“What shall we do now, Father?” the Negro asked.
“Kill Fortnum at once,” Aquino said, “and if the lights go out again we can make a run for it.”
Pablo said, “Two of us are dead already. It might be better, Father, if we surrendered. And there is Marta here.”
‘But the Mass, Father?”
“It seems to me I shall have to make it a Mass for the dead,” Father Rivas said.
“Say any sort of Mass you like,” Aquino said, “but kill the Consul first.”
“How could I say the Mass after I had killed him?”
“Why not if you can say a Mass when you intend to kill him?” Doctor Plarr said.
“Ah, Eduardo, you are still enough of a Catholic to know how to turn the knife in the wound. You will be my confessor yet.”
—The Honorary Consul
The story goes that at a certain time—presumably not long after the completion of The End of the Affair (1951)—Mr. Greene told Evelyn Waugh that his next novel would not be “a Catholic one.” “That might be a mistake,” Waugh is said to have replied. “For you to drop God would be rather like Plum Wodehouse dropping Jeeves.” Wodehouse of course never quite dropped Jeeves, or Mr. Greene God. Jeeves got rather less funny and Mr. Greene’s God rather more so.
The series of novels that opened in 1955 with The Quiet American and that includes The Honorary Consul is free from overt apologetics, crisp and increasingly irreverent in tone, often apparently cynical, preoccupied with the absurd, and especially the cruel absurdities of politics. As might be expected, the same tendencies show in the short stories, especially in the very latest ones (minus the politics). You might think the Greene God was dead—I had had the impression myself that he was at any rate not very well. But no, he is still around, just manifesting himself differently, and more cunningly.
Nothing particularly cunning, you may say, about Father Rivas and his Mass for the dead. True, Father Rivas is a stereotype of the Catholic revolutionary priest, much harder to believe in than God. The passage about his Mass for the dead is funny in a way the author probably did not quite intend—in this more like before The End of the Affair than after. But normally, of course, Greene is funny in precisely the way he intends to be and so is his God. Humiliation is the essence of the work. If Mr. Greene and his God often seem cruel as well as funny it is that they are interested in producing humiliation, a cruel process, and also funny, when neatly done, as by Mr. Greene, whatever about God.
Humiliation, a constant throughout Mr. Greene’s work, is at the core of The Honorary Consul. The story is told, in the main, as seen by Doctor Eduardo Plarr, a clever man. It is mainly about the British Honorary Consul, Charley Fortnum, a foolish man. Fortnum is an alcoholic and regarded as a figure of fun; his friend Plarr, who is also his wife’s lover, despises him; so do most people.
This meaningless dignity of Honorary Consul—of which he is of course proud—gets him into serious trouble. Revolutionaries—the story is set in Argentina—set out to capture the American Ambassador but catch Fortnum by mistake. As a hostage too he is a flop. Her Majesty’s Government have no interest in seeking concessions for the kidnappers: it is not as if he were a real consul. Fortnum’s captors include (in a way) Plarr. Plarr overhears the message which Fortnum, believing himself about to be executed, sends to his wife. Plarr is jealous of the purity of the love revealed in the letter:
“I’m jealous because he loves her. That stupid banal word love. It’s never meant anything to me. Like the word God. I know how to fuck—I don’t know how to love. Poor drunken Charley Fortnum wins the game.”
Fortnum learns from Plarr that the baby Fortnum’s wife is expecting, and about which he is concerned in his message, is Plarr’s. Government forces rush the kidnappers’ hide-out. Plarr and Father Rivas are killed and Fortnum is rescued. The British government confers on him yet another meaningless dignity: the Order of the British Empire. With Crichton, the man from the embassy who brings the news of the OBE, Fortnum discusses the fate of the revolutionary kidnappers.
“Anyway, I’m glad the paras were satisfied with three deaths. Those other two—Pablo and Marta—they were only poor people who got caught up in things.”
“They had more luck than they deserved. They needn’t have been caught up in things.”
“Perhaps it was love of a kind. People do get caught up by love, Crichton. Sooner or later.”
“It’s not a very good excuse.”
“No, I suppose not. Not in the Foreign Service anyway.”
At the end of the novel Charley Fortnum, knowing he is dying, talks with his wife:
“What shall we call the child, Clara?”
“If he is a boy—would you like Charley?”
“One Charley’s enough in the family. I think we will call him Eduardo. You see I loved Eduardo in a way. He was young enough to be my son.”
He put his hand tentatively on her shoulder and he felt her body shaken with tears. He wanted to comfort her, but he had no idea how to do it. He said, “He really loved you in a way, Clara, I don’t mean anything wrong. …”
“It is not true, Charley.”
“Once I heard him say he was jealous of me.”
“I never loved him, Charley.”
