Considered vain, duplicitous and out of date, Greene fell from grace. Yet his worldliness remains a model for the practising writer, and his moral ambiguity serves us better now than Orwell's clarityby Julian Evans / September 26, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Image by Richard Kenworthy
During his lifetime Graham Greene was regarded as our greatest novelist, the master of ingenuity and excitement, the writer whose ambivalent moral equations and compromised characters invaded the consciousness of two generations of readers. Since his death in April 1991, the world has moved on to another century and other fashions. John le Carré once deeply wounded Greene by describing him as a “1930s writer” (though this was no more true than calling le Carré a 1960s writer). Neil Jordan’s film of The End of the Affair and Phillip Noyce’s recent The Quiet American oddly speeded the outdating of Greene’s work, transforming his observed world into a series of retro-fashion tableaux. Other factors have shrunk his relevance: his Catholicism fascinates us less, in political seriousness he has failed to sustain the stature of Orwell, and novelists have come to be less driven by his kind of existential drama than by the need to describe a globalised world.
Yet in this, his centenary year, his paperback publishers are issuing new editions of many of his novels, with introductions by Giles Foden, James Wood, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Nicholas Shakespeare and others. This 1930s writer seems to maintain a grip on the mind of the practising novelist, the storyteller who longs to work close to the murkiness of life lived. Greene, in this sense, outlives literary fashion as the writer steeped in experience, in worldliness, in shades of moral grey. In his 28 novels, which treat subjects of worldly, if not everyday, importance – politics, sex, espionage, religion, business, world affairs, journalism – he raises central questions about what the novel’s concerns should be.
In the past decade, critical attention has gone not to Greene’s work but to his biographers. Not much of it has been to their credit. Greene seems to have eluded, if not defeated, his biographers – a fact that would cheer him – including his authorised biographer, Norman Sherry. In his first two volumes, Sherry wrote more than 1,200 pages on his subject. His 807-page third volume appears in October. It is not a good book. In fact, it is a shamefully bad book, a self-regarding, wandering volume that contains startling forensic errors and adds to the faults of the previous two volumes: a voyeuristic obsession with Catherine Walston, Greene’s lover of the 1950s, a strangely thin grasp of the writer’s psychology, and a disorganisation that reeks of the panic that it might never be finished.