It took me a long time to ‘get’ Graham Greene. I first tried to read him (Brighton Rock, I think) when I was about 15. But I was too young, or it was just the wrong time in my life.
And so, for years, I’d left myself with the impression that Greene just wasn’t for me, that I didn’t like his books, that he was not worth bothering about.
I can’t stress how wrong that is.
Greene is a difficult writer. By that I don’t mean that his prose is hard to understand. It’s not. He’s a masterful stylist and he’s highly readable. And this readability can often fool you into thinking that you’re not reading something that is actually quite complex and multi-layered and profoundly serious. Put simply, Greene requires a certain amount of maturity from his reader for his books to be properly appreciated.
Of course, there are two aspects to Greene’s work — what he called his ‘entertainments’ and what he considered to be his proper work. It’s the latter I’m talking about here, and probably confining myself to what are probably his four greatest books — The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair and Brighton Rock.
I think a big stumbling block for me for many years was the issue of Greene’s Catholicism. Being a pretty confirmed atheist, I found the internal psychological struggles that his profoundly Catholic protagonists difficult, if not impossible, to relate to. It was just not part of my experience, of my own psychological make-up. I dismissed their struggles as pointless ones, borne of personal delusion, and their pain, therefore, as largely self-inflicted.
Yes, Scobie, the whisky priest, Bendix and Pinky are painfully deluded; yes, they are, to a large extent, the architects of their own pain. But doesn’t that make them all the more fascinating, all the more compelling as characters?
I haven’t fundamentally changed my personal outlook. (There’ll be no Damascene conversion to Catholicism on the horizon.) But I think I’ve lost the youthful arrogance of just dismissing the views out of hand as ‘just wrong and therefore not worthy of consideration’. To do so is to do both Greene, not to mention the thousands who hold such views, a disservice.
Yes, Scobie, the whisky priest, Bendix and Pinky are painfully deluded; yes, they are, to a large extent, the architects of their own pain. But doesn’t that make them all the more fascinating, all the more compelling as characters? It makes them more worth reading about, not less. Their struggles are heartfelt. They go to the core of their being. They cause them — and those around them — great unhappiness and pain. For them, God and Sin and Faith and Doubt have as much corporeal reality as a brick wall or a gun or a war or a lover have for all of us.
And this is the interesting thing about Greene’s Catholicism. It isn’t pleasant and it’s far from polemical. A great many of his characters express their Faith in terms of helplessness and even of outright disgust. The End of the Affair is ‘a story about hate’, it’s narrator Bendix tells us. And it’s not just of carnal love turned to jealousy and hate, it’s primarily of hatred of God. Taken as a whole, you’d be hard pressed to say that Greene considers Catholicism to be a positive force in human affairs. Just that he considers it to be an incontrovertibly real and existing one.
It seems that Greene has largely fallen out of fashion now and probably largely for the reasons I’ve touched on above. In a largely secular age, his primary concerns seem irrelevant and out-of-touch*. In some ways, this is perhaps a good thing as it shows that our culture is becoming less entrenched in superstitions and faiths and more driven by reason and agnosticism, but there is a danger that we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water.
For, while Greene’s particular concerns might seem removed and even alien to our day-to-day experience now, they actually still touch us more than we might think. A rejection of Greene’s Catholicism and an embrace of atheism or agnosticism do not remove these unhappinesses, doubts and fears from our lives. They just replace them with different ones.
*It’s also interesting that the literature of the mid-20th century has largely fallen out of favour in general, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day.