoulish Captain Segura of Our Man in Havana (1958) carries a cigarette case made of human flesh.

Born one hundred years ago in the English town of Berkhamsted, from his earliest days Greene had a morbid predilection for dark material. “The first thing I remember,” he writes in his 1971 memoir A Sort of Life, “is sitting in a pram at the top of a hill with a dead dog lying at my feet.” At the far end of the High Street was a village with “an atmosphere of standing outside the pale: a region of danger where nightmare might easily become reality.” Greene’s imagination was steeped in shades of black. Long before he joined the Catholic church—he converted in 1926—he saw a cosmic drama of good and evil playing out in his own backyard. At thirteen, faith came to him “shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way.” At Berkhamsted School, where his father was headmaster, he was frequently pulled in opposing directions, his filial obligations clashing with the loyalty his fellow classmates expected of him. Here, Greene was tutored in the ways of duplicity and divided conscience, betrayal and trust, all fodder for his work as a novelist. In A Sort of Life, Greene writes that if he had to choose an epigraph for all his novels it would be these lines from Robert Browning’s Bishop Blougram’s Apology:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demi-rep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books—
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway …

“The dangerous edge of things,” Greene later declared, “remains what it always has been—the narrow boundary between loyalty and disloyalty, between fidelity and infidelity, the mind’s contradictions, the paradox one carries within oneself. This is what men are made of.”

Greene’s uneasy lifetime on that narrow boundary has been the subject of one of the great ventures in contemporary biography, Norman Sherry’s massive three-volume The Life of Graham Greene, whose final installment, which takes Greene from the height of his fame in 1955 to his death in 1991, arrives this September to coincide with the Greene centenary. A dogged, obsessed—some would say foolhardy—biographer, Sherry spent twenty-six years tracking the sources of Greene’s work in his famed journeys to Africa, South America, Cuba, and Haiti. Sherry wanted to relive Greene’s life, but his undertaking came close to bankrupting him. It also nearly killed him: In an episode from the strange-but-true file, the biographer contracted dysentery in the same Mexican town where Greene himself battled the affliction. Despite his thorough devotion, Sherry’s labors produced mixed results. On balance, the first two volumes are exemplary—judicious in their estimate of Greene’s troubled character, insightful on the novelist’s literary evolution. But Sherry’s final installment is, by a large margin, the weakest of the lot: poorly organized, overly wordy, a tendentious work that verges on hagiography.

Though Greene is best known for serious novels with religious and political themes such as The End of the Affair (1951) and The Quiet American (1955)—both recently republished in deluxe centenary editions—we should not forget he got his start as a writer of pulp thrillers. His temperament made him a natural hand at the genre. Like the hardboiled era’s classic stylists Hammett and Chandler, Greene was a master of noir mood and atmosphere, action, and scene setting. His compact visual style was influenced by both journalism and film—Greene worked on The Times of London as an editor in the ’20s and was an obsessive moviegoer—and by the popular writers he read as boy. He excelled at noir fiction’s all-important opening sentence. “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job.” (A Gun for Sale [1936]); “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”(Brighton Rock [1938]). Greene’s outlaws know only distrust and savagery; their only vocation is revenge. Pinkie, the fiendish boy-criminal of Brighton Rock, seethes with hatred; Raven is a one-man killing machine.

Somewhat disingenuously, Greene dubbed these works “entertainments,” for he was aiming at something more than the tawdry pleasures of the pulp aesthetic. To the crime thriller, the love story, and the spy novel, Greene added the heavy ballast of politics and religious belief (or unbelief, as is often the case). The Confidential Agent (1939), one of his best works, powerfully conveys the universal menace and geopolitical unease of the Hitler/Stalin era, as a hunted, hapless agent from an unnamed country—obviously Spain—tries to procure coal for his besieged government in a dark, brooding London. The action in A Gun for Sale unfolds against a political crisis touched off by Raven’s assassination of a socialist minister. The borders between genres, between the popular and the literary, are never clear in Greene’s work. His major novels all have pulp touches: Brighton Rock is a work of Catholic apologetics masquerading as a gangster novel; The Power and the Glory, perhaps his greatest novel, a masterpiece of near expressionist intensity set in a blasted corner of Mexico, is the story of a manhunt; The End of the Affair is a kind of detective story about a failed romance and religious faith; The Quiet American, his prophetic novel of Vietnam, opens with a murder investigation, while both The Honorary Consul (1973) and The Human Factor (1978) are thrillerish variations on Greene’s dominant themes of compromised loyalty and betrayal.

