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.

Perhaps for this reason, film-makers have found Greene’s work especially adaptable. His novels and stories have formed the basis of 23 theatrical and television films, more than even Harold Robbins can lay claim to. Though he grumbles about the quality of these adaptations, Greene has collaborated fully in most; he has written screenplays and has also functioned as producer. (Quentin Falk’s Travels in Greeneland gives a chatty, anecdotal account of all this; like Sharrock’s run-through of the novels, its chief use is as a reference book.) Prolificness puts Greene in questionable company, too: with 24 novels, four volumes of short stories, three travel books, four plays, a biography, two volumes of autobiography, uncountable essays in criticism, and his latest ‘story of an involvement’ (which forges a category for itself), he seems to write as effortlessly as he reads.

These attributes alone would be enough to cast doubt on Greene’s stature, but much of his work also belongs to a manifestly low-grade genre, the novel of suspense or thriller. Though he moved away from that territory later, he first became famous, with novels like Stamboul Train (1932) and The Confidential Agent (1939), as the author of light, slick fictions designed to be read on holiday or in transit. Perversely, Greene himself encouraged a dismissive view of his work by styling some novels ‘entertainments’, evidently in order to distinguish them from more serious, ambitious endeavours like Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940). By the Sixties, the distinction had been dropped from the title pages of reprints, but the damage had already been done.

Nothing distinguishes Greene’s ‘serious’ works in terms of style or structure; Greene is uniformly flat and efficient throughout. His admirers are fond of pointing out that religious issues bulk large in many of his serious (or non-entertaining) novels, but it’s a debatable assumption that the mere broaching of religion renders any book automatically significant. It’s also an unfortunate fact that, in English literary history, religious fiction has been marked in about equal measure by quantity and negligibility. Greene gets faint praise indeed when he’s called ‘religious’; the epithet makes him the heir of Charlotte Yonge and Mrs Humphry Ward. Of course, in Greene’s case, ‘religious’ is too broad a term. Greene is Catholic, a much more specialised thing.

The largest single cliché in commentaries on Greene is that he’s a ‘Catholic’ writer, the implication being that it is odd that a Catholic should write novels, or at least that he should portray characters who think and act like Catholics. He has been handed the cliché so often that he’s pre-packaged a response; he purveys it in A Sort of Life (1971), Ways of Escape (1980), and again to Marie-Françoise Allain. The repeated truth is that Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926 (in order, so he always says, to facilitate marriage to a Catholic), with the result that all his novels are Catholic, if the writer’s Catholicism gives the same denomination to his works. Greene never tires of citing Cardinal Newman, who maintained that, strictly speaking, ‘Catholic literature’ is impossible, since literature by nature concerns itself with ‘the tragic destiny of man in his fallen state’, while about God in His perfection, for Catholics or any other believers, there is nothing to say.

Greene’s Catholicism made its first strong appearance in Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory, generally thought of as two of his best novels; it reached a crescendo in The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), then declined in prominence. Exasperation with facile pigeonholing of his work no doubt contributed to the change, since he must have found it tedious to point out again and again that he ought not to be flatly identified with one or another of his Catholic characters. Or Greene may simply have lost interest in the particular subject-matter of his middle years, moving on from it just as he had done from the grim, grey ‘Greeneland’ of his earlier novels. In the Fifties and Sixties, Greene smoothly shifted his attention again, this time to Third World politics, visiting remote trouble spots and setting novels there: Vietnam in The Quiet American (1955), Cuba in Our Man in Havana (1958), Haiti in The Comedians (1966). He also increasingly indulged a flair for the comic, notably in Travels with My Aunt (1969), the only one of his novels that verges on deliberate silliness.

In recent years, Greene has acquired the reputation of a left-wing activist and defender of the downtrodden; he’s been denounced in print by Papa Doc Duvalier, snubbed by a Paraguayan minister, and invited to Panama by its populist ruler, Omar Torrijos. Yet there’s no evidence that Greene regards his Third World forays as anything more than ‘ways of escape’, adventures in far-flung places among intriguing people. This is his own evaluation, and I see no reason to correct it. He has shown considerable courage, both moral and physical, in portraying oppression exactly as he sees it: yet his novels are not improved artistically by their possible political usefulness. Nor, of course, are they any the worse for it: where artistic value is concerned, the matter is simply beside the point.

