Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Graham Greene, The Major Novels: A Centenary

by Kevin McGowin

October 2, 1904 - April 3, 1991.


Graham Greene's long life not only spanned nearly the entire twentieth century; his over sixty books in seven decades captured, in a way, the entire scope of it. He was both the most important, famous, and most popular English writer of the mid-twentieth century, and, for some, the greatest English novelist of all of it. In his lifetime, his only real "rivals" were Forster, Waugh, Maugham, and later perhaps Kingsley Amis and a handful of others—through time he has outlasted them all. Before him, there was, of course, Conrad, to whom Greene's early (and later) novels owe so much—to Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes and Victory, in particular.

While Greene's stature today and in the two or so decades before his death was weakened by many poor film adaptations of his work (nearly all the novels have been filmed, many more than once), he himself encouraged adaptations and wrote for film. Greene was a very cinematic writer—and The Third Man, his classic deliberate treatment of the medium (1949; Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton) was, as were most of his films, originally written in prose narrative form. This masterpiece is, along with Our Man in Havana (1959, Anthony Quinn) and 2003's version of The Quiet American with Michael Caine (which I thought quite good) are the only films of Greene's work I've consciously and deliberately viewed. For though Graham Greene was also a superb short story writer, a perceptive essayist, a passable poet and a remarkably astute critic on almost every creative medium, it is for his novels that he is and will be best remembered. 

He published about twenty-five of them, of which fifteen or so are still readily in print (mostly from Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Paperbacks) and about seven or eight are still widely read and considered "masterpieces." But just as it's a little distasteful to try to "fix" Greene's place among twentieth-century English novelists, I won't attempt to categorize his achievements, as even he did (he had serious reservations about several of his now-canonized works, and accepted the inclusion of The Heart of the Matter as the representative "serious" novel in The Graham Greene Reader (Viking/Penguin, 1973) only with great reluctance). I tend to agree with him, and will give my considered impressions of the work as a whole. 

Graham Greene himself divided his novels into those he considered to be (I suppose the phrase is) "serious literature" and what he called his "entertainments." There are those who find the "true Graham Greene," as one critic years ago put it, or Greene's finest and most realistic writing in these works he suggested as less worthy of serious consideration. I find much truth in both positions—Graham Greene was actually a complex and mercurial writer, regardless of what he was as a man, which was a lot, but as he always said in interviews, "if you want me, read the novels." And that I have. Who knows what Graham Greene's reputation will be a hundred years hence? 

Greene was writing bestsellers less than twenty-five years ago (The Honorary Consul (1973) and The Human Factor (1978) sold extremely well in the then-popular "espionage" market and the latter was a book club item). However, for such a famous man, there's blessed little of him in most average bookstores and comparatively little on the Net, for such a major writer. I rather think he'll be all but forgotten, considered a Period writer. And perhaps this will be justified. Greene all but defined the twentieth century, and the Blitz, the Vietnam issues, British colonialism—all these things are fading fast from living memory. But a writer must have a subject, a topic, and these were among Greene's as he (yes, with a somewhat detached manner) reported on the Human Condition—and drew searing insights into it. Did his novels change the history of the novel, as Conrad's had done? No. Did Graham Greene's novels that crystallized the experiences of humanity in the twentieth century change it?  

The twentieth century sure changed the world. The last time I thought about it, at least. And in a very real sense, Graham Greene's novels are a summation of its predicaments. 



Graham Greene's most esteemed novels today are generally those known as his "Catholic" novels, in which that religion (Greene was a Catholic) plays a large part in character and plot: Brighton Rock  (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter  (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951). Yet these novels are not by any means equal in merit or any neither more nor less "Catholic" than the best of his other novels.  Brighton Rock, especially, celebrated for its riveting scenes though it is, is not representative of Greene's later worldview. In Brighton Rock, and perhaps even in The Power and the Glory, Greene still sees things in terms of black and white, good and evil.

By the time he wrote his postwar novels, he knew better.


The Power and the Glory was the first Greene novel I read, some years ago, while in graduate school at the urging (or all people) Harry Crews. It wasn't even his favorite novel by Greene, but it was then "the" classic, and I saw how it influenced any number of writers, and made many readers rethink a good many things. I also thought "Conrad," and not for the first time—Greene is, in fact, the extension of Conrad into the heart of the twentieth century, though the work is also informed by sundry other writers with whom I wasn't overly familiar until Greene wrote of them in his voluminous criticism. 

It was these writers, Rider Haggard in particular, that Greene ostensibly strove to emulate in his "entertainments," until recently rather ignored as Major Novels because overshadowed by the great Quaternary of "Catholic" works. But The Ministry of Fear (1943) introduces elements that would find their way into The Heart of the Matter, and Greene goes about introducing them with humor and zest, in fact: qualities not usually associated with a writer many people think of as a ten-parts-to-one dry martini. And as far as his "influences" go, a great writer can take a desert as an Influence and write the Net Testament. Is Ministry of Fear a greater novel than Power or Heart? Who cares? It is as great in its own way, and presents Greene's great Themes: Suicide and the question of Personal Freedom.

