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Graham Greene: Writing the Human Condition

The novels of Graham Greene, who died on April 3, 1991, epitomized the spectacle of the human psyche.

Graham Greene — the legendary novelist, playwright, short story and screenplay writer, critic and journalist of the top draw — was always a mobile writer, never ever easy to pin down. His narrative quest was criminal-centered. His novels enveloped dissent, and his journalism championed disliked causes. His comedies were sad and his politics enigmatic. Greene left behind a monumental repertoire of 25 novels, numerous essays and even some children’s books, all witness to his literary genius. His work has been translated into 40 languages and sold more than 20 million copies in hardcover and paperback.

The son of the headmaster of the Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire, Greene was a delicate, sensitive kid, bullied by fellow students. He went on to study history at Oxford, following which he began working for The Times in London. He chipped in as a freelance writer to augment his income, becoming a film critic for The Spectator in 1935; five years later, Greene was named its literary editor. In the early 1940s, he started working for the British Foreign Office in West Africa, a posting that gave us The Heart of the Matter, set in Sierra Leone — one of the many works based on Greene’s extensive travels.

Typically British

When Greene wrote his first travel book, Journey Without Maps, in 1936, the destination he chose for his maiden sojourn outside of Europe was Liberia. He traveled through what was then almost unchartered dense forest and tangled vegetation, with a sense of metaphysical forebodings — of uprightness and sin. He could have succumbed to fever during the journey, because he did not have his inseparable therapeutic companion with him, his medicine kit.

As a travel writer, Greene, as Pico Iyer writes in The Atlantic, “was always on the outside of what he was observing, ever more English, seated in a corner, pouring abuse and scorn on the alien scene around him. Yet as soon as he worked up the material he’d seen in Mexico into a novel — The Power and the Glory — he was so deeply inside his characters, both the whisky priest protagonist and even the lieutenant in pursuit of him, that he wrote perhaps his most affecting and compassionate novel, and the one, liberatingly, without a single English character in it.”

Greene’s background was typically British, yet he always shielded popular movements struggling for freedom and democracy. While it would not be just to rationalize that he was oblivious of the shortcomings of Fidel Castro, whom he revered, Greene’s faith in the unusual politician was a result of his profoundly held beliefs that emerged long before he met the Cuban leader. This is evident in his work, especially The Lawless Roads.

Greene was instrumental in hastening R. K. Narayan’s — one of India’s legendary English writers and the creator of the TV series Malgudi Days — entry into the literary world as a novelist in his own right. Greene also had a proclivity for exploration, in the hazardous light of things. His reverie from childhood was keyed to playing the Russian roulette. This trait extended to his writing: Greene was courageous with words. Yet the most vibrant was his profound sense of human beliefs and morals — of individuals as well as nations. His human opus, therefore, speaks to us in a straight line of our own experiences and annotations: of subjugation, politics, faith and conviction.

Greene, who shared his October 2 birthday with Mahatma Gandhi, recognized the presence of war — something to bear, or endure — like a certain repetitive, but not fatal, illness. If sin to him was like malaria in his veins, he conveyed in his every expression a remarkable and innate sense of political topicality. A germane writer, Greene grappled with everything that affected the human component — misery, capitalist cartels, turmoil, survival on the edge of the cliff, smuggling, espionage and anti-Americanism. His prose was uniformly sensitive, like delicate brush strokes. Greene carried the torch of English literature like a colossus, with authority and elegance. As he once wrote: “The creative writer perceives the world once and for all in childhood and adolescence [so that] his whole career is an effort to illustrate his private world in terms of a great public world we all share.”

Least Parochial of Writers

He was grudgingly the least parochial of writers, and, in a way, elusive. He not only reconnoitered the peculiarity between ceremonies and rightfulness, but also faith, candor and justice. A subversive romantic, what made Greene distinctive — from other writers and in a league of his own — was his characteristic individuality. Greene never experimented with language, sabotaged conformist sequence of events or selected primarily sensational themes. He fluently used his imaginings as his own radar and sextant — a guided dream. In so doing, he epitomized the spectacle of the human psyche.

If his first novel, The Man Within, published in 1929, bid fair to his first big success, his grand catalogue that followed makes it next to impossible to pick the best of his novels — each one is a gem. In The End of the Affair, Sarah Miles — modelled on Catherine Walston, with whom Greene had a decade-long affair and who helped establish a voice for the character  — has an extramarital tryst with the novelist Maurice Bendrix. Their affair ends, not because Bendrix is green-eyed over Sarah’s past, but also her future. He is proved wrong, and this transforms him to believe in god. The takeaway from the novel is simple, and also profound: Envy can disintegrate everything, and distrust can more than ruin even when one’s intention is unalloyed.

The Quiet American features the participation of British and American governments in the calamitous Vietnam War. The story revolves around a US officer whose skewed principles bring mayhem and death. A British journalist gets entangled in the web of deceit, even when he has the choice to keep himself away from the eerie turmoil and just do his job. What rivets the readers’ attention is Greene’s amazing hold on the plot — one that opens the dark lid of the American and British governments’ involvement in the unwinnable war.

