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Graham Greene was a great novelist of a special kind. Unlike many literary practitioners in this century, he did not experiment with language, subvert traditional narrative, or choose exotic subjects. He simply used the powerful imagination that led him to speak of his work as a “guided dream.” That imagination—fired, at least during the great middle years, by intense moral and religious perception—made Greene’s fiction the best-realized portrayal in its time of the drama of the human soul.

Greene’s own inner life was conflicted and obscure. A stint in MI6, the British intelligence service, during World War II further complicated an already mysterious private world. Kim Philby, Greene’s supervisor for part of the war would defect to the Soviet Union fifteen years later, and Greene spent much of his life offering limp apologies for his friend and the cause for which he betrayed his country. When Greene wrote an introduction to the English edition of Philby’s autobiography, he basically excused the treason as the result of idealism. In his later years Greene flirted (and more than flirted) with the Soviets, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and the Sandinistas, up to the very moment that communism was on its last legs. The same writer who had written a moving account of Communist atrocities against the Catholic Church in Mexico during the 1930s became an advocate of the slack Christian-Marxist “dialogue” of the 1980s. Despite the impressive labors of Norman Sherry, Greene’s authorized biographer, and most recently W. J. West, the man remains an enigma, wrapped inside a mystery.

Greene was born in 1904 in Berkhamsted. His father was headmaster of the private school Greene attended, setting up a classic Greene conflict: loyalty to his father versus the impossible desire to be one of the boys. In his stunning travel book on Mexico, The Lawless Roads, Greene reveals that he asked for faith at Berkhamsted and got it with a characteristic twist: “I began to believe in Heaven because I believed in Hell.”

Some kind of breakdown occurred at sixteen, perhaps the result of tension at school. He lived for six months with self-proclaimed Jungian analyst Kenneth Richmond and his attractive wife, Zoe. Richmond was a quack with no formal training. And something happened between Greene and Zoe. Rumors circulated that one of the Richmond children was Greene’s—an unpromising start for a man prone to impossible romantic longings.

Seemingly as a defense against depression, Greene became filled—as he would be throughout his life—with wanderlust. While an Oxford undergraduate, Greene got himself hired to do espionage in Ireland and in French-occupied Germany in exchange for free travel. He briefly joined the Communist party, partly in the hope of a free trip to Moscow (though he may well have been working, West believes, for British intelligence as a double agent).

Greene had always been interested in Catholicism, and when he married Vivienne Dayrell Browning, a Catholic convert, he converted as well. Yet nothing—love, religion, foreign travel, intrigue—could ever quiet some deep restlessness within Greene. It was not mere youthful bravado that made him write to Vivienne during their courtship: “The only thing worth doing at the moment seems to be to go and get killed somehow in an exciting manner.” He had played Russian roulette at home after his psychoanalysis and perhaps later at Oxford.

Nonetheless, he was beginning to make his way. After a couple of flops, Greene deliberately courted success with Stamboul Train (1932), a book aimed at moviegoers. But he hit his full stride with The Power and the Glory (1940), the story of a whiskey priest during the Mexican Revolution, tormented by his own cowardice and weakness, who eventually dies, after one act of religious heroism, in front of a Communist firing squad.

In The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), the other two books in what is sometimes thought of as a trilogy of his middle years, Greene began writing about a question closer to home: adultery and its effects on religious belief. Though Greene and his wife lived together for a dozen years and had two children, around 1940 he began an affair with Dorothy Glover. He later claimed that the strain of overwork broke up the marriage, but it seems truer to say that a side of Greene’s personality had opened up that would always torment him.

Greene quoted Charles Péguy as an epigraph to The Heart of the Matter: “The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity . . . . No one is as competent as the sinner in Christian affairs. No one, except the saint.” Some readers thought that the honorable police officer Scobie in that novel was meant as a portrait of a saint. But Scobie’s dilemma, torn as a Catholic between his duties to his wife and his promises to a desperate young woman with whom he is having an affair, may reflect an ambivalence in Greene himself. Scobie’s solution—disguised suicide—recalls a constant temptation.

