Graham Greene

Considered vain, duplicitous and out of date, Greene fell from grace.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 clarity
September 25, 2004
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.

The most curious thing I find about Greene's biographers and memoirists is that none of them - particularly Sherry and Michael Shelden, whose work had the greatest claim to seriousness - seemed to grasp why Greene himself wrote. For money, according to Shelden; because he was hunted, according to Sherry. Neither acknowledged that a novelist's work is an erotic as well as a neurotic act, both creative and doubting (work well suited to Greene's manic depressive character). Surprisingly often in his life, Greene believed he would not write another book and thought of giving up literature for more reasonable work. But he was the involuntary artist; he had no other path, no other choice.

In his 1971 autobiography, A Sort of Life, Greene describes recovering in Westminster hospital from appendicitis as a young man. He tells the story of the sudden death of a boy of ten in another bed, who had broken his leg playing football. As the boy's parents arrive and the screens are drawn, Greene's companions in the ward lie with their headphones on, listening to Children's Hour. "All my companions but not myself," Greene observes before arriving at his notorious image of writerly detachment. "There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. There was something which one day I might need: the woman speaking, uttering the banalities she must have remembered from some woman's magazine, a genuine grief that could communicate only in clichés."

This is the retrospective expression of a writer's ambivalence. The world has come suddenly apart, split in two, into the inhabited and the observed. For Greene, the rupture had happened several years before when, as a schoolboy at Berkhamsted, he was lengthily persecuted by another boy, Carter - bullied, stabbed with compasses and worse. He retreated into silence and eventually had a breakdown. There was a further famous element to his schooldays, which echoed those two worlds. He felt compromised by being both pupil and headmaster's son. Divided loyalties were born from living on both sides of the green baize door outside his father's study, a door in a passage deceptively similar on both sides. On one there was the stink of iodine, damp towels from the changing rooms, ink; on the other, "books and fruit and eau de Cologne."

Greene was a dreamy, greedy reader. In his essay "The Lost Childhood," he commemorates his early influences: Anthony Hope, Henry Rider Haggard, Marjorie Bowen (and one detects in these writers the kind of life he was later driven to lead). "Perhaps it is only in childhood," he writes, "that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views… but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already." It was Bowen's zest, he says, that first made him want to write, but the urge - the split in his world - had first come from misery and humiliation at school. More darkly, he notes that Bowen's The Viper of Milan, read at the age of 14, "had given me my pattern… perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done." Children, Greene goes on, know most of life's game - they are aware of cowardice, deception, disappointment and shame - they only lack the ability to see how these will mark them. "The Lost Childhood" ends with Greene's well-known quotation of AE Housman's poem "Germinal." Its final two lines, more than any others, have given us the source of his pattern, to be found in his first novel, The Man Within, and his last, The Captain and the Enemy:

In ancient shadows and twilights

Where childhood had strayed,

The world's great sorrows were born

And its heroes were made.

In the lost boyhood of Judas

Christ was betrayed.

Out of Greene's boyhood grew elusiveness as well as literature. As an adult he remained shy. He disliked having to explain himself and later felt the need to ward off increasing claims on him, from the priests and female readers who sought him as confessor, to the journalists who regularly rang his doorbell in Antibes.

Greene wanted to "be" his books, not a public personality. He warned Sherry: "If anybody ever tries to write a biography of me, how complicated they are going to find it and how misled they are going to be." He also dwelt, according to Sherry, on the existence of another "Graham Greene," a conman who moved around the world impersonating him. Rumours of the antics of this "Other," as Greene called him, continued even after his death. Such defensiveness acted as constant provocation to Sherry and Shelden and the others who pursued Greene's story, but they all found themselves forced to fall back on inventing their subject. In the 13 years since Greene's death, they have made the tall Englishman with the ice-pale blue eyes and fine skin a model of literary treachery, womanising, imbalance, cruelty and vanity.

