Greene, Graham 1904–
One of England's most important living literary figures, Greene has written short stories, plays, essays, and travel books, although he is most highly regarded as a novelist. Greene is a convert to Catholicism, and his religion figures in varying degrees in all his fiction. Greene is famous for his "entertainments," such as The Third Man, and for his original psychological thrillers. His best-known novels are The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock. (See also, Graham Greene Criticism and volumes 1, 6, 9, 14, 18 and 125.)
To entertain his fellow men is one of the kindest things an author can do: and as an entertainer Mr. Graham Greene has few rivals in the English field. For sheer readability—a mysterious attribute having no connection with either beauty or truth and indeed wellnigh absent from some of the world's greatest literature—he comes perhaps second only to Mr. Somerset Maugham. From the fact that he divides his work into Novels and Entertainments, however, it may be doubted if he is content with this. In the distinction there is something self-conscious, even something arbitrary: we cannot but wonder what Mr. Greene has in mind. Although he might not thank us for a suggestion that the Novels are not entertaining, or that the Entertainments are not novels, the implication of a difference in genre is clear….
Mr. Greene excels,… indeed he approaches wizardry,… in … descriptions of the most squalid of people, the drabbest of milieux. Grey little commercial travelers, bad journalists, private detectives, slatternly waitresses, priests without a vocation, humbugs of every sort, suffering from indigestion, body odor, decayed teeth or sheer chronic futility, bob up in their seedy environments, the seaside promenade or boarding-house, the colonial Nissen hut, the genteel villa or the dusty office, and keep us as enthralled as would the most glittering assembly in the land. No English novelist but Dickens has written as vividly of the failed, the come down, of all that in life we incline to turn away from; but where Dickens transfigures it by the warmth of his humanity and the magic of his genius, Mr. Greene simply treats it as exotic. His eye is original, if his mind is not: the masterly, film director's eye that in Africa, Indochina, Mexico picks out infallibly the one detail to bring the character, the landscape, before the reader's own, achieves, in playing on the familiar and the dreary, an even greater triumph.
With this eye, and an ear no less acute, with a prodigious knack of description, dialogue and narrative, Mr. Greene is incapable of being dull; and only the most ungrateful wretch alive would harp on the fact that the verities of God and man ask for something more.
Honor Tracy, "Graham Greene" (originally titled "The Life and Soul of the Party"; copyright © 1959 by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 315-20.
[Greene] is extremely good at conveying an atmosphere of unromantic corruption; "seediness" is his forte and the colonial scene gives him a particular opportunity. He has mastered most of the slick techniques of the efficient film—especially the art of montage—and of the American novel of the twenties and thirties. His novels have a spare, taut quality which is very useful in counteracting their underlying pretentiousness. Graham Greene is never pompous….
Graham Greene has inherited the experience of [American social-realist] writers: their narrative ease which takes violence and melodrama in its stride, their economy of construction (the complex folklore of industrial urban life taken very much for granted), a kind of brash sentimentality masquerading as toughness, an eye for the sharp detail, the sordid and the grotesque….
The Heart of the Matter is a moral fable, a novel based on an abstract concept as to the nature of existence. The heart of the matter is the innate sinfulness of man and his need of divine mercy. Graham Greene's novel illustrates this concept….
The case against The Heart of the Matter is not that it fails to create a coherent impression or to involve much penetrating observation; the important criticism of it is that it reduces life by pressing it into a narrow mould. Graham Greene talks about Wilson in the brothel being "reduced to human nature." It is the way in which human nature in this novel is indeed reduced that constitutes its ultimate failure.
Arnold Kettle, in his An Introduction to the English Novel, Volume Two (copyright © 1960 by Arnold Kettle; published by permission of Hutchinson & Co., Publishers, and Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Hutchinson, 1960, pp. 170-77.
A buzzard flaps across a dusty Mexican square and settles heavily on a tin roof … in Brighton the lights go out above the black struts of the Palace Pier and the dark shifting water … in Saigon old wrinkled women in black trousers squat gossiping on the landing outside the urinoir … over Clapham Common solitary walkers move with bowed heads through the slanting rain … in West Africa the laterite roads turn a fragile pink at sundown, then are swallowed by darkness.
These are some characteristic scenes from a country of the mind known internationally as Greeneland. No one interested in modern literature has failed to explore it; but the explorers have brought back conflicting reports. The reception and reputation of Graham Greene's fiction is, indeed, a subject in itself. Briefly, he enjoys the admiration of reviewers, fellow novelists, and 'general readers', who praise particularly his 'craftsmanship', his ability to 'tell a story'; and of some critics with a vested interest in Christian or specifically Catholic literature. But in the mainstream of Anglo-American literary criticism his reputation does not ride so high. The bibliography of Greene studies grows longer and longer, but the proportion of unfriendly and depreciative criticism is enough to force Greene's admirers into a characteristically defensive stance….
The popular image of Greene as a master technician with a crucifix hidden behind his back (or up his sleeve) obviously will not do. But his work does not fit into the categories that orthodox literary criticism has evolved in its appraisal of serious modern fiction. While the mass media of entertainment have figured as the villains in most contemporary cultural discussion, Greene has not only enjoyed popular success as a writer of thrillers and stories (like The Third Man) designed for the movies, but has drawn extensively on their conventions in his most ambitious work. In a period when the most influential school of criticism in England has proclaimed the duty of the novelist to be 'on the side of life', Greene has spoken eloquently on the side of death. Belonging by language and nationality to a tradition in the novel based essentially on the values of secularized Protestantism, Greene has adopted the alien dogmatic system of Roman Catholicism, and put it at the very centre of his mature work. Eschewing the 'poetic' verbal texture, the indifference to 'story', and the authorial impersonality of most of the accredited modern masters of fiction, Greene has cultivated the virtues and disciplines of prose, favoured involved and exciting plots, and reasserted the right of the novelist to comment on his characters and their actions.
The result of all this, one can't help thinking, is that Greene has represented for many critics a temptation of a kind to which criticism of the novel is always susceptible: the temptation to abstract from fiction the author's version of reality, measuring this against a supposedly normative version, rather than assessing the persuasiveness with which the novelist realizes his version….