Greene’s longevity and range are astonishing. A pivotal writer of the interwar years, he moved with ease into the cold-war era, doing double duty as a journalist and part-time British spy, visiting danger zones and trouble spots—French Indo-China and Cuba in the ’50s, Congo and Haiti in the ’60s, Argentina and Paraguay under the dictators in the ’70s—that provided him with the settings for the novels of his middle and late periods. All told, he wrote some thirty novels, a thick portfolio of journalism and essays, travel books, several plays, and film scripts. With the exception of Anthony Powell, Greene outlived and outproduced his entire generation of English writers, publishing his last novel, The Captain and the Enemy, in 1988. He was also a marvelous literary essayist, superb on the great technicians of the English novel like Henry James and Ford Madox Ford but laudably unsnobbish in his enthusiasms, which extended to boyhood favorites Marjorie Bowen, H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, and Anthony Hope, writers he always claimed as his most significant influences. (In Bowen’s The Viper of Milan, a tale of treachery and revenge set in fourteenth-century Italy, Greene sees “perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again.”)

Still, Greene had a weakness for middlebrow didacticism and theological heavy-handedness. His religious notions were often bizarre. Unlike friend and fellow Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh, Greene elected to challenge God rather than worship Him. Michael Shelden, another of Greene’s biographers, argues that “Damnation and hate—not God and love—define … his sense of religious intensity,” which is true up to a point. Yet Greene’s suggestion that the way to redemption lies down the path of sin has troubled Catholics and non-Catholics alike. George Orwell, in one of the nastiest book reviews ever written, assailed The Heart of the Matter in the New Yorker for its implied rebuke of decency and plain common sense: “It is impossible not to feel a sort of snobbishness in Mr. Greene’s attitude,” Orwell charged. “He 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 night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty.”

For all his footloose wandering and cosmopolitanism, Greene’s fictional landscapes—whether Haiti or Hanoi, London, or Freetown—sometimes blur together into a tedious sameness, with their funereal gloom and obligatory vultures hovering overhead. Sometimes the exotic, dangerous locales serve as mere background decoration for the private muddles of his characters. Orwell jibed, perhaps somewhat unfairly, that The Heart of the Matter, which Greene set in Sierra Leone, “might as well be happening in a London suburb.”

Sherry, however, is more generous—if not indulgent—of his subject’s idiosyncratic vision than are Orwell or Shelden, whose 1994 biography seethes with hostility at Greene. Where Shelden sees Greene as a fraud, Sherry sees him as, well, rather like a character in one of his own novels, honestly struggling with belief and faith, temptation and doubt. For Sherry, Greene’s life has a heroic aura. “He suffered for his terrible curiosity about the world,” Sherry intones portentously. “His urge to fence with a violent death made him a vital centre from which our age can be seen.” To be sure, Greene’s depictions of unrest in troubled places still resonates with our own time of geopolitical unease. The local bookstore laid out copies of The Comedians (1966) in the new-fiction section after the fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide last year (though I’m not sure how much it will tell you about Haiti’s current situation), and the war in Iraq had many a reader consulting The Quiet American as a new generation of Alden Pyles crusaded for democracy abroad. Greene is often classified as a Catholic writer, but his identity is deeply bound up with political conflicts of the twentieth century. Most of his work, especially the sequence that came after The Quiet American, touches on politics, its cruel punishments, and its savage consequences. During the ’60s and ’70s, Greene became the very epitome of the committed writer, taking up left-wing causes, befriending Castro, making quixotic appeals on behalf of the Sandinistas, preaching the virtues of disloyalty, calling on writers to be pieces of “grit in the State machinery.” In a famous 1969 address at the University of Hamburg, Greene said, “The writer is driven by his own vocation to be a Protestant in a Catholic society, a Catholic in a Protestant one, to see the virtues of the Capitalist in a Communist society, of the Communist in a Capitalist State.”

