Beyond Marx and Jesus: Is Death the Only Prize That Now Awaits Graham Greene?

Asked if he was disappointed recently at not winning the Nobel Prize, Graham Greene said no, he was waiting for an even bigger prize. Asked what that was, he replied, “Death.”

The notion of death as a reward is strange to most modern literature, which confines itself within the parameters of womb and grave, paying no attention to what comes after. It is this sense of moral claustrophobia which is largely responsible for the tedious pessimism of the modern novel. How many more books are we going to have to endure about bourgeois infidelities in the Hamptons, or squinty New York novelists with writer’s block? A point has been reached where boredom overwhelms the natural passions.

Graham Greene is different. He writes about things that matter. It’s not just the fact that Greene, by including the afterlife, paints on a wider literary canvas. It’s also that his characters, most of them sordid underworld types, by being conscious of the otherworldly consequences of their actions, take on a richness and depth that is rare. They are not the morally anaesthetized killers of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. They are conscious moral agents, acting out free will.

Graham Greene is now in his eighties. He lives as a recluse in a drab two-room apartment overlooking Antebes harbor, ten miles from Nice. The novelist Anthony Burgess visited him there recently, and found that he resembled many of his characters. He looked unkempt, lonesome, psychologically tortured. He said he hoped he didn’t live much longer, yet he was unsure what eternal fate awaited him.

Greene was born in 1904 in England. He studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he published his first book of verse. He won critical accolade in 1929 for The Man Within. In 1932 he wrote Stamboul Train, a tale of murder and a Balkan uprising, whose popular success propelled him to produce a string of mystery thrillers.

In 1938, a decade after his conversion to Catholicism, he was sent to Mexico to write about religious persecution. As a result, he produced The Lawless Roads and later, a book that some consider his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory. In the early 1940s he worked for the British Foreign Office in Sierra Leone. The Heart of the Matter, one of Greene’s best postwar novels, is set in West Africa. Greene’s special interest in Latin America comes through in novels like Our Man in Havanna and in profiles like Getting to Know the General (a paean to Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos).

Greene never appears to have suffered from writer’s block. Altogether he has written some 30 novels, plus short stories, travel accounts, cogitations, political commentary, children’s books, plays for stage and screen, a biography, and two autobiographical essays. This prodigious volume—these bales of manuscript—are said to be part of the reason the Nobel Prize committee is skeptical: could anyone so windy be so good? A further reason Greene has been denied the prize, critics speculate, is his twin involvements with Catholicism and Communism, his two unpopular conversions.

Greene’s interest in Catholicism came first. He formally adopted the faith in 1926, a year before his marriage to Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Catholic. “My conversion was not in the least an emotional affair,” Greene now says. “It was purely intellectual.” He attributes it to an Oxford don who apparently persuaded him of the mathematical probability of God’s existence. But this, of course, was a weak foundation for a lifelong conviction. The probability argument traces itself back to Pascal—the risk of believing in God if He does not exist (metaphysical error) is far outweighed by the risk of not believing in God if He does exist (eternal damnation). It is intellectually ingenious but emotionally unsatisfying. Who can base the principles of his life on an actuarial table? Moreover, even from an intellectual standpoint, the argument only proves that it is prudent to believe that God exists. It does not prove that God exists.

Greene says he was emotionally “confirmed” in the faith in 1938 in Mexico. The Mexican experience transformed Greene’s faith because it revealed Catholicism in all its absurd grandeur. It also galvanized Greene’s sympathies for the harassed and the pariah, a prelude to his later Communist flirtations. “In Mexico the underdogs were the Catholics,” Greene says. There he was struck “when I witnessed the fervor of the peasants, who would go back and forth on their knees across the flagstones of the churches in Chiapas which were still open, and who would kneel for ages with their arms outstretched as though crucified—I tried to pray this way, and I found I could keep my arms up for a few minutes, no longer, while they would stay as though crucified for the entire service.”