Part of the trouble, no doubt, is that Greene's données are often based on Catholic dogma and belief, on such assumptions as that there is such a thing as 'mortal' sin, that Christ is 'really and truly' present in the Eucharist, that miracles can occur in the twentieth century. The fictional endorsement of such ideas in the context of a pluralist and largely secular culture presents very real artistic problems. In seeking to convey to his non-Catholic audience a technical and emotional understanding of Catholic experience, the Catholic novelist risks arousing in this audience whatever extraliterary objections and suspicions it entertains about the Catholic Church as an active, proselytizing institution; while on his own part he has to grapple with the problem of retaining his artistic integrity while belonging to a Church which has never accepted the individual's right to pursue intellectual and artistic truth in absolute freedom….
It is obvious that no writer subscribing to the Catholic faith could prevent it, even if he wished to, from invading his most deeply felt creative work. But Catholicism as a public system of laws and dogmas is far from being an adequate key to Greene's fiction. There is a good deal of evidence, internal and external, that in Greene's fiction Catholicism is not a body of belief requiring exposition and demanding categorical assent or dissent, but a system of concepts, a source of situations, and a reservoir of symbols with which he can order and dramatize certain intuitions about the nature of human experience—intuitions which were gained prior to and independently of his formal adoption of the Catholic faith. Regarded in this light, Greene's Catholicism may be seen not as a crippling burden on his artistic freedom, but as a positive artistic asset.
David Lodge, in his Graham Greene (reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1966.
Of the English Catholic novelists, Graham Greene is by far the most interesting, since he is probably the least orthodox. The implied doctrines of his novels approach Jansenism, which has been repeatedly condemned by Rome….
The horror of the natural world is one of the most fascinating aspects of Greene's fiction. Sin is not cool and intellectual matter for theological dissertations: sin is expressed in the joyless sex of Brighton Rock, with its broken toenails in the bed; the carious landscape of The Power and the Glory; the hell of Haiti in The Comedians….
Graham Greene's self-expatriation—once intermittent but now, it seems, permanent—could never be interpreted as a failure of devotion to England. The Jansenist in him is led to the places where the squalor of sin is exposed in its rawest forms. But, unlike Evelyn Waugh, who fictionally identified himself with the fortunes of English Catholics tied, by land or family bonds, to England, Greene is concerned with the Catholic soul working out its salvation or damnation in isolation: the furniture of England is a distraction and an irrelevance. Admittedly, two of his finest novels—Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair—have English settings, but they are not the English settings of the ordinary bourgeois English novel: we have the jungle of gang warfare in the first and the jungle of the Blitz in the second. A parochial England, one in which party politics can be an important concern, hardly seems to Greene a suitable stage for the enactment of spiritual drama. Moreover, his Catholicism reveals, with every new book, its international character. The enemies of the true belief walk the great world, not the parish. The politics of Greene are world politics….
In Greene's fiction … there is little flavour of empiricism (which, after all, has something of Pelagianism about it). There are instead paradoxes and anomalies—the sinner who is really a saint, the philanthropist who is really a destroyer. And there are dangerous epigrams like 'There is always an alternative to the faith we lose'. No significance need be attached to the fact that Graham Greene is now living not too many kilometres away from Port-Royal. His beliefs are his own affair; we are merely concerned with his fiction. And fiction, as we know, has to be stranger than truth.
Anthony Burgess, "The Greene and the Red: Politics in the Novels of Graham Greene," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 13-20.
No writer shows more clearly [than Graham Greene] the assimilating force of the generation after 1930. In the nineteenth-century, resistance to the commercial drive for efficiency found one set of defenses in medievalism, conceived in both religious and heroic terms. But in Greene the old opposites coalesce into a common pressure. The combination appears in his work not as idea, but experienced, lived through intensely, and absorbed. Efficiency and heroism, method and religion become meshed ideals. So while Greene moves to symbolize these newer standards of conduct, he wants simultaneously to know whether mere human weakness will destroy the precarious conciliation….
[The] earlier generation preserved itself by willingness to live with a vast space between Ulysses and Bloom, Pecival and the gashouse. It concentrated its hopes on an infinitely expandable inner world. At a time when this belief has lost force, Greene responds to depression-bred frustrations for which imaginative perception no longer provides a sufficient outlet. For all his smoothness, he restates the human problem.
His claim to significance begins from recognizing the gradual coalescence of feudal and industrial ideals. But since mythic heroes did not have to prove perennially efficient—they had only to rise to occasions—merging aristocratic and bourgeois ideals of excellence sharply increases pressure. To set up the problem, Greene searches the world for the warlike situations from which heroism has traditionally appeared…. His complexity of action reflects the new demand for not a one-shot, but a persisting heroism which can survive even anonymity. And these central concerns bring him to questions of overreaching, possible human effectiveness, reluctance to sacrifice sensitivity, and strategies of limiting the area of hope, gaining approbation, and renewing the battered will….
The exotic scenes which Greene's heroes choose provide symbolism, and … connect the primitive with childhood, but most importantly they limit even the possibility of establishing effective control. They clear away the childhood wish for omnipotence by putting it obviously out of reach from the start. The man who wants to be responsible and humane must resign himself quickly to establishing a little order in a big chaos. He will fight and, in The Quiet American, kill to maintain this sense of limited objective. And, despite the outrage in this country, Greene chooses his American antagonist accurately….
The intense pursuit of aims limited in advance parallels Greene's British love for institutions. The Church embodies a fixed conscience, rules that may have some flexibility; colonial government provides an area of action with a built-in resilience, derived from experience of the possible. Scobie can consistently be a Catholic police administrator; the foreign correspondent can consistently support the French holding operation in Indo-China. And both can instinctively oppose the younger brother type who comes to activate some "logical" schema for total effectiveness. Greene combines the puritan conscience and work drive with an English taste for institutions and continuity, and, like the nineteenth-century Oxfordians, finds in Catholicism the best modern representative of this sense of reality….
