In the Shadows of Greeneland
Author: Mark Lawson
Permission to publish this text granted by The Tablet
A hundred years after Graham Greene's birth, the Catholic novelist's qualities still influence literary fiction. His restless faith inspired drama and characters playing for the highest possible stakes.
Graham Greene was denied the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some attributed this to his being too populist a storyteller, others to the rumour that he had cuckolded a prominent member of the selection committee. These rival theories neatly touch on the central controversies of his writing and his life. In the year of his centenary – 13 years after his death – the question is to what extent Greene has gained the more important trophy: literary immortality.
He failed to make an impression in the BBC1’s Big Read opinion poll, but then few serious writers did and Greene is perhaps handicapped by the evenness of his achievements. If some cultural overlord decreed that authors must now be represented in libraries by only one volume, which would be the single Greene?
Brighton Rock, burnished by a famous film version, is the most durable but is actually untypical in being set in England. The quintessential Greene involves a man’s soul rotting overseas but, even among his foreign tragedies, it would be a struggle to choose between the purgatories of the priest, the policeman, the diplomat, and the journalist in Mexico, Africa, Argentina and Vietnam: The Power And The Glory, The Heart Of The Matter, The Honorary Consul and The Quiet American.
Looking back from the twenty-first century, Greene can be seen to have belonged to three categories which were more or less indispensable to the best literature written in English in the mid-twentieth century. He was a Catholic, a traveller and an exile. Among his contemporaries, Muriel Spark and Anthony Burgess joined Greene in all three groups, while Evelyn Waugh missed out on the trinity only by keeping his main home in the country of his birth.
Today, Catholicism, wanderlust and expatriation all lack the attraction they had for writers in Greene’s time. The centre of gravity of the novel now is Jewish and American or, if Catholic at all, South American, written by authors who rarely feel the need to leave their birthplace for either subject or location.
In that sense, Greene is very much a writer of his period. But the principal obstacle between Greene and literary posterity is that the factor which qualifies him for the interest of The Tablet risks bringing disqualification among a wider readership.
It is difficult now for most Catholic readers – let alone secular ones – to comprehend how central Catholicism was to the English novel written by authors born just before the First World War, who published their major works around the time of the Second.
Greene, Waugh and Spark declared their religious affiliation on dust-jacket flaps and, in the case of the two men, their books frequently involved liturgical or doctrinal plot-twists.
Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Greene’s Brighton Rock, The Heart Of The Matter and The End Of The Affair all feature implied celestial conclusions or interventions. Brideshead, though often remembered from television as a tale about toffs with teddy-bears, was intended to explore the workings of divine grace, while The End Of The Affair hinges on two miracles, although Greene later revised the narrative to make it less supernatural.
Even so, while it is common to view Greene as a novelist of religious doubt, his major characters tend to be believers: their belief in the genuine possibility of damnation drives their tragedies. Bendrix, in The End Of The Affair, hates God but is therefore by definition far from being an atheist. The question of whether Scobie in The Heart Of The Matter killed himself only matters because the novel assumes that he has gone to God’s judgment. With the intricacies of Catholic belief now more marginal even to some Catholics, these aspects of the stories will increasingly have to be taught and foot-noted as are the manners of society in Jane Austen’s day.
Yet the writer himself was always more respectful of the questions raised by his Church than the answers it provided. It is a paradox that Waugh, while religiously reverential in life, was less so in his books, while, in his peers, the attitudes were reversed.
Greene was a serial philanderer who, one recent biographer has claimed, enjoyed the frisson of committing adultery behind the high altar. It is more likely that this was a fantasy once expressed.
Greene’s religion seems to have taken the form of playing a truculent toddler to God the Father, forever cheeking and testing and challenging. A sign of this is that, while he read works of theology as relaxation, he took most pleasure in extreme heresies.
“The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart”, he says in a character in The Heart Of The Matter. But, while we can never know what Greene gained as a human being from his restless faith, it is clear what it gave him as a writer: drama and characters playing for the highest possible stakes. Catholicism is the weather – usually threatening but with a pale prospect of sun – behind his books.
And it is in atmosphere that Greene’s genius lies. His signature sentences have a drum-beat of weariness and dread, drawing the reader into a tragedy of human weakness: “The small room was hot with the conflict between them” (The Heart Of The Matter). Greene came to resent the fact that his surname invited the lazy critical cliché “Greeneland” as a description of his milieu, but it was appropriate because of his impeccable sketching of place. His novels can be seen as the most brilliant postcards ever written.
This skill as a location-scout inevitably made him attractive to cinema – a returned compliment, as Greene worked for years as a movie-critic – and there have been two fine films since his death: Neil Jordan’s The End Of The Affair and Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American. Michael Caine in the latter has a poignant physical resemblance to Greene.
But it is in the breadth of his influence on other authors that the writer’s literary afterlife is most apparent. The Catholic novel as Greene and Waugh practised it – stories in which doctrine drives plot – can be found in the books of Piers Paul Read and, to a lesser extent, David Lodge. Read can be seen to add to Greene’s mood of human ruin some of the Catholic orthodoxy of Waugh, while Lodge infuses the comic atmosphere of Waugh with a much more Greenian scepticism about religion.
Yet, while Greene’s denomination no longer dominates the novel, the general spirit of his fiction has attracted impressive followers. The writer’s most obvious literary son is John Le Carré, whose characters may be public-school Anglicans if they profess to any faith at all, but whose stories of public deceit and private lying in a fallen world owe an acknowledged debt to that other Foreign Office spy who became a novelist.
The Irish writer Brian Moore was clearly a disciple: a traveller and exile whose Polish ecclesiastical thriller The Colour Of Blood felt like some telepathic collaboration with Greene. John Updike, though in prose which is a rainforest beside the well-tended garden of Greene’s, writes theological novels such as Roger’s Version and The Beauty Of The Lilies which have a recognisable model. Then there are novels such as Damon Galgut’s Booker-shortlisted The Good Doctor and Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist – in which dyspeptic professionals in former colonies teeter between their ideals and their needs – among the numerous contemporary books which have travelled through Greeneland to reach their destination.
In one of his final interviews, an old and sick Greene was asked whether he regretted not winning the Nobel. The writer replied that he was now only interested in one prize. Some think that he meant by this the welcome oblivion of death; others that he was contemplating heaven. The ambiguity is typical of Greene. But, in the year of his centenary, Graham Greene has claimed a greater prize than the Nobel and achieved at least one afterlife: a fierce and undiminished readability and, in combining serious ideas with narrative drive, a model for all novelists.
Veritas, 9th January 2004 / 2nd December 2010