Graham Greene, an ecclesiastical rebel

By  Michael Higgins
  • April 17, 2008

For many readers the notion of a Catholic novelist is simply Graham Greene. There is none better. After all, novels like The Power and the Glory, The Honorary Consul and Monsignor Quixote are replete with Catholic figures and themes. Other works, like The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter and  A Burnt-Out Case, are strong Catholic meat, even if inedible for those of a more pious taste.

The truth is, though, Graham Greene was an immensely complex, contradictory, spiritually riven, guilt-driven artist with little inclination for conformity of any kind. He is as interesting in the flesh as in his fiction.

Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, edited by University of Toronto English professor and poet Richard Greene (unrelated), provides a rich tapestry of insight, revelation and discovery that will satisfy the curiosity of the fan as well as that of the scholar. Drawing selectively on a  wide range of his correspondence — publishers, lovers, family members, writers, clerics, film directors and political figures — Richard Greene allows Graham Greene to unfold warts and all. It is not an unseemly sight. For all his occasional irascibility, theological waywardness, moral inconstancy and incurable predilection for risk-taking, Greene the novelist emerges as a man for the knowing.

Although the evidence in these letters would have it that he was not like his dear friend Evelyn Waugh, of whom he wrote after his death in 1966 that “what I loved most in him was that rare quality that he would say only the kind things behind one’s back,” Greene could be stinting in his praise at the same time as he was generous in his love. He remained devoted to all his mistresses and loyal, in his way, to his wife.

Admittedly, Greene’s “way” is not a recommended road map for spiritual and sexual integration, but the honest tracking of his life reveals a noble soul. He was consistently kind to outsiders, the heterodox, the wounded and the penurious. He was not disposed to quick and categorical judgment and he despised authority’s easy cruelty, whether that of the government, the chattering classes or the church.

And he seemed genuinely perplexed if not hurt by those who were ferociously antagonistic. The editor of this exemplary volume provides the context for an outburst of irrational if not hysterical criticism that  has long puzzled me. Anthony Burgess, a contemporary of Greene’s and a formidable talent, was interviewed on CBC’s As It Happens on the day that Greene died (April 3, 1991), and his unkind fulmination left me startled by its sheer vitriolic intensity. Burgess was dismissive of Greene, indeed contemptuous. I couldn’t understand what motivated the tone or quality of his remarks. Rarely had I heard such unmitigated spite. He even despised Greene’s Catholicism as that of a parvenu, unlike that of himself, a cradle Catholic of durable ancestry. And on the very day of Greene’s death. 

But now I know the reason why. Burgess felt neglected by Greene — whom he unabashedly venerated — and his unrequited devotion embittered him. His CBC eulogy was his revenge.

There are many other treasures in this satisfyingly readable volume of letters, including an introduction by the editor that is a model of concision. In addition, Richard Greene’s own impish sense of humour finds ample expression in, of all places, the footnotes. It is best to digest the body entire.

Greene’s Catholicism, which has always been a much controverted matter, is in my mind a richly textured thing. He was both an ecclesiastical rebel and a devout son of the church. But again, this paradoxical makeup speaks very directly to Greene’s almost pathological self-contradictoriness. He loved Hans Kung, was fascinated by Padre Pio, deplored Pope John Paul II and numbered many priests among his friends and correspondents.

He wrote to the Jesuit Alberto Huerta two years before he died that “I usually go to Mass on a Sunday but sometimes I have too many people to see or too much work to do. I disagree with a good deal that the pope has said and done but that doesn’t mean that I have left the church. I would call myself at the worst a Catholic agnostic.”

Vintage Greene.

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