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Ann M. BegleyMarch 30, 2009

As soon as Graham Greene—an English writer of international status and perhaps the most celebrated Catholic layman of the 20th century—died in 1991 at the age of 86, the presses began churning out conflicting accounts of who and what he was. It is a widely held view that to fathom Greene’s life, one need only decode his fiction. Indeed, as the Joseph Conrad scholar Norman Sherry illustrates in his authorized biography of Graham Greene, there is a strong affiliation between the personal history of the novelist and the fictive world he created. As he himself proclaimed, “I am my books.”

The problem is that the lens through which a reader peers is unique, invariably coated with prejudice of one kind or another: Whereas the Rev. Leopoldo Durán’s account (Graham Greene: Friend and Brother) approaches hagiography, Michael Sheldon has written (Graham Greene: The Enemy Within) what Joyce Carol Oates would call a “pathography,” a sinister portrait of a dishonorable man whose entire life was based on deception, his Catholic faith being nothing more than one of the multiple masks that he wore.

Just as the dust had settled and we had come to believe that we—each with his own clouded glass—knew all that we were going to know about the author of The Heart of the Matter (1948), along comes Graham Greene: A Life in Letters (W. W. Norton, $35). A biography of sorts, constructed in part out of the novelist’s own words and replete with photographs, this collection of personal letters (including many that were unavailable to his official biographer) is edited, well documented and engagingly annotated by Richard Greene (no relation), who points out that his subject once estimated that he wrote about 2,000 letters a year. Greene’s prose here—in striking contrast to his published writings—tends at times to be flat. We are reminded that letters are generally written in a single draft, and many in this book were actually dictated and later transcribed by a secretary. They nonetheless are of great interest in that they reveal the novelist’s personal, literary, religious and political concerns over a period of 70 years. Greene discusses the craft of writing with some of the outstanding literary figures of his day and describes in detail his travels around the world. The letters also give evidence of his anti-Americanism, his support of the infamous traitor Kim Philby, his inexplicable fondness for certain Latin American dictators and his involvement with British Intelligence—which engendered both Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Human Factor (1978).

The portrait painted is of an elusive and exceedingly complex, enigmatic, courteous and caring man, an inveterate traveler who was torn apart by longing and brought low by bipolar disorder—which is probably what prompted Malcolm Muggeridge to remark that Greene had a dual personality that he was unable to fuse into any kind of harmony. “Graham was a man of strong appetites,” the editor of this volume comments, “often made utterly unmanageable by bipolar illness.”

To escape the spiritual angst that tormented him from boyhood on, an inner void bordering on despair that Baudelaire termed ennui and Sherry describes as “a fall in spirit of an unalterable intensity, a kind of plague spot,” Greene resorted to a variety of diversions—alcohol, opium, tawdry sexual adventures, attempted suicide and voyages to dangerous areas of the world, “where life,” he observed, “was reinforced by the propinquity of death.” Writing also was an escape from “the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” It was perhaps this spiritual blackness—a major theme in this book—together with his sporadic lack of orthodoxy that led some to conclude that Greene’s faith was a sham. The love letters—first to Vivien, who became his wife after a two-year courtship, then to the beautiful American Catherine Walston, who pervaded his thoughts for more than a decade—manifest a painful longing for a lasting, reciprocal passion.

Greene’s Catholicism has engendered endless controversy. An atheist, he took instruction in the faith—which he would later describe as “a malign virus from which one could never be cured”—to understand better the beliefs of his fiancée and, in short, to please her. Accepting Catholicism on an intellectual level, he was received into the church when he was 22. As he matured, however, he was often referred to as a religious maverick who kept one foot in the church while identifying with such ecclesiastical dissidents as Hans Küng and liberation theologians in Latin America. His fiction reveals a vacillating belief that was, as the author himself strongly suggests, undoubtedly affected by his continual disregard of the church’s moral precepts regarding sexuality. With increasing doubt as to the existence of a loving God, he nonetheless continued to attend Mass periodically, eventually describing himself as a “Catholic agnostic.” It is worth noting that the unnamed minor character in The Quiet American (1955) who, fearful of an imminent death, seeks out a priest to hear his confession, is, Greene’s diary reveals, the novelist himself.

Early on, Greene took to writing fast-paced thrillers—“entertainments” he called them. The best known among these are A Gun for Sale (1936; U.S. title, This Gun for Hire), The Confidential Agent (1939) and The Ministry of Fear (1943). His first novel with a Catholic theme, Brighton Rock (1938), is at the same time an exploration of good and evil and a psychological thriller. In it the author probes “the appalling...mystery of the mercy of God” moving through a ravaged world. It was undoubtedly T. S. Eliot’s support of the thriller as a reputable literary form that encouraged Greene to experiment with it.

