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The Devil’s advocate in English fiction

Manas Das |

An April morning in 1991. In a private hospital room in Switzerland, a Spanish priest bends over an elderly Englishman in a coma, administering the last rites. The dying man knew his end was coming, yet declined to see his estranged wife. His name is known to readers of books in every language, as also millions of theatre-goers and movie fans. He was one of the select few to be awarded the Order of Merit and created a Companion of Honour by the Queen, yet he called himself “a Catholic agnostic”. If he earned fame as a writer, he also earned notoriety as a fraud and libertine. “It is difficult to like Graham Greene and his books,” admitted one of his readers, “almost as difficult as it is to leave any of his books unread, once started.”

It seems significant that in 1926 when he was confirmed as a Catholic, he took the name Thomas — St Thomas the Doubter. Some people think the secret of his popularity is partly due to the fact that he remained a doubting Thomas all his life, in a century that was obsessed by doubt. He compared himself with the boy in Hans Christian Anderson&’s The Snow Queen who has a splinter in his heart and cannot feel anything. Some critics recognise him as the leading English novelist of his generation, while many of his readers agree his was one of the most remarkable careers in 20th century fiction.

While explaining the sustained popularity of Graham Greene (1904-1991), one reviewer of The Times Literary Supplement, Francis Wyndham, said that “everything that he wrote is readable”. Although the Nobel Prize eluded Greene, he was one of the most important literary figures in the 20th century. With more screen adaptations than any other modern writer, translations into 27 languages, and book sales exceeding $20 million, he has enjoyed a combination of critical success and popular acclaim not seen since Charles Dickens. Yet his popular success — which David Lodge in his biography of Greene holds responsible for a “certain academic hostility” towards him — came neither quickly nor easily.

Of Greene&’s initial five novels, the first two were never published and the others sold very poorly. In his autobiographical volume, A Sort of Life, Greene lamented that, in his earlier novels, he did not know “how to convey physical excitement and… the ability to write a simple scene of action was quite beyond my power to render exciting”. Even as late as 1944, he confessed in his introduction to The Tenth Man (1985) that he had no confidence in sustaining a literary career.

A string of literary failures drove Greene to write Stamboul Train (1932), a thriller he hoped would appeal to film producers. The novel, filmed two years later as Orient Express, is recognised by critics as Greene&’s coming-of-age work. Writing in a taut, realistic manner, he set Stamboul Train in contemporary Europe, gathered a train load of plausibly motivated characters and set them on their journey.

Retaining such stock melodramatic devices as cloak-and-dagger intrigue, flight and pursuit, hair-breadth escapes and a breakneck narrative pace, Greene shifted the focus away from the conventional hero — the hunter — and on to the villain and/or ostensible villain. What emerged was less a formula than a set of literary hardware that he would be able to use throughout the rest of his career, not just to produce further entertainment but to help give outward excitement to his more morally centred, more philosophical works.

Stamboul Train was the first of several thrillers Greene referred to as “entertainments” — so named to distinguish them from more serious novels. In his next two entertainments, A Gun for Sale (1936) and The Confidential Agent (1939), he incorporated elements of detective and spy fiction, respectively. He also injected doses of melodrama, detection and espionage into his more serious novels, Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), The End of the Affair (1951), A Burnt-Out Case (1961) and The Human Factor (1978). Indeed, so greatly did Greene&’s entertainments influence his other novels that, after 1958, he dropped the entertainment label.

Intrigue and contemporary politics are key elements of his entertainments. In at least two of his thrillers, Greene eulogised the tranquility of European life before World War I. In The Ministry of Fear (1943), Arthur Rowe talks about the sweet Georgian twilight — “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass — isn’t real life any more” — and continues, “I’m hiding under ground and up above; the Germans are methodically smashing London to bits around me…  It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the thrillers are like life… spies and murders, and violence… that&’s the real life.”

Greene&’s characters inhabit a world in which lasting love, according to the narrator of the story May We Borrow Your Husband? means the acceptance of “every disappointment, every failure, every betrayal”. By his 22nd novel, Doctor Fischer of Geneva (1980), suffering had become sufficient cause for having a soul. When the narrator of Doctor Fischer tells his wife, “If souls exist, you certainly have one,” she asks, “Why?” And he replies, “You’ve suffered.” This statement may sound masochistic as the whiskey priest asserts in The Power and the Glory, “Pain is a part of pleasure,” but as Greene wrote in the essay, Hans Anderson, that it was really the “Catholic ideal of acceptance of pain for a spiritual benefit”. This ideal is behind the saintly Sarah&’s striking statement in The End of the Affair, “How good You (GOD) are! You might have killed us with happiness, but You let us be with You in pain.”