Greene's Catholicism is obviously moral, action-centered, rather than contemplative or mystic. The Church institutionalizes conscience, which for a Greene hero would be exacerbating in any case. It avoids the chaos of relativity and fulfills the human demand that there be some standard a man can measure himself by…. Accepting the Church's law as absolute establishes agenbite of inwit as in the nature of the moral world rather than a mere human misjudgment. Men choose to set up impossible aims for themselves. In sum and after all the anti-heroes and all the diagnoses of bourgeois civilization, men childishly still want to be heroes….
Greene takes as an irreducible modern problem …[,] the desire to assert individual heroism after the institution which rationalized the ideal has become an echo. The whiskey priest [in The Power and the Glory] strives to be a useful man of God, maintaining people's hope and continuity, after every logical reason for doing so has gone…. Greene's central vision is the simultaneous existence and irrationality of the honest try….
Over-all and so far, Greene elevates the puritan drive left after all creating anew of the conscience of the race; relates it to twentieth-century self-kicking, self-pity, and humaneness; and makes his mixture of formidable entry in the race to orient ourselves. [Few critics] … argue with so desirable an outlook as Greene's. Who wants to fight even the possibility of benevolent effectiveness?
James Hall, "Efficient Saints and Civilians: Graham Greene," in his The Lunatic Giant in the Drawing Room: The British and American Novel Since 1930, Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 111-23.
If Mr. Greene had gone to the 18th century, he might have subtitled [Travels With My Aunt]: "The Education of Henry Pulling." It has a Fielding point of view with a squint. But the intended echoes are all 19th century….
Graham Greene may have changed his perspective, may perhaps now feel that he is looking back at other Graham Greenes who wrote other books, books of travel, entertainments, novels. Perhaps he is indulging himself in the luxury of the elderly point of view. As man and author, he must be comfortably sure that his inventiveness has not failed. The cameos in this book are superb….
The action on the physical level holds together as well as anything Greene or Eric Ambler wrote in their palmiest days. Everything is neatly plotted and tidied up at the end, though perhaps in the sense that embroidery threads are snipped when the stitching is done. The stage action takes place within one neatly Aristotelian revolution of the sun. The principal characters have their fates settled by marriage or murder, and the ones who only drifted in,… drift off again into the fog, pursuing their love or their quarry.
Margaret Wimsatt, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 8, 1970, pp. 200-01.
Greene is such a complex artist that before one can even hope to know what he was attempting to do one must look at his origins. James, Conrad, and Mauriac were the chief writers who influenced him. Most obvious is his connection with Mauriac and through him with the whole carefully developed, highly self-aware French critical Catholic tradition…. The fate of souls which will be saved or lost is the strongest source of drama in Greene's stories. Though his handling of it derives from the French tradition, nevertheless, as with all debts Greene owes, he changes the gift he receives and develops it in his own way….
Greene understood the accumulated encrustations of popular misconceptions among Catholics about Catholic orthodoxy. He worked to eliminate them, and in Newman's sense "develop" the fullest possible true meaning. Greene believes the biblical teaching, greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend, but he also believes that there should be added as a logical corollary the principle that man must be ready to lay down not only his temporal but his eternal life…. Greene … makes [this theme] specially his own and develops his own variation. Like all his dramatic themes, its central element is the search for the highest measure of love, a search that leads into a paradox, yet again the drama is one whose power depends on evoking and enlarging for modern times a timeless teaching. Whoever shall seek to lose his soul in Greene's superbly generous way shall save it, as Rose does in Brighton Rock….
Volumes could be written about his achievements in developing the novel…. As in James, all the component personalities combine to create the whole personality as it finally develops. But compared to Greene, James seems to write in slow motion. Greene shifts from one person to another, one place to the next, one action to consequent action with a rapidity that can only be called cinematographic. The effect is as if Greene were swinging the boom of a huge camera. The changes come the more swiftly because for plots Greene uses the patterns of the modern thriller, with intrigue, betrayal, mystery, suspense, surprise, and particularly the chase as main elements….
Greene's books were a symptom of Catholic thinking that was increasing in depth, but inevitably his work collided with the pious rigidity inherited from the nineteenth century. Nevertheless his widely read fiction exerted a strong influence. The "open Church" of the 1960s, with its acceptance of all "men of good will" had in its background the puzzled, slowly comprehending, worldwide Catholic audience on which Greene's themes were working in the 1940s and 1950s. These were the decades when the separatism that had dominated the nineteenth century was surrendering to the older recognition that had begun with such men as Campion and continued with such men as Newman: that there was good in all people. Greene's work was a sign of the accelerated convergence between the Catholic and the non-Catholic worlds….
When one bears in mind Greene's lifelong development of the theme of God's mercy, and when one looks back on his fiction with today's larger view of Catholic orthodoxy that does away with such mistaken encrustations as the notion of some sort of automatic damnation for suicides, one remembers Pinkie's verse about the stirrup and the ground [in Brighton Rock], and one feels sure that what Scobie found [in The Heart of the Matter] was indeed mercy, a compassion and a responsibility infinitely greater than his own. As in all Greene's novels, the measure of the protagonist before God is his love. And the measure of God is the same, except that God's love in its illimitable vastness is immeasurable. Here again we see that Greene's best work goes back to forms that are very old, and far more complex than dramas in which the good suffer and the evil prosper, as in the early Orient Express and England Made Me….
After Greene produced his finest novel, The Heart of the Matter, his strength seemed somehow impaired. A study of the works that followed gives one the impression that whatever he experienced while developing the character of Scobie must have exhausted him. From the time of his first novels Greene's theme had been responsibility. In 1932, in his earliest widely read entertainment, Orient Express, the antifascist Dr. Czinner was a protagonist who dedicated his life to the political liberation of his fellowmen. In 1935, in the depths of the financial crisis that shook the world, Greene examined the theme on its economic side and portrayed the amoral financier, Krogh, a type of creature who, Greene felt, had by his irresponsibility brought about the sufferings of the countless millions of starving and unemployed. Later Greene examined figures of heroic responsibility, and created the child-woman, Rose, in Brighton Rock and the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory.
But after The Power and the Glory in 1940, Greene apparently began to reassess his major theme. The reassessment must have been painful, for responsibility had been not only Greene's answer to life as he saw it in the 1930s but it was the answer of the whole intellectual world of that era. The feeling was that irresponsibility had brought on all of the world's crises from depression to impending war….