Yet there is, surely, a way to understand Greene's creative drives without arraigning an allegedly mercenary and shadowy character. How did he himself hope to be remembered? "A few… good books," he said two days before he died. "Perhaps people will think of me from time to time. As they think of Flaubert." This is a thoughtful and unillusioned answer, aware of both a great reputation and of reputation's vulnerability - do British readers today not think of Flaubert on a scale from rarely to never? Greene may have hoped, because he had an inkling of what biographers had in store (he had seen Sherry's first volume), that we would forget his private life and return to the books. Amid the lurid statuary erected by those who have written about him, amid the faded signposts to "Greeneland," this is not an unreasonable wish. But how are we, the next generation, to view the literary qualities of his work? And how are we to judge him as a model of the way a writer should live to get his material?

An answer to the first question lies in Greene's own observations of his fellow novelists. In his Collected Essays (1969) he devotes many pieces to those who influenced him as an adult: Flaubert (whom he liked but thought "dogmatically pure"), Dickens, Henry James, Stevenson, Chekhov, Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. In one essay, five pages written in 1945 about François Mauriac, Greene constructs, almost by accident, an overview of the 20th-century novel's predicament that conveys a fundamental observation about his own work: "After Henry James a disaster overtook the English novel… For after the death of James the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the sense of the importance of the human act."

That phrase conveys a fundamental observation about the nature of 20th-century writing - divided between those who believed in action and writing, and those who believed in just writing. "It was as if the world of fiction had lost a dimension," Greene goes on. "The characters of such distinguished writers as Mrs Virginia Woolf and Mr EM Forster wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin." Even in the world of Trollope, most materialistic of novelists, the clumsy, awkward clergyman stumbling through a proposal of marriage "exists in a way that Mrs Woolf's Mr Ramsay never does, because we are aware that he exists not only to the woman he is addressing but also in God's eye. His unimportance in the world of the senses is only matched by his enormous importance in another world."

Greene's great insight in this passage is to pin down the development that continues, mistakenly, to be laid at the door of Proust and Joyce - the death of the 19th-century novel. To Greene's mind, it had little to do with new ways of seeing. If the sense of how a character behaves, in the widest moral sense, is lost, then the novel, he believed, is finished. His antagonism to the post-Jamesian subjective novels of Virginia Woolf and others is mirrored in his passionate preference for physical urban description and terse detail. In this he was not reviving the 19th-century novel - God, or a just God, was gone, as was Dickens, and that was that - he was doing something new, entirely distinctive from both Victorians and subjectivists.

In the five elegant pages of his Mauriac essay, then, lies the essence of his literary situation. Born in a godless century, fluent in the relativism of psychoanalysis (after his breakdown at 17 and subsequent psychotherapy), he nonetheless profoundly felt the pull of good and evil - about which there is nothing palely subjective. Evil is a reality. Evil happens. This is a literary matter as well as a philosophical one. If evil happens, then evil is a story that needs to be told. It needs its details, "the facts in the case," to make us, the listeners, feel its reality and the sense that there is justice which can be fought for. It is within this framework that Greene's novels work. It is also within this framework that Greene's personal ambivalence - his work for MI6 and friendship with Kim Philby, his interest in brothels and dictators, his Catholicism and his several affairs - becomes interesting.

Shorn of its religious authority, where was the serious novel to go? Not to the subjective fiction Greene derided. Instead in the early 1930s he made an unprecedented step towards populism, in the form of genre fiction, fusing it with his own ambiguous moral quest. This is Greeneland, not as the world of foggy streets and corrupted humans, but as the conjoining of genre and high literary intent. In the novel of The Third Man (1949), for example, the occupation of Greene's protagonist Rollo Martins (Holley in Carol Reed's film) is "the writing of cheap paper-covered westerns under the name of Buck Dexter." Yet the mission Greene gives him, the search for his friend Harry Lime, could be from a Dexter western: the friend turned pursuer, the hunter and hunted, a man risen from the dead, a grieving girl, unease at evil loosed in the world. The greatest difference between a Dexter plot and Greene's is in the story's murky realism and ambiguous appeal (personified by Lime). Greene might write of The Third Man that "Reality, in fact, was only a background to a fairy tale," but it was a fairy tale accurate in its details: "the smashed dreary city of Vienna," the penicillin racket, the chase through the sewers. It was an unexpected irony that after the film's release, penicillin trafficking was revealed as more horrible than Greene had depicted. It turned out that many British army and RAF personnel had sold penicillin in Vienna, with no idea of the possible consequences.

