Graham Greene Greene, Graham (Henry) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Graham (Henry) Greene 1904–

See also, Graham Greene Criticism and volumes 3, 6, 9, 14, 18 and 125.

English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, children's author, writer of travel books, essayist, and editor.

Greene has been a widely acclaimed and popular author throughout most of his long career. His prominence derives mainly from his novels, most of which pursue his obsession with the darker side of human nature within the context of a spy thriller or adventure story. Greene is described as a Catholic writer: the human struggle between faith and doubt and the despair and alienation of modern humanity are constant themes in his work. In spite of his many decidely Catholic concerns, Greene is an intellectual nonconformist. He rejects systematic adherence to the precepts of any contemporary religion or institution.

Greene is a skillful storyteller whose novels are suspenseful and entertaining. They swiftly move the reader into the physical action and moral conflict of the story. Greene's best-known work, The Power and the Glory (1940), is representative of his treatment of character and theme. Here, as in all of his fiction, thematic concerns are worked out more through characterization than through plot. In this story of the persecution of a priest by a police lieutenant, Greene pits political and secular conventions against spiritual and religious ones. Effectively avoiding the use of stereotype, Greene portrays both men as whole persons. The priest, like the police lieutenant, is a complex character capable of both good and evil acts. Critics consider such characterization as evidence that Greene is a writer of great depth. For him, the sinner is often the saint, the idealist, a danger.

Although there seems to be little contention about the significance of Greene's earlier work, in more recent years his status has been questioned. His recent novel Monsignor Quixote (1982) has been cited by some critics as an entertaining and well-constructed novel with a powerfully realized atmosphere. Other critics of the novel question its merit. Paul Fussell, commenting on Greene's esteem suggests that it is "only the current absence of Faulkner and Waugh and even Hemingway that makes Greene seem a novelist of consequence instead of, say, a fourth-rate Conrad."

Paul Fussell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It might be thought that it's only the current absence of Faulkner and Waugh and even Hemingway that makes Greene seem a novelist of consequence instead of, say, a fourth-rate Conrad. Is Greene not really a writer whose conceptions, plots, and style are, if the truth were told, as seedy as his famous settings? Can he construct? Can he imagine plausible characters and deliver believable images of their behavior in an efficient style? Is not his melodramatic, Manichean vision of life less a sign that he is "a Catholic novelist" than evidence of a coarse intelligence? Are not his psychological studies of fear and guilt forced and fraudulent? Is there the qualitative difference he imagines between his novels and his "entertainments"? Does not his instinct for spy and detective adventure betoken a literary sense considerably less than subtle? These are the troubling questions that arise whenever Greene is put forward as a major writer. They arise anew with [Ways of Escape, the] second volume of his memoirs.

The first volume, A Sort of Life, appeared in 1971. It dealt with his life only up to his 20s. Here we have the rest of it, from 1929 to 1978. As Greene admits, "rather less than half" the book has been cobbled together from the introductions he's provided for the collected edition of his works. These bits are now arranged chronologically and bridged by new passages. There is thus an air of pastiche and incoherence about the whole, although the parts are often attractive.

"I grew clever at evasion," Greene wrote of his youth in A Sort of Life…. This action of repeated escaping is now promoted to the theme, or pseudo-theme, of Ways of Escape. Travel is an escape from boredom and England; novel-writing, an escape from newspaper work; film-reviewing, an escape from novel writing; the short story is an escape from longer fiction; playwriting is an escape from filmscript writing, etc. Here escape is...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Why do we read "Ways of Escape" with such absorption, if it is nothing more than a collection of occasional pieces written "as a form of therapy"? The most obvious answer is, because Mr. Greene could take the entries in a plumbing manual, tie them together gracefully and make them seem coherent and interesting. Furthermore, "Ways of Escape" is decorated with striking physical descriptions of the many corners of the world to which Mr. Greene escaped. There are enduringly penetrating analyses of political crises that occurred where he was escaping.

And if Mr. Greene is reticent about betraying the privacy of others, he is almost swaggeringly willing to inform on himself—his suicidal moods, his manic-depressive swings, his attraction to drugs, sex, liquor and physical danger—in sum, his many "ways of escape."…

Yet what I found most consistently interesting about "Ways of Escape" is Mr. Greene's running commentary on the craft of writing. The book could well serve neophyte authors as an instruction manual on writing and reading fiction—on the distinction between prose and poetry, on how to develop imaginary characters from real ones, on how to give the Unconscious sufficient sway, on researching exotic locales, on distinguishing between what a book is saying and what its characters are saying, on the art of developing a story from fragmentary impressions—all related to specific incidents in Mr. Greene's own writing career.

But there's a deeper, less practical point to all the talk about art. What "Ways of Escape" is really about is how the author's experience gets translated into fiction. And in a way this is a good deal more personal and revealing than the most intimate autobiography he could have written.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in a review of "Ways of Escape," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 8, 1981, p. C22.

James Atlas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"A Sort of Life," the first volume of Graham Greene's autobiography, was not equivocal in its title alone. Depicted there was a typical Georgian childhood among the British intellectual middle class, a world of nannies, eccentric aunts and uncles, doting if remote parents who fostered an early love of literature, unhappy school experiences followed by an Oxford education: in short, the world depicted—with some variations—in Cyril Connolly's "Enemies of Promise," in Evelyn Waugh's "A Little Learning," in Peter Quennell's "The Marble Foot." Typical, perhaps, yet hardly complacent; on several occasions in his youth, the author claimed, he had played Russian roulette with a loaded revolver discovered in his brother's cupboard.

