A Reader’s Guide to Graham Greene
The genre of thrillers and detective stories has strong appeal to deconstructural critics, to whose gimlet eyes its repetitive rituals and devices are wide open. But its more common readers generally make a more downright Johnsonian distinction between those they enjoy and the ones they don’t go for. It is the simple distinction between what is convincing and what is not, what seems “real” and what seems false or made-up. No use the literary lads telling us that it’s all made-up, that the whole thing is composed not of life but of “literariness.” We know what we like, and cling sturdily to the old distinction.
Thus, for me, Raymond Chandler is real, so is even Ian Fleming, so above all is Sherlock Holmes. Unreal and therefore not good are Agatha Christie, Len Deighton, Father Brown, Dorothy Sayers, and too many others. It would take far too long for me to try to rationalize the crude distinction, nor could it be done satisfactorily, but two requirements emerge: one, that the work must have some inner intensity, the need and thus the belief of the writer behind it; and, that the “side effects,” the ones that really matter, should not only have a personal appeal but must exhibit the author’s natural enjoyment, relish, individuality, and curiosity. Ian Fleming’s tense inward phobia contrasts with this pleasure and his capacity for sharing it, so that traveling, drinking, meeting people in his books all become vividly pleasurable to the reader.
Graham Greene has the inner intensity all right, but not, for me, the convincing side effects. All essentially thrillers, his books create their own world, as Conan Doyle’s do, but here the rituals and repetitions are not merely formulaic—a trait common to the genre—but have a deliberate and unremitting monotony about them, like that of the old dentist’s drill. It is as if Greene had hit on the idea of making the properties of the genre itself its penance and its via dolorosa, as if he were telling us that the things we enjoy in thrillers are themselves an earnest of what is most boring, most detestable, and most damned about life. An ingenious device, certainly, for it uses the artifice of the genre against itself, standing the tricks or pleasure and suspense on their heads and making them seem like the monotonous capers of the damned. That, Greene seems to indicate with a sour smile, is how to bring real life into the wholly made-up world of art.
The method has its drawbacks. You cannot parody Conrad, or even, convincingly, Ian Fleming, because the great artist constantly surprises and delights and absorbs us in something new, and even the more modest one has his comparable moments. But a good parody of Graham Greene not only sounds like him but is like him, and would go on being so until the end of a whole book. (Greene once won a New Statesman competition for a parody of his style by sending one himself, anonymously.) He himself is well aware of the fatal flaw in his technique, and all his books can be seen as obsessional efforts to break out of it—into comedy, the picaresque, the apparently insouciant. All come to grief on the same miscalculation, which is also, no doubt, the bedrock of Greene’s own nature. By bringing his own vision of reality into his novels as a literary device he has committed the thriller writer’s ultimate sin: he has used the properties that should give the impression of the real—no more and no less—as if they revealed a preexisting truth. The contemporary cinema does much the same thing. It uses all the devices, but—a long way now from its innocent and unpretentious beginnings—insists on being taken “seriously” as a precondition of using them.
Greene’s remarkable fecundity, and popularity, testify nonetheless to the success of his method. A thriller mixed with spirituality—always the same, always reassuring and reliable—has shown itself over the years to be a formula that cannot fail to appeal. The gloom and despondency that Greene achieves have proved a more satisfying draw than happy endings. In one sense Greene has invented a prose equivalent of the Sad Ballad and the Shropshire Lad, and with a strong flavor of the cinema. Who can forget that moment at the end of the movie The Third Man when at the funeral of the villanous Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, Whom she had loved, the actress Alida Valli walks without a glance straight past the hopeful hero Joseph Cotton, and away down an artful perspective of a somber road? A film critic in the Thirties, ultimately on the shortlived but influential periodical Night and Day, Greene had a passion for Erich Von Stroheim, about whom he wrote as “climbing a ladder in skin-tight Prussian breeches towards an innocent bed. “The words are recalled in Anthony Powell’s Memoirs, where he also tells the tale of the libel action against Greene and the magazine Night and Day on behalf of Shirley Temple, an action whose award against the magazine finally undid its shaky finances and caused it to close down.
Greene had—characteristically—committed the unforgivable sin of suggesting that Shirley was not quite as sexually innocent as she looked. His books have always had their own variation on the “broken blossoms” theme: that of the young girl, like Rose in Brighton Rock and Helen in The Heart of the Matter, who is innocent indeed, but also desperately avid for love and sex. Avid, in fact, for damnation. As Paul O’Prey reports in his helpful little book, the master of having it both ways was deeply impressed when he was writing Brighton Rock in the early Thirties by the essay on Baudelaire that T.S. Eliot had just published. It contained the following sentence:
So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist.
There is a Greene model broken blossom in his latest novel, The captain and the Enemy: Liza, a waif who loves the mysterious confidence man, the Captain, but is made pregnant by the young narrator’s father, who compels her to have an abortion. By way of compensation the Captain virtually kidnaps the narrator from his boarding school and presents him to Liza. He then slips away. Neither is particularly gratified by this arrangement, but it lasts until Liza dies of cancer, and the narrator prepares to join the Captain in his strange, romantic, and nefarious doing, now going on in Panama. The feeling between Liza and the Captain is genuinely touching, as such relationships usually are in Greene; and the Captain himself is a variation on a reliable model: the dashing liar with a secret sorrow and a heart of gold. Greene may even unconsciously have had in mind Alan Breck in Stevenson’s Kidnapped, about whom Henry James admiringly wrote that his creator “both sees through him and admires him.” Seeing through and admiring are as one to Greene, for whom the Captain is a useful adjunct to the kind of modern thriller, like his own fairly recent one, The Human Factor, in which the spy is working for both sides, or possibly for neither, and in which motive and outcome remain corrupted but enigmatic.
