Graham Greene had a troubled and chaotic relationship with the Catholic faith to which he converted the year before his marriage, so much so that his motives for conversion have even been questioned. At the same time, more than any writer of his day, he wrote novels rich in Catholic themes seeming to reflect his personal moral conflicts, some of which were British tabloid news of his era.
Absent his problematic Catholicism, would the Greene we know today, be recognizable at all?
Perhaps Greene wrote about matters Catholic precisely because by some standards he was not a very good one. His faith was the shoe that did not quite fit. His novels endure for the very reason that he had more questions than answers, more doubts than convictions, and found more pain than most as he limped his way along. It’s a strange business, though, for a writer to wander into a world where he could feel so little at home and ultimately found so little comfort.
His conversion made him the novelist he was. His struggle with matters Catholic may have been all the more penetrating because of his own misgivings and lapses. He was not reluctant to wade into murky waters where his lean prose belies his struggle to simply stay afloat.
Complacency might make for a good night’s rest, but it never leads to much when it comes to writing once morning arrives. And it never makes for a good novel.
My wife and I encountered the Graham Greene story in a personal sense, at almost its beginning when we lived in Hampstead a few years ago, and attended Mass at St. Mary’s Church. The church, itself no larger than a chapel, had been established to serve Catholic refugees fleeing the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Later on, French President Charles de Gaulle worshipped there, from a first-row pew, while awaiting the defeat of German occupiers of France and otherwise annoying Winston Churchill. Already, the marriage of Graham Greene and Vivien Dayrell-Browning at St. Mary’s Hampstead in 1927 had become local lore in this most literary of London villages.
It would be challenging to find anywhere in London a more romantic and historical setting for a wedding, on a hilltop overlooking London, in storied Hampstead, this tiny white-painted chapel of a French-Spanish design. Gas lights flank a cobbled walkway uphill past a cemetery to the church front where a statue of the Blessed Virgin, high in its façade, has looked out upon generations of Catholic expat history and Catholic creative endeavors, both foreign and native. Robert Louis Stevenson for a time lived up the hill and around a corner.
All this atmospheric stuff notwithstanding, the Greene’s marriage failed, a split in all but the official sense. Meantime Greene wrote on and on and on. Years later and for a long time hence, we will be grateful that he did so, and grateful for the abiding sense of his troubled Catholicism. He led his readers down shadowy paths of personal crisis, illuminated but half-lit, with something –a suspicion, a doubt, a scruple, an irony—always lurking.
Cows and goats have more than one stomach, and so are classified as ruminants. Bi-polarity makes ruminants of artists like Greene. Ruminants pass what they consume from one stomach to another, and between passages chew a cud. Bi-Polar artists like Greene are seldom of one mind about anything, and so they ruminate in their creations passing things from one mind to another and from one mood to another. At times they can seem contradictory and perturbing.
Graham Greene’s wife is said to have thought he should never have married. My friend and university mentor Professor Edward Sarmiento—of the same era—once mentioned to me that Greene’s British Catholic world had been at civil war over his abandonment of his Catholic wife in favor of a mistress, and from then on into a chain of affairs, while never divorcing. If sides were chosen in the tabloid heyday of this scandal, his wife had by far the better of public opinion, but still Greene kept writing and publishing with his detractors and readers all around.
Outsiders often see Catholicism as black-and-white, dogmatic, excessively structured, and predictable, while Catholics themselves are portrayed as content to be viewed as sheep. In a novelist’s eye all this can change to color, chaos, contention, and cobbling, both institutional and personal. Greene could not be described as sheepish. Whether daunted or undaunted by his own misgivings, hesitations, and crises he was more of a goat, butting sometimes haloed heads along his cobbled road, novel after novel.
As a priest in one of my own novels says, “There are times to be sheep and times to be goats.” A goatish approach to Catholicism probably makes for a better story. Both animals, by the way, are ruminants, but goats are more intelligent, colorful, and unpredictable. Greene was all these things. He could be both charming and abrasive, and always challenging, an apt example of the Chinese proverb that says a proper man is not a dish. I know of no better depiction of his many-sidedness and many moods than Shirley Hazzard’s compelling memoir Greene on Capri. To spend much time with Greene, either the man or his novels, took more than a bit of courage. Hazzard, herself an able novelist, is up to the task, but it is always a task. An evening with Greene was never exactly fun.
Great novels are constructed from great uncertainties and strenuous guesswork, with resolution to be found somewhere down a long hallway behind a locked door if found at all. To his credit, I think, Greene resisted that foremost pitfall of so many writers of faith-based fiction: he fancied himself neither philosopher nor theologian. His novels are not thinly disguised self-help books. He remains the investigative journalist probing life no matter how unpleasant, and being anything but buoyant.
Nevertheless, for me, Greene’s internal struggles at times call Thomas Merton’s to mind. I cannot turn to one without at times thinking of the other. I doubt that either man would savor the comparison, but there it is: the monk and the man who should never have married. It’s ironic that Merton’s life ended much as it might have were he a character in a Greene novel, in a distant place among rumor and conflicting report.
The lives and writings of both men reverberate with these lines from T. S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Given the rich textures and nuances of Catholicity, given its subtleties, mysteries, and possibilities, the wonder is not that it should produce such a writer as Greene. The wonder is that it has not produced more.