(This is a version of a recent article in The Tablet).
There have been some pretty galumphing attempts to write the life of Graham Greene, in which his complicated sex life seemed more important to the prolix authors than his novels.
What was needed was what we now have, (Russian Roulette, by Richard Greene, no relation, Little Brown ) a one-volume, well-balanced biography which never loses hold of why we might want to read a book about Graham Greene: namely, that he wrote six or seven truly brilliant books, and was responsible, with Carol Reed, for what is surely one of the best films ever made, The Third Man.
A biography of such a man needs to take into account his large family, his headmaster father, his many (quite rum) siblings, – one a fascist, one Director General of the BBC, ,- his unhappy marriage, his compulsive disloyalty as a husband, his alcohol- and barbiturates-dependency, his addiction to the seedy, his string of mistresses, his sympathy for his old chum the traitor Philby, his fondness for Castro, his belief that he’d rather live in the Soviet Union than in the USA . Above all, the biographer, and the reader of such a book, would need to be aware of Greene’s consummate skill at arranging the material of his own life ; his genius for self-promotion disguised as a quest for privacy; self-dramatization portrayed as a spiritual quest.
All these things the new biography by Richard Greene, a Canadian professor who is no relation, competently, unpretentiously and briskly does. But Richard Greene never loses sight of the central thing about Graham Greene, namely that he was first and foremost a novelist ; surely one of the best novelists, in any language, of his generation. The sheer technical brilliance with which the stories unfold in The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock make them object lessons in how to frame a narrative . There is also the distinctive view of the world which made Greene, for some, the great Catholic novelist, for others, a mountebank, capable of peddling theological paradox for sensationalist effect. When he worked as a publisher at Eyre and Spottiswood, his colleague Douglas Jerrold, another Catholic, felt that Greene’s novels trivialised religion, and missed “the essence of a Catholic life”.
The film of The Third Man which is a wonderful achievement, would not have been possible had not, with one part of his fantasy life, the author actually shared Harry Lime’s cynicism. “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”. Orwell found Greene’s outlook snobbish : “Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only” , since everyone else was too invincibly ignorant to be damned.
It is probably difficult at this historical distance to realize that Greene was regarded by some of his contemporaries, not merely as an accomplished popular novelist, but also as a religious sage. Pope Paul VI was a fan – or so Greene claimed. Equally satisfying., however, were the regular denunciations which senior Catholic figures could be relied upon to supply, to the delight of Greene’s publicity machine. When The Heart of the Matter was banned in Ireland, it went on to sell 300,000 copies.
Similar success was guaranteed when the Holy Office condemned The Power and the Glory,.
You could have replied, to these responses from “Disgusted of Citta Vaticana” that the books were , after all, only novels, not essays in theology. Some of Greene’s friends and admirers, within the Catholic fold,however, clearly considered Greene’s books to be something more than mere entertainments. Evelyn Waugh, the new biography reminds us, believed that Greene had an “apostolic mission”. Edith Sitwell, another convert, wrote to him, “I said before, but I repeat it, what a great priest you would have made”.
Many must have questioned the melodramatic way in which Greene manipulated, for sensationalist effect, the idea expressed by Charles Peguy, that the sinner was as close to God as the saint. Peguy was first invoked, in Greene’s published work, by the old priest hearing Rose’s confession at the end of Brighton Rock. “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the appalling… strangeness of the mercy of God”. From here, apparently, it was only a step to Time magazine’s article on the publication of The End of the Affair: “NOVELIST GRAHAM GREENE: Adultery can lead to sainthood”.
If this doctine is true , Greene, long before he died, must have been well on his way to sanctification . Evelyn Waugh, who expressed the view to a friend that Greene was a saint, was asked “But, what about Mrs Walston? ” This was the vampish Catherine Walston, one of Greene’s longest-standing mistresses, who herself became a Catholic. The new biography reminds us, “A wisecrack went round that they had made love behind all the high altars of Europe”. Waugh’s reply to his censorious friend was this. “In the middle ages, there was a Pope who was so holy that he felt in danger of people revering his sanctity, which would lead to spiritual pride. So he took to appearing in the streets of Rome wearing a ridiculous paper hat, so that no one could take him too seriously. Mrs Walston is Graham’s paper hat”.