Her lie meant nothing to him now at all. It was contradicted too plainly by her tears. In an affair of this kind it was the right thing to lie. He felt a sense of immense relief. It was as though, after what seemed an interminable time of anxious waiting in the anteroom of death, someone came to him with the good news that he had never expected to hear. Someone he loved would survive. He realized that never before had she been so close to him as she was now.
God is love, and also a great kidder. Charley Fortnum, like Job, is among the elect, rolling with the divine punches. The mouse not merely consents to the principle that animates the cat, but inwardly acknowledges that it is the feeble spark of cattishness, or catability, within his own mousey bosom that renders him worthy of being pounced on, tortured, and eventually ingurgitated in the feline. The thought of the universe as being actually intended by a Person or Persons unknown, but like ourselves, is strange enough, however used to it we may have become, or however much we think we have grown out of it.
The idea of the Fall, the idea that we are personally responsible for everything that we identify as wrong with the universe, should be crushing, but doesn’t seem to be. It seems, rather, to be stimulating to the imagination. Mr. William Empson very understandably dislikes Milton’s God (whom he rather resembles, if only superficially), but the literature presided over by that wily and vindictive figure seems to be considerably more interesting than the writings inspired by what Mr. Empson regards as healthier oriental teachings. Writers take to a God that can make your flesh creep; paradox does not repel them, or a cruel game, a doubtful love story, or a doubtful joke. The Muse, according to Yeats, loves warty lads who tell lies. Poets love a God with similar characteristics. Milton’s God, though a Protestant and prolix, is Mr. Greene’s God too. Mr. Greene was brought up as a Protestant, but in any case the underworld of the Judeo-Christian imagination seems to be unsegregated.
In a West African country where I lived once there was a court case in which a witness had to describe an incident in which the president had been shot at. The president, sensibly, had run away and hidden in the kitchen. Protocol was strict and circumspection advisable; the witness was well coached.
Q. What did you see the accused do?
A. I saw him fire at the president.
Q. What did the president do then?
A. The president increased the distance which separated him from his assailant.
So in the divine and human game of cat and mouse, Mr. Greene, though a willing enough mouse in his way, seems to have been astute enough to “increase the distance which separates him from his assailant.” The dash in question, which took place in the early Fifties, is obliquely treated in the short story “A Visit to Morin,” which first appeared in 1957 but is not dated in the Collected Stories. (It is an odd feature of the collection that all the stories are dated up to 1954, but that after that date no story is dated; the change occurs at just about the period of the distancing of God—as if, just at this point, Mr. Greene simultaneously abandoned certain ways of taking himself, and God, seriously.) The narrator, Dunlop, calls on a distinguished Catholic writer, Pierre Morin, whom he had admired in his youth. Morin, over brandy, discourages him.
“Ah,” he said, “you’ve said that before—curious. Curiosity is a great trap. They used to come here in their dozens to see me. I used to get letters saying how I had converted them by this book or that. Long after I ceased to believe myself I was a carrier of belief, like a man can be a carrier of disease without being sick. Women especially.” He added with disgust, “I had only to sleep with a woman to make a convert.”
The priests, Morin says, had “swarmed” over him “and any woman I knew,” until the books stopped:
“And why did the books stop?”
“Who knows? Did you never write verses for some girl when you were a boy?”
“But you didn’t marry the girl, did you? The unprofessional poet writes of his feelings and when the poem is finished he finds his love dead on the page. Perhaps I wrote away my belief like the young man writes away his love. Only it took longer—twenty years and fifteen books.”
Dunlop, having heard a lot of this sort of thing, makes a natural assumption but is snubbed again:
I said stiffly, “I thought you made it perfectly clear that you had lost your faith.”
“Do you think that would keep anyone from the Confessional? You are a long way from understanding the Church or the human mind, Mr. Dunlop.”
At the end of the story, M. Morin and his creator have it both ways, and then reverse and have it both ways all over again.
“I can tell myself now that my lack of belief is a final proof that the Church is right and the faith is true. I had cut myself off for twenty years from grace and my belief withered as the priests said it would. I don’t believe in God and His Son and His angels and His saints, but I know the reason why I don’t believe and the reason is—the Church is true and what she taught me is true. For twenty years I have been without the sacraments and I can see the effect. The wafer must be more than wafer.”
“But if you went back …?”
“If I went back and belief did not return? That is what I fear, Mr. Dunlop. As long as I keep away from the sacraments, my lack of belief is an argument for the Church. But if I returned and they failed me, then I would really be a man without faith, who had better hide himself quickly in the grave so as not to discourage others.”
At this point M. Morin “laughed uneasily,” as well he might, and as so many of Mr. Greene’s characters, and readers, must often do. The narrator, for his part, goes away “thinking of the strange faith which held him even now after he had ceased to believe.” It seems that M. Morin is still after all “a carrier.”
