Greene, Graham 1904–
Greene, an English novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, is generally considered the most important Catholic novelist of our time. Greene converted to Roman Catholicism before he published his first novel; since then, as Walter Allen has written, "at the center of all his novels … is a man on the run." In the major works, man runs from his own conscience and from God as Greene explores, in these novels, the great international theme of alienated man in a corrupt—and corrupting—society. (See also, Graham Greene Criticism and volumes 1, 3, 9, 14, 18 and 125.)
[Greene's] interest in legitimate theatre corresponds to a gradual change in the character of Greene's fiction. Little by little the pre-war violence, melodrama and morality have been suppressed. After The Living Room religious themes drop into the background. Of sex, war, and crime, the other main ingredients of his novels, only sex remains in the plays where murder has been replaced by adultery and the outlaw by the illicit lover. The exotic, subtropical settings of novels and entertainments have given way to the mundane upper-middle-class living room. Characters are no longer drawn from the substrata of society but become respectable business or professional men, university lecturers, journalists, antiquarian book dealers and dentists. All the plays are psychological studies set in a domestic situation, but from The Living Room to The Complaisant Lover there is a definite movement away from tragedy and towards sophisticated comedy. (pp. 138-39)
[One] could say that gradually his popular Webster-like fiction—"violent, universal tragedies" heavy with religious implications and best characterized by Brighton Rock—gives way to a domestic drama which owes something to Henry James and is more closely designed for a well-to-do, middle-class public, as for example The End of the Affair. And although realism and criticism are still present,… The Complaisant Lover resembles in many respects the "popular" drawing room comedy which he himself had handled so harshly in the thirties. (p. 140)
From the evidence of [his] novels alone one could predict that the dramatic form stood in the direct line of his development. The limiting of action, the deepening of insight into character, the domestication of setting and atmosphere, the increase in quantity and flexibility of dialogue all point to the challenge of the three unities, an action single and complete and of a certain magnitude, and the author alive only in his characters. (pp. 141)
Within Greene's plays themselves one can observe a development of a different sort. The first of these, The Living Room, carries on the line of the Catholic novels. It deals with a love affair tragically complicated by religion as in The Heart of the Matter or The End of the Affair. Its bitter lover, unappealing wife, long-suffering young mistress, and ineffectual priest are stock Greene characters whose roles have been newly apportioned and whose situation has been transposed to the stage. His next play, The Potting Shed, investigates a familiar theme, the problem of identity. Greene calls it "a drama" and although the play resembles the entertainment more than the Catholic novel, it is a psychological thriller that moves backward into memory rather than the usual wide-ranging story of pursuit and evasion. The third play, The Complaisant Lover, swings most completely out of the orbit of standard Greene fiction. For the first time religion is entirely absent; for the first time Greene gives a sympathetic, full-scale portrait, not only of mistress and lover, but also of the deceived husband; for the first time his vision is comic. Its very title reminiscent of Restoration comedy, The Complaisant Lover is much closer to Webster's A Cure for a Cuckold than to his more typical melodrama The White Devil.
Tragedy, drama, comedy,—"One must try every drink once." But more significantly, this development within the genre complements the chastening of style, the domestication of subject matter and the growing objectivity in treatment that we have already noted as Greene turns from the narrative form to the dramatic. (pp. 142-43)
Perhaps the best example of the … comic twist to Greene's point of view is provided in his … novel, A Burnt-Out Case…. [It] is not, as some critics have said, a return to the type of his earlier "Catholic" fiction. In this novel Greene pointedly ridicules many of the stock religious responses to his work; despite the Congo setting and the themes of adultery and sainthood, it is Querry, hero of the novel, who directs the reader's interpretation and consistently plays down the melodramatic possibilities of the story; and although at the end of the book he is shot in dramatically heightened circumstances, he dies laughing at himself in a situation which one of the characters likens to a Palais Royal farce. (p. 144)
The practical joke …, far from being simply the grotesque Greene equivalent of humour in The Complaisant Lover, is used for three important purposes. Technically Greene uses it to introduce something of that "seedy" quality familiar to readers of his earlier fiction. This seediness, equated to unheroic failure and fallibility in his characters, becomes one of the philosophical premises of the play. Thematically the joke is also designed to assert faith in a child's response to reality…. Finally it is an excellent vehicle for expressing Greene's purpose as a writer. With Greene as practical joker and the audience as victim, the joke of The Complaisant Lover is just another instance of that perennial challenge to authority which seems to be a necessary condition of his creative act.