The Power and the Glory had been particularly moving in its treatment of the theme of responsibility because the protagonist was a priest and the book traced the theme to its deepest roots, which lay in the Christian origins of Western civilization and Christ's commandment of love from man to man. The Power and the Glory is written by an artist who is carried by surging self-confidence in the rightness of his evolved beliefs, and who feels his command of his talent reaching a peak. When one puts down The Power and the Glory, however, and picks up The Heart of the Matter, one is immediately aware of a change in spirit. The Heart of the Matter moves deliberately—painfully. It is one of those works in which one can almost sense the sweat on the author's pen. The brilliant cinematographic flashing from scene to scene is gone, the plot unfolds with terrible slowness, a crescendo of inexorability….
Where did Scobie go "wrong"; what was the nature of Greene's painful and astounding reassessment of the theme that had lain at the heart of his own beliefs and of the Western world's convictions since the 1930s? Greene's Scobie is shown as "corrupted" by the force of his pity….
Thus in his portrait of Scobie Greene reversed his great theme. Love of man for his fellow beings is the second commandment; the first and greatest is love for God "with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind." An ineradicable part of this love of God must be trust, and Scobie does not trust. Greene's theme now is that a man should indeed help and serve his fellow beings, but there are limits beyond which he cannot go, and times when trust in God must replace his own efforts. Scobie's lack of trust is self-destructive, and his ultimate suicide is inevitable.
In Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter Greene had been like an embodied spirit of compassion, contemplating more and more deeply in each book the nature of man's fate in a fallen world. It would seem that the ordeal of writing The Heart of the Matter may have driven him spiritually into dryness, and, intellectually, he may have said, if not all, at least the utmost he had to say. The later Greene is like his own Querry in A Burnt-Out Case. Only one book, The End of the Affair, whose craftsmanship was such that it evoked the warm sponsorship in America of William Faulkner, can even remotely be compared to the major novels; and the theme of The End of the Affair is significant: it is love and loyalty to God over love and loyalty to man; it is trust in God's own "responsibility" and a placing of final trust in the goodness of creation when one reaches the place beyond which one's own effort cannot prevail.
Looking back after fifteen years, one realizes that the steady deepening of Greene's achievements ended in mid-century, at the time of the reassessment of his great theme. Afterwards he turned increasingly to the mode of fiction that had always enabled Catholic writers to express their vision and yet maintain the detachment that is the artist's protection against pain. Satire is prominent in the skillful entertainment, The Third Man in 1950; it provides the framework of The Quiet American in 1955; and it is almost the entire substance of The Comedians ten years later.
Gene Kellogg, "Graham Greene," in his The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence, Loyola University Press, 1970, pp. 111-36.
The right that Greene claims, to comment and to express his views, is one that separates him from the other descendants of James and Conrad. It has made him sometimes didactic, as he admits in his introduction to Brighton Rock (which he nevertheless concludes may be the best book he ever wrote); and it has led him to utter the pensées that are perhaps the most distinguishable feature of his style, and to incline toward characters who are themselves penseurs. Greene has made the standard disclaimer of personal responsibility for the remarks of his characters, but in fact his manner is such that it is sometimes difficult to determine the degree of authorial commitment to voiced thoughts. He and his characters think continually about the importance of human acts, about God and the soul, love and damnation….
Greene's didacticism has led to his being identified as a "Catholic novelist", an identification to which he has many times objected. Against this charge he has quoted Newman—"if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature"—but to little avail (a Catholic in support of a Catholic seems a weak defence). Greene might also have called up Auden, who has said that there can no more be Christian art than there can be Christian cookery, and certainly in Auden's sense Greene's novels are not Christian, but are simply the novels of a rather heterodox Christian man. Still, if there is no such thing as Christian literature, there may still be Catholic fiction, and in Greene's case it does seem possible to separate the Catholic books from what one might call the lay books. There is no novel by Greene from which the religious sense is entirely absent, but only a few approach sectarianism. One sign of this quality is the way, in certain novels, a priest is given a strong doctrinal speech at the end (this is true of Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, and The Heart of the Matter, and, in a rather different way, of The Power and the Glory); but this is only one symptom of a more essential peculiarity of those books—the way they all slide off toward abstraction, and away from the felt reality of the visible world, in their final pages. None of these "Catholic" novels ends as well as it began….
The legendary quality of Greene's writing has to some extent been obscured by the particularity of his imagined world. His settings have been so consistently vivid and actual that they have been given a collective name—"Greeneland"—and a descriptive adjective—"seedy". Greene objects to both the noun and the adjective, but he can scarcely deny that his world is consistently seedy, sordid, violent and cruel. These qualities are part of the legend: they describe not an actual environment, but an image of a spiritual condition—a world abandoned by God. Greene is a man with a commitment to a religious tradition which he cannot see as manifested in contemporary society: there is no apparent way of expressing belief with these physical, human materials—one can only express the absence of belief….
[The] Collected Edition is important as a monument to a major English novelist's achievement. Greene has done what he aimed to do—he has expressed a religious sense, and created a fictive world in which human acts are important. In that world, at least, creative art is a function of the religious mind; Greene would have it that this is always so. His art is perhaps little comfort to the religious, for it offers no confirmation of comfortable words, and if it celebrates, it celebrates minimal virtues. But art has other things to do besides comforting and celebrating; it can feed our imaginative lives by insisting that the religious sense exists, in this world, in Brighton and Tabasco and Indo-China. No one has done that better in fiction than Graham Greene.
"The Man Within," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 17, 1971, pp. 1101-02.
Greene has always denied being a deliberately committed writer—that is to say, writing in the service of a particular doctrine, in support of a particular cause, either political or religious. He has fought a running battle against the power of abstractions, the "isms" and "ocracies" that in our age have arrived to dominate politics, history, and economics. In a society organized either badly or too well, one in which technology, planning, and the growing power of government increasingly threaten individual freedom, one in which the totalitarian exploitation of men and ideas is widespread in both the communist state and the welfare state (although less noticeably so in the latter), Greene has argued that the writer's duty is "to accept no special privilege from the State." He must at all costs maintain his independence, taking no orders from the state or from any party or creed….
