J'Accuse: The Dark Side of Nice
One needs to go outside the usual terms of criticism to explain Graham Greene’s curious eminence in modern literary culture. For Greene’s heavy-lidded theological fables, half tract, half fiction, have found for themselves an enormous audience of a kind that usually has little time for either Catholicism or literature. People who never read, say, Saul Bellow are addicts of Greene, feeding their habit on a body of work that is as sour, as claustrophobically determinist, as any other writing today. Greene’s novels satisfy an odd moral appetite for bitter olives and beds of nails.
It’s true that his fiction does sail under deceptively easygoing and popular colors. Greene has been immensely skillful at tailoring theology to the form of the thriller. His geography of original sin is juicily exotic; the hard lessons of the Sunday school are lightened by vivid moving pictures of foreign parts. His characters—spies, murderers, fallen angels—are at once insistently of our time and place, leaving a trail of shabbily familiar brand-names behind them as they pass through his pages, and creatures of allegory, “agents,” in the secondary sense, like figures in the poems of Donne, Vaughan, and Herbert, the classic theological writers whom Greene often echoes. He is a modern metaphysical; someone for whom the near-at-hand is raw material for constructing an emblematic model of that larger sphere where God presides over his great experiment with evil and the human soul. Yet the allegorical nature of these beings is never rammed down the reader’s throat: if he wants to read Greene as if Greene were Le Carré, there’s nothing in the book to stop him—just a collection of hints and allusions that he will be the poorer for missing.
Such a reader won’t be made forcibly aware that he’s been to Sunday school, yet he will come away from the novels with an obscure sense of moral assurance—the illusion that he’s gazed into the heart of a forlorn and depraved world, and gazed into it with stylish equanimity. This is Greene’s greatest gift to his audience: he offers worldly poise of a kind so knowing that it needs an elaborate theology to support it.
In a Greene novel we are subtly educated into looking down on life with the tired wisdom of the priest or the roué. Greene’s subjects—war, treachery, corruption, guilt—seem, at least, to touch all the most troubling things about the world we live in. His books give the reader the comforting feeling that he has squared up to the worst that’s going and emerged at the end with an insouciant, if melancholy, swagger.
There’s a passage in The Heart of the Matter where Scobie the police chief drives at night across his desolate West African precinct:
Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.