Greene's final achievement in this play is to have shown a considerable gain in objectivity. Of course, the comic form requires this, but in large measure Greene has been able to provide it. Most of his earlier novels, and The Living Room, end with a provocative question debated by two groups of characters, one group representing justice, law, morality and conventional society, the other, Greene's favoured few, soliciting mercy, sympathy, indulgence and respect for the individual. Rather than close with a burning question—will Rose expiate for Pinkie?—is the Mexican priest saint or sinner?—is Scobie damned or saved?—Greene now commits himself to an answer. It is the function of the writer of comedy to furnish answers, to dispense justice, and in The Complaisant Lover Greene not only entangles his characters in a dilemma but dissolves their perplexities. (pp. 150-51)
Greene's peculiar sense of justice, whose expression is the practical joke of complaisance, permits him to achieve a critical purpose which resounds beyond the conclusion of the play. His solution, while it satisfies the requirements of the comic form, remains challenging or impossible to a conventional public for it demands of them, no less than the conclusion of any of his serious novels, that they revise their stock ideas of justice and rely on a childish faith in love. It allows Greene to practise the writer's "virtue" of disloyalty and to perform what he calls "the genuine duty we (writers) owe society: to be a piece of grit in the state machinery." The joke which he leaves the public to swallow or choke on fulfills that function perfectly while comic author Greene sits back to have his cake and eat it too. (p. 151)
Greene himself analysed Shakespeare's greatness as his ability to maintain "perfect dialectical tension" between the morality and the play of character. This is very close to Chekhov's balancing a sense of life as it is and a sense of life as it ought to be. But the comic vision is rather concerned to balance a love of life as it is with a sense of life as it should be. It is this love of life, "the sense of huge enjoyment" which Greene disengages as the predominant quality in Jonson's plays. And indeed it is the obvious relish with which Jonson enters into the excesses of Sir Epicure Mammon or Volpone that assures the success of his comic characterization. The range of Greene's own creative sympathy is not yet so large. He lacks Jonson's double capacity to love the world for itself while at the same time ridiculing its imperfections.
Not only has Greene been unable to accept the world but, more introspective, he has also found it difficult to accept and forget himself. He has shown us vividly in his novels and plays that to create character imaginatively is an act of self-humiliation, is to identify oneself with the dissident, with the guilty as well as the innocent, with the smug and complacent as well as with the shabby and the dull. But there is a considerable margin between self-humiliation and humility, and so far Greene has been incapable of following Jonson or Shakespeare in the complete submergence of himself in his material and in the sacrifice of personal obsessions to the demands of his subject; in that act of artistic humility which guarantees the final comprehensiveness of the comic vision.
That he has made remarkable progress in all these respects …, however, is shown both in The Complaisant Lover and in that brilliant tragi-comic novel A Burnt-Out Case. (pp. 152-53)
Philip Stratford, "The Uncomplacent Dramatist: Some Aspects of Graham Greene's Theatre" (originally published in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 2, Fall, 1961; copyright 1961 by Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature), in Graham Greene: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 138-53.
No writer of our time makes more of a point of labeling his works than Graham Greene, so that if he carefully calls [The Complaisant Lover] a comedy we can be sure that he very much wants us to think of it as one. There would be nothing wrong with that if it weren't for the fact that The Complaisant Lover, while unfolding a basically humorous surface, continually mutters in another language which, if it isn't actually tragic, is not really the true voice of comedy either. It is the familiar voice of Graham Greene in one of his moods of romantic despair, this time ringing more dulcetly, as if he had sent a child to relate, disarmingly he hoped, the same tale of duality and dilemma with which he has been seducing us for so many years.
Until we are well along in the first act everything about The Complaisant Lover suggests a traditional exercise…. But when we hear the wife tell the lover that "There are different kinds of love," we are alerted to the possibilities of something more original than domestic farce. And indeed what takes shape after that is unconventional enough, a play about adultery in which the central energy is directed toward the setting forth and resolution of a moral and philosophical dilemma and not to the tying and eventual unloosening of a merely physical knot. It is a play, moreover, wherein the element of choice, so basic to the genre, becomes painful rather than liberating, the very intolerability of the necessity to choose constituting the substance and tension of the drama.
"I don't know. I don't want to choose," the wife tells her husband…. "Victor, why can't we sometimes, just once, have our cake and eat it?"
And so The Complaisant Lover proceeds to establish a mode of action in which having one's cake and eating it becomes possible, mythically possible, beyond the reach of psychology or of morals, or, for that matter, of practical impediments. To make it work, the lover is the one who has to become "complaisant," rather than the husband, as in traditional bedroom farce. (pp. 249-50)
A motif such as this is of course an aspect of Greene's perennial position at the center of what appear to be certain immutably opposed pairs of truths: supernatural and fleshly love, pity and love, marriage and passion. It is this fundamental seriousness—in Greene's case an obsessive and anguished seriousness—that threatens constantly to tip The Complaisant Lover toward pathos, if not tragedy. The anguish does, it's true, remain mostly in check; the solution proposed has the quality of a daydream, of something offered to our good nature and secret hungers, like an impossibly charming and bold and unwearable costume; and there is enough sophisticated wit and humor along the way to preserve an illusion of artifice, so that our demurrers are forestalled. Nevertheless, smuggling is a crime for which there are known penalties.
What has been smuggled in is, as I have said, a potentially tragic and actually pathetic situation in the guise of a light-hearted one. But it is not enough to treat a subject lightly in order for true comedy to result; what has to be there is an attitude toward the subject that sees it as detached from fatality, set free to lead its own life beyond the laws, beyond any law but the one it itself enacts, so that it becomes a paradigm of a new kind of imaginative existence as well as an instruction, by exposure and derision, in the insufficiencies and lies of our actual stances and beliefs.
