After many years I’m rediscovering ‘Greeneland’, as the work of Graham Greene is known. In a quest of over 60 years, and more than 20 novels, Greene took his readers a long and tortuous way. The elusive quarry he chose to track down led from the tawdry grimace of Brighton Pier, via the back-alley haunts of a hired gunman, through fever-ridden tropical jungles and mouldering cities, forsaken by history and more desolate than the wilderness, past arid border towns where hope is a rutted main street leading nowhere, into obscure suburbia where tidy hedgerows wall in the quiet despair of a Sunday afternoon.
In travels through Greeneland we have met a motley crew of characters, lost souls and those who never had anything to lose to begin with. They include gangsters and rogue policemen, confidential agents and indiscreet priests, alcoholics and politicians drunk with power. With its cast of bizarre, often exotic characters, the crowded stage sometimes looks like a comic opera, one scripted not by Gilbert but Kafka.
His interest in the politics and spiritual life of the Third World is perhaps his most instantly recognisable characteristic as a writer. Greeneland, the mythical territory in which his characters are always said to move, has seemed to be a land of political unrest and constant danger, typically in South America or Africa. Such uncertainty always provided him with the sense of real pressure under which his characters are obliged to act. This obsession with the risky perimeter of civilisation is summarised by one of his favourite quotations from Browning: “Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.”
In Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party, Greene set his stage in the manner of an old morality play. On the surface it is a parable of human greed, set appropriately enough, in Switzerland that charmed inner circle of cupidity. The pivot of the plot is Dr Fischer, a misanthropic millionaire, who regularly hosts outrageous and humiliating dinner parties for a handful of avaricious sycophants.
In its final implications the tale is much more than an allegory on the contemporary disease of avarice that has despoiled the planet and degraded human values. Greed is only a symbol or side-effect of the far more fundamental and crucial issue of faith, on the labyrinthine ways of which a commitment to evil may ultimately be as valid a signpost as that to good.
Greene’s understated angst, intimations of which came to him during his boyhood spent in the chill, bleak environs of the school where his father was headmaster, was never allowed to lose the discipline of terse, lucid expression and degenerate into the rhetoric of rage. The figures in his fictive landscapes are positioned with the precision of a Magritte, or a Malle.
His novels have proved uniquely cinematic, almost all being turned into films at one time or another. Unquestionably his most memorable has been The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and starring Orson Welles. In an interview he admitted the extent to which the form had influenced him. “Authors like Walter Scott or the Victorians were influenced by paintings and constructed their backgrounds as though they were static and came from the hands of a Constable. I work with a camera, following my characters and their movements. So the landscape moves. When I turn my head and look at the harbour, my head moves, the boats move, don’t they?”
His own life had episodes which may now be seen in the light of a sort of inverted deja vu of situations he was to write about later. Like a compulsive gambler restlessly on the lookout for new variations of the Pascalian wager of faith, in his adolescence he dallied briefly with causes and credos, including Communism and a short spell when he was lured by suicide and given to playing the ultimate game of Russian roulette. His much-discussed conversion to Catholicism, which critics have said tinctured all his writing, came later.
With the typical English upper middle class refusal to treat serious things sombrely, Greene attributed his conversion to a youthful romance and has shrugged off the label of being “a Catholic author”, preferring to be called an “author who happens to be Catholic”.
Like Maugham, Greene, during World War II, did a short stint as an espionage agent, though, by his own admission, he did not make a very confidential or successful one. Indeed, both in his writings and in his personal life, he always seemed to be darkly suspicious of success as though its sure-footed confidence would banish the fugitive delight of venturing along the brink of vertiginous doubt.
“Success”, he said, “can kill a human being.” Yet—as some wry critics have pointed out—an author whose books have sold an estimated 20 million copies, Greene was an unqualified, if unwilling, success. To a man less at home with paradox, such a situation might have proved deeply embarrassing. But to Greene it was just another example of the all-pervasive irony which ambushes us when we least expect it, and which makes the jeopardy of living worth the grim joke of life, or what he once called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”.
Writer, columnist and author of several books