Greene’s admirers would no doubt retort that unlike other thriller writers he manages to inject into such works a genuine sense of right and wrong, of both human decency and a terrible expression of human indifference and callousness. That may well be so, but right and wrong have always had a rather incongruous and ineffective relation in Greene’s novels to Good and Evil. The latter has always put the alcohol in the drink, as Greene admits in Brighton Rock, where the decent but insipid Ida, with her sense of What’s right, is eclipsed by the doomed Rose and unspeakable Pinkie, whose taste has been “extinguished by stronger foods—Good and Evil.” It is part of Greene’s strategy in his postwar novels—in fact since The Quiet American—to cut down on the Catholic membership and ritual (even the Third Man was one, as we learn from a single sentence), and the Captain and young narrator in this latest book have no evident religious affiliations. Even so, the Captain while shaving “turns solemnly away from the mirror, lifting his razor much as a priest lifts the host.” Built up as a shady and equivocal figure, illustrating Greene’s favorite lines from “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” about our interest being “on the dangerous edge of things,” the Captain has all the literary and spiritual privileges enjoyed by the damned (who of course never are damned) in Greene’s world.
This is something of a handicap in creating suspense, because as soon as we meet the Captain we know he is “one of those,” a sinner, a nonboring man, ultimately a protégé of the Holy Ghost. So it comes as no surprise when he finally takes off in a crazy little plane to try to blow up Somoza (today it would be to go after the contras). For sheer unreality masquerading as “realism” it would be difficult to beat the closing sequences, which have a strong flavor of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, with Greene’s remorseless pessimism merely the calculated obverse of the optimism required by the film. Even the narrator, a singularly irritating young man, gets his comeuppance, when he has “written” the story (he hopes to be a writer) in a trick ending which the film version, should there be one, will no doubt enjoy doing its own way. Only the Captain is capable of love and of inspiring love, the accolade bestowed on all Greene’s sinners, from Scobie in The Heart of the Matter to the Third Man. One even suspects a certain irony in Greene’s epigraph from the works of George A. Birmingham, which makes a great showing on the title page. “Will you be sure to know the good side from the bad, the Captain from the enemy?” Of course we will, because this is Greeneland.
However sophisticated his story there is indeed something basically child-like about Greene’s good guys and bad guys, the former being mostly Communists and some Catholics; sinners and criminals and traitors; blacks and underdogs. The latter tend to include all establishment figures, the rich, the innocent, and Americans. One suspects that some of his most enthusiastic readers come from the bad class and enjoy slumming. No good asking, either, how “serious” all this is, for Greene protects himself with an invulnerable cover of frivolity, which suggests, reasonably enough, that out of frivolity come all the really important matters in life. He is frivolous, but for me he is never genuinely funny; humor requires a simple enjoyment of life which is of course not in Greene’s nature. He manipulates black fun as carefully as he does his scenarios, which like the films they resemble are set up with all appropriate artifice. As much as in a good film or a play, say, by Racine, the frame is too carefully determined, too founded in traditional belief, to allow for what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. Impossible to imagine Greene making a story out of those Catholic priests who set up an escape line for the mass murderers of the SS who had incinerated Europe’s Jews. Even Greene could hardly get out of that one, or convert such men into the good guys of his mythology. He prefers a villain who has been endangering the lives of children by watering down the penicillin. That is selected drama.
Excellent and useful compilations as O’Prey’s and McEwan’s books both are—Neil McEwan is particularly good on recent developments in Greeneland—neither introduction to his work asks the simple but fundamental question: Is it false or true? In his summing-up McEwan writes:
The innocents who ought to know better, the successful and the complacent, the uninvolved comedians of his books, may be believers—Pyle [The Quiet American] dies for democracy and Rycker [A BurntOut Case] thinks himself a good Catholic—but because they are blind to the real world, which appalls and dizzies the Characters who see it honestly, their allegiances are worthless
That is good, and plausible, but the real problem remains unsolved. The real ambiguity is never in the story but in the author himself. Belief here, or what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” is total: we either believe in him or we don’t. It is possible to believe, say, in Sherlock Holmes as a creation but not in Greene as a creator. Ultimately his world stands or falls by whether or not we believe a word he says. Greene has, perhaps by accident, got himself into the position of God.
It is an interesting literary irony, and one that would not in the least concern us in the case of kipling or Conrad, who live in, and present us with, a relative world. It may reveal that Greene is too naive to be claimed as a great writer. If he is not, as it were, God, the power and glory are in the end no more than literary devices: not themselves deceptions, but whose tale in the end is only of himself.
A story from his own autobiography, A Sort of Life, may serve as a final illustration. As a student at Oxford he suffered from fits of boredom and depression, and took to going for solitary walks carrying a small revolver. In some quiet spot he would spin the cylinder, loaded in one of the six chambers, put the muzzle to his temple, and fire, with one chance in six of being killed. This is known as Russian roulette, and as a reviewer was quick to point out it involves an ingenious deception. A single bullet in a revolver whose cylinder can be span freely will always—well, nearly always—be carried by its weight to the bottom of the cylinder when it comes to rest, and thus will not be fired when the trigger is next pulled. Did Greene know that he was giving God not a one in six chance of ending the affair, but more like a one in six thousand? The point caught the imagination of the readers of the periodical in which the review appeared, and a brisk correspondence ensued, in which the Master himself, however, took no part, remaining enigmatic. The terms of the treaty, or the tricks of the trade, were not divulged.
Russian Roulette: Bad Bet April 27, 1989