Greene's talent in this new thriller territory was established with Stamboul Train, his fourth novel, published in 1932 as the first of his "entertainments." Focusing on the opportunistic affair between Myatt, the pragmatic Jewish businessman, and the innocent chorus girl, Coral Musker, he encircles one ambiguous situation with others: an abortive attempt by a Balkan exile to foment an uprising, a lesbian relationship crumbling in jealousy, the journalistic hounding of a bestselling (but inauthentic) cockney author; a murderer quietly fleeing the scene of a crime. The novel is at times more overcrowded than the express steaming for Istanbul; subterfuge, religion, sex, murder and political oppression jostle for carriage space. But rereading it, I am struck by Greene's early mastery (he was 28) of many of his themes - the danger lurking in idealism, the harm in pity, the cruelty in kindness. Not quite important enough to be a cultural paradigm, Stamboul Train still has the greatness of a paradigm of 20th-century storytelling. Its breathless struggle between romanticism and realism is constantly trading genre pleasures for difficult existential truth. It is the first of Greene's worldly battlefields.

Greene was, with Eric Ambler, one of the two pre-eminent English thriller writers of the late 1930s. His novels up to The Confidential Agent (1939) constantly revert to vice and politics. Communism, a visceral choice for the British working class, an aesthetic one for the upper, swirled around his plots. His attraction to both victims and murky genre situations was played out against a real background of capitalist economies imploding, coffee and wheat being burnt on foreign quaysides, an abyss between rich and poor. "We're all thieves… stealing a livelihood" is Kate Farrant's verdict in England Made Me; Rose Cullen, the daughter of Lord Benditch in The Confidential Agent, has "the absurd mind of her class… she gave you a bun on a cold platform… and then left you abandoned halfway."

Almost until the outbreak of war Greene remained a writer living on high literary aims and a taste for seamy fantasy. But his writing changed abruptly after his visit to Mexico in 1938. In his 1980 memoir, Ways of Escape, he writes that after witnessing President Calles's lynchings and purges of Catholics, "Catholicism was no longer symbolic, a ceremony at an altar… It was closer now to death in the afternoon." It was not only his view of Catholicism that changed. No reader of the books he wrote about Mexico, The Lawless Roads (1939) and The Power and the Glory (1940), can doubt that the country far outstripped his appetite for murkiness. Experiencing real evil in the adult world, it was as if, stepping out of Clapham, he abandoned comfortably fantasised darkness (Brighton Rock, the last novel he wrote before leaving for Mexico, is his most highly wrought fantasy) for reality.

The 1940s and 1950s were Greene's great period of realism. Genre gave ground to reportage. In this time of profound restlessness, aggravated by his underlying manic depression, his life became a laboratory for his masterpieces. He prowled Africa, Asia and the Caribbean seeking places and events to provide him with material, or an antidote to depression, or both. As often with the cyclothymic patient, the cure as much as the disease appalled. West Africa (The Heart of the Matter), his violent affair with Catherine Walston (The End of the Affair), French Indochina (The Quiet American) took their toll. The Congo nearly finished him off ex post facto, in the writing of A Burnt-Out Case. It is not a light-hearted matter to reread these novels with their Dostoevskian echoes. All are about a kind of defeat.

Greene did not completely give up genre, however, or the pleasures of its seamy side. (His escapes from England also gave him personal opportunity for mild sexual and narcotic indulgence.) Some critics lamented his continued use of hard-boiled techniques. John Lehmann, reviewing The Quiet American in 1956 wrote, "I also regret a rather obtrusive element of monotony in his style, the almost unvarying tight-lipped curtness of dialogue and comment; a mannerism which seems to me to be carried so far at times that it recalls the American school of tough thriller-writers, and would indeed be more in keeping with their quite differently aimed productions."

Yet such pace and brevity helped Greene to popularise even his most compromised characters. No modern English novelist has succeeded in bringing despair or tragedy to as wide a public, a feat he achieved by an extraordinary ability to distribute sympathy among his characters. His dramatisation of the world as a place of limited grace was one whose accuracy his readers recognised. Its battles might bring the powerful, even God, down a notch, but there was always defeat on both sides. Nothing was simple, but shared defeat introduced a feeling of humanity and solidarity. That is why the deaths of a conman and a hero - Jones and Dr Magiot - in The Comedians affect us equally, and why in The Quiet American we approve Fowler's punishment for bringing about the death of the American Pyle, but sympathise with him too. "Everything had gone right with me since [Pyle] had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry."

