Graham Greene Greene, Graham (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Greene, Graham 1904–

A British novelist, short story writer, editor, children's author, essayist, and playwright, Greene is highly respected and widely read. His literary world is one of paradox and seediness where the sinner is often the saint, the idealist a destructive agent, and evil is everywhere while innocence is suspect. Greene's Catholicism figures prominently in his fiction, providing him with a system of concepts, situations, and symbols that he uses to dramatize human nature. (See also, Graham Greene Criticism and volumes 1, 3, 6, 9, 18 and 125.)

Evelyn Waugh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Of Mr. Graham Greene alone among contemporary writers one can say without affectation that his breaking silence with a new serious novel is a literary "event." It is eight years since the publication of "The Power and the Glory." During that time he has remained inconspicuous and his reputation has grown huge….

Mr. Greene has long shown an absorbing curiosity in the [existence of Hell]. In "Brighton Rock" he ingeniously gave life to a theological abstraction. We are often told: "The Church does not teach that any man is damned. We only know that Hell exists for those who deserve it. Perhaps it is now empty and will remain so for all eternity."… Mr. Greene challenged the soft modern mood by creating a completely damnable youth. Pinkie of "Brighton Rock" is the ideal examinee for entry to Hell. He gets a pure alpha on every paper. His story is a brilliant and appalling imaginative achievement but falls short of the real hell-fire sermon by its very completeness. We leave our seats edified but smug. However vile we are, we are better than Pinkie. The warning of the preacher was that one unrepented slip obliterated the accumulated merits of a lifetime's struggle to be good. "Brighton Rock" might be taken to mean that one has to be as wicked as Pinkie before one runs into serious danger.

Mr. Greene's latest book, "The Heart of the Matter," should be read as the complement of "Brighton Rock." It poses a vastly more subtle problem. Its hero speaks of the Church as "knowing all the answers," but his life and death comprise a problem to which the answer is in the mind of God alone, the reconciliation of perfect justice with perfect mercy. It is a book which only a Catholic could write and only a Catholic can understand. I mean that only a Catholic can understand the nature of the problem. (p. 322)

Mr. Greene divides his fiction into "Novels" and "Entertainments." Superficially there is no great difference between the two categories. There is no Ruth Draper switch from comic to pathetic. "Novels" and "Entertainments" are both written in the same grim style, both deal mainly with charmless characters, both have a structure of sound, exciting plot. You cannot tell from the skeleton whether the man was baptized or not. And that is the difference; the "Novels" have been baptized, held deep under in the waters of life. (pp. 322-23)

[Mr. Greene's style of writing is] not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry and of independent life. Literary stylists regard language as intrinsically precious and its proper use as a worthy and pleasant task. A polyglot could read Mr. Greene, lay him aside, retain a sharp memory of all he said and yet, I think, entirely forget what tongue he was using. The words are simply mathematical signs for his thought. Moreover, no relation is...

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Kathleen Nott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The framework of absolute Catholic theory employed by Greene … in his serious novels, really implies that sexuality is sinful and is not more than condoned by marriage. When Greene is writing about a real psychological situation he writes powerfully and movingly. Such a situation may well be one in which the particular actions of a character result from the reaction between a certain type of education and his concrete circumstances. This applies to the priest in The Power and the Glory. Compared with this the psychological situations of the policeman in The Heart of the Matter, and the novelist in The End of the Affair, seem factitious, even ad hoc.

To be artistically satisfying the situation must be objectively described. The author must not imply that, for esoteric reasons, he knows more about the answers to the problem than the characters do. You can write a human book about a Catholic if you do not at the same time write a book about Catholic theories of human nature.

The Power and the Glory is about the effect of Catholic belief and dogma on someone for whom that belief affords his whole raison d'être. We are allowed to concentrate our attention of the priest as a suffering human being. In The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, which are about sexual and marital relations, the problems, while they are not less specialised and also peculiar to...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After the revolution of sorts in fiction's faith in its own adequacy to describe the world wrought by Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet, Murdoch, and Pynchon, we can appreciate [The End of the Affair, Greene's] own most deliberate gamble with the limits of art as good taste. But when it appeared in 1951, it seemed in very bad, indeed scandalous, taste. Greene had already, with The Power and the Glory (1940) and The Heart of the Matter (1948), established his reputation, for better and worse, as the most complex and challenging religious novelist of his day. But even for many of his most sympathetic readers, he took things a bit too far in this story of a contemporary Magdalene, an adulteress named Sarah Miles who utters a prayer for her lover as he is trapped by a V-2 explosion outside their bedroom, finds herself drawn more and more to Catholic mysticism, finally dies, having caught a bad cold…. (pp. 35-6)

Scandalous, literally: one of the crucial New Testament meanings of skandalon is an event, divine or demonic, that upsets our notions of the way the world is supposed to work…. But the word can also mean fanatical, outrageous, silly. And not the least of Greene's accomplishments here is to have put these two meanings, scandalously, together. To tell a story that seriously insists a woman can love God enough to transform, physically, the world around her is to risk turning the novel into what Orwell called the "smelly little orthodoxies" of sectarian pamphlets….