M. Morin is not Mr. Greene, yet Mr. Greene was using M. Morin to say something sufficiently ambiguous about himself. He had been for years the great Catholic writer, rather too officially, and had even written about dogma in corroboration of the Pope. Waugh has written of “the dark places in which Mr. Greene’s apostolate lies.” The dark places were still attractive; the apostolate less so. A writer who proclaims himself Catholic has either to submit to certain norms of what the Church expects from Catholic writers, or to engage in tedious quasi-theological controversies: either way, priests are liable to “swarm.” The basic English Protestant attitudes surface from underneath the exotic Catholicism: ‘I’ll be religious in my own way, if religious is what I choose to be, and either way you mind your own damn business.”
But the mouse does not elude the cat that easily: the span increases in space but grows shorter in time. “The nearer to the Church the farther from God,” says an Irish proverb, which of course does not mean what it appears to mean. The farther from the Church and its tidy arrangements the nearer to a personal God, of childish imagining, of dream or nightmare. The long short story “Under the Garden”—which originally appeared in the same collection as “A Visit to Morin”—brings us as near as we have yet come to Mr. Greene’s personal God.
On what I thought was a throne, but I later realized was an old lavatory-seat, sat a big old man with a white beard yellowing round the mouth from what I suppose now to have been nicotine. He had one good leg, but the right trouser was sewn up and looked stuffed like a bolster. I could see him quite well because an oil-lamp stood on a kitchen-table, beside a carving-knife and two cabbages, and his face came vividly back to me the other day when I was reading Darwin’s description of a carrier-pigeon: “Greatly elongated eyelids, very large external orifices to the nostrils, and a wide gape of mouth.”
The old man is known—“to you”—as Javitt, though this is not his real name. He has a wife called Maria who can only squawk, having no roof to her mouth. He and Maria live underground but they have a beautiful daughter, Miss Ramsgate, in the world above. It is a Trinity of a sort, but one which could hardly have been presented by a great Catholic writer of the Official sort.
The narrator, William, remembers as a boy—in dreams perhaps—sitting at Javitt’s feet on a golden chamber pot, while the old man talks:
I began to notice a way he had of talking in general statements like a lecturer or a prophet. He seemed to be less interested in conversation than in the recital of some articles of belief, odd crazy ones, perhaps, yet somehow I could never put my finger convincingly on an error.
Half the time with Javitt the boy feels “caged in a nightmare”; the other half he wants “to laugh freely and happily.” Javitt talks on and on. “Riots,” he says, “purge like a dose of salts.” “Be disloyal. It’s your duty to the human race. … Be a double agent—and never let either of the two sides know your real name.” He flies in a rage when William annoys him in some small way, as by the wrong arrangement of a spoon:
“I’ll cut you off,” he cried once and I pictured him lopping off one of my legs to resemble him. “I’ll starve you, I’ll set you alight like a candle for a warning. Haven’t I given you a kingdom here of all the treasures of the earth and all the fruits of it, tin by tin, where time can’t get in to destroy you and there’s no day or night, and you go and defy me with a spoon laid down longways in a saucer? You come of an ungrateful generation.” His arms waved about and cast shadows like wolves on the wall behind the oil-lamp, while Maria sat squatting behind a cylinder of calor-gas in an attitude of terror.
Finally William escapes, clutching the golden chamber pot and clutched at by the squawking Maria’s birdlike hand.
As a grown man, and dying of cancer, William returns to the garden beneath which he had found Javitt, or dreamed he had found Javitt. As he pokes around in the garden his hand is scraped by the sharp rim of a metal object:
He kicked the object free and found it was an old tin chamberpot. It had lost all colour in the ground except that inside the handle there adhered a few flakes of yellow paint.
As a story “Under the Garden” is a bit of a mess: one does not know whether parody has got into the allegory or allegory into the parody, but the dream becomes too complicated and self-conscious, the Long John Silver Jehovah is neither very funny nor very serious. Childhood and its terrors are far better evoked in the much earlier stories “The Basement Room” and “The End of the Party,” which remain, for this reviewer, the most moving and memorable that Mr. Greene has written in this kind.
The latest stories of all, May We Borrow Your Husband?, are neither messy nor what we think of as moving: they are expertly written and usually funny. Yet it would be a mistake to think of “Under the Garden” as any kind of exorcism or farewell. The laughter in the latest stories is uneasy, like Morin’s, and apt to leave a bitter aftertaste; the nub of the dialogue is often a snub; the surface is so sparkling, and the under-current so cold, that one sometimes feels that there is nothing in the world so sad and frightening as a funny story by Mr. Greene.
He tells us in his introduction that these stories, “all written during what should be the last decade of my life, are an escape in humour from the thought of death—this time of certain death.” The escape, once more, is imperfect. An earlier story, “The Destructors,” which Mr. Greene set out to write as funny, turned out starkly horrifying. What he thinks of as humor may be his surest way of sounding those depths under the garden.
October 18, 1973