Graham Greene
Graham Greene; drawing by David Levine

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 to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst: you didn’t love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed.

It is an exact description of the territory that a novel by Greene promises to open up to its readers. Here we shall be almost as unillusioned as God himself; surveyors of a world stripped of its pretensions, a world so nakedly exposed in all its awkwardness, ugliness, and pathos that it can’t fool us.

If, on one level, the passage suggests a kind of theological heroism of which the reader can become an aficionado, on another it embodies an irritable, rather adolescent, confession—that in reality we are too easily taken in by appearances; that we’ll have no truck with poses and pretty dresses because they’re part of the clever hushing-up with which civilized life habitually deceives us. Many teenagers in their time rail much like this, furious with the masks and pretensions of grown-up society; what Greene adds to an essentially banal tirade is the intimidating, dignifying presence of God. With immaculate hauteur, he invokes divine license for the cultivated cynicism that is the special trademark of his fiction.

The stamp of moral authority and poise, crucial to Greene’s prose, is a matter of tone rather than of style. For Greene—meticulous writer as he is—is not a stylist in the conventional sense. His English is fluent, correct, elegant, and impersonal as the granite façade of a bank. Indeed, its impersonality is its point. It is the kind of writing that we might expect of the Recording Angel, if we can assume the angel went to a good school and had the rules of Latin syntax soundly beaten into it when it was young. In its fastidious structure, its mildly elegiac rhythm, its formal phrasing, it is the classic copybook style in which an older generation of British civil servants used to write their memoranda. Its distinction in Greene’s hands lies not in what it is but in what it is made to notice. It is the details that it records—the images of bodily decay, the bad smells, the brand-names—that tell. Much of its power comes from the way in which it picks up the world’s ordure with disdainful delicacy. It’s not accustomed, one feels, to handling mouse droppings or dead pye-dogs, and only finds room for them in its sentences with fastidious reluctance.


Greene likes to present himself as a notable absentee from his fictions. His whole strategy as a storyteller manages to imply that his tales derive their veracity from some higher authority. God and the unconscious (Greene claims that dreams are the source of many of his inventions) are in close alliance. The author’s job is that of a superior secretary, taking dictation at the foot of the heavenly throne. No wonder he doesn’t care to appear on television.

Earlier this year readers in Britain and France, accustomed to thinking of Greene as having much the same sort of relation to original sin as Milton Friedman does to fashionable economics, were puzzled by the appearance of Greene’s latest work, a pamphlet called J’Accuse: The Dark Side of Nice. There was nothing puzzling about the subject matter: that was well-trodden ground—corrupt officialdom, private dishonor, cruelty, violence. Greene wrote about a girl, Martine Cloetta, the daughter of two of his friends, who married a man called Daniel Guy. M. Guy, according to Greene, behaved very badly to his wife. He allegedly taunted her with his sexual conquests and beat her; after their separation, lawyers helped him to gain custody of their eldest child. He had a criminal record, and was involved in a number of strange business operations. The story of Martine’s unfortunate marriage is ordinarily foolish, ordinarily unhappy. The account that Greene gives of malice and brutality makes one squirm; but then so would most reports of most divorces in the newspapers if they were as well told. We all know men like. Daniel Guy, and we’re hardly likely to be astonished if we learn that our local lawyers and civic officials mix with unsavory friends and connections.

What does astonish is Greene’s own astonishment. For fifty years his novels have been dealing coolly with terrorism, murder, and betrayal, and treating viciousness as one of the most instinctive of human motives. Yet faced with the plight of Martine, Greene goes into a peculiar state of literary shock. Something very strange happens to his tone:

The settlement arranged by Maître T was described to me much later by Monsieur Alain peyrefitte, the then Minister of Justice, to whom I had appealed for help on behalf of Martine and her parents, as “scandalous.” According to the provisions Martine had to live within a radius of five hundred meters of her ex-husband’s home (Guy undertook to pay her one thousand francs to rent a studio). She was forbidden to work after 8 p.m.

* * *

Another member of Martorana’s group was Francesco Russello, who kept in a safe deposit in the Hotel Meridian at Nice, of which the casino formed a part, three revolvers and a bayonet!