It is this simple, unsophisticated, almost fanatical faith—not antiseptic proofs of God’s existence—which sears through Greene’s novels, and inflames his readers. No wonder the Catholic characters Greene portrays are not ho-hum, Easter Sunday Catholics. Their lives are vividly shaped by their interpretation, however skewed, of church verities. “I am not a Catholic novelist,” Greene stresses. “I am a novelist who happens to be Catholic. The theme of human beings being lonely without God is a legitimate subject. To want to deal with that doesn’t make me a theologian.” In fact, Greene tells interviewer MarieFrancoise Allain, “My conversion gave my books an added dimension. Before that I believed in nothing, and I think that a person who believes in nothing has a limited interest in people.” In other words the agnostic has a restricted aesthetic sense. Nihilists don’t make good novelists. “Human beings are more important to believers than they are to atheists,” in Greene’s words.

Perhaps Greene’s scariest Catholic novel is Brighton Rock, written in the same year he went to Mexico, 1938. In it we meet the incorrigible gangster Pinkie, whose evil is only matched in magnitude by his realization of it. Pinkie not only expects, he anticipates, damnation.

“But you believe, don’t you?” Rose implored him, “You think it’s true?”

“Of course it’s true, the Boy said: “What else could there be?” he went scornfully on. “Why,” he said, “it’s the only thing that fits. The atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s hell. Flames and damnation.”

“And heaven too,” Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.

“Oh, maybe,” the Boy said. “Maybe.”

Pinkie is limned in contrast with his antagonist, Ida Arnold, a liberal do-gooder who wants to reform mankind even before she understands it. She is a congenital optimist, lax in her personal morals but with a firm sense of public duty. She is always talking about civic duty, about Right and Wrong. Pinkie couldn’t care less about Right and Wrong. Those, for him, are secular terms, social conventions. What Pinkie understands are Good and Evil. Those exist in nature and in the mind of the one who made nature.

In the most moving scene in Brighton Rock, the furious, maddened Pinkie, fleeing from his pursuers, encounters an old woman on a side street. “He heard a whisper, looked sharply around, and thrust his papers back. In an alley between two shops, an old woman sat on the ground; he could see the rotting discolored face: it was like the sight of damnation. Then he heard a whisper, ‘Blessed art thou among women,’ saw the grey fingers fumbling at the beads. This was not one of the damned: he watched with horrid fascination: this was one of the saved.”

The philosopher Kierkegaard once wrote, “There is only one proof of the truth of Christianity and that, quite rightly, is from the emotions, when the dread of sin and heavy conscience torture a man into crossing the narrow line between despair bordering on madness—and Christianity.” This summarizes Greene’s theology very well.

His ability to convey an overpowering sense of the presence of evil and of moral confrontation places Greene against an entire tradition of British Christian apologetics. Greene stands in grave and ominous rebuttal to the jaunty cheerfulness of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and C.S. Lewis. “The basic element I admire in Christianity is its sense of moral failure,” he admits. After all, it is through evil that we move to despair and helplessness, and from there hopefully to penance and redemption. But even as Greene was grasping the role of the underdog in Christianity—its starting point in human weakness and failure—he was also being drawn to another communal underdog, the working class, the proletariat. His fierce sense of injustice told him that there was something wrong when hardworking men and women were subjected to live such indignity. In his faith he had moved away from probabilistic and algebraic explanations; so too in his politics. The neat diagrams of laissez-faire did not convince him anymore. Justice was more than a matter of price equilibrium.

“I’ve always felt a strong pull toward the Communist party,” Greene says. Yet what was once enthusiasm for an ideology has now mellowed. “I do not have sympathy for Communism,” Greene said in a recent interview with the World Press Review, “but I have sympathy for individual Communists.” He traces the history of his disillusionment with Communism. When he joined the party in 1923 he found its dogma stifling; his membership lasted four weeks. Later, he says, the Moscow trials broke his faith in Communism, and established the continuum between Communism in theory and Stalinism in practice.

Today, Greene says, “politically I’m for socialism with a human face. So far our efforts in that direction have always fallen short, but I continue to hope. It is not possible to create a New Man, so all we can expect is a change in conditions so that the poor are less poor and the rich are less rich. I am for more humanity, not for a new concept of humanity.”

