Graham Greene died this year at 86, a ripe old age that was no small accomplishment for a man who at 19 played Russian roulette on the Berkhamsted common until he grew bored with even the possibility of his own death. As a “semilapsed” Catholic who professed belief (though not certainty) in purgatory but not hell, perhaps his passing was an easy one. One wishes at least so much for one of the great writers in English of this century.
Celebrated authors no longer cease publishing on their deaths and it seems likely that Judith Adamson’s volume of Greene’s previously uncollected newspaper work, reviews, and addresses will not be his final book. But—some stillborn novels aside—with his major essays and travel pieces having been collected elsewhere, and now this book of miscellany, there cannot be much left. It is testimony to Greene’s talent that this volume is valuable in itself, and not just to round out a famous literary life.
Reflections begins with a short “Impressions of Ireland,” done when Greene was 19 and on vacation in Dublin and Waterford; what is striking is how nicely the piece is written and how little in Ireland’s politics has been resolved. The book ends, almost, and fittingly enough, with an address Greene made in Moscow in 1987, expressing his wish for an alliance between Roman Catholicism and communism. His was a political life, what with his friendship for Claud Cockburn and Kim Philby, his championship of revolutionary Latin America, and his hatred for American commercialism and imperialism that led him, among other actions, to resign from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the early 60’s shortly after his election in order to protest Mr. Johnson’s war.
Here are a number of articles done in the 50’s on Vietnam, echoes from which show up in The Quiet American, that wonderful book whose two central characters are metaphors for the old British and new American empires. “The Worm Inside the Lotus Blossom,” about Paraguay, has details that were incorporated into Travels With My Aunt. For those more interested in Greene the novelist than Greene the activist the sources for much of his fiction can be found in several of these journalistic accounts.
Greene said that what he found most interesting in people was their divided loyalties—to one woman and another, to one’s country and one’s cause, to heaven and hell—and he focused his books on the conflict that arises from those divisions. But if all his books had done was to trace man’s fall, he would have been one among many 20th-century nihilists; it is in his work those quick moments of redemption, expressed sometimes in nothing more than a murderer’s wish to confess, or an atheist’s doubt, that make him a Christian writer.
In some of the pieces here he is explicitly so, as in “The Last Pope,” a 1948 address in which Greene gives a more charitable definition of the term “Christian civilization” that would include our own, fairly dark age. There are other good pieces that are neither religious nor political—a defense of the popular appeal of the movies and some gratitude for the censors in “Subjects and Stories,” and a vivid account from 1939 of a bombing raid he flew on. There are some surprises, too. In “Indo-China: France’s Crown of Thorns” we see for a fleeting moment Greene the imperialist, and are just as startled by an excellent piece on the movies (“Ideas in the Cinema,” 1937) in which this citizen of the world shows a localist streak, in the midst of an argument against the “international” cinema: “For art has never really left the cave where it began, and you cannot live, as an English ace producer does, between Denham and Hollywood, with a break in New York for business conferences, and betweenwhiles make a picture which is the product of saturation, saturation in a particular environment. . . . Shakespeare is English first, and only after that the world’s.”
Only a few pieces ring false—one Catholic address, in which Greene is a more self-assured and even mawkish Catholic than he is typically elsewhere, and “Return to Cuba” (1963) and “Shadow and Sunlight in Cuba” (1966). Sentences such as “The war against illiteracy is a genuine crusade with a heroic quality of its own” are the sentences of a propagandist. But there are very few of these.
The only other jarring note in this book, to an American ear at least, is his recurring anti-Americanism, though most of this is in asides (“I was standing just behind the retiring American Ambassador, remarkable for the size and fatness of his earlobes . . . “). In his 1980 conversations with interviewer Marie-Françoise Allain, Greene mentioned that “Some time ago there was an article in The Spectator about The Quiet American, which said that it made little difference whether I inclined to the Right or the Left, since what I truly detested was American liberalism. That wasn’t far wrong.” His feelings toward America colored many of his opinions and spurred a lot of his activism, though some of that concern for the world’s underdogs originated with his Catholicism; indeed many of the peoples he fought for or wrote about were Catholics—the Goans, the Latin American left, the Haitians, even some of the Vietnamese. If he was, as he described himself, a Protestant within the Catholic Church, he was a Catholic everywhere else. Perhaps another factor in his dislike for this country—which after all is far more religious than his own—was its Protestantism.
But in the end his belittling criticism of America is unimportant, and it would be unimportant even if American foreign policy were unimpeachable. “If only writers could maintain that one virtue of disloyalty—so much more important than chastity—unspotted from the world” he writes in still another piece in this collection. He felt that in order to see one must step back, and for a man who prized in his own work its quality of detachment, the isolation of being a foreigner abroad, an Englishman in an American hemisphere, and a Catholic (however semilapsed) in a pagan world, was all part of the appeal.
[Reflections, by Graham Greene, Edited by Judith Adamson (London: Reinhart Books) 325 pp., $19.95]