The Power and the Glory is set in South Mexico in the time of the Red Shirts — a paramilitary organization founded by Tomás Garrido Canabal, the atheist and anti-Catholic governor of Tabasco. It brings to the fore the lopsided nitty-gritty of religion and the wrecking of everything allied to it. The narrative anchor is a priest who is scampering from peril while grasping at straws for dear life. The pristine struggle of the priest opens a proverbial window to showcase faith and power, poignancy and adversity.

Brighton Rock is inarguably among Greene’s best work. It tells the tale of retribution after Pinkie Brown, murders a man in Brighton, a city devastated by gang war. The novel’s finest part is sculpted around Pinkie’s murky mind, while its engaging description celebrates Greene’s astounding grasp of his principal characters, including the skin of their thoughts.

In Our Man in Havana, Greene knits a transfixing tale of a salesman who gets drafted by the British Secret Service — a necessity borne of his daughter’s ever-swelling demands and shortage of cash. The plot is electrifying, with its splash of humor chuckling the reader through the life of a hapless spy.

The Ministry of Fear weaves the story of the lonesome Arthur Rowe. A simple ask of returning the cake he wins lands him in a woeful situation. He is promptly hounded by the Nazis and other shadowy powers. Just read the novel to figure out how Rowe gains his cake — it is as thrilling as diving into nowhere, in your dream, without a safety net.

Ahead of Time

Greene’s scope was breathtaking, his books read widely the world across. But how did Greene evaluate himself amidst all the adulation? “Writing,” he once observed, “is a form of therapy; sometimes, I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint, can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” Yet rightly too, Greene began to take a detached view of success, or failure, of literary and other endeavors toward the end of his long innings. He once said, “One falls in all sorts of ways in life, doesn’t one, which are more important than writing books. In human relations and that sort of thing.”

Greene disparagingly scanned his own convention and practiced his own sense of ethics — of not being at home in one’s own home. He could do without the Nobel Prize, for which he was nominated twice, in 1966 and 1967. He was far ahead of his time. He never condoned the ethicality of religion, guilt and unscrupulousness. His works carried, still carry, a sense of profound logic, thanks to his own exposition of faith, coupled with political contemplation and spiritual reasoning. (Greene converted to Catholicism to marry Vivienne Dayrell-Browning, from whom he separated later, but never divorced.)

Greene’s classicist outlook, so to speak, was autobiographical — also, universal. Writers like him are not lost or forgotten. Yet Greene never really showed much concern in the abstract questions of literary theory. His novels dealt with the seamy underside of life, with or without poetic license — to bring home the truth, and its essence, of memories based on a primordial past.

Greene’s faith was dogged in the persistence of a kind of belief: something bitter to betray. By his own declaration, Greene wrote both entertaining and serious novels — most of them with the groundwork of a politically riveting roster. What, of course, made Greene Greene was his transcendent predilection for words and pithiness of expression. Take this passage from The Power and the Glory:

“What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought and how useless. … He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who had missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted — to be a saint.”

And another gem, from the same novel: “When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity — that was a quality god’s image carried with it.”

Greene hated to be photographed. Nevertheless, he was highly descriptive in his novels, his visual imagery always alluring. So was immorality, or sin. Some of Greene’s “heroes,” like Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, thought of themselves to be catastrophe-prone; they also sought their destiny with a kind of rapture. Yet another paradigm occurs in Brighton Rock, when the murderer Pinkie is more sympathetic than the righteous avenger Ida. However this may be, Greene’s foremost critics, in phrase and idiom, maintain that Greene spoke of sin only in his books.

His biographer, Michael Shelden, perhaps, went a bit far when he called Greene a lecherous womanizer, an alcoholic, a spy who betrayed the trust of those who thought they were his allies. Greene’s friend, Leopoldo Durán, author of the Graham Greene: Friend and Brother, cogently refutes such outrageous charges, writing that Shelden was trying to destroy Graham, whom he saw as the greatest writer of the 20th century. A Catholic priest, Father Durán’s friendship provided the stimulus for Greene’s 1982 novel, Monsignor Quixote. Durán does admit that Graham was unfaithful and drank limited amounts of alcohol. Having known Greene for nearly three decades, he refuted Shelden’s suggestion that Greene was a closet homosexual.

Greene, with his own sense of practical wisdom, saw it all emerging. As he once wrote: “To render the highest justice to corruption, you must retain your innocence. You have to be conscious all the time within yourself of treachery to something valuable.” Call it Greene’s empathetic gear, perhaps, that speaks of an ambivalent play between the light and dark shades of truthfulness and cataclysm, virtue and flaw, optimism and gloom, romance and pragmatism. This was his evergreen canvas, a vision like no other — something beyond the outlands of danger. It was also, in essence, his true greatness and the magnitude of his writings. Timeless. Effulgent. Eternal. Enduring.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.