Without breaking off either his marriage or his affair with Glover, in 1946 Greene began a simultaneous affair with a stunningly beautiful Catholic convert, Catherine Walston, who was also his goddaughter. He dedicated The End of the Affair to her. In the book, a writer is having an affair with a neighbor’s wife. He and the neighbor have a strange friendship, as did Greene and Catherine’s husband. When a German bomb hits the building where the lovers are meeting, the woman spontaneously prays to God that she will change her life if only her lover is not dead. Almost miraculously, he is not. But this sets off a titanic tug-of-war in several characters’ souls about the relative claims of human and divine love.

The End of the Affair was a scandalous success, so much so that some Catholic wags complained that it gave the impression Christ had said: “If you love me, break my commandments.” Greene and Walston were certainly busy doing that. Greene began rationalizing the affair, even getting advice from some priests that it was all right to go to confession again and again knowing he would immediately resume the liaison. Greene’s earlier sense of the acute tension between earthly and heavenly impulses gradually slid into a much more lax Catholicism.

This character flaw weakened his art, as he himself might have predicted. One of his central contentions as a literary critic was that after the seventeenth century the novel had degenerated because of a lack of religious seriousness. Only in the nineteenth century, when orthodox religious belief reappeared, were the fullness and depth of the human soul again available to writers. For all their vagaries about religion, Dickens, Hardy, Conrad, Lawrence, and James had all benefited from it. By contrast, he argued, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster’s characters “wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin.”

Politics began to replace the drama of the soul in Greene’s writings by the 1950s. The Quiet American (1956), though not as purely anti-American as often thought, does foreshadow a growing indulgence towards communism. Our Man in Havana (1958) pokes fun at the world of espionage. Behind this “entertainment,” however, hangs a sense of foreboding about British, American, and other shadowy intelligence forces. Greene was primed for the advent of Fidel Castro, whom he would later defend.

Greene’s only other truly important novel, A Burnt-Out Case, is set in a leper colony in Africa where the architect Querry (read: query) has fled following the failure of his gift as a designer of churches. Believing in nothing, he tries to help with the patients and is mistakenly characterized as a saint by the European media. Perhaps Greene was feeling unworthy of veneration himself. A Burnt-Out Case was the last gasp of a great talent. The later novels—The Honorary Consul (1973), The Human Factor (1978), Monsieur Quixote (1982)—all lack the spiritual depth and emotional fireworks of vintage Greene. They lapse into sloppy ideology and gestures toward a vague liberation theology.

In a 1987 speech Greene gave in Moscow, he claimed to have observed a new thing: “We are fighting—Roman Catholics are fighting—together with Communists, and working together with Communists. We are fighting together against the Death Squads in El Salvador. We are fighting together against the Contras in Nicaragua. We are fighting together against General Pinochet in Chile.” Gorbachev, who was present at this speech, was only two years away from pulling the plug on the Latin Communists, their Catholic sympathizers, and his own USSR. Greene concluded: “I even have a dream, Mr. General Secretary, that perhaps one day before I die, I shall know that there is an Ambassador of the Soviet Union giving good advice at the Vatican.”

W. J. West raises the possibility that Greene may have been working as a double agent with British Intelligence all this time, giving the impression of left-wing sympathies for information-gathering purposes. But that seems quite improbable on West’s own showing. Just before the re-election of Ronald Reagan in 1984, for example, Greene told a Spanish priest that, if he died, he wanted it known that he would have become a Communist if Reagan were returned to office. Around the same time, Greene told Malcolm Muggeridge that Russia only destroyed the Church’s body, while America destroyed its soul. Norman Sherry remarks, “How could his subtle mind engage in such intellectual folly?”

In the end, it’s baffling. Greene’s insight into the human soul could be as acute as any contemporary’s. But his trajectory presents a cautionary tale. Before communism started to break up, Greene had openly admired those Polish Catholics who collaborated with the Communist regime. Such political misjudgments, along with his desire to absolve himself for his own sins, made him unsympathetic to the vision of the human person held up by John Paul II. It comes as no surprise that Greene characterized the Pope’s views on sexual matters as “unimaginative and unkind.”

Greene’s character flaws and Cold War fantasies led to the extinction of a great gift. He went from being the premier English novelist of the soul to an enabler of later and lesser lights who let their appetites and resentments rule their talents. Someday, we will be in a better position to winnow the wheat from the chaff in Greene’s rich oeuvre. For the moment, however, he is a sad reminder of much that went awry in the second half of our century.

Image by FOTO:Fortepan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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