Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1602
The idea of escape is central to an understanding of Greene’s life and writing. He sees writing as a form of therapy: “Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” Both his writing and his compulsive travels to dangerous places around the world are ways of escape. Like his fictional characters, Greene enjoys living on the edge of danger, testing his spiritual, psychological, and physical limits. By living intensely, he can evade the deadly boredom and emptiness that threaten his creative sanity.
Greene has carefully excluded from his autobiography details of his personal life. He explains, for example, how he met his wife, Vivien, in A Sort of Life, but nowhere does he mention his separation from her in Ways of Escape; she simply ceases to exist. Greene is more concerned here with dramatizing the social and political atmosphere in which he created his novels. “Those parts of a life most beloved of columnists,” he explains, “remain outside the scope of this book.”
One gets the impression from this book that Greene is always at the top of his form, whether writing a new novel or traveling to some remote part of the world. He explains how he set out to write a book that would both please the popular taste and be made into a film, and Stamboul Train succeeded in both aims. He also recounts how he tested his youthful bravado by traveling with his twenty-three-year-old cousin Barbara to Liberia, an adventure that was the basis of his travel book Journey Without Maps (1936). A statement from his cousin’s diary—when Greene became ill in Zigi’s Town—captures the tough-minded image of himself that he seeks to project: “I took Graham’s temperature again, and it had gone up. I felt quite calm at the thought of Graham’s death. To my own horror I felt unemotional about it.”
Greene delights in depicting himself in unorthodox poses, whether exploring Africa or writing film criticism. He gives considerable emphasis to his controversial review of Shirley Temple’s film Wee Willie Winkie (1937), in which he suggests that Twentieth Century-Fox had procured Temple “for immoral purposes” and that she had “a certain adroit coquetry which appealed to middle-aged men.” Temple and the studio brought a libel suit against the magazine in which the review appeared and won their case. Nevertheless, Greene takes an obvious delight in having stung the precocious child star and exposed the hypocrisy of the studio; he records the incident as a moral victory.
Although Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926, he had to contend with the label of Catholic writer only after he published Brighton Rock in 1938. Insisting that he is not a Catholic writer but a writer who happens to be Catholic, Greene nevertheless brought Catholic characters and themes into almost all of his later works. Given the fixed rules and regulations of the Catholic church at that time, he could put his characters into dynamic situations in which their faith and humanity could be tested to the breaking point. His Catholicism provided him with an excellent dramatic framework for his future novels, stories, and plays.
In The Power and the Glory (1940), Greene shocked the public (and the Catholic church) with his depiction of an alcoholic priest who achieves an ambiguous sainthood in his execution. Later, in The Heart of the Matter (1948), Greene again tests the limits of orthodox theology by having his Catholic hero, Scobie, commit suicide. Technically, Scobie has damned himself to Hell, but Greene suggests that God can forgive even the hopeless. In his autobiography, Greene expresses a growing weariness over the arguments in Catholic journals as to whether Scobie is saved or damned. Greene also declares his dismay at the response to his novel A Burnt-Out Case (1961) about a man who loses his faith in God: “The book appealed too often to weak elements in its readers. Never have I received so many letters from strangers—perhaps the majority of them from women and priests.”
That Greene chooses to record these details in his autobiography, however, suggests that he takes a peculiar satisfaction in his ability to stir orthodox Catholics to reassess their beliefs. For example, Greene cites the case of a French priest who pursued him with troubling questions more properly put to a confessor. Beneath the dismay Greene tacitly acknowledges the power of his fiction to bring about such ironic reversals.
Working as a correspondent for Life in the early 1950’s, Greene made several trips to Vietnam to cover the French invasion of that country. His experiences there led him to write an anti-American novel, The Quiet American (1955). Greene met an American attached to an economic-aid mission in Vietnam who lectured him on the importance of finding a native force willing to fight on behalf of the Western powers. Greene transformed this person into the foolish and dangerously naive hero of his novel, a man whose bookish idealism blinds him to the brutality and murder fostered by American intervention in this country. Like Twentieth Century-Fox, seeking a profit by using Shirley Temple to manipulate the sexual fantasies of her male audience, the American government—as Greene seems to view it—exploits innocent Asian lives in order to strengthen its economic and political hold on the East.
With the publication of A Burnt-Out Case, Greene discovered that many of his readers identified him with his hero, a famous architect named Querry. Having lost his faith in God and his interest in his work, Querry seeks refuge from his European fame by going to live in a remote lepers’ settlement in the Belgian Congo. Even Greene’s friend and fellow Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh read the novel as a sign of Greene’s exasperation with his reputation as a Catholic author. Greene admits that there are similarities between Querry and himself. The great irony of the novel, which Greene fails to note, is that it casts a powerful light upon a man who (presumably like Greene himself) seeks anonymity.
Having been in such places as London during the Blitz, Mexico during the persecution of the Catholics, and Vietnam during the war with France, Greene continued his quest for excitement by visiting Haiti in 1963, during the reign of terror of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Based upon his experiences there, Greene wrote the novel The Comedians (1966). Greene observes, with some pleasure, that Duvalier himself attacked the book in his newspaper, leaving Greene to wonder if he disturbed Duvalier’s dreams even as Duvalier’s menacing dictatorship disturbed his. Throughout his autobiography, Greene interprets attacks upon his work, especially if made by conventional Catholics, dictators, or American patriots, as signs of their success. As Greene proudly observes, “A pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood.”
Greene states that A Burnt-Out Case represents the depressive side of his manic-depressive personality. Travels with My Aunt (1969), on the other hand, represents his manic side at its height. His new mood was in part the result of the fact that in 1966 he decided to leave England and settle permanently in Antibes. Although the subjects of this novel are old age and death, Greene claims that it is the only book he wrote merely for the fun of it. The heroine, Aunt Augusta, an old woman who lives life to the fullest, travels to the same countries and in the same order as did Greene himself. A female fantasy version of himself—crusty, vigorous, witty, unconventional, defiant, and eager to be in the center of action—she can, because of her advanced age and sex, behave as she chooses with impunity.
While in Argentina, Greene conceived the plot of his next novel, The Honorary Consul (1973): A band of guerrillas mistakenly kidnap a lowly consul in place of an ambassador. He had read an account in the newspapers of the kidnapping of a Paraguayan consul mistaken for the Paraguayan ambassador. The consul was finally released and the matter forgotten, but Greene developed the story into a powerful novel with a more dynamic conclusion. The relationship between fiction and reality has fascinated Greene. In an earlier novel, Our Man in Havana (1958), his hero, James Wormold, makes up stories about agents he is supposed to have hired to help him with his work as a British spy in Cuba. One of the fictional characters he creates for his bogus reports to the home office, an aviator named Raul, turns out to be a real person who dies in a plane crash—just as Wormold says he does. As a result, Wormold wonders if he can write human beings into existence.
Greene always wanted to write an espionage novel that was free from the conventional violence of spy novels. His tribute to the unromantic British secret service is The Human Factor (1978), a novel based upon the career of Greene’s friend, Kim Philby, a double agent who defected to the Soviet Union. Despite Greene’s protest that the novel is not a roman a clef, most critics consider the character of Maurice Castle a loose portrait of Philby.
In all of his novels and travel books and especially in his autobiography, fragments of Graham Greene appear and disappear. One reason he wrote his autobiography was to seek out this elusive self, this other: “This book has not been a self-portrait. I leave such a portrait to my friends and enemies. All the same, I did find myself for many years in search of someone who called himself Graham Greene.”