For the writer, then, more than for anyone else, justice is inseparable from discipline. He must have the courage to tell what he sees. For to the extent that his account is an accurate one he can disclose man to himself and unmask the meaning of things and events.
This concern for justice and truth infuses all of Greene's work, giving the universe he creates the complex dimensions of reality. He has never quit fighting for mankind against the philosophies of determinism that undermine man's true stature. It is in this sense that Greene's works are political—political in the highest sense of the word, as it has been understood since the time of Plato's dialogues….
Greene's novels are drawn from life as it is; his characters are grounded in it. Just as we, they live, fall in love, toil, struggle, and die. We learn their habits, their flaws and virtues, their weaknesses and acts of courage. Each has his place in society, from the judge or policeman representing the established order to the outlaw, murderer, or traitor challenging it, and, in between, the industrialist and worker, writer, communist, and priest. As a journalist, Greene traveled to almost every continent, collecting as he went the carefully detailed observations which were to become the materials for his novels. Their scope is a global one; their backdrop, the present, the history of our century. Its great human and social dramas echo throughout Greene's works. He is, in one critic's words, "the spokesman of tragic times."
What, in fact, comes first to sight when one tries to capture reality as it is? Violence, certainly. Violence is everywhere. It is in the oppressiveness of social injustice, against which even conformity provides no secure defense. It is in the very soul of man, who destroys himself when he gives way to it. It is unleashed in war. War sets people against each other or divides a nation. It turns man against his brother; it rends man and woman when the sexes are confronted. It calls forth and precipitates death. Greene's novels all culminate in a violent death, either murder, the ultimate expression of violence against another, or suicide, the result of frustrated violence turned inward against oneself. There is always at least one victim; a gigantic tauromachy plays itself out. Death, in Greene's works, exists as an abiding presence, as an inescapable part of life….
The demands of compassion and truth require, on the part of the novelist, considerable humility. "For to render the highest justice to corruption you must retain your innocence: you have to be conscious all the time within yourself of treachery to something valuable" [The Lost Childhood]. Evil is just such a treachery, a betrayal of our neighbor, of ourselves, of God. Greene's novels are haunted by this theme. No cause to him is all good or all evil. Our motives are never entirely pure. We are all traitors. It is not our place, therefore, to sit in judgment either on ourselves or on others….
A true act of love is also a violent act capable of changing the world, but instead of destroying a man's soul, it strengthens it. Each of us has the capability of overcoming the violence within us and of transforming it into a positive force. Each of us is capable of the irrational act that brings release. Sarah "leaps" once and for all; Querry sets out on his quest for Deo Gratias in the Congo jungle; the whisky-priest answers every call. For this act, sometimes the most simple, all that is required is a little courage, trust in others, and faith. The journey leads into the wilderness, but there, like Querry, one finds a spring, the water that "fell from the sky." One learns to find joy in poverty, to experience tenderness, and in addition one discovers pleasure…. To love and live, what is required is to accept the truth, to see it, to tell it, and to teach it to each other…. It is Henry Callifer's retreat from the truth that condemns him to a life of sterility and silence. It is, conversely, concern for truth that saves Rowe, Querry, Sarah, and the whisky-priest; for it is truthfulness that lays the foundation for any communication among men, between man and woman, or between man and God. The greatest good, then, that one man can do for another is to teach him to love the truth…. It alone can bring about justice among men and among nations, even if it means dying for it.
Marie-Béatrice Mesnet, "Graham Greene (1904–)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 100-23.
Mr. Greene is a writer who has developed and innovated throughout his long career, and who yet seems condemned to be regarded by critics as an artist with a fixed imagination, locked into the squalor of Brighton and the intricacies of Catholic guilt. The three books of stories that make up this collection [Collected Stories] should convince any reasonable reader of how wide that is of the truth. Twenty-one Stories is the work of the first twenty-five years of Mr. Greene's writing life—roughly from The Man Within to The End of the Affair—and these stories do resemble those earlier novels in themes and textures. But A Sense of Reality (1963) is radically different in method—fantastic, mythic, dreamlike. And the stories of May We Borrow Your Husband? are what Mr. Greene calls them—"comedies of the sexual life"—works of the same wry imagination that produced The Complaisant Lover and Travels with My Aunt; being Greene comedies, they are not exactly hilarious—the grin is still grim—but they are comic in a way that none of the earlier stories is….
[Where] does one go for short stories of such quality, in the English writing of the past four decades? To V. S. Pritchett certainly; to Elizabeth Bowen; but there one's sense of sure supremacy ends. Perhaps the short story is not a comfortable English form. Perhaps the economics of writing and publishing in England have discouraged the unsellable short form. But Mr. Greene is there to remind us that stories of the finest quality can be written—in the interstices of a novelist's career, perhaps, but written, and in sufficient quantity to assure a lasting place among the short-story writers of his time.
"Escape Hatch," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), October 20, 1972, p. 1245.
Greene is one of the rare modern novelists who, like Malraux and Koestler, has considerable political insight and has traveled virtually all over the world to see history at the cutting edge; but he remains concerned with politics chiefly as the stage on which the nature of men is revealed, where the human condition itself is dramatized. And that human condition, as Greene sees it, is hell on earth, a primitive and (usually) tropical place where the mass of men live in squalor, ignorance, and boredom, where men and women almost always betray each other and themselves and their causes, where death comes violently and as a benison, an escape from the hell on earth they know to the heaven they only half believe in. Most drink too much, fornicate coldly, curiously, promiscuously … [and] they are full of deceit, violence, and evil. Yet many are also racked with guilt and remorse, and strive to evince tenderness and affection, to find some "salvation" in human relations, work, or religion.
Long ago, in a letter to V. S. Pritchett, Greene stressed the importance to the novelist of cultivating the "virtue of disloyalty"—to the state, to ideologies, to success, even to his own despair. Greene himself has been "disloyal" to and highly critical of many of the institutions with which he has been involved: a professing Catholic, he has criticized the church hierarchy as severely as any living writer; a former member of British Intelligence, he has savagely satirized its operations; a bulwark of the English "Establishment" and once an editor of the Times (London) and a member of the Foreign Office, he wrote a sympathetic introduction to the "third man" Kim Philby's My Secret War, after Philby had defected to the Russians. His books have attacked the state, capitalism, big business, the church, democracy, the West—and always the rich and powerful.