No self-respecting writer would lay claim to a happy childhood, but the image of a 19-year-old boy wandering out to a meadow and applying a pistol to his head has always seemed to me implausible, melodramatic in a way Greene's novels rarely are. Yet reading ["Ways of Escape," the] sequel to "A Sort of Life," I found myself persuaded by his claim to a flirtation with suicide. The figure portrayed in "Ways of Escape" is a "manic-depressive temperament" who "enjoyed" the London blitz because it provoked a "sense of insecurity"; who found in Indochina during the troubled 1950's "that feeling of exhilaration which a measure of danger brings to the visitor with a return ticket"; whose incessant quest for adventure has served the same purpose as those suspense-charged afternoons when he spun the chamber of his revolver and waited for a click or an explosion: "escape from boredom, escape from depression."

Greene's compulsion to visit the most troubled corners of the world—Vietnam in the years of French occupation; Malaya in the early 1950's, during the Communist insurrections against the British; Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion; a leper colony in the last days of the Belgian Congo—may have been a way of "tempting the end to come," but it had a literary motive as well. Just as Dostoyevsky seemed to draw inspiration from the threat of...

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Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ways of Escape makes one feel, yet again, how much a writer of the Thirties Greene is. The work he did in that decade, from Stamboul Train (1932), England Made Me (1935), A Gun for Sale (1936) to Brighton Rock (1938), The Lawless Roads (1939), and The Power and the Glory (1940), is not his best; much of it is overwritten, besotted with a rhetorical extravagance taken over from Conrad's The Arrow of Gold. But if not his best work, it is his most typical, producing his major themes, situations, and images.

Greene's mind, like Auden's during the same decade, was appeased mainly by lurid occasions. The imagery common to Greene, Auden, Isherwood, MacNeice, and Spender is of frontiers, maps, passports, an atmosphere not of death, Juliet's tomb, but of terror, mostly sought for its frisson…. The enjoyment of insecurity, fear, and terror, sought as an escape from boredom and depression, is one of Greene's themes in Ways of Escape. When we accept the force of it in him, we find ourselves revising our sense of Auden and his friends; reading Look, Stranger! and Letters from Iceland as rituals against boredom, not merely against the public nightmare, dread, and war.

Greene's themes in Ways of Escape are also retained from the Thirties. Betrayal, it is true, is perennial, but Greene's sense of it issues from a set of circumstances, conventions, and assumptions peculiar to the English Thirties; and shared by many bright young men who entered upon their careers with a view of life largely provided by their experience in such institutions as Berkhamsted and Balliol. Such men had their first experience of betrayal in school; a friendship spurned, a secret disclosed…. [As] Dr. Plarr says in The Honorary Consul, "caring is the only dangerous thing."…

My argument is that Greene, coming of age in the Thirties, defined his art mainly in melodramatic terms, with corresponding themes of betrayal and equivocation. After The Power and the Glory, he put his talent on a thin diet, got rid of Conrad, and took his themes more casually. The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951) are just as serious as the earlier novels, but they don't proceed upon an assumption of universal menace. And they have moments in which the ironies of The Comedians (1966) and Travels with My Aunt (1969) are anticipated. But they are still derived from gestures which were already habitual to Greene in the Thirties. It has always been the habit of Greene's intelligence to seek menacing occasions; of his morality to lure temptation; of his body to seek danger; and of his convictions to long to be undermined. Even in his later years, his exploits have often retained a trace of adolescence. In Ways of Escape his account of being deported from Puerto Rico has every sign of being a prank on his part, and, worse still, a Balliol prank. (p. 15)

One of the many interests of Ways of Escape is the question of character. Greene has always been more concerned with character than with action or plot. He has referred to "the abiding temptation to tell a good story," and has often yielded to it, but only to give a character room to move…. (pp. 15-16)

In all his novels, Greene's procedure, he tells us, is to begin with a hunch, an intuition of a person, a character. The book then goes in search of him. The object is to achieve virtually complete knowledge of this character. Greene explains in Ways of Escape that few of his characters were based upon people he knew; the reason being that, even in the case of an old friend, he knew him only well enough to realize that complete knowledge of him was impossible. With an invented character, complete knowledge is, at least in theory, possible….


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Don Coles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote is] a curious little book, which reminds one, unpromisingly, of so many approximate models. Quaint and ingenuous priest, lusty and Communist mayor, set down together among Spain's dusty roads and hostelries—such an odd couple, whatever in the world will they get up to? Except that of course you know what they will get up to, these two good ole' boys together, because not only has Giovanni Guareschi long ago identified the two principal roles in his resistably heartwarming Don Camillo, but the theme has been beaten within an inch of its life by too many others, has it not?

Well, yes, I would say. I don't think Graham Greene really wins...

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Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Graham Greene] has often been praised for the quality of his observation, but this lies in the creation of an atmosphere appropriate to period, place and characters rather than in what things actually look like.

There are few detailed descriptions of people in the novels: lips, noses, figures are rarely made explicit, and the description of Father Thomas's nose in A Burnt-Out Case has the shock of rarity. Places give off an exotic feeling that is almost invariable, whether it is the river down which Querry moves in the same novel, or the view of boat passengers crossing a "grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points" on the first page of the early Stamboul Train. The river,...

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Samuel Hynes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Graham Greene belongs to the category of obsessive artists: all of his writing life he has seen the world in essentially the same way, and he has written his novels—twenty-four of them now—to give forms to that vision. This is in no sense a pejorative, or even a limiting judgment: some visions are important enough to demand, and to justify, a lifetime's attention, and Greene's achievement as a novelist is surely a function of his obsessive single-mindedness.

Greene's world has always been a battlefield on which two contrary principles—call them The Power and The Glory—eternally confront each other. The Power is all the world's big-battalions—all governments, police, organized crime, big...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)