Greene’s politics have a strong Latin flavor; they are greatly influenced with his travel experiences in Cuba and Paraguay. He is fond of recounting his attendance at a 1966 rally at which Fidel Castro spoke. “Although I understood little Spanish it was overwhelming,” Greene says. “After the serious part he joked and invited questions. His answers were quick-witted and clever. At the end there were a few hard hitting remarks about values. It was a fascinating mixture of idealism and rhetorical power.”

So many have accused Greene of being a power worshipper, not just of Castro but also other Latin despots, that he qualifies his enthusiasm now. “I know that one must always be mistrustful when a romantic idealist is in command. Romantic politics is dangerous and tends to be inhumane.” Yet Greene cannot deny that he continues to prefer flamboyant experience, charismatic experience, to the mundane details of everyday life. Just as kneeling in crucifix postures through entire services is not all that it takes for a Mexican to live a Christian life, so also impressive speeches in army fatigues should not be enough to establish the legitimacy of Cuban dictators. One cannot avoid the sense that Greene absorbs the emotion of events to the point where he ignores such questions as: has Castro really improved the lives of his people? Where, except from elections, do rulers get the right to rule? Can dynamic oratory compensate for long ration lines?

Once the vector of Greene’s politics is clear, he appears blind to human experience that lies outside it. In 1963, when the Berlin Wall was erected to a great outcry, Greene wrote to an East German friend, “The West is too inclined to attach heroic motives to all those who escape across or through the wall. Courage they certainly have, but how many are choosing freedom for romantic motives, love of a girl, of a family, of a way of life, and how many are merely tempted by a standard which includes transistor radio sets, American blue jeans, and leather jackets?”

This is an absurd trivialization of what the wall represents, and of the aspirations of those who scale the wall. It is doubtful that the desperate men stumbling across the border, to the chatter of machine gun fire, falling into the dust, enduring the death they must have expected and prepared themselves for—it is doubtful that a large percentage of these men are motivated by avarice for blue jeans. Further, does Greene pause to consider what are the motives of the Latin revolutionaries whom he glamorizes? Aren’t they equally dejected about living in straw huts and eating bananas, and equally eager to live the good life, Yankee style? Or does Greene imagine that the Nicaraguan revolution was prosecuted, in all its bloody fervor, so that three million peasants could all write poems and novels?

Greene’s attraction to the left can be partly understood as a consequence of his iconoclastic impulse, his desire to stand outside the zeitgeist, to stick it to the establishment.

In 1969 Greene won a Shakespeare Prize from the University of Hamburg and chose the occasion to fire a fusillade at the old Bard. “If there is one word which chimes through Shakespeare’s early plays it is the word `peace.’ In times of political trouble the Establishment always appeals to the ideal of peace.” As the shocked scholars looked on, Greene continued, “There are moments when we revolt against the bourgeois poet…. We who live in times just as troubled as his, times full of death and tyrants, a time of secret agents, assassinations and plots of torture chambers, sometimes feel more at home with the sulphurous anger of Dante.”

Greene views the writer’s function as partly to advance the cause of the underprivileged. Although he said in 1984 that “I do not believe a writer can influence politics—we should leave politics to the politicians,” he stresses that writers should write to change minds and create an environment in which the required political changes will be made.

To Greene’s credit he recognizes that the politics of the underdog can be unpredictable. “The writer should always be ready to change sides at the drop of a hat,” he is quoted saying in the Catholic monthly America. Humility is also required; one of Greene’s favorite sayings is from William Blake: “Whoever wishes to do good to his neighbor should do so on small occasions, for the general good is always invoked by scoundrels, hypocrites, and flatterers.”

Partly, Greene’s politics come down to a not overly sophisticated anti-Americanism. Greene recently told the London Sunday Observer that Americans are “noisy and incredibly ignorant of the world.” In The Quiet American Greene portrays this through the goofy innocence of Pyle, who is the exact opposite of Ida Arnold in Brighton Rock. Pyle is scrupulous about personal relationships and careless in larger matters. He won’t exploit the lovely Vietnamese woman Huong for sex, but he does make plastic bombs which blow up innocents. How can he bear to do this? Because, according to Greene, his library is full of books like The Advance of Red China, The Challenge to Democracy, and The Role of the West, all by an obscure fellow named York Harding.