This is an admirable injunction, even if Greene himself could not always live up to it. His own behavior often shaded into moral anarchism. Sherry floridly calls Greene “the odd man out, filibusterer who will engage in unauthorized warfare against one-time enemy or one-time friend, the highest (or the lowest) in the land if, in his view, his sense of repugnance risen, the attack is deserved.” He was selective about which states he opposed: He maintained odd friendships with several Central American dictators, and never said much about the British Empire. Greene preferred to be the grit in the American state machinery, but his anti-Americanism could be a deforming passion. In a 1967 letter to The Times of London (where he often aired his views), Greene declared, “If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States of America, I would certainly choose the Soviet Union, just as I would choose life in Cuba to life in those southern American republics, like Bolivia, dominated by their northern neighbor, or life in North Vietnam to life in South Vietnam.” A year later, he ignited a fury with his introduction to Kim Philby’s My Silent War, a memoir about his life as a double agent and defection to Moscow. To the charge that Philby—Greene’s old friend from his days as a British intelligence officer during the Second World War—betrayed his country and sent innocent men to their death, he responded with one of his classic, if troubling, formulations—”Yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?”

Greene’s peculiar defenses of the Soviet Union smack of adolescent grandstanding and obscure his ever-mixed feelings about secular utopias and the possibilities of political change, as well as his own taste for decadence and decay. Greene never became a socialist‹‹at Oxford, in 1925, he joined the Communist Party as a stunt, then gave up his membership after four weeks. The debauched carnival of Batista’s Cuba (the setting for his mordant satire of the spy trade, Our Man in Havana), the violence of Duvalier’s Haiti, the dissipation on offer in colonial Indo-China, were far more alluring to Greene than Castro’s Marxist-Leninism. Just after Castro took power in 1959, Greene advised a friend to pay a visit to Havana’s brothels before they were shut down. “When Communism starts, puritanism immediately follows,” he cautioned. “You ought to see what is on offer here before it goes.”

* * *

If Greene preached commitment, he disliked idealism. Idealists tend not to fare well in Greene’s novels. The socialist minister Raven assassinates is an “old grubby man without friends, who was said to love humanity.” Dr. Czinner, the Central European socialist doctor of Stamboul Train (1932), is a bumbling, neurotic figure. Or consider Greene’s wicked, cruelly hilarious portrait in The Comedians: Mr. Smith—the kind, virtuous American type Greene scorned—who thinks “in big terms … like Mankind, Justice, the Pursuit of Happiness” and wants to open up a vegetarian center, obviously out of place in impoverished Haiti, and doomed to failure. Smith is overwhelmed by the corruption of Duvalier’s Haiti, and completely ineffective in his task.

In Journey Without Maps (1936), an eccentric, often surreal account of a trip Greene took through Liberia with his cousin, he wrote, “I find myself always torn between two beliefs: the belief that life should be better than it is and the belief that when it appears better it is really worse.” Greene could never make up his mind. Unlike other left-wing writers of his generation—Auden, Orwell, Spender—he never took up the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. He stood to the side, ever divided, opposed to Franco, but pulled by loyalties to his faith. (Greene was one of the few writers who declined to answer the 1937 questionnaire circulated by the Left Review, “Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War.”) Greene’s foreign cause was the anti-clerical purges Mexico waged against the Church in the state of Tabasco. His 1938 visit there produced his strange, ruminative work, The Lawless Roads (1939). Greene shows no special tenderness for Mexico or Mexicans, and the work is shot through with polemical fury: “The State … always the State. What idealisms have gone to the construction of that tyrant!” he thunders in one passage. “One thinks of the Fabians and Mr. Shaw in his Jaeger suit; and then suddenly the thing lives—and Pro [a cleric executed by the Mexican government] receives the coup de grâce in the little dirty yard and no one any more is able to make the claim, ‘The State is I.’ The State is none of us; phrases like ‘no taxation without representation’ are meaningless, because we are all taxed and no one is represented. Perhaps the only body in the world today which consistently—and sometimes successfully—opposes the totalitarian State is the Catholic Church.” (Greene was silent on the Church’s cozy relationship with the Nazis.)

