In Memoriam: Graham Greene

I learned of his death when at Mass someone invited our prayers for the repose of the soul of “the Catholic novelist, Graham Greene.” Would he have accepted that description? He seems to have spent the decades since his best novels, those which established him as a Catholic writer, trying to distance himself from the label. Was he in any serious sense of the term still a Catholic? God only knows.

Graham Greene was a truly great novelist, dramatist and short story writer whose haunting creations tell us many truths about the human heart, most but not all unsavory. His themes, characters and settings were conveyed in writing of rare technical excellence — you can learn how to write by analyzing his work. He was also one of the great self-publicists of modern letters, but in an indirect manner. Unlike J.D. Salinger, who intrigues the press by always staying out of its reach, Greene succumbed again and again, as if reluctantly, to being interviewed. In early essays, in two works of autobiography, in such interviews as those with Marie-Francoise Allain published as The Other Man, in Sherry’s still uncompleted Big Mac of a biography, Greene returned again and again to the central points in what he wished to be the official version of his life: boyhood as the son of the head-master, attempts at suicide, his psycho-analysis, his conversion to Catholicism and failed marriage, the vacillation between Communism and the Church, his mistress. (Interviewers chatted in the present tense with Greene about his mistress — referred to as Y — when the novelist was in his eighties, so much had she become a part of the myth.) It is impossible to watch this official version jell over the years without seeing it as yet another novel by Graham Greene.

When he died the other day at the age of 86 he was far better known than most of those who have received the Nobel prize that was denied him. His last book, fittingly titled The Last Word, recalled the peculiar voice and vision that had won him millions of readers. It is an enigmatic voice, one that denies as it affirms, that sees human beings as betrayers of one another and life as the perpetual possibility of moral failure. He was fitfully intrigued by political explanations of human existence, but from first to last he saw the essential drama of life in terms of the small betrayals of small people, one at a time.

It was an Augustinian universe, a tale of two cities, and if Greene sometimes saw the contrast in mundane political terms, he kept before his reader the sense that this is a Vale of Tears, that we have here no lasting city. Beginning with Brighton Rock and continuing through The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and ending with A Burnt-Out Case, Greene wrote a series of novels that only a Catholic could have written. There is nothing standard about the Catholicism conveyed in these novels — a twisted petty crook, a whisky priest, a man offering his own damnation for others, a narrator robbed of his mistress by her conversion and finally Quarry, in whom many saw Greene bidding adieu to his role as Catholic novelist. It is hard to imagine a time when these novels will not be read. They form the basis for calling Greene a Catholic writer.

The turning point is The Honorary Counsel, whose motto, taken from Thomas Hardy, “All things merge in one another — good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics,” contradicts the assumptions of The Power and the Glory, and picks up another side of Greene, alternately querulous and comic, that began with The Third Man, continued with Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American and The Comedians, reaching its nadir in The Captain and the Enemy — a multi-faceted anti-Americanism that led him to flirt unconvincingly with Communism.

Nonetheless, the question is not so much whether Greene was a Catholic writer as what kind he was. “As between me and Greene,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “there is a difference of fictions certainly and probably a difference of theological emphasis as well. If Greene created an old lady, she would be sour through and through and if you dropped her, she would break, but if you dropped my old lady, she’d bounce back at you, screaming ‘Jesus loves me!’ I think the basis of the way I see is comic regardless of what I do with it; Greene’s is something else.” But Greene had a comic gift as well, even with old ladies (see Travels With My Aunt). Indeed, it is his range that almost surprises when one looks over his oeuvre now that it is complete: stories, novels, plays, essays, autobiography, even letters to the editor (Yours Etc.: Letters to the Press 1945-1989) and pamphlets (J’Accuse). Early on, he distinguished between his novels and what he called “entertainments” — e.g., This Gun for Hire, Stamboul Train, The Confidential Agent, and The Ministry of Fear — but he dropped this, perhaps recognizing that his serious novels used the structure of the thriller or melodrama and his thrillers never failed to go beyond mere titillation of the reader. I wonder if any English writer since Dickens has been as popular in this country.

Greene made a fortune as a writer — living at Antibes, with an apartment in Paris and a house in Capri — but wealth like fame and popularity seems to have given him only equivocal delight. He read the papers, kept up on Church gossip (he favored birth control and celibacy, thought Hans Ming might be called a Christian but not a Catholic theologian), dined daily at Chez Felix au Port, wrote on his dining room table, drank, was interviewed. He might have been a character in one of his stories — in fact he was, in several collected in May We Borrow Your Husband?

Rereading Greene, one is struck by the intricacy and skill of his creations. He once defined style as the knack of concealing one’s weaknesses as a writer. On that basis alone he must be accounted a consummate stylist. His range was what it was, his material that of a man who seldom sat still, who set few stories in his native country, who almost never wrote of families. The landscape of his imagination has become familiar to millions. “What he does, I think, is try to make religion respectable to the modern unbeliever by making it seedy. He succeeds so well in making it seedy that then he has to save it by the miracles.” Thus, Flannery O’Connor on The Potting Shed but she might have been speaking of The End of the Affair as well.

Evelyn Waugh, in a diary entry of January 11, 1948, gives us this vignette. “Mass at 12 at Farm Street where I met a shambling, unshaven and as it happened quite penniless figure of Graham Greene. Took him to the Ritz for a cocktail and gave him 6d for his hat. He had suddenly been moved by love of Africa and emptied his pockets into the box for African missions.” I imagine him shuffling off up the street, like Harry Lime, and disappearing. May he rest in peace.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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