“The oldest sins the newest kind of ways . . . ”

—William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2


Kingsley Amis called him “Grim Grin,” an apt name for a novelist who aggressively insisted that the path to God runs through the wilderness of lust, degradation, deceit, and betrayal.

Like his spiritual ancestor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Graham Greene seems to have been convinced that sin is the gateway to salvation, a position not without some warrant in the theology of his adopted faith.  Indeed, it may well be that Greene was drawn to Roman Catholicism precisely because of its Augustinian strain.  But this raises an obvious question: How far can one allow oneself to fall before Saint Augustine’s felix culpa becomes prohibitively infelix?

Greene’s fiction is filled with characters who declare their sinfulness with varying shades of remorse and pride.  In Brighton Rock, Rose, an innocent young woman married to a murderous criminal, is “tempted to virtue like a sin” but chooses to stay on her course for what she considers will be damnation for her husband’s sake.  In The Power and the Glory, an alcoholic priest is in the act of saying Mass and has reached the Consecration when a disturbing dream comes back to him unbidden, an unnerving vision of Jesus Christ dancing into an arena “with a bleeding painted face . . . grimacing like a prostitute, smiling and suggestive.”  (Is there another writer who has portrayed Jesus—even in a dream—behaving like a seductive prostitute?)  The priest recalls he had awakened from the dream “with the sense of complete despair that a man might feel finding the only money he possessed was counterfeit.”  In The End of the Affair, a bereft protagonist rages at God for allowing his lover to die:

You took her away.  With your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate you, God, I hate You as though You existed. . . . Leave me alone for ever.

And, perhaps most startlingly, in The Heart of the Matter the extraordinarily decent and morally circumspect Major Scobie commits what many would think the unpardonable sin of suicide in order to stop hurting the two women he loves.

Despite all this conviction of sin and despair, however, Greene always insists on the possibility of redemption.  At the end of Brighton Rock, Rose’s confessor attempts to console her as she mourns her husband’s death believing he’s damned for all eternity.  We cannot begin to guess, the priest assures her, “the appalling nature of God’s mercy.”  The Heart of the Matter provides the best example of this theme.  As Major Scobie dies from an overdose of sleeping pills, he speaks an unfinished phrase, “Dear God, I love . . . ”  The missing word or words, we’re left to surmise, may signify God or be the names of his loved ones.  Either way, we’re clearly meant to recognize Scobie’s essential, if unrealized, holiness despite what many would say was his state of damning despair.  After his funeral, his wife confides to her priest, Father Rank, that she thinks Scobie must have been “a bad Catholic.”  Rank fires back, “That’s the silliest phrase in common use.”  Still she persists in thinking “it’s no good even praying” for him since suicides are irredeemable.  The priest then lets her have it full force: “For goodness’s sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t imagine you—or I-—know a thing about God’s mercy.”  In Greene, the sinner is always and maybe most especially in line for God’s mercy.  While this conforms to Catholic belief, I nevertheless can’t help feeling that there’s something overwrought about Greene’s obsession with the notion of grace lurking mysteriously in the gutters of our existence.

If you’ve ever wondered about Greene’s allegiance to this paradoxical theology, you’ll find some answers in Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, edited by Richard Greene (no relation), especially if you read the letters along with Norman Sherry’s massive three-volume extravaganza, The Life of Graham Greene.  Together they tell the surprising story of a self-absorbed, often devious man who, like Saint Augustine, wanted to be saved, but not too soon.  To be blunt, Greene was afflicted with a life-long infatuation with sin, which, when you think about it, is not an uncommon diagnosis.  What made Greene different and what made him a compelling novelist was that he admitted this to himself and very nearly broadcast it to others.  His acknowledgment of his sinfulness seems to have been of a piece with his heightened self-awareness and his extraordinary ability to take the measure of his acquaintances, many of whom wound up in his fiction under one guise or another.  Only when romantically involved did Greene’s acuity fail him.  And I don’t mean sexual love alone.  The evidence suggests that he hadn’t much understanding of the women and men for whom he felt the most affection.  Most notoriously, he never gave up his attachment to Kim Philby, the talented but treasonous MI-6 intelligence officer for whom he worked during World War II.  Greene remained devoted to him even after he defected to Moscow in 1955.  In his later years, Greene would display a similar lack of judgment as he succumbed to the charms of revolutionary romance as embodied in some of the world’s most homicidally ruthless dictators, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Nicaragua’s Tomás Borge, and Panama’s Omar Torrijos.  This infatuation with monstrous autocrats is especially surprising in a man who had made it his mission to blow the whistle on political oppression around the world.  He had risked his life traveling in Tabasco, Mexico, in 1938 to uncover the murderous reign of terror the Marxist governor Garrido Canabal had unleashed on the province’s population, in general, and the Catholic Church, in particular.  His reconnoitering became the basis for one of his best novels, The Power and the Glory.  One can only surmise that old age and disgust with American policies in the Caribbean and Central America had caused Greene to lose his perspective.