Greene's career shows a kind of Kierkegaardian development, not the strict erotic-ethical-religious stages of life, but with a similar arc, as thriller-writer (erotic stage) gave way to anguished realist novelist (religious), and finally, in the 1960s, a calmer political stage. (This last phase coincided with his meeting Yvonne Cloetta, the Frenchwoman who became his companion for the last 32 years of his life.) In fictional terms, politics became preferable to religion. The late novels, from The Comedians (1966) to Monsignor Quixote (1982) via Travels with My Aunt, The Honorary Consul and The Human Factor are purged, if not of storms, at least of the suspicion that death was preferable to life. He once told Yvonne that "religion belonged to a past he wanted to forget, whereas politics had to do with the present."

Greene was the first British writer to turn genre into a serious style, with high ethical and aesthetic aims. But is it the style that has lasted, or is it Greene's overriding belief in the human act as idea? In a sense, both. The British novel of the past 30 years is indebted to him for his brevity, his use of highly edited dialogue and sharp, selective detail. To the end of his life, Greene kept on his bedside table The Letters of Ezra Pound, and would quote one letter in particular, from Pound to Harriet Monroe in 1915: "Language is made out of concrete things. General expressions in non-concrete terms are a laziness, they are talk, not art, not creation. They are the reaction of things on the writer, not a creative act by the writer." That, he said, expressed his opinion on the art of storytelling precisely.

The idea of the human act is linked to literary style by that concreteness. For Greene, how we act is of paramount importance. Action is the engine of good and evil. That may have seemed outdated to postmodernists, but I think many novelists now, if abashed at wearing a principle as overtly as Greene did, would probably still agree. Greene possessed psychological penetration, but most of his energy went into describing how his characters moved, spoke, breathed. For him, this was the novelist's most delicate task, as character is the source of action as well as political consequence. In his seventies he described the painful process of making a character live: "At the outset [he or she] is only a tiny point, a point that I fix on with such an intensity that after an hour or two my eyes weep and I have to stop. Then this point grows, gets nearer, takes shape bit by bit, slowly. At last, if things go well, it becomes alive and even independent. It has its own character, its own will outside me, independently of me." For any Greene character to come alive, they must exist in their creator's eye, in the full spectrum of their existence and duplicity.

Greene's life is important, though dreadfully served by biographers. Its details are salutary: it led him into the murk of human action as a principle, into a profound exploration of genre and style. Since he belonged to no style - not the 19th century, not modernist or anti-modernist, not merely genre - it is the idea of the writer living the writer's life which endures in the contemporary imagination. And he carries with him the odour of a moral ambiguity unpalatable to our piously moralising, hypocritical times. We are drawn to him as a model, but cannot bear too much of his reality. In this, Greene was far more our Brecht or our Camus than Orwell ever was. Indeed, where Orwell's reputation continued to soar during the 1990s, his keynote of moral clarity may no longer be serving us so well. It is, perhaps, the grey of Greene that now speaks to us.

It should be said, however, that in one area of his life Greene displayed little ambiguity: his membership of Charter 77, his resignation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters over Vietnam, his support of the people of Haiti, of General Torrijos over the renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty and of Ortega's Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Greene's public pronouncements have been overshadowed by the perceived naivete of his pro-Sovietism. Yet for almost 20 years after the 1966 Daniel-Sinyavsky trial, Greene refused to visit the Soviet Union and blocked all translation of his books in the USSR. "The writer should always be ready to change sides at the drop of a hat," he wrote in "The Virtue of Disloyalty." "He speaks up for the victims, and the victims change." He always spoke out for the victims as he felt he should, and he was not unaware of his publicity-generating power. Visiting Cuba for the last time in 1983, he was asked by Fidel Castro, "Well, Graham, what message have you brought me?" He answered, "I have no message. I am the message."

It is most obviously in his friendship with Kim Philby that ambivalence and duplicity become the sticks with which Greene's detractors strike him. There is no doubt of Greene's friendship: Philby certainly believed in it, writing in 1968 after Greene had written a preface for Philby's memoir, My Silent War, "I always thought that you were one of the few people in England who would really understand." Greene stayed in touch with his MI6 boss until Philby's death in 1988, writing to his wife Rufa afterwards that Philby had also been to him "a good and loyal friend."