* * *

The conversations were in code as the Mayor thought it probable that his telephone was tapped!

Greene is the last writer one would have expected to break out in this rash of italics and exclamation points. They are the characteristic devices of someone who can’t make language sufficiently emphatic to express his intensity of feeling. They are, predictably, the favorite grammatical crutches of the subliterate. They signal clumsily at the reader that words are failing the writer. Yet marital warfare, bayonets and revolvers, the mechanics of espionage have all been staple ingredients of Greene’s world in the past; why, then, is he so shocked by them now?

At the end of the pamphlet, Greene places M. Guy within the setting of Nice society:

J’accuse—yes, I accuse—but it’s not merely a petty criminal I am accusing, a man unbalanced, perhaps paranoiac, even pitiable. He would be powerless without support, and the support which he has been given by certain police officers, magistrates and lawyers gives him good reason to believe that he can obtain any impunity he may need. He feels fully justified in his corrupt view of the world.

He has become, in other words, exactly like so many characters in Greene’s fiction. That sense of justification in a corrupt view of the world marks the sinner who is divorced from knowledge of God; it is what makes Pinkie Pinkie in Brighton Rock. While Greene was able to anatomize Pinkie with studied calm in a book, however, when he meets his counterpart in real domestic life he responds with a degree of moral bluster that would do credit to a maiden aunt.


Two obvious explanations present themselves for this hiatus between Greene’s reality and Greene’s fiction. One is simply that he has softened in age and now finds intolerable things that a few years ago he could cast a cold and unwavering eye upon. The other, more interesting, possibility is that the impression of unillusioned poise, so central to the working of Greene’s novels, is really no more than a convenient piece of artifice, a front that quickly crumbles when it’s tested in actual flesh and blood.

j’Accuse is a weak piece of writing, and its invocation of Zola and the Dreyfus case is so ill-founded that it seems frivolous. It does, though, reveal Greene as a generous man, loyal to his friends, ready to act recklessly when morally roused, In fact, Guy successfully sued Greene in a French court under the Napoleonic code for “intrusion on his private life.” The book was banned in France. Greene has stirred up a lot of trouble for himself in Nice with the publication of the pamphlet, and one would be churlish not to admire his courage, even if the mission on which it’s exercised seems quixotic.

For the pamphlet and the new novel, Monsignor Quixote, are cut from one cloth. Both tell the same essential story, of an innocent abroad in a corrupted world. Greene tilts at Nice; his hero takes on the baked plateau of northern Spain. The two spiritual knights-errant ride out on parallel quests and find themselves comparably shocked and bewildered by the ways of men.

Father Quixote, the sweetly dim parish priest of El Toboso, claims direct descent from Cervantes’s character. He calls his old Fiat “Rocinante” and dubs his friend, the deposed communist mayor of the town, “Sancho Panza.” His extraction is not actually quite as straightforward as Greene makes it seem, since Cervantes is a very distant ancestor indeed and Father Quixote’s real forebear is his namesake in Miguel de Unamuno’s The Life and Death of Don Quixote, where the whole idea of Quixote as the archetype of the Christian hero was first aired. There is a lot about Cervantes in Greene’s book, but only one obscure and glancing reference to Unamuno, who is left unnamed. A priest remarks, “One of our great modern philosophers compared Saint Ignatius to Don Quixote. They had a lot in common.” It is not much of an acknowledgement, given the amount of assistance that Unamuno lends to Greene’s pages.

For Greene’s Quixote, as for Unamuno’s, the gospels replace the books of chivalry of the original Don. When he and the mayor set out in Rocinante for a touring holiday, he stocks the trunk of the car with Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, Saint Francis de Sales, and a work on moral theology by Father Heribert Jone. The mayor takes Lenin’s essays. Thus equipped, the two men are launched by Greene into a realm of knockabout pastoral.