The Complaisant Lover doesn't succeed in this. Its lightness is a mask. It is too heavily anchored in abstract pain and pity, too full of the kind of statement that we have come to mistrust in Greene because of its half-truth and fundamentally evasive quality—remarks like "The good are horribly hard to leave," or "What liars and cheats love makes of us." Beyond that, it doesn't work well because its nourishing life is so thin, its dentist-husband so much a figure from Greene's universe of sad ineffectuality and quiet despair, its lovers so lacking in vitality and real passion. And on still another level, the penalty Greene pays for his attempt to combine genres is that the mechanics of amorous comedy give him so much trouble that he has to spend an inordinate amount of time simply getting the thing in motion.
Still, the play does have a certain visibility and richness of presence. (pp. 250-51)
Richard Gilman, "Mixture Almost as Before" (1961), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 249-51.
[We] might—given [a] summary of the plot—presume that [The End of the Affair] was a novel, basically, about adultery and remorse. Whatever else Sarah is, she is a "fallen woman"; on that state of moral guilt she turns her back with extraordinary determination and agony of mind, and returns to her husband…. If Sarah triumphs in anything it would seem precisely to be in her will to give up Bendrix. And thus the moral order is affirmed and restored. All this would be a reasonable inference from the account of the plot, but it plays false to our experiences of reading the novel.
The End of the Affair only has the appearance of a moral story, just as it has the appearance of a detective story. There is what looks like adultery and what looks like remorse. But these are false clues leading to a false conclusion…. "Adultery" and "remorse" … are stock-properties of a certain kind of plot which Greene takes over to explore a theme connected neither with morality nor detection. The theme is, quite simply, grace, and although it raises no moral problems for Bendrix or for Sarah, it certainly raises a critical one for the reader of the novel.
Always present in Greene's earlier religious novels, the problem of grace becomes fully explicit only with The End of the Affair. In Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory Greene makes reference to the "appalling strangeness of the mercy of God"; in The End of the Affair it becomes his subject. The transition is crucial. The reader of the earlier novels takes in the reference to grace as a meaningful one, it indicates a direction which he is asked to observe rather than explore, in the manner of an arrow in the margin of a map indicating proximate places…. At the centre of The End of the Affair, we have Christ present in the world, supernatural grace in the presence of the natural order, and to trace out this spiritual cartography one would need to be God. (pp. 193-95)
[Greene's] overt intention is to show Sarah's virtually superhuman selflessness, but there is an undertone which reveals a curious amoral indifference. The altitude from which Greene's observation is made is so great that all the distinctive features are lost in the general blur. (p. 196)
The upshot of [his] presentation of Sarah—a presentation emphatic in its stress on disposition rather than act, on the moment rather than duration, on faith rather than morals—is to tend to make Sarah, in her relations with Bendrix, "selfless" to the point of inhumanity, and, in her relations with God, self-projected to the point of delusion. (p. 199)
Greene is hostile to religious argument, and the attack he mounts, in the person of Smythe [the rationalist preacher], is not so much on the inadequacies of rationalist argument as on the irrelevance of reason to faith…. [The] crudity of Smythe's views, however explicable in "life," suggests in fiction that Greene is unwilling to expose Sarah to a mind more subtly sceptical. The ultimate result might well be the same, but the effect of the process on the reader would be very different. Greene would reveal that Sarah's faith had been more rigorously tested, and, when it triumphed, its presence would carry a greater reality. In life it is only the triumph that matters, in art it is more the manner of the triumph, even in matters of faith. Here, mirrored in a detail, is the central difficulty of the novel. (p. 200)
Religious orthodoxy, after all, is not synonymous with artistic merit. And in this particular case there seems an intimate connection between its religious emphases and what we must regard as its literary failings. It is important to make clear exactly what kind of point is being made here. There is no a priori reason why successful novels should not be written about the life of grace, about saints and sinners. But their success will depend on their power of communicating their drama in human terms; in art there is no other perspective. This assertion is not humanist, but human. (p. 203)
In Doestoevsky's Crime and Punishment … we feel [that we are] in the presence of a powerful complex of emotions which are given their particular tension by religious faith. And we are made to feel this through and with Raskolnikov. However mysterious and inexplicable Sonya's faith, it finds expression in human terms. In Greene's own work this has been true. In The Power and the Glory we are shown, in the working out of a human conflict, something of what goes into the making of a saint. But in The End of the Affair Greene would seem to have taken the fundamental mysteriousness of sanctity not simply as the theme, but as directing its manner of expression also. (p. 204)
If Greene in The End of the Affair has become involved in a situation which exceeds the novelist's province, this is not because of his ambitious theme, but because of the particular way he has laid his religious emphases. An incarnational, sacramental view of Christianity leads to the disclosure of the divine within the essential imperfections of the human, but in Greene's view the divine offers a stark alternative to the total corruption of the human. Only grace can bridge the gap—and the action of grace as Greene seems to present it is fortuitous, inexplicable and ultimately unknowable. Literary criticism can have nothing to say on the validity of these views, except in so far as they touch on literature. Greene's view has been present in all his religious novels, giving them their taut, vivid and dramatic outline. If these views disturb us in The End of the Affair in a way they do not in the earlier novels, this is because he has taken down the melodramatic scaffolding and directly revealed the beliefs themselves. Seen in this way they seem inimical to the public ordering and the public demonstration which successful fiction requires. In the character of Sarah Greene has created someone whose goodness can be understood only in extra-fictional terms. Within the novel we can point only to moral categories, and these are set aside as irrelevant. Sarah is the "fallen woman" for whom "guilt" and "innocence" are meaningless terms.
