As one grows older one notes the deaths of great figures with a mixture of pleasure and complacency. But Graham Greene’s death is more like the death of a member of one’s family or the loss of a rooted expectation, even like the loss of a skill or a habit. On the day I heard of his death the thought of him rarely left me, and this feeling of loss persists and hasn’t yet taken its place in the established order of the past. I was born in 1910 and was thus almost Greene’s contemporary. He was a member of my college at Oxford. I was like him in being a convert to Catholicism; and my recollections of treacherous and cruel schoolboys, prefiguring in character the men who ran the death camps, and of adults, schoolmasters and others, who seemed habitually beside themselves, are like his. Like him I admired and was haunted by such novels as The Viper of Milan, King Solomon’s Mines, the Conan Doyle stories (not just Sherlock Holmes); and I came to admire Conrad and Henry James and learned more than I can remember from Greene’s comments on these masters.
It is right that Greene was an Oxford man. The peculiar Cambridge combination of left-wing politics with homosexuality in the style of Lytton Strachey and Keynes and Forster was not in the least Greene’s style: for one thing, they were too rich and successful. Greene’s election of poverty and failure as marks of divine favor are early established. He might have got on with the traitors, for he seems to have thought treachery to one’s country a small affair, though it’s worth noticing that when he became friendly with a traitor it wasn’t with one of the dandies. One could scarcely imagine Greene as an Apostle, though stranger things have happened. Wittgenstein was an Apostle.
As for his work, there has been nothing like it since Dickens: I mean the combination of literary success, popularity, critical esteem, with a deep concern for social causes; and all resoundingly successful with the reading public. Even those who were not plainly captivated by Greene’s ethos, tastes, religious concerns, found the giddy sensation of living on the edges of things, as policeman, criminal, terrorist, secret agent, voyeur of corruption, full of interest. I suppose for some the presence of religion and of tortured believers, even the intrusion of the phenomenon of sanctity, set beside the tousled bed of illicit love or the cold feel of an automatic pistol, accounts for part of the fascination, almost entirely pleasure-producing, of such come-on headlines as “Marquis gassed in luxury flat” or “Well-known clergyman on serious charge.”
Greene was both a Catholic novelist and a novelist who happened to be a Catholic. The Catholic novelist is represented by Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter. In such novels the Catholic ethos is not just the flavor of the dish; it is pervasive and argumentative, setting the moral dilemmas and analyzing what the Catholic response ought to be. The apparatus, the furniture, the catch-phrases, the intellectual structure, come from a rather old-fashioned, even Jansenist, kind of Catholicism, which makes the human scene rich in dramatic possibilities: the pale taste of damnation on Scobie’s tongue, the hellish landscape within which Pinkie lives, the mingling of heroism and despair in the character of the whiskey priest. Sometimes one is aware that Greene is trying too hard, is insisting too vehemently on our using what he takes to be Catholic categories of analysis.
This comes out most clearly in Brighton Rock, where the good-hearted Ida, who believes in decency and being fair, is contrasted unfavorably with the absolutist Pinkie, with his implied insistence that it’s all a matter of salvation or damnation, with torments and frustration as the most likely outcome of our strivings. Pinkie, his features picked out in the sullen glare of hell, is for me the most incredible of Greene’s characters. And the theology is very strange. It seems to be suggested that ordinary decency stands outside the dispensation of Grace. This can be understood as having for a background then current discussions of the possibility of natural virtue. But this alarmist theology is used to put us under emotional pressure. Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter are conspicuous failures for this reason. The Power and the Glory is on the contrary brilliantly successful just because it respects the moral confusion of the priest and, in the portrait of the Communist lieutenant of police, we are given the portrait of a good man whose judgments of value also command our respect. Catholicism, and the hatred or evasion of it, also belongs to the Mexican milieu, whereas in England or Africa it is just a part of the box of tricks, a foreign unassimilable substance.
The turning point in Greene’s work comes with The Quiet American. In this wonderful novel, as in The Comedians and The Honorary Consul, he is in full command of his material. Catholicism isn’t of course absent—think of the presence of Pascal’s Pensées in The Quiet American. But it is no longer a source of nervous irritation. He is now a Catholic novelist in the way Mauriac and Bernanos were. From The Quiet American onward he is, as it were, a liberated novelist able to display satire and comedy in new ways and in essays, plays, and other writings outside the novel. A rich novelist, perhaps a great one.
May 30, 1991