The National Catholic Review
Jul 24 1948 - 12:00am | Richard McLaughlin
From July 24, 1948
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A tall, slightly stooped, loose-limbed Englishman, looking as though he had just stepped out of a Beerhohm drawing, rushed into the lobby of the Algonquin about a month ago. He was traveling incognito and was apparently doing such a successful job of it that none of the guests milling ahout in the hotel lounge suspected that a distinguished English novelist was in their midst. Wearing a mackintosh (it was raining outside), hatless, his face flushed, his eyes feverishly bright, Graham Greene stalked through the crowded lobby.

This forty-four-year-old Oxonian, novelist, editor and publisher might have been an undergraduate fleeing from the less prepossessing ghosts of Oxford's hallowed chambers—he appeared at once so shy and tense and remote against a modern New York hotel setting. But when he spoke, apologizing for being delayed at a cocktail party, all my impressions of his being youthful evaporated. Behind that soft, cultured speech one caught the faint Oxonian drawl; it was a voice which could have belonged to an ingratiating worldly host or a diffident scholarly don, or perhaps to both at the same time. Certainly nobody could say of Graham Greene what is said of one of the characters in his novel, The Heart of the Matter, that "the lines that make a human heing" had yet to he drawn on his face. Close up, the burning eyes, the long, ascetic face, read like a battleground, where the conflict between the flesh and the spirit, reason and faith, had left their ineradicable marks.

After chatting in a gay, almost bantering manner over bourbon and soda, we made our way to the dining room. Greene said he was enjoying the current trip, despite the fact that it was only to be four days this time. He was particularly pleased that he had succeeded in shunning publicity on this visit, and boasted like an errant school boy about the way he had eluded certain luncheon engagements.

One knew instantly that his desire for privacy was not a pose. Notoriety, rewards and the patronizing by book clubs might he regarded by him as dubious prizes for his artistic efforts but, so long as his privacy was not too often encroached upon, Greene could adapt himself to the ways of a practical man of affairs. A wife and two children to support, a house in Oxford and a flat in London, and the special enjoyment he derives from being able to hop into a plane and go to Paris and New York for brief jaunts, make it somewhat easier for Greene to accept all that adaptations of his nine novels for the movies, for example, entail.

At different times a journalist, staff member on the Times, film critic for the Spectator, literary critic for Lord Beaverhrook's Evening Standard, and now editor and director of Eyre and Spottiswoode, British publishers, Graham Greene's progress in professional circles would appear to belie the modest, retiring, sensitive man that he really is. However, after talking with him over dinner, and continuing our talk after the theatre until nearly dawn at the apartment of a friend who was curious to discuss with Greene some of the theological points hehind his novels, The Power and the Glory and his latest work, The Heart of the Matter, I am firmly convinced that Graham Greene is no ordinary novelist. Not only is he one of our finest craftsmen writing today, but he is so preoccupied with man's inner struggle to save his soul that he is comparable only to our greatest literary masters. His moral fervor, his peculiar concern with man as beset by evil and yearning to reach God through a maze of despair and anguish pervades his writing; but what is even more awesome is to find it so evident in the man's mien and conversation. All my earlier suspicions that Greene perhaps fancies himself as a zealot, even a martyr in the style of Savonarola or Jeanne D'Arc, came hurdling hack as I listened to him talk that night.

It was an occasion I shall never forget. First of all, I had to ask myself why meeting Graham Greene was so important to me. As a critic and a lecturer, one naturally meets many authors and literary celehrities. Was it something about Graham Greene's original writing, the conflicting stories associated with him, the predominant Catholic tone of his recent work and, ahove all, the desire to meet a contemporary writer who could he both a brilliant story-teller and a profound moralist at the same time? Mr. Greene sat back in a hig, comfortable armchair and stretched out his long legs. My friend and I were pleased to find that neither our questions nor our sometimes dogmatic statements ruffled our distinguished guest. The common fallacy that all Britishers traveling abroad carry their arrogance like a shield or banner was proving itself as fatuous as ever. Greene did not bridle when my friend asked for an unofficial explanation of Britain's official attitude and behavior toward the Palestine situation. Instead, he answered inquiries and veiled accusations alike with admirable calm and forbearance. His remarks were always intelligent and often authoritative, since Greene had conducted highly confidential missions for die British Government in West Africa during the war, and later worked in London with the Ministry of Information.

