Readers of Greene’s novels know that many of his characters exist along a continuum of belief and unbelief. From Louise Scobie’s child-like faith in The Heart of the Matter, to the Whiskey Priest’s inveterate, Christ-pursued faithfulness in The Power and the Glory, to the bemused skepticism of Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair, to Querry’s assertions of atheism in A Burnt-Out Case, Greene’s protagonists represent a wide variety of postures toward Christian belief and unbelief.
Critics and biographers are always looking for glimpses of Greene’s own wavering expressions of faith in his characters, a search with which Greene himself had sympathy. “I certainly would not attempt to hide behind the time-old gag that an author can never be identified with his characters,” he wrote to Evelyn Waugh after the publication of A Burnt-Out Case. “Of course in some of Querry’s reactions there are reactions of mine, just as in some of Fowler’s reactions in The Quiet American there are reactions of mine,” he continued. But, Greene insisted, “A parallel must not be drawn all down the line and not necessarily to the conclusion of the line … I wanted to give expression to various states or moods of belief and unbelief.”
Sometimes it’s on the margins that we find the deepest expression of Christian truth.
This is where Richard Greene’s biography is a triumph in ways that his predecessors’ are not. Assiduously eschewing prurient details of (but never glossing over) Greene’s well-known infidelity and seeming public lapses of faith, Richard Greene takes the common trope of “Greeneland,” typically accounting for the exotic, dangerous, desolate, and god-forsaken geographical settings of Graham Greene’s novels, and transposes it to the marginal places where belief and unbelief often uneasily cohabit the Christian mind.
Richard Greene, in fact, takes the geographical desolation as a metaphor for the landscape of Graham Greene’s own deep ambivalence about his own Catholic faith and moral life. The biographer does this by skilfully weaving the novelist’s actual travels into the writing of the novels while accounting for Greene’s correspondence with lovers, siblings, priest-confidants, other novelists, and his wife, from whom he was never divorced. In The Unquiet Englishman, Greeneland is less a metaphor for the treacherous geography of remote parts of Africa, Mexico, Central America or Southeast Asia than it is about the precarious state of the souls of Greene’s characters, Greene himself . . . and us.
It is only the fundamentalist who never struggles with questions of faith, and it is questionable whether that is really faith, rather than ideology. Certainly, if we understand Christian faith to be submission to the lordship of a person, variations of belief and unbelief seem almost to be necessary. Otherwise, we remove the humanity of Christ, himself, reducing him to nothing more than an idea or a set of propositions. And it is often on the peripheries of belief that we come to know and love Him more deeply and authentically than we do in the comfort of dogmatic certitude.
It is only the fundamentalist who never struggles with questions of faith, and it is questionable whether that is really faith
Thus did Graham Greene attempt to distinguish his “faith”—where he resided continually from his conversion—to his “belief,” which took him to the margins of that faith, peering into what life would be outside it. He never left the faith; but his belief rose and fell like the waves of an invisible sea (to crib a line from Flannery O’Connor). Or, as Greene put it in a letter, “One can’t believe 365 days a year, but my faith tells me that my reasoning is wrong. Personally even when I doubt I go on praying . . . my own kind of prayers.”
Evelyn Waugh fretted that Querry was probably Greene’s most biographical character, and that he symbolised Greene’s abandonment of faith. I agree that there is more of Greene in Querry than any other of his characters. I don’t think Waugh was correct to see him as a symbol of Greene’s ultimate apostasy. On the contrary, Querry’s dogmatic insistence that he no longer believed was his own resistance to the incorrigibility of faith. Despite himself, Querry was, as the unsettled believer Fr. Thomas told him, “a good man.”
Graham Greene teaches us something about the complexity of faith, belief, and unbelief. In Greeneland, the utterance from the Gospel of Mark might be turned around, but it is still a legitimate, even if disconcerting, part of the Christian experience: “I don’t believe; help my belief.” Sometimes it’s on the margins that we find the deepest expression of Christian truth. The exploration of those margins—those Greenelands—is perhaps Graham Greene’s most important contribution to Catholic literature and Christian faith.
The title of the UK edition of Richard Greene’s book is Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene.
Ken Craycraft is a Chapter House columnist.
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