Greene was a far better dramatist of the confusing clash of ideologies than he was a political theorist, perhaps nowhere more so than he was in the novel inspired by his Mexican experiences, The Power and the Glory. Though arguably Greene’s greatest Catholic novel, it is also a deeply political work that, like Darkness at Noon and 1984, offers a searing vision of secular utopianism run amok. As Greene described it, his novel pitted the “idealistic police officer who stifled life from the best possible motives” against “the drunken priest who continued to pass life on.” It gives us one of his great fallen men—perhaps the iconic Greene character—the whiskey priest, the last cleric in a region where war has been declared against God. Weak, plagued by doubts, hunted by the police, he is a failure at his vocation. Yet if the whiskey priest succumbs to every vice and wallows in decadence, the alternative to the Church is brutal. Hunting the priest is the unnamed lieutenant, a ruthless agent of a ghastly, secular new order. Here, he ponders his vision of a land free of religion: “He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious, and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth—a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they chose. He was quite prepared to make a massacre for their sakes—first the Church and then the foreigner and then the politician—even his own chief would one day have to go. He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert.”

As an evocation of the ideological fanaticism of the mid-twentieth century, Orwell or Koestler could not have bettered this. But Greene embroiders his depiction of the lieutenant with curiously sympathetic touches. Driven by a perverse honesty, he is devoted to his job, determined to hunt down the whiskey priest. The lieutenant’s atheism pulses with a kind of spiritual force: “He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy—a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world.” Like a penitent, he lives austerely, and “was something of a priest in his intent observant walk.” After he subdues his quarry, the two have the kind of encounter that would be a staple of Greene’s fiction—two men in a confined space trading notes from opposing worldviews. The lieutenant sneers about the corruptions of the Church: “Well, we have ideas too… . No more money for saying prayers, no more money for building places to say prayers in. We’ll give people food instead, teach them to read, give them books. We’ll see they don’t suffer.” But The Power and the Glory rubs our face in the suffering and degradation of the priest, who puts up a doomed fight in defense of his beliefs. “But if they want to suffer,” the priest counters, “Why should we give the poor power? It’s better to let him die in the dirt and wake in heaven—so long as we don’t push his face in the dirt.”

Greene ultimately sides with the priest, but his faith waxed and waned in his middle and late years. By the early ’60s, Greene, in Sherry’s arresting phrase, was a “Catholic without God.” With the exception of A Burnt-Out Case (1961), a particularly bad novel by a writer who was by now himself a burnt-out case, politics would become the central focus of the late novels, though God would never completely disappear. During the cold-war years, Greene was especially preoccupied with the consequences of earthly projects for human betterment and with the hazards of commitment to both ideals and relationships.

* * *

The sometimes fatal results of the “best possible motives,” are central to The Quiet American. Alden Pyle, a strutting embodiment of virtue in all its crew-cut splendor, brims with references to the solemn-sounding tomes The Challenge to Democracy and The Role of the West, written by his fictional hero York Harding, an ivory tower political scientist who traffics in the fatuous abstractions that Greene distrusted. Pyle radiates innocence, but he has blood on his hands: He supports a rogue force that specializes in terrorist bombings. When Thomas Fowler, a cynical British correspondent, and Pyle take refuge in a watchtower after an excursion into the countryside, they clash over ideology and politics. “I laugh at anyone who spends so much time writing about what doesn’t exist—mental concepts.” Fowler further goads Pyle: “Isms and ocracies. Give me facts.”

As with all Greene’s American characters Pyle is something of a caricature, while Fowler’s world-weariness is a bit too glib. (US critics bristled at Greene’s conception of Pyle: Newsweek’s reviewer complained about the author’s “dreary stereotyping of his American characters”; A.J. Liebling condemned the book in the New Yorker.) Pyle’s political sympathies are confused—he defends the French colonists and the Vietminh guerillas alike to twit the Americans, but the balancing act cannot be sustained. Like Greene, he only feels alive when he’s in a dangerous situation: He seeks pleasure, smokes opium, but is emotionally impotent. Fowler’s self-deluding refrain is “I’m not engagé.” But Fowler is deeply engaged: Battling Pyle for the affections of Phuong, the woman the two men share; threatened by Pyle’s vitality, but envious of it all the same. Ultimately, he connives in Pyle’s death, though not for lack of admiring his ability to commit: “All the time that his innocence had angered me, some judge within myself had summed up in his favor, had compared his idealism, his half-baked ideas founded on the works of York Harding, with my cynicism.” After all, Fowler is reminded, “Sooner or later … one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.”