In that same letter to Pritchett, Greene defined the novelist's task as "to act as the devil's advocate, to elicit sympathy and a measure of understanding for those who lie outside the boundaries of state sympathy." Although he insisted that he was not calling for "a conscious advocacy of the dispossessed," Greene's sympathies go out to ordinary people, to porters and chambermaids and peasants, to Indians and half-castes, to refugees and prostitutes, to prisoners and defrocked priests. Greene always writes on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, the insulted and the injured, and against those who dispossess and abuse them—against "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his Ton Ton Macoute in Haiti (The Comedians), against Franco and his Falangists (The Confidential Agent), against Fulgencio Batista and his thugs in Cuba (Our Man in Havana), and against Stroessner and his Colorados (The Honorary Consul). In recent years and books, Greene has singled out the United States as mankind's most dangerous enemy. If we would see ourselves as many men of good will in other countries all too often do, as a rich, cruel, ignorant, unheeding, tyrannical juggernaut, then we should read Greene's novels not only for the depiction he gives in [The Honorary Consul] of American support to Stroessner's repressions in Paraguay, but also for the role played by the United States in Vietnam as portrayed in The Quiet American. The profile is more often than not marred by Greene's profound malice and petty spite, but in its major outlines it depicts us, warts and all, as many people in many parts of the world see us and endure us.
Abraham Rothberg, "Graham Greene: One More River to Cross," in Southwest Review, Autumn, 1973, pp. viii, 351-53.
For me, at least, [Greene] is the largest English novelist alive….
Of older living English novelists, only Graham Greene seems now to have created (over 46 years, in 19 novels and these 40 short stories [Collected Stories]) the sort of world-in-language that has been the deducible ambition of a majority of novelists in Asia, Europe and America—a world which differs from the particular novelist's observable and appallingly rich world of time and place (which is more than an image of that world) in one respect only: that it yields stories to the patient witness….
Since "Brighton Rock" (1938) Greene's fiction has been a search for the existence of that conspiracy at the center, a conspiracy on the part of a Creator God and His ministers (human and otherwise) to lure a renegade, reprobate creation back to Himself, toward rest. The instrument of Greene's search has invariably been story, the actions of men in specific time and place. And the fact that we experience the stories as natural and true, or manipulated and false, is the gauge not so much of the success of his search for knowledge and answers as of his strengths as a novelist, his power to console. (All enduring novels have offered consolation, however indirect.)…
[The story involving the characters in "The Honorary Consul"]—while it resembles Greene's past three novels in being "comic," producing a sense of justice done, virtue rewarded—reaches its calm end only after violence and unfathomable brutality. Most interestingly, it produces—in the voice of the priest just before the catastrophe—a statement that (so far as I know) is unprecedented in Greene's fiction but that now illuminates both his bleak early novels and [the] later, gentler ones:
"'The God I believe in must be responsible for all the evil as well as for all the saints. He has to be a God made in our image with a night side as well as a day side. When you speak of the horror … you are speaking of the night side of God. I believe the time will come when the night side will wither away … and we shall only see the simple daylight of the good God…. It is a long struggle and a long suffering, evolution, and I believe God is suffering the same evolution that we are, but perhaps with more pain'."
Without imputing the thesis to Greene (though heretical for a Christian, it is an adequate account of the theology of Aeschylus), veteran readers may guess, as I do, that in it he has found at last the ultimate story for which his work has been a search. Confronted with the bones of the plot, we can now look back on the previous fleshings and judge them again. They all seem alive and joined in a progress, however, broken and bizarre, toward a huge destination; and the latest in line—"The Honorary Consul"—is one of the lithest, surely not the last. A story both known and told.
Reynolds Price, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1973, pp. 1, 18, 20.
The mechanism of the carefully oiled plot operates like an elaborately designed lock, with Greene as an expert cracksman smoothly talking away as he dials the combination. Yet I don't think The Honorary Consul ranks among Greene's very best work—it lacks for instance the political complexity and sheer excitement of The Quiet American, and the sense of place is less overwhelming than his Mexico or Haiti. As for the characters, Plarr and the absurd Charley Fortnum are impressive creations or re-creations; on the other hand, the troubled priest (a mouthpiece for some characteristically 'outrageous' theology that nowadays sounds less bizarre than it once did, a good deal like Norman Mailer in fact) and the consul's peasant wife are much less convincing. Nevertheless, it is a highly accomplished novel by any reasonable standard, witty, elegant, suspenseful, if oddly comforting.
Of course, no one could be more aware than Greene—in every respect one of our most self-consciously 'literary' writers—that he is adding to a consistent oeuvre (that should long ago have brought him a Nobel Prize) and that his readers will find his themes, situations, preoccupations, turns of phrase, and characters almost familiar enough to be greeted as old friends happily encountered in a hostile bar in some alien city.
Like The Comedians, the earlier book it most closely resembles, the new novel is an exercise in ambivalence and contains a built-in commentary upon its own action. (Greene provides a typically jokey cross-reference, by making Clara, the consul's wife, an Elizabeth Taylor fan—Miss Taylor having played her fictive counterpart, the adulterous diplomatic wife in the film version of The Comedians.)…
[Since] his first real success with Stamboul Train [Greene] has constantly, almost wilfully, exposed himself to the world around him. But for all the contemporaneity of his settings, few of his works seem dated—a consequence of his ability to transmute his surroundings.
Philip French, "On the Frontier," in New Statesman, September 14, 1973, pp. 353-54.
Good news: after a dozen years of exasperating or inconsequential fiction, Graham Greene has rallied with one of his very best novels. Its components—scene and symbols, characters and arguments—are as comfortably familiar as a well-laundered shirt, and doubtless some critics, insensible to the delights of archetypal creations, will mutter that Greene should have written a new novel this time. Greene has not, in "The Honorary Consul," advanced his art or vision by an inch, but in his formal rearrangement of themes, his sculpting of big scenes and small, he has achieved a perfection of form few significant novelists ever attain….
