Survivor, soldier of fortune, a tough mercenary who would be on hand in any campaign and whose washed-out pale-blue eyes might stare out with equal pugnacity and distaste from under a bowler, a bush hat or a steel helmet – that is the kind of image the old pro projected and presented. A 17th-century poet, writing an epitaph, would have given us a conceit about death being glad to have got him at last. A tender-hearted chap like Siegfried Sassoon might have shaken his head, on the other hand, and regretted that those who were young and hated war should have to die ‘when cruel old campaigners win safe through’.
Epitaphs apart, what will survive of Graham Greene? Not love, certainly; nor the famously tortured guerrilla of Roman Catholicism, fighting and writing for and against the Church from inside and outside it, and all the more effective a partisan and publicist on its behalf when he seemed most spectacularly against it, pleading the sanctities of suicide in The Heart of the Matter, of ordained Marxism in his last novel, The Captain and the Enemy. In the Sunday Telegraph in 1963 he claimed, ‘There is no inherent opposition between Marxist economics and Catholicism,’ and quoted Castro’s claim that ‘a Revolutionary can have a religious belief. The Revolution does not intrude ... into personal beliefs.’ The Church in America continued to ‘poison the wells’, said Greene; but in some mysterious way it was the Church who seemed the ultimate beneficiary of all this denunciation, possibly because its attitude to authority and indoctrination was not so dissimilar from the Revolution’s. Greene could give the image of the Church another lift by emphasising a compatibility between it and the Revolution.
If his novels survive, it will not be thanks to this special relationship, effective as is the use he made of it. Non-believers probably feel sentimental about it, having things both ways as the customers of the best-seller should. Greene’s relations with the Church in his novels has been not unlike that of the wilful aristocratic girl kidnapped by the Sheikh, compelled to yield and succumbing at last to love. As heroine-plus-Sheikh, the reader has the best of the spectacle, but that is not likely to last into the future, any more than the novels of E. M. Hull or Ethel M. Dell. Greene’s literary use of Catholicism will hardly stand up to comparison with that of his contemporaries over the Channel – Claudel, Bernanos or Mauriac. Everyone loves a whisky priest or a Harry Lime: indeed, everyone loves just the kind of character whom Greene was good at creating – the seedy modernised Byronic hero, whose braised integrity and solitary virtue come out on top, or whose thousand crimes count for nothing against the sign of the Cross, even though he may, notionally at least, have been poisoning with diluted penicillin half the babies of Vienna.
‘Notionally at least’ – that is the crux of the matter. ‘Faith’ in Greene is like the ‘story’: you take both on trust. But where does truth come in? Pinkie, the young gangster of Brighton Rock, has none of its necessary banality, and is designed to be merely Satanic, in the spirit of Conrad’s melodramatic characters, like Gentleman Brown or Mr Jones. Pinkie is strictly for the book. When the famous record to which the heart-broken Rose listens has stopped playing, he vanishes into limbo. Greene was less than ingenuous when he commented, in the second instalment of his autobiography, Ways of Escape, that he regretted calling the book an ‘entertainment’, and planning it on the lines of a traditional detective story. As with Chesterton’s Father Brown tales, the entertainment is the message: the story needs the ‘spiritual’ element as part of its technical machinery.
Yet it is the spiritual element, and the use Greene makes of it, which closes the circuit of falsity and satisfies a popular audience on two fronts. The point becomes clear in the novels of Le Carré, Greene’s most intelligent and most faithful disciple. (Perhaps the admiration became mutual: Greene’s late thriller, The Human Factor, could almost have been written by Le Carré.) Le Carré’s popularity is due to an ingenious extension of Greene’s method. You take all the properties of a highly skilful thriller – Le Carré is certainly at the top of the class – and add the elements of self-seeking, cynicism, betrayal and pointlessness with an air of rueful integrity, a suggestion that your respect for the truth makes you write it this way, however distasteful and jarring it may be for the reader. Of course the reader loves it, and the circuit of falsity is again closed. The reader feels he is getting the truth and enjoying the tale, while in fact whatever authenticity the tale might have had is vitiated by the self-conscious ‘truth’ built into it.