In deadening the moral nerve of the novel Greene has made its whole movement, however vivid and compelling in detail, finally unknowable. Unknowable in the way that human beings are, and fictional characters are not. A report on The End of the Affair would conclude not that the art was too remote from life, but rather that there was a failure to distinguish between them. (p. 206)
Ian Gregor and Brian Nicholas, in their The Moral and the Story (copyright © 1962 by Ian Gregor and Brian Nicholas; reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.), Faber and Faber, 1962.
[A Burnt-Out Case] is constructed with economy and skill. It is a characteristic Greene plot (though less complex than some), for it turns upon a point of comedy, or farce—the husband-wife-lover situation which occurs in a considerable variety of manifestations in the later Greene, and with special ingenuity in The End of the Affair and The Complaisant Lover…. Everywhere there is evidence of competent arrangements. It is arranged, for instance, that we should not like the priests, yet be forced to meditate on their view of the meaning of the events described. If the texture of these events is thinner than in, say, The Heart of the Matter, that merely makes clearer the theme of the book; the problem is not to find a way of saying what this is, but rather to account for the discrepancy between it and the story, the failure to give it a body.
The theme, to name it accurately but perhaps misleadingly, is Heroic Virtue…. The condition of Heroic Virtue is distinguished from that of sanctity, though officially described as "rare in this life."… The situation is characteristic of the author, who is constantly pointing out that human behaviour acquires an entirely different and often disturbing valuation when you consider it in the light of religious doctrine; and the question here is whether you ought to do so, especially when that doctrine is applied mechanically by vulgar and imperceptive people, including priests. (pp. 127-29)
[This] is the really important point. Querry [the protagonist], the famous Catholic architect, is a famous Catholic writer thinly disguised; and if it was ever true—as Mr. Greene's hostile critics insist—that the earlier novels are sometimes flawed by the author's inability to stand clear of his hero or victim, it is certainly true of this book. (p. 130)
Querry explains that he never built except for his own pleasure, and perhaps never loved a woman except for the same reason. "A writer doesn't write for his readers, does he?… The subject of a novel is not the plot." He makes buildings (books) in which people can be comfortable, but he is not interested in their use, and hardly minds when they are clogged with cheap ornaments (the irrelevant personal rubbish a reader might bring to a book to make it seem lived-in). The real object of writing (building) is selfish…. One is driven towards the position [that] … Mr. Greene … is a novelist of the Decadence, writing not as a Catholic but as a neo-Romantic. His heroes, all maudits, know nothing of the happiness and hope that are, after all, part of religion; his world is one in which only Faust can be saved, and the victimized postures of his heroes are ultimately Faustian. (pp. 130-31)
The artist's lust for suffering can be called a leading theme of Mr. Greene's. There is a hint of it in the famous autobiographical piece, "The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard." Since the acceptance of God entails pain, it is a theme to be found in The End of the Affair. It is strongly present in this book, a dominant, but not fully embodied theme; and behind it is something less easy to extract, the persistent notion of God as the enemy, whose disastrous invasion of human life is called by theologians love…. The harshness of Mr. Greene's Christianity is that the unforgivable sins are the most tempting, and that however unreasonable God may be He is also strong, and has somehow convinced us that He is easily hurt. How much easier to be a Stoic! Sometimes it seems that the disaster—that aboriginal calamity—that fell upon us was not the Fall but God (who foresaw without willing it). Ever since His arrival on the scene the good human emotions, and chiefly pity, are dangerous, innocence an evil trap. Querry is only [one] of [the] Greene heroes to be caught in it. They belong only to the nursery paradise, not to the wild woods forlorn of the fallen. Scobie has to pray not to be a decent fellow, but to do the will of a master who allows children to die after surviving forty days in a ship's boat, so that he may save his soul; but pity frustrates him. The priest in The Power and the Glory is obsessed with the need to protect God from himself. Sin is the shadow thrown by the strong light of God; Mr. Greene is of the devil's party and comes near to knowing it. God's priests are rarely up to much; the natural man has little time for the voluntary eunuch. This only strengthens the case against Him; He has made us as we are and expects us, on terrible penalties, to behave otherwise; He would not leave us in the state of the amoeba, yet He denies us adult brains. "Why did he give us genitals if he wanted us to think clearly?" ("Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity, Created sick, commanded to be sound.") Once the intellect accepts God (Mr. Greene has emphasized that his reception into the Church was a result of intellectual rather than emotional conviction) a terrible incongruity invades human affairs; confronted with that image human sex becomes fury and mire. The natural man can scarcely act without alienating Him; there is even a feeling that the ugly shapes of the world are caused by this constraint. Yet if He wants heroes, He has to find them among the dying generations; He must work in the fury and the mire. A Burnt-Out Case may be read as an account of His doing so, confronted with a naturalist account of the same events.