For more than 60 years, Greene has been promoted to the world as a devout Catholic whose deep religious faith, expressed in his different works, highlights the everlasting moral struggle between good and evil. Yet his eligibility to receive the final sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, even though unconscious, must be open to question. The publication of a new volume of letters makes clear that his was a life of gross decadence and hypocrisy, proving again that geniuses are often the most amoral of people. His family and friends were aware that his conversion to Catholicism was not a matter of genuine faith, but an act of expediency to enable him to marry a woman he loved and wanted to get into bed with. Once he had achieved his purpose and his wife became pregnant, he broke his marriage vows and became a serial adulterer with at least 49 prostitutes whose identities are known and with dozens more who remain unknown.

Though Greene denied rumours of his bisexuality, his closest male friend was a homosexual and there is clear evidence that he regularly seduced underage teenage lads on the Italian island of Capri. Greene defended his former MI6 colleague, Communist Kim Philby, heedless of the fact that the latter&’s treachery had cost the lives of scores of innocent British agents. Greene hated “American imperialism”, yet he did not mind pocketing massive sums his works earned in Hollywood. He won no friends by describing the film industry as “an ignoble gang of foreign, Semitic gutter people” when he himself was already earning substantial sums from that same industry. He also hero-worshipped military dictators like Fidel Castro and the drug-dealing Manuel Noriega of Panama who seized power by force.

Greene&’s cynical approach to the Church is at variance with the kind of honours he received by way of a requiem mass at Westminster Cathedral where “a noble attempt was made to place him beside the angels”. Although his Catholicism has generated the most intense critical debate, only five or six of his more than 20 novels actually focus on the religion — Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Monsignor Quixote, and perhaps A Burnt-Out Case. In exploring Catholicism in his fiction, Greene eschewed propaganda. He noted in Ways of Escape that he was “not a Catholic writer but a writer who happens to be Catholic”. That is, Catholicism did not provide a dogma he wished to promulgate in his novels, but instead supplied a framework within which he could measure the human situation.

Greene told Catholic World reviewer Gene D Phillips, “I am not a religious man though it interests me. Religion is important, as atomic science is.” He also said that his period of Catholic novels was preceded and followed by political novels, and these novels forced the writer&’s attention back on the intractable public world around him. In both religion and politics, Greene opposed the dogmatic and the doctrinaire, sided against those who sacrifice the corrupt but living human spirit for a grand but bloodless thesis. In Monsignor Quixote, for example, however much the good-natured priest and the equally good-natured Communist politician quibble, both reject the intellectual rigidities of those whose commitment to their respective causes is ideologically absolute. Monsignor Quixote is at once political and religious in nature; and while nobody denies that The Power and the Glory is one of Greene&’s best Catholic works, it can also be read as a political novel.

Primarily a novelist, he, however, wrote in more than a dozen other genres, including novellas, short stories, plays, radio plays, screenplays, essays, memoirs, biographies, travel books, poetry and children&’s literature. About the short story genre, Greene wrote in Ways of Escape, “I remain in this field a novelist who happens to have written short stories.” He said his stories “are merely the by-products of a novelist&’s career”. But some of his short stories do merit attention and these include The Destructors, A Chance for Mr Lever, Under the Garden, Cheap in August and The Basement Room.

In the last, his depiction of the lost childhood theme is devastating and terrible, but he can also present the same theme in a manner that is devastatingly funny. Such is the case in The Destructors, in which the callous youngster Trevor leads a gang of neigbourhood boys in the systematic dismantling of the house of Mr Thomas – “Old Misery”, as the children call him, a retired builder and decorator. Fully conscious of the historical and cultural significance of the house, Trevor diabolically mobilises the gang of youths to bring the house down, working from the inside “… like worms, don’t you see, in an apple”. Major religious themes of his novels also reappear in the stories. Betrayal and spiritually fatal consequences of choosing a specious innocence over the unalterable fact of the fallen state are the driving forces in The Basement Room. Phillip Lane, a seven-year-old upper-class boy, develops a strong bond of friendship with Baines, the family Butler, while his parents are gone on a fortnight&’s holiday. With Baines, whom he sees as a “buccaneer” and man-of-the world, Phillip feels that he has begun “to live”, and indeed he is initiated into a complex world of love and hate, deceit, the demands of friendship and eventually betrayal.

Greene&’s paradoxical treatment of his major themes within a theological perspective is clearly evident in another short story, The Hint of an Explanation, which develops in the form of a conversation between the narrator, an agnostic, and another passenger, a Roman Catholic, while the two are riding on a train in England. Although he confesses to have occasionally had intuitions of the existence of God, the agnostic is intellectually revolted by the whole notion of “such a God who can so abandon his creatures to the enormities of Free Will”. The question posed by the agnostic is the mystery of evil — why an omniscient God permits it. In response, the Catholic reminds him that the limitations of human understanding make a full answer impossible, though there are hints of an explanation.

Whether the stories are explicitly religious in theme, such as The Hint of an Explanation, or not, or whether Greene chooses to view humanity in a tragic or comic light, the basic vision is the same: human nature is steeped in evil and struggling with the fundamental problems of egotism, love and hate, responsibility and guilt. Whether Greene&’s emphasis is tragic or comic, or a wry mingling of both, the reader is again and again confronted in his fiction with the fundamental mystery of existence on earth, making them at once rich, entertaining and profound.