It was a charming observation, but this new biography makes it clear that the melodrama of the whisky priest bringing salvation to the poor Mexicans for whom he said his slurred mass; or of the posthumous miracles wrought by Catherine Walston, transformed into Sarah in The End of the Affair, were not fantasies kept solely within the pages of his fiction. “To be a saint is the only happiness”, Greene told his Journal. “Oh Christ, if one could set one’s ambition at goodness – so that financial worry meant nothing more than failure at tennis”… This was a man who drove ruthlessly hard bargains with his publishers, and accumulated vast sums from his film deals, even though so much of his fortune was lost through his foolishly putting his financial affairs in the hands of a swindler. (The swindler, Tom Roe, squirreled Greene’s money in Switzerland to avoid paying tax),.In the long, tormented affair with Mrs Walston, which brought great misery to Greene, and to all involved, the pair continued to read de Caussade and von Hugel and to have what sound like cringeworthy theological conversations with one another and with their many priest friends, one of whom (the Dominican scholar Thomas Gilby OP) Catherine complicated matters by seducing. The sentence in this new biography which really encapsulates the man in one sentence comes when he was researching The Lawless Roads in Mexico in the 1930s. “Greene went on to Mexico City where, in a characteristic pairing, he made visits to a monastery and a brothel”.
Not content with espousing the paradoxes of Peguy , Greene also swallowed the gobble-de-gook of psychoanalysis, and put himself in the hands of a man who sounds, in the new book, like a real charlatan , Eric Strauss. He also supported Marxist uprisings all round the world, the less plausible the thug or dictator, such as Fidel Castro, the more likely Greene was to admire him just as Greene, unlike others who worked with him in MI6 at the end of the war, continued to defend the treacheries of Kim Philby, which sent many to their deaths. Greene’s zest for paradox did not necessarily blind him to the cruelty of the Soviet system. This was surely part of its appeal to him.
Yet the tension in his imaginative world between Marxism and Catholicism was touchingly fictionalized in the novel Monsignor Quixote, in which the descendant of Sacho Panza is found to be a Communist mayor in contemporary Spain and the descendant of the Man of La Mancha is an obscure priest, raised to the status of Monsignor by a farcical set of mishaps in his remote village. The book sprang out of Greene’s friendship with a priest called Leopoldo Duran.
Their drives through Spain in a battered old car, and their alcoholically fuelled conversations about doubt and faith are among the most moving things Greene ever wrote. In another late novel, The Human Factor, not only did he write one of the best espionage novels, but there is also a domestic warmth. In both these lateish novels, there is a distrust of the hard-edged certainties and neatly drawn stereotypical positions which had so appealed to a younger Greene . Yet it was precisely the hard-edgedness of the Catholic view of the world, embraced in Greene’s early fiction, which made it work so well. Pinkie and Rose, in Brighton Rock both believe in hell but so did their author, else the story would not be so powerful.
Just as Golden Age detective fiction was made sharper by the reader’s knowledge that the murderer, unearthed by Lord Peter Wimsey , was going to be hanged, so Greene’s sharpest Catholic novels were ones in which the doctrine of hell was only tempered by the paradoxical twists of Peguy, and a sense of the divine mercy too deep for understanding.
If Greene’s biographer were analysing his ideas, they would most of them seem to rest on flimsy foundations. Anyone who had spent a day reading Solzhenitsyn, for example, would take Greene’s declared preference for life as Soviet citizen with a pinch of salt. His biographer is especially sound on Greene’s nonsensical political posturings, which would be of importance had he been a politician, just as his theological views can not be disentangled from the imaginative take on the world which produced the novels., From blitzed London in which he lost all his possessions, his books and his house, he wrote to a friend, “London is extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new open spaces, and the rather Mexican effect of ruined churches”.
From Mexico itself he had written, that Christianity in that country is “a dark and tormented and magic cult. But what harm in that? We are too inclined to forget that Christianity is magic – the man raised from the dead, the devils cast out, water turned into wine, an earth religion- the clay mixed with spittle, the body raised again. Perhaps these dark crosses had more in them of original Christianity than our aseptic rational variety”.
In both these quotations from Greene’s private writings, we can see the imagination at work which, when exquisitely crafted into fictions or films, would grow into that distinctive atmosphere of “Greene-land”.ENDS