The resultant tension might make a great book; it does not have that effect here, or anywhere else except in The End of the Affair. (pp. 132-33)
[That] book ends with Bendrix praying for the peace of the natural man, burnt out. It is the only novel to offer a full statement of the case for the fornicating human victim, for the energy as well as the sadness of hell, and the case against the God who inflicts, as with love, that pain from which the pleasure-loving flesh continually shrinks…. [The] difference between the vicious energy of Bendrix and the rigidly self-conscious despair of Querry is a fair measure of the difference in quality between the two books. Querry is too clearly a surrogate; the argument about Heroic Virtue is also a substitute, too partial, too technical perhaps, to bear the weight of the real theme: natural happiness, defeated not by success or surfeit, but by God and His love. (p. 137)
Frank Kermode, "Mr. Greene's Eggs and Crosses" (originally published in Puzzles and Epiphanies; copyright © 1962 by Frank Kermode; reprinted by permission of Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., and The Chilmark Press), in Graham Greene: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Samuel Hynes, Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 126-37.
[It] is impossible not to feel a sort of snobbishness in Mr. Greene's attitude … in his … books written from an explicitly Catholic standpoint. He appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty, like the beasts that perish. We are carefully informed that Catholics are no better than anybody else; they even, perhaps, have a tendency to be worse, since their temptations are greater…. Incidentally, it is assumed in The Heart of the Matter, and in most of Mr. Greene's other books, that no one outside the Catholic Church has the most elementary knowledge of Christian doctrine. (p. 441)
In The Power and the Glory, the struggle between this-worldly and other-worldly values is convincing because it is not occurring inside one person. On the one side, there is the priest, a poor creature in some ways but made heroic by his belief in his own thaumaturgic powers; on the other side, there is the lieutenant, representing human justice and material progress, and also a heroic figure after his fashion. They can respect each other, perhaps, but not understand each other. The priest, at any rate, is not credited with any very complex thoughts. In Brighton Rock, on the other hand, the central situation is incredible, since it presupposes that the most brutishly stupid person can, merely by having been brought up a Catholic, be capable of great intellectual subtlety…. In, for example, Mauriac's Thérèse sequence, the spiritual conflict does not outrage probability, because it is not pretended that Thérèse is a normal person. She is a chosen spirit, pursuing her salvation over a long period and by a difficult route, like a patient stretched out on the psychiatrist's sofa. To take an opposite instance, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, in spite of improbabilities, which are traceable partly to the book's being written in the first person, succeeds because the situation is itself a normal one. The Catholic characters bump up against problems they would meet with in real life; they do not suddenly move on to a different intellectual plane as soon as their religious beliefs are involved. Scobie [the protagonist of The Heart of the Matter] is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery was mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women. And one might add that if he were the kind of man we are told he is—that is, a man whose chief characteristic is a horror of causing pain—he would not be an officer in a colonial police force. (pp. 441-42)
Mr. Greene … [should] remember that a perception of the vanity of earthly things, though it may be enough to get one into Heaven, is not sufficient equipment for the writing of a novel. (p. 443)
George Orwell, "Review: 'The Heart of the Matter' by Graham Greene," in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 4, edited by Sonia Brownell Orwell and Ian Angus (copyright © 1968 by Sonia Brownell Orwell; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1968, pp. 439-43.
In a way, collections of occasional pieces are themselves deficient occasions, like using tea bags over again. There is something synthetic about them, not simply because each essay originally stood alone as a specific assignment, but because it is so hard to maintain a unified impression….
Greene seems [little] affected by the paste-up book syndrome, and perhaps for this reason his [Collected Essays] is … satisfyingly successful if not … profound. Though he tackles a few substantial subjects at length, most of his essays are extremely slight—three or four pages—often on topics of onion-skin thinness, e.g., notes on Cook's Tours or Beatrix Potter. Quite justly, his approach to these is casual, at times simply whimsical or eccentric, despite displays of considerable knowledge and literary erudition. Selecting these essays (some from his earlier collections, The Lost Childhood) he must have measured the great distance between present-day tastes and many of his subjects—figures like Rider Haggard, Edgar Wallace, Anthony Hope, even Kipling and Stevenson. Nevertheless, that so much of his book transmits an Edwardian air—a bit antique, genteel, ingenuous—bothers him not in the least. It will not bother his reader. On the contrary, it is as if Greene always set out with one eye on his topic and the other on his own image in a mirror, and just because that image is winning, so are his essays….
In [Greene] the appeal to intellect is rarely sustained or brilliantly illuminating. With subjects as rich as Henry James and Francois Mauriac, Greene's tendency still is to suggest a narrow thesis that interests him, then to pursue it briefly, crisply, with flashed insights that are dimmed by other, less visible appeals to "senses and emotions": by his tone, always compassionate and fair; by the purity and ease of his style; by the importance he gives to human actions; in short, by Greene the man….