When we veered to die topic of Greene's pet likes and dislikes, both literary and sundry, another facet of his personality, however, came sharply into focus. Book clubs, Shirley Temple, publicity of any sort, American publishers' habits of changing British titles, might all fit into the category of his pet hates at one time or another. There are no halfway measures with such a man. Life, literature and morals are black or white; there are no neutral or mauve tints in the fabric of his existence.

Mr. Greene proved that he could be quite caustic in his comments on Aldous Huxley, Maugham, Bromfield—not that they do not deserve sharp re-evaluation now—and conversely almost zealous in his defense of Henry James, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Of Henry James, Greene says he has read everything the master has ever written, and The Turn of the Screw is a great favorite with him. Speaking of Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, he reveals his own satirical weapons: Miss Compton-Burnett is "one of our English ladies," complete with Kensington drawing-room, tea-caddy and late Victorian cake-rack, a gifted English novelist who "writes historical novels from the modern viewpoint." Greene suggests that her remarkable dialog is rather Restoration, out of Congreve, if anything. When asked what he thought of the much discussed The Loved One, a mischievous gleam came into hb eyes. "It's a nice little book," he replied, and then proceeded to explain that its niceness mainly lies in the writing rather than in the subject material—with which we are all inclined to agree.

It did not take very long to find out, however, that Graham Greene is not completely devoid of English traits. Insularity might he considered one of them, were it not for the fact that he is a moralist. Writing modern-day parables, though the urge may be a very personal one, he necessarily encompasses the universal scene in his probings into the depths of man's conflict with himself and the problems of good and evil.

The insularity I speak of comes closer to the surface in Greene's religious beliefs. His attitude toward Roman Catholicism has something of a sectarian ring to it. I suppose this is often the case with converts, particularly intellectuals like Greene and Evelyn Waugh. They have a zeal which is likely to he looked upon—by folk who do not have to choose Catholicism but are born to it—as unnecessarily feverish, even fanatical. How else can one explain a statement Greene made while two men sat speechless, pondering over the devious path of thought their eminent visitor must have had to travel to arrive at such startling, not to mention frightening, conclusions on his religion and the future of the Catholic Church?

It seems that every age produces men who think that, through persecution and travail, man is purified—regenerated. It is the old test-by-fire formula, the stony path, etc. Mr. Greene solemnly holds this belief concerning the future of the Church. He had seen priests celebrating Masses underground in Mexico, and was inspired to write The Power and the Glory. It is a romantic but dangerous idea that he harbors when he expresses hope that all good English Roman Catholics, if they have to choose between the United States and Russia, will choose Russia so that the Catholic Church will he driven underground and there survive as a fighting spiritual force.

Greene raises a question here to which few of us have heretofore given much thought. Are there really distinguishable contrasts between the Catholic Church in England, the United States, France, Belgium, Italy, et al? That he has detected them in his travels and his theological pursuits does not alter the fact that these differences, if they exist, may rest mainly with certain ecclesiastical disputes or canonical departures which do not directly affect the average Catholic worshiper. One would not ordinarily bring up such a topic; it arises here because Greene's The Heart of the Matter is so intrinsically a Catholic novel, dealing so specifically with a Catholic's dilemma, with his faith and the passions that drive a man to deception, evil and, finally, self-destruction.

Looking back on that evening spent with Graham Greene, I can only feel a sense of gratitude that circumstances permitted it to happen. In addition to showing forth that steady flame of faith which one beholds so rarely (which may account for the shock we experienced on seeing it burning so clearly in a lower Manhattan drawing-room at two o'clock in the morning), Graham Greene could not help but awe us as we listened. Perhaps it is the stuff of which genius is made—this driving conviction Greene undoubtedly has that runs roughshod over our weak-kneed answers, our smug compromises, no matter what religious sect we may belong to.

When Graham Greene very quietly said, "I would like to be a good Catholic some day," he was voicing a modest enough resolution at the time; but now, on rereading his magnificent The Heart of the Matter, one is able to sense the pain and the debate between the intellect and the heart that lurked hehind those words. Saint or cynic, poet or psychologist, Graham Greene seems to have all those contradictory traits which make up the whole of the thinking man. Showing as painstaking a devotion to his theological concerns as to his writing craft, it is no wonder that Greene should produce at once a masterful piece of writing and at the same time be able to lift such a bright torch in the abyss which separates thinking man and God today.

This article originally appeared under the title "Graham Greene: Saint or Cynic?"

Comments

Paula Van Houten | 9/13/2011 - 8:35pm
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