[Greene] takes even bigger risks with our credence than many of the absurdists and fantasists who have lately populated fiction. A Nabokov may say that "reality" is the only word that must always be used in quotes. But he well knows the dangers of trying to remove the quotes, and whenever he does so, as in Pale Fire or Ada, he is careful to nudge us at the moment of removal, reminding us that he shares our basic sense of how things "really" are. But Greene withholds that comforting nudge. It is no accident that The End of the Affair, his eleventh novel, is the first to feature as its central character a professional novelist, and the first to be narrated from the first-person.

"I can be trusted," Bendrix insists, whenever he says anything favorable about Sarah or her God: "I am writing against the...

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Richard Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After more than 50 years before the reading public, Graham Greene has become an institution, the living proof that a contemporary novelist can tackle important subjects and still enjoy immense popularity. As a result, a new work by him is a major event in the international publishing season. (p. 338)

It is difficult to pin down unerringly the source of Greene's popularity. His appeal cuts across several classes of reader, and the link is probably his readability. For Greene, the novel still tells a story, and all his considerable craftsmanship is directed towards this end. He is uninterested in technical innovation, although he has been open to the influence of many different fashions from English historical romance and spy thriller to the French Catholic moralists—with glances at Conrad, Hemingway, and even Faulkner and the existentialists. Accents and passages can reflect these influences, but nothing deflects Greene from the main business of holding the reader's attention. To do this, he resorts to the tricks of the cinema—swift juxtaposition of scene, character, and tone—and is often, because of this, slick and ambiguous in his effects…. [What] makes Greene stand out is that from 1938, the year of Brighton Rock, he has used popular forms to explore his own very special obsessions, such as the operation of divine grace, man's moral responsibility to himself and other people, and the nature of love and disloyalty. The serious reader likes to recognize in these obsessions the proof of Greene's seriousness and claim to greatness. They respect his obsessions, even though the vocabulary of Greene's Catholicism and of his mysterious brand of radicalism is not shared.

Anyone writing about Greene has to face up at once to the Catholicism, not in order to argue with it, as many Orthodox Catholics have done…. Nor to dismiss it, as some free-thinkers tend to …, but rather to recognize that a Catholic novelist like Greene brings restraints to the novel that the Anglo-Saxon tradition is not used to. George Orwell's statement that "the novel is a Protestant art form, requiring the free play of mind" never seems truer than at the end of those novels in which Greene has drawn most heavily on his beliefs, such as The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter. The reader is left as uneasy by the locked gears of the novel's progress as by the rigid optimism of Soviet socialist realist fiction…. Greene may be right to claim "not to be a writer of Catholic novels, but a writer who in four or five books took characters with Catholic ideas for his novels," but the influence is there: it is the religious sense that Greene himself believes was lost to the English novel with the death of Henry James…. [His] sounding the religious note has been of the utmost value in reminding an increasingly agnostic century that man has existed on another level of being. This leads to the most interesting aspect of Greene's work: that despite the special nature of his obsessions few readers feel that they are being preached at. Each novel is really a private exploration of the possibilities of certain lines of conduct which Greene later shares with his public…. [There] is much that is ideologically dubious in Greene's work, but for the general public this matters less than the simple fact that Greene is a superb entertainer….

[In] considering the mass of his work, a line of demarcation wavers through it. On the one side are the novels that operate in what might be called a free market, and they include Our Man in Havana, Travels with my Aunt, and most of the early work. The other side of the line are the works that are the products of a closed market, where Greene's obsessions distort the values. By this rough and ready classification, The Human Factor, because it lacks either Catholic or left-wing dialectic, ought to belong to the free market, but in fact it belongs to the second. What we see operating, in place of Greene's acquired ideologies, is his native passion, not far removed from Thomas Hardy's, for plotting the destruction of small men and the half-baked hopes that inspire them. The fact that Greene is on the small man's side for most of the novel does not soften the inexorable way he so shapes events that his hero ends up cornered by actions of his own devising. In some respects, the novel is a throwback to the ones Greene wrote in the thirties, a spy thriller set against important political events…. Fascism was the accepted evil of many of the 1930's novels; apartheid is the one that dominates The Human Factor. In publishing his novel at this time, Greene once again shows his flair for producing a...

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