If there is any central core of thought and feeling in these essays, it is the sense of man's fundamental inadequacy, of greatness escaping his grasp. In the first essay, about his childhood reading, Greene records the moment when he suddenly realized how far the spectrum of good and evil spreads beyond black and white, and how a sense of doom lies over every success. Thereafter, battles against odds fascinate him, and his conclusion about them is the one he attributes to James: rancor, or malice, but with a virile stamina that defies inevitability. He would probably approach his essays so. No single piece, he would know, will serve hereafter as a definitive reference or will be anthologized as a masterpiece of the essay form; nor does his stature as an essayist reach that of an Orwell. But given any subject, not merely the appropriate one, and any occasion, not just those that are ideal, he is very good indeed. (p. 26)
Howard Moss, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 2, 1969.
One could scarcely miss the allegory [in The Power and the Glory]. I say allegory rather than symbolism to indicate a manipulation of the material in accordance with a view of the world which the writer has from outside that material, so to speak. I reserve symbolism for a more inward embodiment of the writer's attitude to experience, in which the attitude does not so much precede the creation of the fiction as find itself in the fiction. I would therefore apply the adjective "symbolic" to Kafka's novels but not to The Power and the Glory.
This society is clearly our society, allegorically heightened: "This place [the prison] was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love; it stank to Heaven…." This is our world, as it presents itself to Graham Greene: corrupt but denying sin; man-centred but still in the presence of God. The primary characteristics of Greene's view of the world are unhappiness and sin; it is "stinking to heaven," the priest repeats, and later, "the world's unhappy whether you're rich or poor." (p. 41)
Hell is certainly pictured with a certain intimacy, with more intimacy than heaven, than the instances of goodness and love. They are included, are recognized intellectually, but do not seem to be felt anywhere near as strongly as the wickedness. Indeed, Greene sometimes finds only sinfulness where many of us would find something less reprehensible. Ida, the fat Guinness-and-oysters barmaid of Brighton Rock, who has clearly all kinds of virtues, even though she may not recognize sin and will go on talking about right-and-wrong, is several times directly and violently disparaged by Greene. I think particularly of the way he vilifies her as she prepares to spend the night in an hotel with Phil Corkery. Or of his comment on the workers who come in thousands for a day at Brighton, people very like Ida: "Her amusements were their amusements, her superstitions their superstitions … she had no more love for anyone than they had."
It is the last clause which grates, which is—one's own experience of life insists, and without being simply a jolly humanist—just not the whole truth. Greene has misunderstood; his obsession has blinded him to an important part of the truth. So it is also as the priest in The Power and the Glory sits at the side of the dying murderer. The murderer knows, and thinks the priest does not, that the call to the deathbed is a trap, and spends his last few minutes trying to persuade the priest to take his revolver and escape…. "At the best, it was only one criminal trying to aid the escape of another—whichever way you looked there wasn't much merit in either of them." (pp. 42-3)
What Greene does seem to feel very strongly for others is not so much love as pity. The history of Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter, is the history of a man drawn to his death by overweening pity. For Greene knows—it accounts for much of the ambiguity in his relation to his characters—that "pity can corrupt," as Auden said of his work. Yet Greene can never still the promptings of pity. It is surely this which causes him, whenever his characters are particularly reduced, to slip into the imagery of lost children. (pp. 43-4)
Greene uses the selectively typical catalogue as much as Auden, partly because they naturally tend to handle their material similarly, partly because they both began to write in the Thirties when reportage made the catalogue very popular. More importantly, it seems to me, Greene's use of the catalogue follows from his way of looking at life. If life is seen as a vast pattern then all the details of life can easily become parts of the pattern; they can be "placed" with a certain sureness and inevitability. At its best the manner is illuminating; at its worst it can suggest a kind of contempt, as though the author is saying, "One knows that people such as these will always dress like this, have this kind of house, this kind of furniture." On the reader the effect may be quietly flattering, though, of course, the author may not intend this. The reader may appear to be invited to collaborate by the suggestion that he, like the author, has seen this kind of thing before; nothing is unexpected to the wide eye of the intelligentsia. This is the detail you will expect to find, it seems to say, if you are one of the cognoscenti; the items are typical of a whole genre. (p. 46)
Greene's similes are almost always short and sharply juxtapose the concrete, actual or temporal with the abstract, subjective or eternal. They can therefore have a genuine and important function in an allegory. But some of them seem to have been written by rote, and there are so many that the cumulative effect is dulling. (pp. 47-8)
[A] rapid alternation of stripped narrative and highly-charged scene is, I think, [one] main cause of Greene's attraction. He presents everything visually heightened, and with immense deftness. But his manner of composition promotes over-excitement, is not sufficiently complex and qualified. He never bores; he rarely even taxes. This is structure as caricature.
Greene's characters have a kind of intense nervous life which at first almost convinces but is soon seen to be breathed into them by Greene's breath, and always by his breath. They surprise us, as the scenic juxtaposition surprises us, but they surprise so regularly and neatly that they eventually fail to surprise. They are flat characters given a series of twists; they are revolved rapidly or stood on their heads at intervals; but when one has mastered the direction of the twist and the timing of its recurrence the pattern is exposed and there is no more surprise. (p. 50)
The characters are being constantly pushed around, put into positions which are more effective for the pattern than probable. (p. 52)
One's uneasiness increases as these kinds of detail pile up. It all finally confirms the impression of management from outside, of a lack of submission from within to the difficult and subtle matter of characterization.