There is an obvious hint of truth in this picture. “I’m an idealist—that is why I’m an American,” Woodrow Wilson once said. Greene’s flaw is that he does not recognize any of the strengths of this idealism. For one, it does not mortgage moral principles to European weltschmertz or endless wrangling about the “complex realities of the modern world.” Also Greene does not pause to consider why, if Englishmen for instance are knowledgeable about the world, England has lost her erstwhile dominion to the ignorant Americans.

Naturally Greene’s dual allegiances to Catholicism and Communism or leftism were bound to come into conflict. This was postponed for a while in Greene’s work. Perhaps he felt that a religion of the next life and a philosophy of this one need not square off against each other. But his art belied that. Catholicism, although focused in the afterlife, makes very specific and exalted claims in this one. Communism, though modestly focused on man’s material condition during life, claims to understand larger questions, such as the predestined movements of history. Understanding the inevitable showdown, Marx and Engles spoke of religion as the opiate of the people and Lenin and Stalin sought to extirpate it when they could not exploit it for state ends.

Undoubtedly Greene’s most engaging and provocative recent novel is Monsignor Quixote, patterned on the Cervantes classic, in which an idealistic priest, Quixote, and the deposed Communist mayor of a Spanish town (Sancho) set off on a journey through the countryside. It’s not clear where they are headed. Monsignor wants to go to Rome but Mayor Sancho is reluctant.

“I don’t fancy Rome at all. Nothing to be seen in the streets but purple socks.”

“Rome has a Communist mayor, Sancho.”

“I don’t fancy a Euro-Communist any more than you fancy a Protestant.”

So they just wander. Their real destination is philosophical, of course; this is a journey whose pathways are paved with feisty argument. No one gets any breaks. When the priest loftily observes that “All our good actions are acts of God, just as all our ill actions are acts of the Devil,” the Mayor replies, “In that case, you must forgive poor Stalin for perhaps only the Devil was responsible.” Monsignor Quixote, in turn, exposes the humbug of proletarian uprising. “You have to look in the Third World, Sancho, to find any paupers now. But that’s not because of the triumph of Communism. Don’t you think it would have happened without Communism? Why, it was already beginning to happen when Marx wrote, but he did not notice. So that’s why Communism had to be spread by force—force not only against the bourgeoisie, force against the proletariat too.”

It is clear that the author of Monsignor Quixote is neither a doctrinaire Catholic nor a doctrinaire Communist, like his protagonist. The Mayor brings this out.

“You do believe all that nonsense—God, the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception?”

“I want to believe. And I want others to believe.”


“I want them to be happy.”

“Let them drink a little vodka, then. That’s better than make-believe.”

“The vodka wears off. It’s wearing off even now.”

“So does belief…. Belief dies away, like a desire for a woman.”

The point of Monsignor Quixote is that here are two fellow travelers. What they share is not belief but doubt. As the father thinks to himself, “sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter fights only with himself.” This is not rank heresy; Greene understands that belief and doubt are not absolute foes. There is a symbiotic relationship between belief and doubt; in some sense doubt is essential to belief. Even the mayor wants to believe in unadulterated Communism; the Stalinists, he says, at least don’t dilute their doctrine and act wishy-washy. They are like the old monks, who were cruel but of the loftiest of convictions.

Unfortunately, a new ingredient in Greene’s later works and interviews is the uncritical echo of elite banalities. One would have thought Greene’s spiritual depth and anti-establishment iconoclasm strong enough to protect him from this social disease. Perhaps the frontiers of his resistance have lowered as he has gotten older. A man of eighty cannot endure the cultural climate as well as a man of forty.

Monsignor Quixote, for instance, has an utterly conventional and inane discussion of contraception.”Has sperm a soul? When a man makes love he kills a million spermatozoa—minus one. It’s lucky for heaven that there’s such a lot of waste or it might become severely overpopulated.” Blah, blah, blah. The point is not that he opposes Catholic doctrine. The point is that he coughs up every cliche and buzzword imaginable. He even does it with the delicious thrill of heresy, as though he is choosing something difficult and dangerous to oppose. Wake up, Greene, you’re not living during the Inquisition. Today it takes guts to stand with the Church’s teaching, not against it. Greene’s sorry discussion ends on an appropriately sorry note, “I would feel queasy for a time if I killed a man without adequate reason, but I think I would feel uneasy for a whole a lifetime if I fathered an unwanted child.”