The Heart of the Matter is only a Catholic novel in the sense that it's written by a Catholic about a Catholic. In this sense, The Comedians (1966), that I hold to be one of Greene's three most substantial achievements as a novelist, is also a Catholic novel. And a Catholic novel is only worth attention if the laws of Catholicism are transgressed, and Greene arrives at a sort of negative theology, faith by the power of sustained unbelief, that is the hallmark of every great "Catholic" writer that ever lived: heresy.  Unless we arrive at the whole point of Graham Greene, the theme he presents over and over: "Catholic" is to be understood in the full sense of the word, "universal." Hence the "universal" predicament of humankind. For is Greene full of papal polemic? He is not. Quite the opposite! For Greene, we are not truly saved unless we have tasted the dirt. We look for God or something and cannot find him in this world until we are willing to descend into hell with him to recover our human dignity. Greene is the writer of the Great Paradox, which is oh! It was God you wanted? Well, there he is.

The Heart of the Matter features the suicide of a Catholic civil servant, and is an important work in terms of understanding Greene but is less successful than the powerful End of the Affair, which Greene disliked. If I'd written it, I'd dislike it too—it is searing, and more "human" than anything Greene had so far written, "Catholic" though he made its theme. It could have been Hindu, Muslim, whatever, and Greene writes with a fury he never even tried to equal. As he approached fifty, with the War over, Greene was finding his voice as a novelist.

He found his voice as a novelist with The Quiet American (1956), his masterpiece, in which his "serious" and "entertainment" voices came together in which Greene presents both cultural and individual dilemma with such acuity it may never be equaled. Like The End of the Affair it is under 200 pages, though it seems much longer. There exist certain works of art, literature and otherwise, that present truths and mirror reality with such precision we cannot fully apprehend them save for darkly in the moment of confrontation.  The Quiet American is such a work, and perhaps The End of the Affair, in a more subdued way, is too. The meaning transcends language. Somebody's soul has entered into somebody's heaven somewhere. Or their hell. 

Greene wrote two major novels in the 1960s, beginning the decade with A Burnt-Out Case, a novel that should be discussed with the other four "Catholic" novels and in which the presentation of their themes is more fully realized than in any of them. The logical extension of the four, again at under 200 pages (the average length of all five), finds the author nodding again to Conrad and to Christianity, and realizing the tragic consequences of a life considered too deeply. 

The Comedians is Greene's fullest exploration of social condition, and is a longish, irresistible good read. Read it and think about inner city New Orleans. Are you immune, you bastard? Greene seems to ask. He goes on in The Human Factor to update Conrad's tedious Under Western Eyes just as he ripped the guts from Nostromo and Lord Jim in A Burnt-Out Case. Conrad presented the issues—Greene answered them by destroying the very questions. Dark, isn't it? The heart of darkness, the heart of the matter?

Not for me. Not at all—"There is always hope until one is completely and utterly dead." Graham Greene—and my epitaph. I have personally found strength in the man's novels to go on living through things that I will never tell you. Others have found the same, and they've had it much, much worse. But far from this, I have also found some damn fine reading, through twenty of his novels I have read or re-read in preparation for this centennial essay. 

So, I would like to thank Harry Crews. For turning me on to the work of a man who died of leukemia in 1991, when I was in graduate school, oblivious, not caring what came next—Crews saw this, built me up, gave me books. And Graham Greene—well, when the bullet hits the bone, he was the greatest English novelist of the twentieth century, and now, on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of his death, cheers. God bless. Good night.

Oh, and my favorite Graham Greene novel? Travels With My Aunt (1969). And readers would do well to start there, just as I ended.



Graham Greene's centenary has, of course, brought about notice, and Penguin (his American paperback publisher) has responded memorably with a series of six fine reprints, among the most beautiful paperbacks I've seen here. All priced at about the same as their normal paperback classic editions, these feature original cover illustrations by Brian Cronin and are designed by Paul Buckley with cover flaps, much like nice British editions. I love these. Each of the six features a new and informed introduction on the work's place in Greene as a whole by noted and intelligent scholars, and as such the selections represent a slightly different "face" of Greene: Brighton Rock (introduction by J.M. Coetzee) The End of the Affair (Michael Gorra) The Heart of the Matter (James Wood) The Quiet American (Robert Stone) Orient Express (Christopher Hitchens) and Travels with My Aunt (Gloria Emerson). In addition, Penguin is republishing the three-volume biography of Greene by Norman Sherry (1989; 1995; 2003). 

This is all pretty comprehensive and impressive, and it shows that there are still quiet more than a few out there reading Graham Greene at 100.


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