"The Honorary Consul" is a story of perverted love—that is, love which is deflected from others to oneself. Needless to say, such love cannot sustain us…. Oddly (not so oddly in a story by Greene), it is only Fortnum, the pathetic prisoner, the cuckold, who knows what love is. His love for the whore who deceives him is the only generous disinterested emotion in the story. Saint Augustine would have approved.
Peter S. Prescott, "Another Word for Living," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), September 17, 1973, p. 96.
One glib detractor labeled [Greene's] fictional country "Greeneland," but to see his work this way is to do violence to his conscientious observation of landscape. In this respect our debt to Greene is enormous. The historical perspective a novelist gives us goes unremarked upon by critics who look for comfort in the feeble penumbra of symbols. But how little we would know about Indochina before the American bombs if it weren't for The Quiet American; our notions of Cuba before Castro are those wry portraits in Our Man in Havana; for the Congo before Tshombe we have A Burnt-Out Case; we know Papa Doc's Haiti—a grisly memory of voodo rule—from The Comedians, Mexico in the '30s and Sierra Leone in the '40s from The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter. Greene's England is just as instructive, because he writes of places largely ignored by other novelists—Nottingham in A Gun for Hire, South London's Clapham in The End of the Affair and of course Brighton Rock.
These are more frontiers than countries. On the frontier, where reality is blurred, the pressure of identity is greatest. Only the person who has lived for a while in an unstable authoritarian country knows how much that residence arouses childhood fear and childhood uncertainty: There are rules you don't know, there are new spooks and different mysteries, and you are always testing for safety. It is complicated the way a child's world is complicated (Greene's autobiography, A Sort of Life, is full of this feeling of ambiguous fear)….
Greene's heroes are never quite right for the parts fate forces them to rehearse. They are not competent to deal with large questions, and like Macbeth complaining to Ross, "Why do you dress me in borrow'd robes," they find themselves in circumstances of smothering complexity. But Macbeth is not the best analogy. Chaplin in his baggy pants is better, and Greene's Sad Sack characters have latterly come to resemble that little baffled man, too small for tragedy, too earnest for farce, but the right size for comedy; after all, a sad tale's best for comedy. The cinematic nature of Greene's novels, which have the pace and structure of films, only heightens this impression, and in The Honorary Consul the characters acquire Chaplinesque dimensions from the towering hugeness of South America….
The Honorary Consul holds no surprises for regular readers of Greene; the elements of plot and conjecture are fixed—the priest, the kindly bawd Senora Sanchez and her spotless whorehouse might have come from any one of a good handful of Greene's novels; Perez is an updated Captain Segura, Fortnum a version of Jones, and nowhere in this novel is there an intelligent, attractive woman—but one of the annoyances of Greene's novels is this absence of credible females. Greene is not stretching himself, nor does the reader feel stretched when he finishes the novel. But this does not limit one's enjoyment, and there is no question that having used similar ingredients and posing the same questions of belief, Greene has written a major novel, important in the context of his own work and important for the statement it makes about the paradoxes of political struggle….
Something that has always interested me about Greene's stories and novels is a note of undisguised mistrust and often outright loathing he has for Americans. It is an English trait, for the English sense of fairness which allows them to speak impartially about every subject under the sun always breaks down when America is mentioned. Greene's attitude is tinged as well with Third World objections. His novels are full of American knaves and fools, and though he has never set a novel in the United States (a riddle that would make a good starting point for an essay), our country always hovers as a ridiculous threat at the edge of his fiction….
There are stories here [in Collected Stories] which deserve comparison with the best of their kind, and their range makes it possible to measure them against a tremendous variety of authors, from "The Over-night Bag," which is pure Saki, and "Under the Garden" and its overtones of R. L. Stevenson, to the Chekhovian "Doctor Crombie." But each one is indisputably Greene's, and "May We Borrow Your Husband?"—the story of two sexual predators and their victims—could only have been written by Greene. There are writers who transform the world and make it a barely recognizable area of the imagination; though many people have spoken of Greene's fictional territory as a private enclosed world where characters are irresponsible and adulterous and alcoholic, it is clear, with the publication of this new novel and the Collected Stories that what has always been spoken of as "Greene's world" is the world itself, a much larger and richer place than we might have imagined.
Paul Theroux, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 30, 1973, pp. 1-3, 10.
There are two ways to read Graham Greene. One of them is on your knees. I prefer the other position. What, after all, after nineteen novels and a lot of short stories, is Graham Greene made of? Slugs and spice and all things nasty/nice—that's what Graham Greene is made of. His work is the fascinated recoil of a man who sees the beauty in the snake that can kill him; at its best it provokes the kind of shiver Rilke was getting at when he said in one of the Duino Elegies that beauty is but the beginning of terror we're still just able to bear, and that 'why we adore it so is because it serenely/Disdains to destroy us.' That has always sounded like good Graham Greene to me, the Graham Greene who sees the worm in the apple, the cancer in the rose, not because there is something wrong with his eyes, but because he is pretty well acquainted with the ways of worms and roses….
It is odd now to think of Mr. Greene starting out by writing an historical romance; yet I suppose there is a sense in which all his work is historical romance—the 'history' being the sordid details of the fallen state of man, and the 'romance' the intellectual leaven of a theology which over the years has seemed to several critics to be more Jansenist than orthodox….
Certainly, Graham Greene is not a religious novelist in any conventional sense, and his suspiciously personal brand of Catholicism seems sometimes to bring him nearer to Calvin than to say, Claudel. Brighton Rock (1938), with its glowing black and white and red, and its unswerving vision of damnation, has more in common with a novel such as Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, soaked in the Protestant ethos of another century, than with any of the works by modern English Roman Catholic writers—G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, George Barker, each in some way has an amplitude far removed from Mr. Greene's view of things. But then Mr. Greene himself has written, 'I would not claim to be a writer of Catholic novels, but a writer who in four or five books took characters with Catholic ideas for his novels'. This is a sensible distinction.
