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 no time for the juvenile or second rate. The books of boyhood—Ballantine, Hope, Mason, Weyman, Rider Haggard, and the Viper of Milan—were decisive for him, for two or three themes, central in Greene’s own writing, expand from them. Exotic, thrilling adventure, the lost childhood and its betrayal, the warnings against success, the lure of perfect evil. In the Viper of Milan he thinks he saw
Perfect evil walking the world, where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.
Life is not black and white, it is black and grey. After The Power and the Glory, The Comedians.
This theme was fulfilled when he confronted Henry James, Conrad—and equally important to him, I would guess later on—Ford Madox Ford. Apart from anything else they are master craftsmen, and, in all these reviews, we see Greene’s concern with how things are done. He himself is, above all, skilled and avidly interested in difficulty. But the importance of Henry James is the concern with supernatural evil, the nervous venture to the edge of religion; in the detection of the “black and merciless things that lie behind great possessions”; in corruption and betrayal. This is far from being the whole of James, but the subject draws out the four most studied essays in the collection. In the Thirties, Greene was allured by the James who could conceive the damned soul, and who might just have become a Catholic if his father had not exhausted the subject of an organized church. But, by the Fifties, looking at Guy Domville he writes:
To us today the story of Guy Domville seems…one more example of the not always fortunate fascination exercised on James by the Christian faith and by Catholicism.
Is there such a thing as “agnostic” prose? May not a rationalist be fully conscious of mental degradation or good and evil? Wasn’t James?
The search for the seat of unease in his subject is Greene’s point in a great many of these essays. There are eighty of them. Conrad Aiken, pushing the study of madness to its limits in King Coffin, “is the most satisfying of living novelists”; in Walter de la Mare’s stories—now absurdly underrated or forgotten—we meet the terrified eyes of a fellow passenger “watching the sediment of an unspeakable obsession”; of Rolfe—whose Hadrian the Seventh is a work of genius—he writes, “if he could not have Heaven, he would have Hell and the last foot prints seem to point to the Inferno.” The unease was not always gratefully acknowledged. One would have thought his delightful and affectionate essay on Beatrix Potter’s tales, written in 1933, would have pleased the authoress; especially that she would have given a thunderstruck grin when Green’s King Charles’s head popped up at the climax among the bunnies and the puddle ducks:
Looking back over the thirty years of Miss Potter’s literary career, we see that the creation of Mr Puddle Duck marked the beginning of a new period. At some time between 1907 and 1909 Miss Potter must have passed through an emotional ordeal which changed the character of her genius. It would be impertinent to enquire into the nature of the ordeal. Her case is curiously similar to that of Henry James. Something happened which shook their faith in appearance. From The Portrait of a Lady onwards, innocence deceived, the treachery of friends, became the theme of James’s greatest stories. Mme Merle, Kate Croy, Mme de Vionnet, Charlotte Stant these tortuous, treacherous women, are paralleled through the dark period of Miss Potter’s art. “A man can smile and smile and be a villain,” that, a little altered, was her recurrent message…with the publication of Mr. Tod in 1912 Miss Potter’s pessimism reached its climax.
An acid letter from Miss Potter—now a tough sheep farmer in Westmoreland—was the reward for this grand analysis. She was, she said, suffering from no emotional disturbance when she wrote Mr. Tod; only the after effects of flu. She said she deprecated “the Freudian school” of criticism. Perhaps the comparison with another artist annoyed the old lady. She was certainly cross when Little Pig Robinson was described by Mr. Greene as being her Tempest: he called it her last tale when it was the first written, if not the first published. But (as we know now) from Margaret Lane’s Life, and the published Journals, there were two extreme crises in her life and an extraordinary change of personality. Graham Greene had been an expert detective.
The collection covers a reviewer’s wide field. Anthony à Wood, some Oxford eccentrics, Evelyn, Charles Churchill, Darley, Fielding, Sterne are among his subjects and done with care and point. The novelist is botanizing in human character; the traveler is absorbed by Parkman, Livingstone, Mungo Park; there is a fierce attack on J. B. Trend’s book on Mexico, for though Trend was a conventional and timid Cambridge professor, he was a violent anti-Catholic. (But he did write a very valuable if innocent book on Spain in the Twenties.) Greene’s final essay on a sentimental return to Lagos, the Scobie country, in 1968, has the nostalgia for a lost innocence which encases much of his work, nostalgia for a lost innocence never quite as innocent as it looked. In Lagos, last year (in church, one gathers)
the girl in front of me wore one of the surrealist Manchester cotton dresses which are rarely seen since the Japanese trade moved in. The word “soupsweet” was printed over her shoulder, but I had to wait until she stood up before I could confirm another phrase: “Fenella lak’ good poke.” Father Mackie would have been amused, I thought, and what better description could there be of this poor lazy lovely coloured country than “soupsweet.”
In all his moods, angry, serious, or laughing, Greene has the patient almost pedantic eye of the connoisseur of “brief lives.” For the brief essayist this gift is a godsend—in his sense, as well as mine. He is a very polished dissenter.
July 10, 1969