The Magazine

The Man Within

Graham Greene and his correspondence.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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Graham Greene

A Life in Letters

Edited by Richard Greene

Norton, 480 pp., $35

Nobody, as the literary scholar Samuel Hynes once observed, has ever wanted to be a Graham Greene character.

His men and women are murderers, traitors, unhappy adulterous lovers, sinners of every stripe--and he doesn't glamorize their seediness, their misery, or their desperation. Evelyn Waugh bluntly called them "charmless." Nearly all of them dwell in a shadowy fictive world of hunter and hunted, where love itself leads mainly to anguish and loss. Nonetheless, even Greene's "entertainments," such as This Gun for Hire and The Third Man, are more than just tautly written thrillers of revenge or pursuit: In the distance one can usually make out the baying of Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven: I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind .  .  .  .

After the death of Henry James, according to Greene, "the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the sense of the importance of the human act." Consequently, Greene's own work--especially the major books of what one might call his middle period: Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair--sought to reinvest contemporary fiction with moral seriousness, to depict solid and real people trapped in life-or-death ethical dilemmas and racked by guilt and despair.

Anyone needing a quick summary of the Greenean view of the world need only look to the first and last sentences of The Third Man. It opens: "One never knows when the blow will fall," and closes: "Poor Crabbin. Poor all of us, when you come to think of it." To this gloomy assessment of our fragile human condition the only possible counterweight lies in what the priest of Brighton Rock calls "the awful strangeness of the mercy of God."

For more than half a century Graham Greene (1904-1991) supplied disquieting reports and updates from this bleakly desolate "Greeneland," wherever it might be temporarily located on the map: Mexico (The Power and the Glory), Africa (The Heart of the Matter), Southeast Asia (The Quiet American), Cuba (Our Man in Havana), South America (The Honorary Consul). Yet while the troubled locales might vary, the quality of Greene's artistry remained uniformly high. Even a relatively late novel, The Human Factor (1978), has been ranked by a standard study of the espionage thriller as the greatest spy story of modern times; Travels with My Aunt revealed its author as a master of black humor.

Over the years Graham Greene's many books have sold more than 20 million copies, and movies, often very fine movies, have been made from virtually all of them. One can even point to a latter-day "school of Greene," whose members have included such distinguished writers as Anthony Burgess, V. S. Naipaul, John le Carré, and Paul Theroux, all of them having worked variations on the Master's signature theme: the intersection of erotic, spiritual, and political treachery.

The Master? Greene, I suspect, would be honestly pleased by the comparison to Henry James, whose work he revered. After all, both writers repeatedly depicted innocence deceived and burnt-out cases and the high cost of illusions. Yet there's still another likeness between them. In one of his later essays Cyril Connolly--that moody epicurean of letters--confessed that he had attained a stage in life when he would rather read about Henry James than actually read or reread any of Henry James's fiction. Something similar seems to be happening to Greene: We've grown obsessed with the man himself.

Norman Sherry's massive three- volume biography--not a slice but a slab of life, almost a marble slab--piles on the details, going so far as to include the title of the child care book that Greene's mother consulted during the writer's infancy. Michael Shelden's The Enemy Within notoriously accuses, or at least suspects, Greene of every sort of perfidy, from sacrilege (sex in churches) to murder. William Cash's The Third Woman offers a detailed account of Greene's long-sustained passion for the married Catherine Walston, a pantherine beauty hungry for much more than what Sarah, in The End of the Affair, calls "ordinary corrupt human love." There have been other biographical accounts, too (by Anthony Mockler, for instance) and memoirs by friends, including one by Greene's confessor, Fr. Leopoldo Duran.