Between Form and Faith: Graham Greene and the Catholic Novel by Martyn Sampson
Fordham University Press, £26.99, 304 pages
Graham Greene remains synonymous with the phrase “Catholic novel” even as his books are less frequently read than they were in his lifetime and as they lose the central place they once held among the set texts for the study of English Literature in schools and universities.
Martyn Sampson’s book is a brave attempt to triangulate Greene’s best-known novels, academic literary theory in the broad tradition of “deconstruction” and various forms of theological argument. But reader, beware: the text reads more like a doctoral dissertation than an accessible manifesto for the continuing vitality of Greene as a resource for thinking Catholics in the 21st century.
Sampson’s principal argument is that we should think of Greene’s novels as “Catholic” not so much, as is traditional, in terms of their discussions of dogma and the ways the destiny of the characters is shaped by their faith and their doubts – the “whisky priest” in The Power and the Glory or the woman in The End of the Affair who promises God that she will give up her liaison if He allows her lover to rise from the rubble of the air raid that has hit the marital home in which she has been committing adultery. Instead, Sampson proposes that Greene’s distinctive contribution to the “Catholic novel” is his art of juxtaposing, even merging, the religious and the secular. The book offers readings of six novels, beginning with Brighton Rock, in which the sociology of the seedy Thirties seaside resort is as important a theme as the Catholicism of the protagonist and deuteragonist, Pinkie and Rose.
It seems to me that his argument works best in the case of a less explicitly Catholic later novel, The Honorary Consul, which nails its colours to the mast of an epigraph quoted from the autobiography of the very uncatholic Thomas Hardy: “All things merge into one another – good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics.” It works because, as Sampson points out, this is a post-Vatican II novel, set in the upheaval of Seventies South America, where religion and politics were indeed inseparable. Disappointingly, though, the book has very little to say about the liberation theology that was so powerful at the time – there is a single passing mention of just one of its practitioners, Gustavo Gutiérrez.
Sampson’s argument is, however, well served by the “process theology” of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and in particular his notion of an “omega point”, an eschatological future in which everything coheres. Greene’s best novels do indeed have such points, not in their ending but as the organising principle of their structure, as may be seen from the opening sentence of The End of the Affair: “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” The narratives are built around turning points, epiphanies, moments of crisis. This gives them their distinctive form: hence the idea promulgated in the title of this study, that the Catholicism of Greene’s novels lies somewhere “Between Form and Faith”.
And so to the caveat lector. You will learn nothing about the evolution of Greene’s own faith or his self-identification as a “Catholic agnostic”. Sampson’s style is marred by a strange predilection for italics: “it is here, then, that we see there”; “the very act, journey, even voyage, of reading”. He obsessively cites the work of other critics, sometimes five to a page. He has an annoying tendency to branch from a really interesting comparison into a thicket of literary theoretical jargon: just as we are getting drawn into a comparison with the novelist François Mauriac – surely Greene’s equivalent in the French literary tradition – we are diverted into the postmodern mirror-world of the showman-philosopher Slavoj Žižec.
I could recommend this book much more highly had Sampson simply let Greene loose among his predecessors and peers instead of confining him to the graduate seminar room. Sampson begins with Greene’s literary critical writings and does not demur from his man’s oversimplified view that GK Chesterton divides us into sheep and goats, with no room for the middle ground of shabby deceptions that was his own territory. As well as a more nuanced view of Chesterton, I was left longing for some mention of Compton Mackenzie, whose Sinister Street was so important to the evolution of the religious novel in the 20th century. And for the Catholic general reader, there really should have been far more of Waugh than a dismissive swipe at the Brideshead author’s penetrating essay on The Heart of the Matter as a restatement “in brilliantly plain human terms” of Charles Péguy’s notion of the Church as “a chain of saints and sinners with clasped fingers, pulling one another up to Jesus.”
Sir Jonathan Bate is a biographer, critic and scholar. His most recent book Bright Star, Green Light: The Beautiful and Damned Lives of John Keats and F Scott Fitzgerald is out now, and is published by William Collins.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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