Like Fowler, Brown, the expat hotelier of The Comedians, takes an uneasy refuge in a cool moral knowingness, both pricked at by those who serve a cause and devoted to some larger doctrine that transcends the narrow bounds of politics. “The rootless have experienced, like all the others, the temptation of sharing the security of a religious creed or a political faith, and for some reason we have turned the temptation down,” Brown muses. “We are the faithless; we admire the dedicated … for their courage and their integrity. For their fidelity to a cause, but through timidity, or through lack of sufficient zest, we find ourselves the only ones truly committed—committed to the whole world of evil and of good, to the wise and to the foolish, to the indifferent and to the mistaken.” It’s a strategy to avoid disappointment, but it brings its own complications. Also like Fowler, Brown envies those who can believe in a cause: Mr. Smith, however much a failure he is; Doctor Magiot, the doctor with Communist sympathies. However much he wants to stand aside, tend to his hotel, and carry on his affair with an ambassador’s wife, Brown gets mixed up in a farcical anti-Duvalier plot led by one of Greene’s great tragicomic figures, the charlatan Major Jones, who invents a fantastic record of military service in Burma during the Second World War. Leading a pitifully small band of Haitian rebels, Jones achieves certain heroism in death, while Brown is made to seem puny by comparison. Like many of Greene’s protagonists in the late books, these characters know all the angles and try to avoid the mess of life, but blunder into it all the same.

In The Honorary Consul, a superb study of revolutionaries set in Argentina, Doctor Eduardo Plarr helps an old friend, an ex-priest turned militant who wants to kidnap an American ambassador. The operation, however, goes off poorly, and they accidentally capture Charley Fortnum, a drunken Brit whose title is completely meaningless, thus making him a worthless hostage. The British refuse to negotiate, and the situation gets desperate. Plarr is caught in the middle, and is doubly implicated—first in the kidnapping, and secondly, for having an affair with Fortnum’s wife. Fortnum’s genuine feelings threaten the withered Plarr, a man of little sentiment: “I’m jealous because he loves her,” he rages. “That stupid banal word love. It’s never meant anything to me. Like the word God. I know how to fuck—I don’t know how to love.” “Caring is the only dangerous thing,” Plarr says. Perhaps—Greene’s novels have always had an abiding concern for the little detonations that can unexpectedly rock human relationships and shatter faith. But, he also suggests, not caring is quite possibly worse.

In his third volume, Sherry misses many such themes in Greene’s late work. While his first two volumes are generally superb on Greene’s artistry, his last reads like the work of a writer who has run out of steam. If he was keen to defend Greene’s artistic vision in those earlier volumes, he has grown less sure of its merits in his concluding volume. Too often, he reduces Greene’s last works to little more than transcriptions of his notes and journals, to reportage pretending to be fiction. Greene had a reporter’s eye; his novels abound in local detail, but their real setting lies in a region of his mind. In his middle volume Sherry writes that Greene “searched for exactitude in order that his characters could come alive in their settings.” Indeed, Greene tended to see a place firsthand before he wrote about it. But Sherry smothers Greene’s characters in a surfeit of research; his eagerness to find real-life correspondences has the unintended effect of diminishing Greene’s imaginative resources. Of course, we know from reading Sherry’s life that there is a fair portion of Greene in Plarr, Brown, and Fowler. How could there not be? He was familiar with their deceptions and evasions because to a certain extent they were his own. In the prefatory note to A Burnt-Out Case, Greene writes that this novel is an “attempt to give dramatic expression to various types of belief, half-belief, and non-belief.” Greene restlessly visited each of these stations in his life, but never took up permanent residency in any of them.


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