The Other Man

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Graham Greene’s life has been almost as adventurous as Ernest Hemingway’s, but while Hemingway cultivated a public persona as a macho adventurer, Greene has avoided publicity and maintained a guarded privacy. Even his two autobiographical volumes, A Sort of Life (1971) and Ways of Escape (1980), together with some autobiographical essays and travel books (Journey Without Maps: A Travel Book, 1936, and The Lawless Roads: A Mexican Journal, 1939) conceal almost as much as they reveal. Reluctant to give interviews and refusing to appear on television, Greene has been nearly as elusive as the title character of The Third Man: An Entertainment (1950), echoed in the title of Marie-Françoise Allain’s interviews with him. Greene consented to the interviews because Allain is the daughter of his friend Yves Allain, a member of the Resistance in World War II, who was mysteriously murdered in Morocco in 1966. Greene also consented because he saw this woman as a literary critic rather than a journalist interested in celebrities.

At first, Allain reports, Greene was evasive in the talks, but he finally opened up, though Allain found him more perplexing as he became more familiar. His dominant tone is one of anguish, balanced by “a sense of the absurd and of the ridiculous” and kept under intense self-control. She found the word “escape” recurring in his conversation, though the escape was often not from but to “the dangerous edge of things,” a phrase that Greene has borrowed from Robert Browning. A lifelong manic-depressive, Greene briefly tried psychoanalysis but rejected it on the grounds that he finds it unhealthy to dwell upon the negative side of his character. Not liking himself very much, he hates to brood about the past and tries to avoid memory because much of the past has been too painful, particularly the boarding school of his adolescent years, from which he says he got his sense of anguish. Nevertheless, it was boredom rather than anguish that led him to play Russian roulette when he was nineteen.

Whether from a certain coldness or from a need to minimize being hurt, Greene has been detached from both his parents and his children, though fond of them all, and he tries to maintain a similar detachment from himself, even using the neutral pronoun one instead of I throughout much of his dialogue with Allain. An introvert, he accepts a certain amount of voluntary or forced banishment, though in fact he likes to travel alone. A world traveler with an uncanny ability to be in trouble spots, Greene has been rootless and finds that rootlessness is his subject, yet he personally feels at home anywhere. Rootlessness is not his own problem.

Perhaps his most consistent attachment has been to the Roman Catholic Church. Converted in 1927, Greene has often been called a “Catholic writer,” a label he rejects, indicating that most of his books do not deal directly with religion. He agrees with Cardinal Newman’s denial of the existence of a specifically “Catholic” literature and prefers to consider himself a Catholic who is also a writer. Still, a number of his works do deal with priests and with dramas that hinge on points of faith and practice, sin and redemption, so that it could be argued that a Catholic perception informs much of Greene’s work. He insists, however, that he is interested in the “human factor,” not the dogma per se. In A Sort of Life, Greene is most reticent about religion, indicating only that as he was engaged to marry a Catholic, he took instruction and joined the Church. This is too cut-and-dried; it surely gives no insight into what Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, have meant to him. In conversation with Allain, Greene is more revealing. He says that he did not become a Catholic for emotional reasons; it was not like falling in love. Greene needed arguments of the existence of God; his conversion was purely intellectual, though he accepts God’s existence “not as an absolute truth but as a provisional one.” He did not “feel” his faith until he saw the persecution of the Church in Mexico in the 1930’s.

Still, Greene never does explain, aside from his marriage, why he chose Catholicism. He was reared an Anglican, but he has always been drawn to extremes, and perhaps it is the more unqualified commitment of Catholicism to its dogmas that appeals to Greene. He insists that to be Christian, one must accept the Incarnation and Resurrection, and he finds it absurd for priests and bishops to remain in office if they deny these or the historical existence of Christ and turn Him totally into a myth, a vaguely personified abstraction.

Nevertheless, although he occasionally attends Mass, he has not taken Communion for nearly thirty years and says that he has excommunicated himself. Considering himself “a Protestant in the bosom of the church,” Greene opposes the Church on the issue of contraception and believes that banning it merely encourages abortion. He finds the concept of Hell meaningless. While he does believe in the existence of total evil, he rejects the idea of total and eternal damnation, nor is he sure that one can, like Ivan Karamazov, come to religion through an awareness of evil. Greene dislikes the term “sin,” arguing that most venial sins are too trivial to deserve the term, while most of the so-called “mortal” ones are not mortal in that they are not an intentional defiance of God. Greene does believe in “a sort of purgatory,” and one quality he admires about Christianity is its sense of moral failure and its offering the possibility of change for the better. He wishes that he had permanent faith, laments that he does not, and hopes that he is still hounded by God. Greene finds faith a higher quality than belief (which is founded on reason) and says that with age, he has more doubts but also more faith and less depression. Despite his need for intellectual proofs before he was converted, Greene says that he believes in magic and finds an affinity to the magical and primitive elements in Third World Christianity. He wants to believe in miracles.

As for the impact of religion on literature, Greene believes that “human beings are more important to believers than they are to atheists,” and he finds the characters of E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and...

(The entire section is 2608 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

America. CXLIX, July 30, 1983, p. 57.

Best Sellers. XLIII, August, 1983, p. 175.

Book World. XIII, May 1, 1983, p. 3.

Booklist. LXXIX, April 15, 1983, p. 1065.

The Economist. CCLXXXVI, May 21, 1983, p. 115.

Guardian Weekly. CXXVIII, May 8, 1983, p. 21.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 1, 1983, p. 743.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 17, 1983, p. 1.

National Review. XXXV, April 15, 1983, p. 444.

New Statesman. CV, April 22, 1983, p. 25.

Observer. August 24, 1983, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, March 11, 1983, p. 73.

Punch. CCLXXXIV, April 20, 1983, p. 77.

Times Literary Supplement. July 1, 1983, p. 710.