Perhaps Greene’s worst failure of judgment was occasioned by his involvement with Philby.  Greene had worked under Philby in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).  When he got indications that Philby was a Soviet mole, he resigned rather than share his suspicions with his superiors.  After Philby defected to Moscow, Greene continued to correspond with him.  At 82 he visited him in Moscow and afterward wrote to tell him how pleased he was that the “strong feeling of . . . our friendship has survived all these years untouched.”  He even wrote an Introduction to Philby’s book, My Secret War, in 1968, in which he justified Philby this way: “‘He betrayed his country’—yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?”  Greene was clearly echoing E.M. Forster, who had written that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”  In one of his interviews with Greene, Sherry pointed out that Philby had betrayed not only his country but his friends, for he had passed to Moscow the names of the men he recruited and trained for SIS knowing that, upon arrival behind the Iron Curtain, they would be caught and shot.  This meant that over the years Philby had sent hundreds of agents to their deaths.  Sherry tells us that this was the one time Greene lost his temper in his presence.  His face went “beet-red” as he shouted, “You don’t know him and cannot judge.”  This seems monstrously obtuse on Greene’s part unless, of course, we’re willing to give credit to the rumors that Philby was a triple agent and therefore was working on Britain’s behalf all the while.  But then this would make the British government monstrous.  And that couldn’t be, could it?  Either way, there can be little doubt that Greene’s good friend was an ideological thug.  Greene himself has been said to have remained in the employ of the SIS after his resignation, reporting back his findings especially while traveling in communist countries.  I suppose anything is possible with such a secretive, contradictory fellow.  It would explain why he always seemed to be on the scene in the world’s various hot spots precisely when they were reaching their flash points: Sierra Leone, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, Vietnam, to name a few that provided the settings of his novels.  It might also explain the dizzying parodies of espionage he wrote in such works as Our Man in Havana, in which no one seems to know with any certainty who is on whose side.

Greene’s letters to his wife and the second of the five mistresses he entertained during his long life also show him in an unflattering light.  They testify to his capacity for betrayal.  After having pursued Vivien Dayrell-Browning relentlessly, he converted to Roman Catholicism to make himself presentable enough to marry her in 1927.  Then in 1939, just as World War II was about to begin, he sent Vivien and their two children to live out of harm’s way in Oxford while he stayed in London writing and serving as a fire marshal.  This freed him to conduct the secret affair he had already begun with Dorothy Glover in 1938.  His letters to Vivien through this period are painful to read because we know from Sherry how freely he is lying to her.  In 1943, after Vivien has discovered his affair with Glover, he writes protesting his devotion.

I love you so much, my darling.  You are the best, the most dear person I’ve ever known. . . . Life is sometimes so beastly that one wishes one were dead, & I go to places like Mexico & Freetown in a half hope that everything will be finished.  Sometimes I wish I could twist a ring & skip twenty years & be old with you, with all this ragged business over.  I never wanted to be old but with you I could be old & happy.

It’s disconcerting to read the author of pointedly unsentimental novels pouring on such gag-inducing treacle.  Three years later he moved on from Glover and took up with Catherine Walston, an American married to Harry Walston, a very wealthy aristocrat and landowner.  She had written Greene explaining that she was preparing to enter the Catholic Church.  Claiming his books had persuaded her to do so, she hoped he might agree to be her godfather at her baptism.  Greene agreed with no great enthusiasm and sent his wife to fill in for him at the ceremony.  When Catherine instigated a meeting shortly afterward, it didn’t take Greene long to decide he wanted to be something more than godfather to this beautiful, vivacious woman.  They soon began a ten-year affair that was curious indeed.  The evidence strongly suggests that Catherine was one of those women who collects men as a huntress might trophies.  While she and Greene were lovers, she maintained her marriage and saw other men on the side, including, it seems, a few besotted priests.  She liked to tease men, driving them to distraction and making them jealous.  Sherry reports that on one excursion Greene and Catherine made out in the back seat of the car Harry Walston was driving.  This sounds quite advanced—some might say exciting.  Or was it something else?  Women who behave as Catherine perpetually did may seem to be sexually uninhibited, but, as men with any experience know, they’re rarely interested in sexual fulfillment as such.  They’re casting themselves as an enchanting Circe.  They play on masculine desire in order to manipulate and control men.  It’s a game that appeals to prostitutes also.  It enables them to think they’re preserving their dignity while conducting their sordid profession.  It’s difficult to believe Greene wasn’t aware of this possibility in Catherine’s character.  He frequented prostitutes throughout his life wherever his far-flung travels took him and must surely have been on to this aspect of feminine psychology.  His fawning, sometimes craven letters to Catherine, however, suggest he never considered it.  Whatever the truth, it’s difficult to understand what Greene could have seen in such an adventuress.  It’s especially disturbing to read his letters telling her that he is more of a Catholic because of their relationship and urging her to go to confession and receive the Eucharist even though they have no intention to break their relationship.  This seems to push the Augustinian position a good deal further than the bishop of Hippo ever intended.