The travel book The Lawless Roads (1939; U.S. title, Another Mexico), a report on the persecution of the church in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco by the Socialist government in power, became a sketch book for The Power and the Glory (1940), a serious novel that employs all the conventions of a first-rate thriller. In both the fictional and the historical accounts, any semblance of religious adherence is outlawed, and priests who do not submit to laicization and marriage are summarily executed. It is through the moving story of a priest on the run—the so-called whiskey priest who in a moment of loneliness has fathered a child—that the novelist examines the function of the priesthood as a medium of grace, placing in relief the distinction between the man and his office. The Power and the Glory was condemned by the Holy Office on the grounds that the work was injurious to the priesthood and that the book “portrays a state of affairs so paradoxical, so extraordinary, and so erroneous as to disconcert unenlightened persons, who form the majority of readers.” The author was instructed not to permit further editions or translations. Greene composed a “casuistical” response, pointing out that he had already sold the translation rights and so no longer had any control over them. He sent a copy of his response to the influential Monsignor Montini (later Pope Paul VI), who defended the book, shielding Greene from the Holy Office. During a private interview, Pope Paul VI told the novelist that there would always be things in his books that some Catholics would find offensive, but that he should not let that bother him. The aim of his novel, Greene explained, was “to oppose the power of the sacraments and the indestructibility of the Church on the one hand with, on the other, the merely temporal power of an essentially Communist state. “

The Vatican quietly dropped the matter. In his lecture “Virtue of Disloyalty” (1969) Greene affirms the necessity of the artist’s freedom. Literature has nothing to do with edification, he insists. Catholic novelists (he prefers to say novelists who are Catholic) should, he urges, take Newman as their patron. When defending the teaching of literature in a Catholic university, the cardinal declared that “...if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man.”

Greene was sometimes accused of heresy when his characters espoused an unorthodox interpretation of the Catholic creed or value system. The publication of A Burnt-Out Case (1961) distressed Evelyn Waugh immensely: he viewed the novel as a confession of disbelief and strongly suggested that the author was “finished as a Catholic.” Greene wrote to his friend of many years to assure him that this was not the case; he merely wanted to give expression to various states of belief and disbelief. “If people are so impetuous as to regard this book as a recantation of faith, I cannot help it. Perhaps they will be surprised to see me at Mass.”

The End of the Affair (1951), clearly a close transcript of Greene’s relationship with Catherine Walston, deals with the secret love affair of a middle-aged novelist, who narrates the story, and a married woman. A third protagonist, though invisible and mute, the Deus Absconditus, plays the strongest role. As in Paul Claudel’s The City, some of the writings of Evelyn Waugh and Marguerite Yourcenar, as well as much of the work of François Mauriac—who maintained that there is only one Love—The End of the Affair expresses the belief that human love, which cannot satisfy the universal inner longing, is in some arcane way a search for God.

For tax purposes, reasons of health and a desire to be closer to Yvonne Cloetta, with whom he had formed a relationship that lasted over three decades, Greene moved to France in 1966, maintaining apartments in Paris and Antibes as well as a house in Anacapri. Shedding dogma after dogma, he was wont to say that he had “excommunicated” himself and joined “the Foreign Legion of the Church.” In his old age, however, Greene returned to the sacraments and together with Durán made an annual retreat at a Trappist monastery. (It is their friendship that forms the basis for the picaresque novel Monsignor Quixote [1982], a work that deals with age, death and illusion.) The editor remarks that there are those who are of the opinion that Greene did this just to please his clerical friend. Perhaps. Months before he died, the novelist confided to the literary scholar Alberto Huerta, S.J., whose opinions about politics in Central America he shared, “Really the only link I feel I have with the Catholic Church now is the Jesuit Order.” Nevertheless following Greene’s instructions, as he lay dying of leukemia at a hospital on the shores of Lake Geneva, Durán was summoned to his side to administer the last rites of the church.

Graham Greene’s vast oeuvre consists of more than 25 novels or entertainments, novellas, short stories, plays, children’s books, numerous literary and political essays, a biography, screen scenarios, travel books, hundreds of book and film reviews and two volumes of autobiography (in which very little of his personal life is revealed). Although he explored a variety of genres, it is mainly for his fiction that he is known—as well as the masterly film scripts for “The Fallen Idol” (1948) and “The Third Man” (1949). The recipient of a plethora of awards, he was repeatedly considered for the highest literary honor, the Nobel Prize, but each time, this editor notes, his nomination was blocked by “the anti-Catholic Artur Lundkvist.” Still, François Mauriac’s Catholicism did not stop him from receiving this honor. There is another explanation: some academic critics, ignoring Greene’s deep spiritual insight and artistic intensity, dismiss his work as mere entertainment because he used the thriller as a vehicle of serious thought.

Considered to be one of the greatest Catholic writers of the century, Graham Greene continually disputed church teaching, chafing under papal infallibility. He disapproved of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but was drawn to the Mass. As he aged he explained that he had less and less belief every day but more and more faith. Eventually even that seemed to slip away. The malign virus seemingly cured, or almost so, he nonetheless repeatedly declared, “I don’t believe that death is the end of everything.” Readers of this volume may find Greene’s spiritual ambivalence unsettling, but whatever his personal spiritual struggle was, the work he produced is, paradoxically, that of a Catholic writer.

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