The voice of the damned
By Gareth Jenkins
THE FILM of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair is due out this week. It will be interesting to see if it matches the quality of his novel, which was first published in 1951. Greene wrote the story of a passionate love affair, set in wartime London, between a middle aged writer and the wife of a friend. When she unaccountably leaves him the writer's feelings turn to hatred and revenge. A miraculous escape after a bomb blast marks a turning point in their relationship.
As a young man Greene converted to Catholicism, after briefly joining the Communist Party. But Greene's Catholicism was very far removed from that sanctioned by the church. He was more interested in the sinner than the saint. For him, what orthodox belief condemned as "evil" could reveal something profoundly important about what it meant to be human.
Greene became a novelist at the beginning of the 1930s. In Europe the economic slump ruined people's lives. Alternatives to the system, both Communism and fascism, competed for people's loyalties. Greene never quite belonged to anything. His background and education made him part of the upper class. But as a Catholic he was outside the mainstream of establishment life. His novels reflect this deviation from the British elite's blinkered, insular perspective.
Stamboul Train (1932) features a rail journey through Balkan countries in the grip of civil war. The victims engage his interest and sympathy. A later novel of the 1930s, The Confidential Agent, is a tightly plotted thriller which features a Spanish Republican on a failed diplomatic mission to London. Greene's Catholicism stopped him from committing himself to the Communism of the period, maybe because his own lack of orthodoxy made him cagey about seeing the world in crude terms of "right" or "wrong". Brighton Rock (1938) sides with the vicious teenage gangster, damned because of his Catholicism, rather than the woman who pursues him in the name of earthly justice. The strongly religious element in Greene's writing began to fade during the 1950s.
His later novels reflected the fate of those crushed by imperialism, particularly US imperialism. The Quiet American (1956) is a condemnation of the beginnings of US involvement in Vietnam, seen through the eyes of a cynical journalist. Our Man in Havana (1958) sends up the work of the British secret services in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
And The Comedians (1966) is, as its title suggests, a comic novel about a deeply serious subject-corruption and terror in "Papa Doc" Duvalier's Haiti. In these novels Greene is on the side of the resistance. This is particularly true of The Honorary Consul (1973), which features a guerrilla group, led by an ex-priest, who conduct a kidnapping. When it goes tragically wrong they are blamed-but the novel clearly shows where the real blame lies. Graham Greene never fitted in. He was denounced by the Vatican, and was less than popular in high places. Many of his novels were written as entertainment, even thrillers. The style can mix black humour and seriousness. But the novels are never simplistic.
Typically, Greene's characters are failures. They betray others and themselves. But their failures and betrayals are all too human. The real evil is the horrible world they find themselves struggling to survive in, and one Greene never stopped accusing.
- A selection of Graham Greene's novels are on sale at Bookmarks, including The End of the Affair, The Comedians and The Honorary Consul. Phone 020 7637 1848 for more details.
- A review of the film will be in next week's Socialist Worker.