In 1960 Evelyn Waugh declined a request to review Graham Greene’s new novel A Burnt-Out Case. They were friends but the book saddened him. Its theme was the vexation of a celebrated architect called Querry – “exposed against his wishes as a ‘Catholic’ artist who at the same time cuts himself off from divine grace by sexual sin”.
“It is the first time,” Waugh noted, “that Graham has come out as specifically faithless – pray God it is a mood, but it strikes deeper and colder.” Waugh was distressed: “I am not guiltless as one of those who put him in the odious position of ‘Catholic artist’.” He wrote to Greene to apologise for having done so.
Greene had become a Catholic as a young man, originally because the girl he wanted to marry was one. “I admit the idea came to me because of you,” he told his future wife. But now, he added, the attraction had grown stronger because “one does want … something fine & hard & certain, however uncomfortable, to catch hold of in the general flux”. Notwithstanding the certainty he sought, he was to take the baptismal name Thomas – “after St Thomas the doubter, not Thomas Aquinas”. Intellectually he might seek certainty, but temperamentally he was always drawn towards doubt and duality.
The first of his novels to have a Catholic theme was Brighton Rock, which he styled “An Entertainment”. But the three that made his reputation as a Catholic novelist were The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair. Greene himself came to dislike the second of these. Waugh greatly admired it, as he did The End of the Affair.
Though there were doubts about his orthodoxy in some Catholic circles, and indeed in the Vatican, Greene had become recognised by the mid-1950s as the pre-eminent Catholic novelist writing in English. His faith was, however, always questioning, unlike Waugh’s. He was drawn, quoting Browning, to “the dangerous edge of things”. Moreover, at a time when most Catholic novelists, especially in France, were on the fiercely anti-communist right, Greene’s sympathies lay with the left. He knew little of the US, but he detested American foreign policy in Asia (see his Vietnam novel The Quiet American) and in Latin America.
I first read him when I was 15 or so, finding The Power and the Glory a masterpiece and The End of the Affair intensely moving. A little later The Quiet American became almost my favourite novel; I copied passages from it into my commonplace book. So I was somewhat disconcerted when my admired French master, Ian Hunter, expressed his distaste for Greene and his novels: “always sneaking up behind me trying to make me a Roman Catholic”.
Ian, an aesthete (and a decorated naval officer), was a devout High Church Anglican. I guess his distaste for Greene’s novels wasn’t unusual. I would suppose that he later deplored Greene’s loyalty to Kim Philby, who had been both a friend and his superior when he worked in the Secret Service during the war, but I had lost touch with Ian before Philby decamped to the Soviet Union.
Waugh had been depressed not only by the theme of A Burnt-Out Case; he also thought that “Graham’s skill is fading”. He was therefore relieved and happy to be able to praise Greene’s next novel, The Comedians. Set in Haiti, this is a novel in which the religious theme is muted, but in its treatment of the communist Dr Magiot it expresses Greene’s respect for, even affinity with, those who commit themselves to a faith, as against those who are content to be lukewarm, even indifferent. Some may call this Romantic; perhaps it is.
Greene was now 60. There would be two more major novels, The Honorary Consul and The Human Factor. Both may fairly be called bleak, yet are deeply satisfying, the former set on the frontier between Argentina and Uruguay, the latter in London but ending in Moscow. The central character in each is a man without faith and with little hope, nevertheless striving, even struggling, to behave well. Pity is the note struck in both, the mood lightened only by moments of wry comedy. I like them better now than the novels that made his name.
After his death, his reputation suffered a decline such as so often follows a long career that has, as Selina Hastings wrote of Somerset Maugham, “been lived much in the public eye and in tune with the times”. Greene is indeed out of tune with the vulgar banality of our 21st century which shuns the treatment of First and Last Things.
But there will surely be a revival. That fine novelist and acute critic Nicolas Freeling wrote that “in prose fiction, crime is the pre-eminent and often predominant theme” and Greene is essentially a crime novelist, though it is crimes against the spirit rather than the body that he is concerned with.
Freeling found him to be a metaphysical writer like Mauriac and Simenon among his contemporaries, and what he wrote in an essay on Simenon applies equally to Greene. Here too there is “the urgent questioning about the human soul: the nature of crime, the meaning of suffering, the effort towards redemption”.
There came, as Waugh sadly realised, a fragility in Greene’s faith, a consequence perhaps of the curse of boredom which had led him in his undergraduate days, before his reception into the Church, to engage in Russian roulette, that game of metaphysical chance. His nature was sceptical and his humour wild, for he was always aware of the absurdity of his experience of life. Yet he clung to his faith, even if unable to go to Confession – being, like Querry, unwilling to forswear sexual sin. Given to a profound melancholy, which nevertheless co-existed with outbursts of high spirits and a sense of mischief, he was an unfailingly generous man – especially to less fortunate writers – and a novelist to whom I return time and again, always gratefully.
Allan Massie is the Catholic Herald’s chief book reviewer
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