"Immense readability," the reviewers say, and they are right; considerable immediate power from skilled over-forcing of style, structure and character, and from a refusal to allow half-tones, uncertainties, complexities. I do not mean to imply that Greene deliberately aims at being "readable" in the popular sense, that he aims at commercial success. It seems more likely that both the distortion and the excessive control are results of Greene's view of life. This view is so insistent that it leads him consistently to falsify his fictional life…. We do not find experience convincingly recreated; we know all the time that we are in the presence of an unusually controlled allegory, a "show," to use Gerontion's word. The characters, I suggested, have a kind of life, but that life is always breathed into them by Greene's breath. The novels as a whole have a kind of life, but not the life of, say, The Possessed, in which we forget Dostoevsky and explore the revolutionary mentality. In Greene's novels we do not "explore experience"; we meet Graham Greene. We enter continual reservations about what is being done to experience, but we find the novels up to a point arresting because they are forceful, melodramatic presentations of an obsessed and imaginative personality. (pp. 53-4)
Richard Hoggart, "The Force of Caricature," in his About Literature (Volume 2 of Speaking to Each Other: Essays; copyright © 1970 by Richard Hoggart; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press and Chatto & Windus), Oxford University Press, 1970.
The situations that Greene has chosen for his novels have provided him with the materials of melodrama; his imagination finds its expression in wars and revolutions, and among criminals and police, the hunters and the hunted. These are materials that our world provides in abundance—life in the twentieth century is melodramatic, one might reasonably observe—and to say that Greene uses them is simply to say in another way that he writes contemporary novels. But he has not written melodrama for its own sake; he has used it to furnish his world with the texture of violence, terror, and cruelty that he finds in life. And he has used it shrewdly, as a narrative artist, to engage his audience: "If you excite your audience first," he has said, "you can put over what you will of horror, suffering, truth." The excitement must come first—an author must be read—but the end is truth.
For Greene, the truth is religious: not always specifically Catholic, or even Christian in any exact doctrinal sense, but concerned with a vision of human life that postulates the reality of "another world." One could not construct a religion out of Greene's novels, and it seems unlikely that anyone would be converted by reading them, but they are nevertheless the novels of a religious man. Greene has protested that he should be taken as "an author who is a Catholic," rather than as a Catholic author, and in his books, he is obviously an author first—otherwise he would not be read with such pleasure by non-Catholics; but he has also said that every creative writer worth our consideration is "a man given over to an obsession," and Greene's obsession is religious. (pp. 1-2)
Greene's characters … may be lapsed Catholics, or whiskey priests, but their situations are metaphors for the human condition, and in this fundamental sense Greene's novels are relentlessly contemporary.
They are also contemporary in their political content. Greene himself describes his work as being first political, then Catholic, and then political again, distinguishing early novels such as It's a Battlefield and later novels such as The Quiet American from the major religious works of his middle period, Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter. But the separation is not really that clear; Greene's religious views have political implications (Scobie is a political man as well as a religious one), and his politics imply a religious understanding of the human situation. (p. 3)
Greene is always entertaining, and his skillful use of film and thriller conventions explains a good deal of the entertainment, but he is never merely entertaining. He uses popular conventions as elements in a complicated technique that transcends its components and complexly expresses a religious sense of existence.
Greene's place among modern novelists is not with the writers of popular thrillers, therefore, but with the "conscious artists"—with Conrad and James and Ford (all novelists whom he admires). Like those novelists, Greene has an artist's sense of the importance and dignity of his craft; and like them, he has always understood that technique is not enough, that if the novel is to matter, it must be moral.
For Greene, one form of artistic morality is a scrupulous concern for style…. Greene's own scrupulously mean style is clearly a part of his meaning, an appropriate way of describing the reality that he sees. For the world that Greene's imagination inhabits is an impoverished world, diminished by the absence of God, and the verbal sign of that diminishment is the poverty of his language, the lack of "aura" in the seen world. (pp. 5-6)
In Greene's novels, the world of the senses is drab and torn by shabby violence, but there is "another world," and because there is, the world that we see has meaning. The other world is removed from men, as God is; but it exists, and the human imagination feeds on it. This is what Greene means when he writes that "creative art seems to remain a function of the religious mind": not that only Christians can write novels, but that great art asserts that life means, and that such assertions may be called "religious." And it is in this sense that Greene's melodramatic, contemporary novels are also, as he says, Catholic. (p. 7)
Samuel Hynes, "Introduction" to Graham Greene: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Samuel Hynes (© 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 1-7.
[In] some ways The Honorary Consul is very attractive. Greene maintains throughout a serene, slightly cynical, world-weary voice (reminiscent of the type he used in his underrated autobiographical volume, A Sort of Life). That subdued voice perfectly conveys the world he wishes to establish, a world inhabited by burnt-out cases, men who have lost belief in their work, their acquaintances and worst of all, in themselves. He is at his best when he concentrates on these people, bringing them together, recording their bland conversations, describing their lonely apartments. Unlike many other writers, he is able to capture the weary and the dreary without boring us half to death. Greene still possesses his old magic, but unfortunately it can't bring to life the static, implausible second section of this novel. (p. 784)
Ronald De Feo, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74.