In March 1985 the New York Times Magazine caught up with Greene and he filled its pages with more of this stuff. He was lucky that he was old and near death because this way he thought he would escape nuclear holocaust. He didn’t like Americans because they were so damned innocent. “This Pope is a horror,” he noted about John Paul II, and as for Reagan, he was nothing more than a television creation, a Hollywood chimera. Kim Philby sold out his country, but at least “He was a traitor for a cause that he believed in,” he didn’t do it for money.

Greene has also acknowledged that his Catholic beliefs are eroding. “I must say, my faith is declining as I get nearer to death,” he said in 1984. At least he is honest in acknowledging that to walk away from Catholic doctrine and teaching is to walk away from Catholicism. He is not like those who pretend that their rebellion against the traditional teachings of the Church are in the interest of “true” Catholicism. Greene now professes to be a great admirer of Kung et al.; ironically, his recent remarks confirm how unsuccessful is the ideology of these dissident theologians in keeping a fertile mind within the Church. Greene now claims he is consumed with boredom; he knows, however, that “sooner or later the terrible moment will arrive.” He feels it whenever he is done with a book manuscript and it is released for the world to judge. But the ultimate trial is still to come; then not just the novels but their author will be judged. He is uncertain if he will be convicted or acquitted.

Greene retains, however, a capacity to recognize the power of things larger than ourselves, even if their meaning is ever more ambiguous. One of his close friends, a Catholic, tells the story of Greene paying a visit some time ago to the famous Italian priest, Padre Pio. Pio, now dead, was known for his stigmata—bleeding in the wrists and side similar to Christ’s bleeding during the crucifixion. Locating Pio’s village, Greene attended Mass, and when the host was raised, Padre Pio began to bleed. Greene was horrified and ran out of the church. He went to a bar to get a drink. He was getting ready to leave when a young priest caught up with him. “I have a message from Padre Pio,” he said. “It is this: Be at peace. God does not ask anything from us we cannot give Him.” Greene has never recounted this true story. Indeed, when asked about it he denied it; when it was published he protested in a letter to the editor—was rebutted by a witness. This episode has become blurred and confused, but perhaps that says less about the reliability of witnesses than about Greene’s ability to cope with such an encounter.

Ultimately the only response is to forgive Greene his banalities—that is the Christian, though not exactly Communist, thing to do. He is dealing with themes of Augustinian dimension—attempting to resolve the contradictions between the City of God and the City of Man—and it is only natural that his guard would relax once in a while. When Greene is taut, he is very taut: both his prose and his argument draw the reader to their ineluctable, exhilarating conclusion.

Here is a scene in which Monsignor Quixote and Sancho visit the tomb of General Franco.

As they walked back to the car Sancho asked, “Did you say a prayer?”

“Of course.”

“The same prayer as you said earlier for the Generalissimo?”

“There is only one prayer we need say for anyone dead.”

“So you said it for Stalin?”

“Of course.”

“And for Hitler?”

“There are degrees of evil, Sancho—and of good. We can try to discriminate between the living, but with the dead we can’t discriminate. They all have the same need of our prayer.”

This passage is vintage Greene, and it moves Catholics, atheists, Communists, and conservatives alike. It confirms that for all Greene’s foibles he remains a great writer concerned with eternal problems. He should get the Nobel Prize, and before Gunter Grass, or Nadine Gordimer, or John Updike.

When Dante wrote his Divine Comedy, he said explicitly that his poem was intended to make people pray better. Greene has more modest goals for his work. He believes, unlike Dante, that it is the duty of the novelist to be a thorn in the side of orthodoxy, so as to stimulate re-examination of old truths. Greene’s reputation will not last forever, but at least for a while, it has usefully concentrated the minds of thinking men on the line that runs between Catholicism and Communism, between good and evil, between the political demands of this world and the spiritual calling of the next. Ultimately, Greene knows, such a line runs through the center of each man’s heart.

  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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