Flirting with damnation

As Greene explained to his wife when their marriage ended, what made him a bad husband was precisely what made him a good writer

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This new biography of Graham Greene by Richard Greene (no relation) has attracted enthusiastic reviews and rightly: it’s a feat, a one-volume biography of the man which gives an account of his work, his travels, personal relations, finances and beliefs, without being anything but readable. And given the complexity of every one of those things, this is high praise.

Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene by Richard Greene Little Brown, £25

You pass from Antibes to Indochina to Sierra Leone to Latin America to the Congo in blessedly short chapters that give a coherent, not uncritical, account of the politics without ever losing touch with the personal. By comparison with the assiduous official biography by Norman Sherry in three volumes, this is a real achievement. As the author observes of his subject, “Here is a single life on which much of the history of a century is written.”

That’s true in more than one respect. Not only did Greene engage with some of the most significant men of his day — Fidel Castro told him wonderingly, after hearing of his (exaggerated) goes at Russian roulette, that he shouldn’t be alive, and Pope Paul VI told him he admired his novels — his habits were of his time, from his obsession with psychoanalysis to his dependence on barbiturates.

He was a mass of contradictions: a man who put the Soviet Union and the US on the same moral basis and who also fled England to avoid income tax; a father who neglected his children when they were small but was unstintingly generous to friends and mistresses.

Richard Greene doesn’t gloss over these contradictions, not least Greene’s abiding friendship with Kim Philby, the traitor he compared with Catholic martyrs under Elizabeth. But he shows how he transmuted his experiences into an extraordinary body of novels, and indeed into film: with Carol Reed he created one of the greatest movies ever made with The Third Man.

What emerges clearly from this biography is the importance of religion, that is, Catholicism. It seems astonishing now, when ignorance of and indifference to institutional religion is the norm, that so many of the individuals who feature in this book were Catholics, lapsed Catholics or converts. Graham Greene was famous for embracing sin and doubt in his novels and it was precisely this aspect of his faith that renders him fascinating as a novelist; the stakes are high for his characters but the boundaries between the saved and the damned are fluid.

In all his greatest novels, and in lesser ones, the question of faith and belief (the two were not identical) is inescapable: chiefly in his finest novel, The Power and the Glory, but in later books too. His usual take on the question of religion in his work was that he was a novelist who happened to be a Catholic rather than a Catholic novelist, but this is simply to say that he never set much store by orthodoxy, let alone conformity to the rules. Rather, he sometimes quoted — or as Richard Greene points out, partially quoted — Newman’s Idea of a University to the effect that, “If 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.”

His characters are acutely aware of sin and hell (though in later life he preferred purgatory). Richard Greene observes that “There is a bond between Pinkie and Rose [in Brighton Rock]: they are both ‘Romans’, and see the world not as a matter of right and wrong . . . but as a spiritual battle between good and evil. Pinkie says, ‘These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course, there’s hell.’ It is the hell that has formed him — the tenements, the violence . . . Greene claims for Catholicism the power of naming truthfully what is worst in life.”

Indeed, at the end of the book, when Rose goes to confession, an elderly priest tells her the story of the French poet and essayist Charles Péguy, a story that Richard Greene returns to more than once. “Choosing to be on the side of the damned, Péguy refuses the sacraments and eventually died at the front in 1914. The priest adds, ‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God’.”

Greene’s first encounter with the faith was when he was hoping to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, who became his wife. He met her at Oxford when she wrote to him to complain about his misuse of the word “worship” to describe Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary; the correct term, she observed, was hyperdulia. Intrigued, Greene asked her to tea and fell in love.

He thought he should know about her faith and while living in Nottingham made his way with his dog Paddy to the sooty cathedral to meet Fr George Trollope, a convert and former actor who conveyed “an inexplicable goodness”. The sessions continued, once or twice a week, until his final reception into the church. As he wrote to Vivien, “I do . . . feel I want to be a Catholic now, even a little apart from you. One does want fearfully hard for something firm and hard and certain, however uncomfortable, to catch hold of in the general flux.”

It was a move that he never renounced, however much he was later to distinguish between the faith of the church and his own wavering belief in it; he described himself as a Catholic agnostic: a doubter, but a Catholic doubter. He was later to wonder if he would have taken the trouble to convert after the Second Vatican Council, but it was the hard-edged Catholicism of the church he first knew that stayed with him, notwithstanding his umpteen affairs and mistresses.

The most important of them, the beautiful American, Catherine Walston, herself converted to Catholicism. It was said — I hope, in jest — that she and Greene had sex behind most of the high altars in Europe; she also had an affair with Thomas Gilby, a Dominican friar and friend of Greene’s. We learn that Greene implored her to marry him (she never abandoned her husband andchildren) so that they could have a child and devote their lives to the group known as Catholic Action. It’s hard not to feel that his books would have been less interesting if he had.

As he explained to Vivien, when their marriage ended after she found a love letter he had written to Catherine, what made him a bad husband was precisely what made him a good writer.

Indeed, Evelyn Waugh felt that Graham had as a Catholic an “apostolic mission” which many people would not understand because of the sexual content of his books. Later in life Waugh would worry that Greene had forsaken the faith; and certainly for years he felt unable to go to confession because he would be unable to promise the full purpose of amendment required for absolution on account of his sex life. It showed a certain integrity. He similarly refused to meet the friar many people thought a living saint, Padre Pio, lest he should change his life as a result.

Yet, right until the end of his life he would describe himself as a Catholic, occasionally a Catholic agnostic, and remained powerfully attracted to  the “magical” elements in Catholicism and its appeal to the poorest. His latter years were enlivened by his friendship with a priest, Fr Leopoldo Durán; they would tour Spain, talking theology and stopping for picnics on the way with white wine chilled in a stream. Richard Greene is sympathetic to all these complexities. Russian Roulette has the inestimable benefit that it sends you from the life of Graham Greene to the works. Put it down, and take up Brighton Rock.

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