Taking what you get

Walter Kendrick

  • Getting to know the General: The Story of an Involvement by Graham Greene
    Bodley Head, 224 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 370 30808 5
  • Saints, Sinners and Comedians: The Novels of Graham Greene by Roger Sharrock
    Burns and Oates, 298 pp, £15.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 86012 134 8
  • Travels in Greeneland: The Cinema of Graham Greene by Quentin Falk
    Quartet, 229 pp, £14.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2425 3
  • The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene by Marie-Françoise Allain
    Bodley Head, 187 pp, £7.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 370 30468 3

The longevity of artists creates special difficulties for their critics. Ideally, from a critical point of view, artists ought to follow Keats’s example and die young, leaving behind a tidy oeuvre about which coherent generalisations can be made. Too often, however, artists survive to an unreasonable age, passing through phase after phase, advancing and regressing with no steady rhythm, every year or so tossing a new stumbling-block into the path of those who would like to understand them. Thomas Hardy was England’s worst offender in this regard: but Graham Greene, now 80, bids fair to give Hardy a run for his money.

Not in quality, of course. Even Greene’s most enthusiastic advocates wouldn’t attempt to place him in the top rank of English novelists; there’s some question, indeed, whether the second rank might not also be too high. The occasion of Greene’s 80th birthday has brought forth a little flood of commentaries on him and his work, along with a new book from Greene which instantly renders the commentaries incomplete. Everyone but Greene himself seems troubled that, with nearly sixty years of writing behind him and the day of reckoning presumably at hand, his position in the pantheon of letters should remain so indeterminate. If Greene is, as Roger Sharrock calls him, ‘almost certainly the most distinguished English novelist writing today’, the crux of the critic’s problem must lie in that cagey ‘almost’.

Sharrock’s Saints, Sinners and Comedians is one of those solid, earnestly admiring academic studies that litter the graves of the canonised dead but seldom get dropped on the heads of living writers. Its ignorance of critical theory is complete, and it never startles the reader with the brilliance of its insights: yet it’s by no means a wasted effort. Full-length books on Greene have been few; the only comparable survey, A.A. DeVitis’s entry in the Twayne English Authors series, is twenty years out of date. Sharrock’s chief contribution is a handy tabulation of all Greene’s writings up to and including Monsignor Quixote (1982). As the jacket declares, Saints, Sinners and Comedians may also prove ‘invaluable, especially with its concise plot descriptions, to students’ – freeing them from the task of actually reading whatever books by Greene have been assigned in their courses.

At least in the United States, Greene’s name rarely shows up on the syllabus of introductions to either the modern or the contemporary English novel. Chronologically, he belongs on both lists: his first novel, The Man Within, was published in the year of the Crash, the heyday of Modernism; recent works like Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1980) and, still more assertively, the non-fictional Getting to know the General show Greene to be as cognizant of contemporary political issues as anyone half his age. But no roster staffed by the likes of Conrad, Joyce, Woolf or even Forster would make room for Greene. The superficial reason seems to be – Sharrock broaches the issue but doesn’t engage it – that from the start there was something artistically infra dig about Greene, that there has been something irredeemably ‘popular’ about him which his new venerability cannot allay.

Casual echoes of Conrad and Woolf notwithstanding, Greene has never indulged in ‘experiments’, as they used to be called, with form, structure or the other drugs in the Modern and Post-Modern pharmacopoeia. With the possible exception of his second and third novels, The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931), which he has in effect suppressed by refusing to let them be reprinted, Greene’s fiction belongs squarely in the 19th-century tradition of transparently realistic narrative. Greene allies himself with the novelistic lower orders by neglecting to make it a chore to read him.

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