During his period as journalist Graham Greene did some work writing film reviews. Here is what he had to say about one of Shirley Temple’s early, childhood films:
“ Her admirers — middle aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”
He was essentially saying that the only reason 9-year-old Shirley Temple was being such a success was that her fans were mostly middle-aged men who found her, well, kinky.
If that’s not daring enough; Graham Greene is perhaps one-sidedly known as a Catholic novelist, but he actually converted to Catholicism just so he could get married to Vivien Dayrell-Browning. And of course, being married has its, more intimate perks.
Whichever angle you look at it, Graham Greene’s life is a riot – not your average obituary. He was a prolific writer of novels, short stories and travelogues. Known mostly for his great novels that combined espionage, diplomacy, war-reporting and morality tales; The Power and The Glory, The End of the Affair, Brighton Rock, and The Quiet American. Greene was early on labelled with the tag ‘Catholic writer’ because most of his characters were failing Catholics trying to do right by their beliefs.
But Greene disliked the tag. Of course it was pigeon-holing and limiting, but also, Greene, though a Catholic himself, didn’t write novels that overtly preached or moralised. He was a convert to the faith, having been an agnostic before, so he was always trying to live up to his new faith, do right by it, and surely, at times, finding himself lacking. As do most of his best characters.
“You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” He wrote in Brighton Rock. Despite being famous for writing novels full of spies, war-correspondents and secret police, at the heart of most of Greene’s novels is a theological argument, a moral virtual-reality play running across the pages. In his life he was a far less subtle Catholic – a political as well as a religious animal. In 1987 he travelled to Soviet Union Moscow and made the following speech:
“We are fighting together against the death squads in El Salvador. We are fighting together against the Contras in Nicaragua. We are fighting together against General Pinochet in Chile. There is no division in our thoughts between Catholics—Roman Catholics—and Communists.”
When it came to Fidel Castro, he would not hear a bad word spoken. He even celebrated the close relations between Fidel and the papal nuncio. And one of the things he denounced “Papa Doc” Duvalier for most eminently was that the Haitian psychopathic dictator was denounced for heresy by the Catholic church. One must have some standards, right?
In fairness to Greene, his full-bodied endorsement of both Catholicism and Communism stems from a common root: his humanistic endearment to those who are beaten down by authority. Greene wasn’t one for authority. When he was in boarding school (and his father was headmaster) he espoused his loathing for the school and its authorities by attempting suicide on a number of occasions (including, and this is very James-Bond, by Russian Roulette). Eventually after the half-hearted suicide attempts failed, he ran away from the school. This hatred of authority would later lead him to peopling his novels with murderous secret police, crooked cops and officials. Greene hated authoritarianism and yet, seemed aesthetically drawn to its climes.
“A liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon… unbalanced, sadistic, perverted… a perfect ignoramus… lying to his heart’s content… the shame of proud and noble England… a spy… a drug addict… a torturer.” This was how Greene was described by “Papa Doc” Duvalier after Greene published the novel The Comedians. Set in Duvalier’s Haiti (and it was literarily Duvalier’s Haiti) the novel depicts the brutality of the Tonton Macoute, Duvalier’s secret police, that terrorised and brutalised an already frightened, impoverished population.
Despite his admiration for Castro, the Cuban leader had scathing words to say about Greene’s Cuban novel, Our Man in Havana. The novel was set during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the man Castro and Che Guevara would later overthrow. Castro complained that Our Man in Havana had too light a tone, was too comic, and glossed over the terrors imposed by Batista. Greene’s later wrote in his autobiography Ways of Escape: “Alas, the book did me little good with the new rulers in Havana. In poking fun at the British Secret Service, I had minimized the terror of Batista’s rule. I had not wanted too black a background for a light-hearted comedy, but those who suffered during the years of dictatorship could hardly be expected to appreciate that my real subject was the absurdity of the British agent and not the justice of a revolution.”
By this point a pattern might be discerned: Haiti, Cuba, Vietnam, Sierra Leone. Graham Greene is the heir of Joseph Conrad. A title he would have appreciated. He did something few writers do today; travel to out of the way, off-the-beaten-track places – or as he called them “the world’s wild and remote places” – and write about them. Not just travelogues, which he did write, but also bestselling, time-defying novels. An argument could be made, an easy argument at that, that Greene’s best novels take place outside his native England. As in, way outside. The Power And The Glory in Mexico. The Heart of The Matter in Sierra Leone. The Quiet American in Vietnam. Our Man In Havana in Cuba. The Honorary Consul in Argentina. And the list beautifully goes on. There are exceptions such as Brighton Rock and The End of The Affair which do take place in England. But the exceptions embellish the rule.
And Greene got to travel to many of these places. Either in his capacities as an intelligence agent for MI6 or as a journalist. His novels grew out of what he saw and witnessed along his peculiar travels. But Greene was less of a reporter than Hemingway. His novels are more intricate. Hemingway relied very little on ‘imagination’ as such and wrote novels directly about what he’s seen and done. Greene takes it a little bit further and he wrote some very troubled, troubling characters, and placed them in very trying, foreign and complicated situations – what they all had in common was they used their Catholicism as a sword against whatever their situation threw at them. This interplay of character, place and faith, has served to make even his less-profound novels (what he called ‘entertainments’) still pertinent and existential. Who among us can walk into Vienna and not think his characters in Stamboul Train?
Greene’s travelling, his willingness to immerse in whatever cultures or situations, how matter lurid and difficult, has made him a unique writer. As I said in a previous blog, good travel fiction is never about travel. And it certainly wasn’t with Greene. He could appreciate the nuances that can be imposed on a character who faces familiar, even universal, troubles, when he or she is placed in entirely new environments. This hits at the heart of travel; we human beings are animals, and like animals we are forged by our environments, take us out of our environments and weird and wonderful things begin to happen. This is why we travel. This is why Greene’s characters, travelled.
And he perhaps would never have been as great a writer had he decided, like so many writers today, to take up a teaching position in some university somewhere, travel only for conferences, and explore the world through social media.
This is by no means implying – I can feel you readers reading between the damn lines – that Greene was not a remarkably gifted writer. Far from it. In fact, I will let the great man himself sign off this piece. A man who, no matter what dubious causes he espoused throughout his life, we can always forgive and admire because of the sheer pleasure reading him gives us, pleasure which soon metamorphoses, later, unconsciously, into deeper understanding and poetic scepticism.
“I don’t care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations…I don’t think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?”
Our Man In Havana
“I have loved no part of the world like this and I have loved no women as I love you. You’re my human Africa. I love your smell as I love these smells. I love your dark bush as I love the bush here, you change with the light as this place does, so that one all the time is loving something different and yet the same. I want to spill myself out into you as I want to die here.”
The End of The Affair
“Time has its revenges, but revenge seems so often sour. Wouldn’t we all do better not trying to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife with a husband, nor a parent a child? Perhaps that’s why men have invented God – a being capable of understanding. ”
The Quiet American
“When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”
The Power and The Glory