Greene, in my opinion, is the best novelist writing in English today. I preferred him in his earlier phase—the period of Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter—but whatever he does, he does well: he is a finished artist….
Graham Greene's traffic with God has always been worldly: even in the days when his work was based on conventional Christian doctrine, the arena for the spiritual confrontation was the dark street or the soiled bedroom or, at best, the ugly church. God was just another one of the characters and likely an ineffectual one at that, but good was good and evil was evil and the sacramental mysteries were absolute. Now, in Greene's more recent period, God, if he still exists, is lying low. Dr. Plarr, the leading character of The Honorary Consul, is not a believer, and Rivas, his old friend who causes all the trouble, is an apostate priest. Still, once a priest, always a priest, as nobody knows better than Graham Greene, and as the novel moves toward its bloody resolution, Father Rivas, as he is still called, hears confessions, says mass, and is himself finally absolved by the agnostic Plarr….
[These] words of absolution are the last that Plarr speaks on earth. This scene, so typical of Greene's great gift for ambiguity, his ability to yoke hope to despair, the timeless to the absurd, is the kind of thing that makes the entire novel work. Greene is first of all a superb craftsman, a technician so finished in his performance that the technique goes unnoticed much of the time. He has taken the novel form as he found it; he has used the tools that were passed on to him, eschewing experiment or innovation; and he has written some of the best fiction of our time.
Though Greene grows older and apparently less certain of the beliefs that must once have comforted him, his altered themes, lesser themes, in my judgment, respond to the brilliance of his perception and his consummate narrative gift….
[The Honorary Consul is peopled with] typical Greene characters. In his eighteen earlier novels we have seen many others like them—people desolated in spirit but grasping still for the single act or word or even thought that will, if not bring salvation, at least ease the final pain. That they remain interesting to us, that they continue to speak to us of their own authenticity, is a tribute to the mastery of the man who made them all. (pp. 143-47)
Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Winter, 1974.
The End of the Affair and A Burnt-Out Case are both major Greene, the books of a consummate craftsman working at full capacity. Approached from one aspect both … involve one in theological matters. But in fact both books can be seen more readily as social and psychological novels, or as books in which the nature of art itself becomes—as is often the case with Greene—a central narrative device and controlling metaphor. As a fascinating correspondence between Evelyn Waugh and Greene that is quoted in the introduction reveals, A Burnt-Out Case should be viewed not as a revelation of the state of the author's soul, but as a paradigmatic novel about the position he found himself in after the international success of The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair—treated not as an artist but as a theologian and literary confessor to troubled Catholic intellectuals the world over.
Both The End of the Affair and A Burnt-Out Case are thought of as rather glum novels. This is a mistake. Neither seems as sour as on its first appearance and each contains superb passages of comic writing. (pp. 157-58)
Philip French, "Ghostly Fathers," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 2, 1974, pp. 157-58.
We gather from A Sort of Life that Greene was a dogmatic atheist whose conversion to Rome was free from 'unconvincing philosophical arguments'. We are also told that in his youth—between bouts of drinking—he suffered from agonising boredom and despair. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the Rochester who emerges from [Lord Rochester's Monkey]—a character who became more living for Greene the more he worked on him—owes as much to self-projection as literary and historical research. (p. 549)
Stewart Trotter, "The Greene Within," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Stewart Trotter), October 24, 1974.
The strength of Graham Greene has been a compulsive amazement—at the pendulum motion of sin and redemption, at the interwoven closeness of human disgrace and divine repair. Various as are their location and style—novels, entertainments, books of travel, thrillers, plays—the works of Graham Greene have their obsessive focus in the mystery of man's fall and in the mystery of spiritual, psychological resurrection that could not come to pass without the fall. It is this focus that gives to the seedy landscape of Greene's fiction, to the disenchantment and even cruelty of his political horizon, their peculiar dignity…. In its obsession with the motions of spirit and of flesh which lead from evil to remorse, Mr. Greene's Catholicism has retained a Calvinist edge. But the theme is not only theological. The "strong spirits" (esprits forts) of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century gave it a gambler's twist. How far could a man wade into abomination yet reach the shore of grace? Should he blaspheme and violently debauch himself precisely so as to then make manifest the boundless mercy of God? Could an individual set aside a pious, sacramental portion of his will while allowing his inferior senses and mortal flesh to wallow in bestial delights? Behind these questions lurked an even blacker, more sophistic taunt. Was it in reach of a human being to sin so hideously that he would compel God to damn him, that he would abrogate God's infinite compassion and powers of redemption? It is to these challenges, to these equivocations with the absolute, that the legends of Faust and of Don Juan owe their ubiquitous, commanding presence in Western feeling….
"Lord Rochester's Monkey" … is quintessential Greene: spare, elegant, beautifully researched, and wholly immersed in the topic of depravity and of the gamble on salvation. No English literary figure could have been more apt to Mr. Greene's design. (p. 185)
George Steiner, "Burnt-Out Case," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 28, 1974, pp. 185-88.