Many have speculated on Greene's motives for loyalty to Philby. With the 1968-88 Greene-Philby correspondence now to hand (see Geordie Williamson, p10), it is at last possible to chuck out speculation and see a friendship that ignores not only cold war ideology but the public realm in toto; theirs is an entirely private exchange (even if Greene may have passed on some of Philby's letters to the foreign office). The 30 or so letters possess a wistful quality on both sides; age is catching up with both men, a great deal of their pleasure in writing is to recapture a scrap or two of their first friendship. They had come to each other's notice during the war, when Greene was in Sierra Leone and Philby, as his senior at Section V, in London. They became friends when Greene returned to London and was posted to the new SIS headquarters at St Albans, where their professional relations relaxed into the comradeship of Sunday lunches of heavy drinking, and later at Ryder Street in St James's into regular after-work drinks. By the standards of his time, Greene was a responsible employee, if unconventional in his taste for practical jokes. He can't have seemed much like the anguished author who would soon publish a Catholic tragedy (The Heart of the Matter, 1948).

Nor, in his letters to Moscow, does Greene show a sign of duplicitous character - unless his request in 1978 to the Soviet embassy in Budapest, during a visit to the city, to send a telegram to Philby and suggest that they share a bottle of wine together counts as treachery. The tone of Greene's side of the correspondence is warm, enthusiastic, spontaneous. There are long discussions of cold war politics; mention of their shared distrust of fellow agent Malcolm Muggeridge ("I have learnt too well that his under-pants conceal a stiletto") and dislike of "the B-film actor" (Reagan). Greene skips from subject to subject, initiates the discussions, and urges solutions to Jimmy Carter's problems in Iran and the Russians' in Afghanistan. Philby, more weary, more hardened by experience, mildly turns them down. There is a hint in Greene, still, of the junior officer trying to attract his senior's attention. There is also a deeply ordinary proof in the correspondence: that friendship has no master. It, among life's promises, can last. On 30th July 1980 Greene writes: "Belief to me in any form of government or religion becomes more and more impossible. " Six years later, on 6th October, after the two men had finally met again, he seems surprised that something else is possible. "We loved our visit to you and the strong feeling of how our friendship has survived all these years untouched." Philby responds with more restrained affection, and his last word, strangely, is an ill-judged PS: "After you left our flat, I found that Yvonne had left half her whisky-and-soda. Naturally, I drank it."

What kind of moralist lies behind such a willing friendship with dishonour? In his private life, restless and impatient, Greene is temperamentally aligned with Pascal's definition of our condition as "inconstancy, boredom, anxiety." As a novelist, he is even more of a Pascalian, revealing that the props by which men and women sustain themselves are baseless: human institutions and relations are treacherously inconsistent, accepted values are dispensable. It is, in many respects, a doubting, melancholy view of humanity, yet it is not negative.

In the Pascalian scheme, as in Greene's, even the love of God may be doubted. After his conversion in 1926, Greene had a desire to be a priest - before it, he was even prepared to offer Vivien a celibate marriage; by the time of The Heart of the Matter, the book's success among the victims of religion led him to feel that "the vision of faith as an untroubled sea was lost forever." To the end of his life, the "Catholic agnostic" insisted that doubt was inextricable from his faith, quoting Miguel de Unamuno's declaration that those who believe in God without passion, without doubt, believe "only in the God idea, not in God Himself."

What does Greene leave us with? A system in which the terms of the lost Jamesian universe can be reclaimed: love, hate, compassion, contempt, good, evil. But belief, at every moment, is a question of imagination. Only the human act matters. "Talk," he once said, "is so often an escape from action - instead of a prelude to action." Despite his achievement in fusing genre style with a literary aesthetic, we no longer think of him as a pre-eminent literary model, interestingly evading both the high canon and the low. Yet he remains a stubbornly troubling artefact of the worldly English writer in the 20th century. We might think again. In this overloaded, increasingly compromised, discontinuous civilisation of ours, is it not precisely that worldliness we need, the unpleasant odour of which draws us into the treachery and doubt and moral ambivalence at the heart of human reality?