Having it both ways it the hallmark of both Greene’s and Le Carré’s success. Neither Conrad in The Secret Agent nor Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment employed a deliberately truth-telling formula. Conan Doyle knew that his puzzles were absurd, but his tales grew their own involuntary authenticity, which includes Holmes and Watson sitting down at the breakfast table together, or Holmes’s casual remark in ‘The Copper Beeches’ that worse things go on under the lid of village life than in the streets and tenements of cities. Greene would have forced such a truth out into the open and harried it into its grave. He is a master of the overkill effect, in the interest of letting the audience have the full grim facts; and this more than anything marks him out as a literary product of the Thirties, when all aspiring novelists prided themselves on the way they told the unvarnished truth. A Handful of Dust, a novel with much of the Greene methodology in it, subtly depends on a bald newspaper technique: the awful or comic or odd or dissociated things one sees in the press. The method, like Greene’s, is highly effective, but it can never produce what Henry James would have called ‘saturation’.
Virginia Woolf remarked that A Handful of Dust was a brilliant novel but that she didn’t believe a word of it: a way of turning round the ordinary reader’s cliché to suggest that truth in fiction has a complex and even evasive personality which can’t be forced brutally into the story and told to stand there. In the same context she went to the heart of the matter in saying that Scott becomes true through a sort of invisible familiarity of conviction, even through inert and contingent and comfortable writing that in the end does more than ‘all Mr Stevenson’s dapper little adjectives’. One wonders what she would have said about Greene’s dapper little plots.
In the terminology of today all this talk of truth is of course beside the point. Greene has his own techniques, his own kind of ‘literariness’, and that is the end of the matter. Certainly his very high reputation might be said to seem appropriate to our literary-critical climate in which the absolutes of history, ideals, beliefs, and all forms of fabulation, have ceased to count. Greene’s washed-out or burnt-out worlds can still seem as fashionable today as the worlds of London Fields or Flaubert’s Parrot. But Greene as a man and a writer had more natural stature than that, and he did believe in the truth, despite the slipperiness and notionality of his fictions. It is impossible to open his books of travel or foreign commentary, or even the recent collection of his essays and journalism called Reflections, without being impressed. He impresses as a big personality of literature quite apart from the artifice of his novels and the use he made in them of his religion. It seems possible for the reasons indicated that the novels may not survive as well as those of Waugh himself, or those of other near-contemporaries with their own incontrovertible forms of authenticity – Compton-Burnett, J. C. Powys, Powell, even Henry Greene. But when Greene extracts himself from artifice and writes of places and people, and of himself in the two books of autobiography, the feel of a personality at once natural and formidable compels the reader without any show-off at all. It is often said of Waugh that he had two personalities, in life and writing: one rational, interested and approachable; the other decidedly not. Greene may have been the same, though naturally in his own quite different fashion. In both cases, the books of travel are the key to their more human selves. The sadistic-comic ‘school’ element in both, however indicative of their English provenance and background, is the one that repels with its sense of their belonging to a class and a group, a family with the nastiest members in charge.
Probably the idea of a ‘great’ novelist is itself a contradiction, fostered by the post-Romantic 19th-century worship of poets, and of Carlyle’s heroes and great men. A friend said of Hardy that he was a great novelist but not a great man, and that is indicative too; for the distinction, as much in a Tolstoy as a Hardy, shows that the really good, the engrossing novelist, has to have extremely clay-like feet. Greene may have been a great man but hardly a great novelist. Spiritual pretension, loftiness of soul or doctrine, will not do; and yet Green as a moralist aspired to these things by the back door, in a deliberately anti-Victorian way. His first novel, The Man Within, contains the formula of all that were to follow – honest thief, tender murderer, tormented traitor, and all the rest of the gang, as identified by Browning, who have a man within them who’s angry with them. Greene’s favourite quotation from Browning is itself deeply pretentious (Bishop Blougram is a sort of proto-Smiley) and ripe for development as a popular fashion. Greene vulgarised not only Conrad but Dostoevsky too, and his popularity with Russians is certainly connected with the Dostoevskian legacy. He is popular there in much the same way that Charles Morgan became a popular ‘spiritual’ novelist in France.
Certainly Greene established popular prototypes, even if he did not create them, and they may well survive in the form he gave them, rather like the heroes and heroines of the old romances or the picaresque novels. Formula for him was more life-giving than exploration. The chivalrous Jew in Stamboul Train is just as satisfyingly unbelievable a figure as a Disraeli aristocrat. Romance figures are sealed off, and Greene’s own wry observation that the novelist believes in nothing but the novel he is writing relates in a serio-comic way to his own romance world. Ultimately there is no way of ‘judging’ novels that are based, on the creation of such a world except by saying that we like or we don’t like it; that we respond or do not respond. In the case of Greene it seems best to leave it at that.