Speaking of Greene’s predilection for prostitutes, it’s odd that a man whose novels so often dramatized the horrors suffered by the exploited poor in Sierra Leone, Haiti, postwar Vienna, Cuba, and wherever else poverty and oppression reigned should have patronized women in this profession.  After all, prostitutes almost invariably come by their trade growing up in desperately impoverished surroundings.  That’s where they meet the pimps who recruit and exploit them.  Yet Greene seems to have been untroubled by these facts.  He was so dedicated to their services that he carried with him a notebook in which he listed the ones he frequented in the world’s various cities, their pet names, their appearances, their special talents, even their smells.  It never seemed to occur to him that he had any complicity with the pimps who were exploiting the wretched women ensnared in this profession.  On occasion he went so far as to take his friends, men and women, to brothels and sex shows in Paris and Havana.  Was this his idea of daring, worldly sophistication?  Greene was decidedly sleazy.

What can we make of all this?  That Greene was personally a humbug seems inescapable.  Yet he wrote some of the most morally and politically searching novels of the 20th century and put himself at risk by speaking up constantly on behalf of the oppressed around the world.  Perhaps we can gain some insight into this man of contradictions from an exchange of letters among himself, Elizabeth Bowen, and V.S. Pritchett addressing the nature of literature.  They were designed to be read on the BBC and were later published as Why Do I Write?  In one letter, Greene argues against state support for writers, citing the Soviet Union as an example of a state that has used its financial support of the arts as justification for stifling writers and much worse.  According to Greene, writers must keep clear of state support to preserve their privilege of disloyalty.  It is, he elaborates, “a privilege you will never get society to recognize.  All the more necessary that we [writers in the West] who can be disloyal with impunity should keep that ideal alive.”  Then by way of fuller explanation he quotes from John Henry Newman’s The Scope and Nature of University Education, remarking that Newman had defended writers “skilfully from the attacks of piety (that morbid growth of religion).”  Here is the passage Greene quotes:

[I]f Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature.  It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man.  You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any Literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all. . . . Proscribe (I do not merely say particular authors, particular works, particular passages) but Secular Literature as such; cut out from your class books all broad manifestations of the natural man; and those manifestations are waiting for your pupil’s benefit at the very doors of your lecture room in living and breathing substance . . . Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel . . . You have refused him the masters of human thought, who would in some sense have educated him, because of their incidental corruption . . . 

It’s telling that Greene embraced Newman’s apologia for “Secular Literature.”  Doing so, he could rationalize his pronounced interest in all that was undomesticated, wicked, sleazy, and treacherous.  On principle, he eschewed any temptation to abide by the pieties of either Church or state.  He embraced disloyalty because it enabled him to declare non serviam to the reigning conventions of his time.  Only by means of this resistance, he reasoned, could he ferret out the genuine truth and virtue that might help preserve real individuality in an increasingly collectivized, lockstep age.  At the same time, he seems to have applied his aesthetic creed to his personal life, justifying what one can only call his immorality.  His repeated portrayals of sinners who are saved by “the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy” spoke beyond his fiction to the hope he must have held for himself.

In 1978, Greene replied to a Dublin grandmother who had written to say she had “scruples” when reading his works.  Greene told her that when he had met Pope Paul VI, he pointed out that the Holy Office had condemned The Power and the Glory.  The Pope mildly replied that “parts of all your books will always offend some Catholics and you shouldn’t pay any attention to that.”  Then, addressing the woman’s concern about sin in general, Greene assured her that he had “met many priests who admit that in all their years in the confessional they have never even heard a mortal sin confessed.”  One can understand why Greene would have been heartened by this news.  Come to think of it, so am I.

Richard Greene has done a real service in culling these letters from the Greene archives at Georgetown University.  Greene fans—and perhaps enemies—will find them invaluable.  I liked particularly his wry, understated notes.  Of the Irish woman’s worries about scruples, he observes: “scruples are, of course, an affliction of the devout, now thought to have been eradicated like polio.”  Norman Sherry’s biography was 27 years in the making.  It is immoderate, exorbitant, and sometimes goes simply silly with an academic’s longing to be as heroic as his subject.  Still, as he did in his biographies of Joseph Conrad, Conrad’s Eastern World and Conrad’s Western World, Sherry has retraced the journeys of his subject and hauled in a reservoir of fact and anecdote often very well told.  Most will not find it a work to read through continuously, but dipping into it here and there as interest takes one is both profitable and pleasurable. 



[Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, Richard Greene, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 480 pp., $35.00]

[The Life of Graham Greene (3 Vols.), by Norman Sherry (New York: Viking)]