The setting, we’re told, is modern Spain, but it is a Spain so drained of particular detail, so generalized in its dustiness and sunniness, that it is more like a landscape in an allegory. In his time, Greene has shown more genius for vivid place making than any other writer alive; here his places are vague and out of focus, as if their only function is to frame particular stages of a theological argument. So there is a brothel, but unlike all of Greene’s previous brothels, one can’t see it, smell it, or listen to its talk. Real towns—Orense, Avila, Madrid—go by, but they’re no more than names on the page. The interest of the novel lies exclusively in the vaudeville debate between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the peasant Catholic and the peasant Marxist. When things happen in the book, they happen because the debate needs illustration; and this very un-novelistic way of going about things gives Monsignor Quixote a troubling affinity with a pamphlet from the Catholic Truth Society.

Its rewards are, like its landscape, dry and dusty; a collection, for the most part, of theological and political pleasantries. Quixote explains the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of two and a half bottles of Manchegan wine, Panza gives a neat Marxist version of the parable of the prodigal son, Quixote ingeniously takes the sting from Marx’s “religion is the opium of the people,” …and so on—nice enough diversions for a sunny day, but not very sustaining as the basic texture of a novel. True, the pair do shelter a robber from the police, visit a brothel, see a blue movie, but these occurrences are so bereft of particular observation that it’s hard to rouse much interest in their outcome. It is all too much like dozing through the wise saws and modern instances of a long sermon.

Yet it’s in this flat comedy of spiritual adventures that Greene has enshrined his version of saintliness. Beside all the sinners in his books, the stained men, the Pinkies and the Daniel Guys, Quixote and Panza stand out as uncorrupted, incorruptible, their journey through the world an emblem of the pilgrim’s ideal progress. What is genuinely depressing is the way in which Greene establishes Quixote’s innocence. “What a good idea. They provide a foot-bath,” says Quixote in the brothel, on seeing the bidet. Or, a little later—

Father Quixote was blowing up a sausage-shaped balloon. He squeezed the end with his fingers. “How do you keep the air in?” he asked. “Surely there should be some sort of nozzle?” He began to blow again and the balloon exploded less loudly, though rather more sharply than the champagne bottle. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry, Sancho, I didn’t mean to break your balloon. Was it a gift for a child?”

This is the banality of goodness; surely true simplicity of heart deserved less stale a joke. On such evidence it’s hard to find Quixote half as lovable as his author evidently means us to regard him.

The same taint of the secondhand attaches itself to the climax of the book, when Quixote becomes a martyr, of a kind, in Galicia, where he tries to stop a grotesque ceremony in which the local priest has put a statue of the Virgin up for auction:

Father Quixote thrust the priest aside. He pulled the hundred-dollar bill off the statue’s robe, tearing the robe and the bill. There was a five-hundred-franc note pinned on the other side. This one came away easily and he let it drop. Several hundred-peseta notes were split in pieces when he snatched at them. He rolled them into a ball and tossed it away into the crowd. The dissident cheered and there were three or four voices which joined him. The Mexican lowered the pole of the statue’s stand which he was supporting and the whole affair reeled sideways so that Our Lady’s crown tipped drunkenly over her left eye. The weight was too much for another Mexican, who let go his pole and Our Lady went crashing to the earth. It was like the end of an orgy.

Both the substance of the passage and its telling are sunk in cliché. As a reader, one finds oneself an indifferent bystander at Quixote’s hour of heroism.

Is it that Greene, like Blake’s Milton, writes in fetters when he writes of Angels and God, and at liberty when he writes of Devils and Hell? Certainly his sinners have a crackling particularity that his saints conspicuously lack. Yet something of the same narrowness goes into the creation of both, a dogmatic, two-dimensional vision of morality and its consequences for the human character. The sunny claustrophobia of Monsignor Quixote with its portrait of a man predestined for sainthood has, in the end, much the same oppressive quality as the dark claustrophobia of A Burnt Out Case or The Heart of the Matter. The coolness of Greene’s tone, with its magisterial assumptions and world-weary air, proceed from a cramped, and rather callow, view of good and evil. His hard-edged world of moral certitudes, despite all its plausible details, has never really been the same one where actual human beings dwell and suffer. It is, rather, a cardboard theater, full of brilliant lighting effects, where cut-out images are dragged up to heaven or down to hell on strings. J’Accuse and Monsignor Quixote are not late aberrations: they sit revealingly beside the earlier work, cruder than Greene’s best books, perhaps, but of a piece with them in their moral tunnel vision.

This Issue

November 4, 1982