A Graham Greene novel can always be recognised by its style, even if for a while the sun does not shine on the chamber-pots and you do not recognise the content. That style—terse, hard, and attentive—is characterised by a profound sense of disgust (sin seems too precise a word—Greene's narrative fastidiousness recoils more often than it reports). Perhaps the style is too obtrusive—I remember G. S. Fraser once making the valid point that one notices Greene's prose rather too much for it to be quite good; it is like a too smart tie, or a clever way of walking. But [in some passages], it would be difficult to deny that the writing, for all its cruelty, is marked by a precision rarely found outside poetry….
Everywhere there is a passion for human imperfection which marks Graham Greene at his best. Everywhere there is that same poetic attention to language which makes him the most spellbindingly readable novelist of his generation.
Robert Nye, "How to Read Graham Greene Without Kneeling," in Books and Bookmen, October, 1973, pp. 18-21.
Guilt-ridden sin—or "seedy decay"—is Greene's great theme, and fundamental to the dark dramatizations of his idiosyncratic Catholicism, in which the sinner, not the saint, dwells "at the heart of Christianity." In his quintessential work—The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair—a believer's faith is tried and strained to the breaking point at every tortuous turn by God's willfully misleading barrage of evidence and the perpetual recurrence of evil without the hope of grace. Though He cannot rationally exist, He does and must….
[Those] of Greene's admirers who yawned their way through doodles of the past decade like The Comedians and Travels with My Aunt were probably resigned to the belief that he would never again return to the unending theological drama that was once his stock in trade.
Now, however, they may wish to utter a hallelujah, for in his new novel, The Honorary Consul …, the 69-year-old Greene has come back to the kind of characters, milieu and God-intoxicated longing that mark his finest work. Indeed, the book's epigraph, from Hardy, is profoundly relevant to each of Greene's major novels: "All things merge in one another—good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics…." Still, the huzzahs for this book should be cautious ones.
As always, Greene displays his technical mastery of the sense of place, artfully lighting The Honorary Consul's setting with a harsh but autumnal flame. The scene is a drab provincial city in northern Argentina, separated from Paraguay and its repressive dictatorship only by the wide Paraná River. Here, in what is for Greene a characteristic mingling of tragedy and farce, the four main characters play out their slyly unpredictable roles during a few days of stress….
Yet sadly, after a brilliant chain of set-pieces and satirical portraits in the first half of the book, the rest of the novel degenerates into a doctrinal tug-of-war between the detached rationalist Plarr and the passionate believer Rivas. In their interminable catechism, Greene strains to move religious mountains but brings forth only such bleary-minded paradoxes as "I believe in the evil of God … but I believe in His goodness too." Finally, in the bloody, absurdly contrived ending, Greene seems to lose all real interest in both the melodrama and its message, snapping the story closed with a burst of gunfire and a desultory exchange of platitudes.
A mechanical flabbiness of thought, incident, language, and especially religious argument blights The Honorary Consul at its core, and after reading it one is left with melancholic resentment at the failing power of a gloriously gifted novelist. Once a merciless student of human hokum and God's mayhem, Greene now limps along with hackneyed questions and easy nonanswers.
Pearl K. Bell, "Sinners and Saints," in New Leader, October 15, 1973, pp. 16-17.
The series of novels that opened in 1955 with The Quiet American and that includes The Honorary Consul is free from overt apologetics, crisp and increasingly irreverent in tone, often apparently cynical, preoccupied with the absurd, and especially the cruel absurdities of politics. As might be expected, the same tendencies show in the short stories, especially in the very latest ones (minus the politics). You might think the Greene God was dead—I had had the impression myself that he was at any rate not very well. But no, he is still around, just manifesting himself differently, and more cunningly….
[Normally,] of course, Greene is funny in precisely the way he intends to be and so is his God. Humiliation is the essence of the work. If Mr. Greene and his God often seem cruel as well as funny it is that they are interested in producing humiliation, a cruel process, and also funny, when neatly done, as by Mr. Greene, whatever about God.
Humiliation, a constant throughout Mr. Greene's work, is at the core of The Honorary Consul….
The thought of the universe as being actually intended by a Person or Persons unknown, but like ourselves, is strange enough, however used to it we may have become, or however much we think we have grown out of it.
The idea of the Fall, the idea that we are personally responsible for everything that we identify as wrong with the universe, should be crushing, but doesn't seem to be. It seems, rather, to be stimulating to the imagination…. Writers take to a God that can make your flesh creep; paradox does not repel them, or a cruel game, a doubtful love story, or a doubtful joke. The Muse, according to Yeats, loves warty lads who tell lies. Poets love a God with similar characteristics. Milton's God, though a Protestant and prolix, is Mr. Greene's God too. Mr. Greene was brought up as a Protestant, but in any case the underworld of the Judeo-Christian imagination seems to be unsegregated….
A writer who proclaims himself Catholic has either to submit to certain norms of what the Church expects from Catholic writers, or to engage in tedious quasi-theological controversies: either way, priests are liable to "swarm." The basic English Protestant attitudes surface from underneath the exotic Catholicism: "I'll be religious in my own way, if religious is what I choose to be, and either way you mind your own damn business."…
The long short story "Under the Garden" … brings us as near as we have yet come to Mr. Greene's personal God….
As a story "Under the Garden" is a bit of a mess: one does not know whether parody has got into the allegory or allegory into the parody, but the dream becomes too complicated and self-conscious, the Long John Silver Jehovah is neither very funny nor very serious. Childhood and its terrors are far better evoked in the much earlier stories "The Basement Room" and "The End of the Party," which remain, for this reviewer, the most moving and memorable that Mr. Greene has written in this kind.
The latest stories of all, May We Borrow Your Husband?, are neither messy nor what we think of as moving: they are expertly written and usually funny…. The laughter in the latest stories is uneasy … and apt to leave a bitter aftertaste; the nub of the dialogue is often a snub; the surface is so sparkling, and the undercurrent so cold, that one sometimes feels that there is nothing in the world so sad and frightening as a funny story by Mr. Greene.
Conor Cruise O'Brien, "A Funny Sort of God," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), October 18, 1973, pp. 56-8.