A Polished Dissenter

Collected Essays including The Lost Childhood

by Graham Greene
Viking, 463 pp., $7.95

As a novelist, playwright, and traveler, Graham Greene has something like a neo-romantic’s appetite for the disasters and the betrayals of the contemporary world. People and places are sardonically tested for damnation; his ingenious talent has dramatized the old Calvinist thrill. No wonder that the Stevenson of Weir of Hermiston has been one of his masters. No one sees life as exactingly, as indignantly, or as comically as the dissenter; a few have Greene’s half-laughing or pitying regard for character. But how many of his now huge audience know him in the very different, sagacious role of the bookish man or as a literary critic and essayist? He has gone through the English mill.

His Collected Essays contain a selection of these writings, done mainly for the London weeklies or as introductions, during the last thirty years; there are also a traveler’s portraits—of two Popes, Philby, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, and others. All display the well-known obsessions which have given him originality and verve as a novelist; all—or nearly all—have the final sympathy which a real curiosity about human nature deposits in an observant mind.

In the manner of English periodical criticism, where the writer has to get at an essence, show his wit and his hand, and make his decisive effect with alacrity in fewer than 2000 scrupulous words Greene engages at once: “A man must be judged by his enmities as well as by his friendships.” Himself he cannot resist the attractions of the enemy. He is before anything a novelist-critic, that is to say he writers to discover something for his purposes which might not be ours. His reviews are an artist’s raids; he has the gay eye of the raider and will often pause before the corpse of his victim to note a quality or to ask what went wrong.

He has a cheerful, almost cannibal appetite for rationalists. All rationalists, figures like Butler and Havelock Ellis, are conceited and emotionally arid for him; then, among rhetoricians he cannot forgive Kipling; among sentimentalists, Barrie. Of the “greatly gifted they are the two who have written with most falsity of human relationships.” Unresolved hatreds or infantile secrets have ruined them. Butler has the smugness of the Honest Man: “Even Christianity would not be considered dispassionately because it is the history of a Father and a Son.” Herbert Read, who has hailed so many fashions in painting and literature, had himself supplied (in his grave books on childhood and his Life of Wordsworth) “the standards of permanence by which these fashions will be condemned.” Whether they add or ruffle, Greene’s opinions have an artist’s necessity in them. Let the academics weigh up, be exhaustive, or build their superstructures—the artist lives as much by his pride in his own emphasis as by what he ignores; humility is a disgrace.

Greene has a marked loyalty to writers who have influenced him and to those who are out of fashion. He is free of the snobbery that pretends it has had…

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