The same is true of Greene’s ‘Catholic’ novels, as well as of his ‘entertainments’: almost from the start of his career, whether in praise or denigration, critics have slipped easily from the evaluation of his work to that of his subjects, without observing the difference. It does not necessarily follow that a novel about dilemmas of faith must be superior to one about espionage, yet Greene’s reputation seems to hinge on just such irrelevant judgments. Perhaps this is because the style and structure of his books are so smoothly workmanlike – seldom brilliant but rarely clumsy, equally lacking in flourishes and lapses – that they leave the critic nothing to latch onto. The work is transparent; it seems to present its subjects directly, with minimal intervention by art. Critics therefore issue verdicts on Greene’s subjects – or else on Greene himself.

It’s never a rewarding approach to regard any writer’s work as symptomatic of his life; dullness on the part of Greene’s critics may help to explain why this is their favourite method of treating him, but there are qualities about both his work and life that seem to invite it. From the start, whether he wrote on espionage, religious crisis, or turmoil in banana republics, he has persistently focused on characters in extreme, exotic situations. The critic’s assumption has been that in order convincingly to describe the scummy underworld of Brighton in Brighton Rock, the sodden tedium of West Africa in The Heart of the Matter, or any other Greenelandish locale, Greene must have experienced them firsthand – not only the settings, but also the spiritual and physical conflicts appropriate to them. Greene has consistently denied that his books can be read in such see-through fashion, yet he’s not averse to having a little fun with those who persist in doing so.

Greene has been far from unwilling to discuss his life in autobiographies and interviews, though he manages, each time, to give remarkably little away. The primary trauma of his youth appears to have been lack of privacy at boarding-school; he lays great emphasis on it in both of his autobiographical volumes and again in his conversations with Allain. Yet the fact that ‘the boys never stopped farting around me’ (as the latest version has it) seems insufficient to serve as the impetus to an adventurous literary and journalistic career. Greene also claims to have been ‘psychoanalysed’, at the age of 16, by a certain Kenneth Richmond: yet Greene’s descriptions of that experience – ‘I lived like a lord at my analyst’s ... A maid brought me breakfast in bed’ – bear no resemblance to psychoanalysis as it has ever been practised. Nor can six months of attempting to remember his dreams have versed him very thoroughly in the workings of the ‘unconscious’, though Greene always invokes that training when he refers to his conception of both his characters’ minds and his own creative process.

It has not, to my knowledge, been observed that these well-rehearsed autobiographical set-pieces are probably jokes – and cannot account for anything at all. Yet they have such an air of frankness that interviewers like Marie-Françoise Allain end up blaming themselves for failing to be enlightened by them. Greene keeps a straight face throughout, but underneath, I suspect, he’s laughing. Indeed, it may turn out to be his most enduring achievement that he has succeeded in transforming himself into one of his own characters, a figure about whom only as much is known as his creator deems it expedient to reveal.

Greene’s latest book, Getting to know the General, a sort of 80th birthday present to himself, curiously crowns this long-term labour of self-fictionalisation. Ostensibly, it tells the story of his five visits to Panama between 1976 and 1981, at the invitation of General Omar Torrijos Herrera, ruler of the country since 1968. Torrijos must have thought very highly of Greene to invest in all those plane tickets, but Getting to know the General offers no motive for the largesse and no indication that anything was gained by it. There’s a good deal of tour-guide information about Panamanian landscape and culture, an excursion to Washington for the signing of the 1977 Canal Treaty, and a drawn-out anecdote about a ‘haunted house’ which must be a special favourite of Greene’s, since he’s told it before in Ways of Escape and The Other Man. Mostly, though, Getting to know the General is concerned with the search for a good rum punch, all over Panama. Greene may have got to know General Torrijos, but I can’t say the reader does. Torrijos remains from start to finish a benevolent cipher, as deeply mysterious as the plane crash that killed him in August 1981, just before Greene’s final visit. Greene’s anti-US bias is once again made clear, with good cause: the American role in creating the Canal Zone and its subordinate republic was shameful, and Reagan’s sabre-rattling over Central America bodes no improvement. Yet the real subject of Getting to know the General seems to be how Greene writes fiction – or rather, with typical coyness, how he doesn’t.

In a sense, we have Getting to know the General because we don’t have a novel drawn from Greene’s Panamanian observations. In The Other Man, he alludes briefly to two unfinished novels that might be ‘worth exploiting at a pinch’, one ‘based on my experiences in Panama’, the other to be called Getting to know the Captain. Though it salvages that title, Getting to know the General is haunted by a third not-yet-written novel, On the Way Back, for which Greene believed himself to be gathering impressions during his weeks as Torrijos’s guest. Thwarted by bad weather and the incompetence of subordinates, he was repeatedly told that some noteworthy attraction would be visited ‘on the way back’; the novel was to take off from the simple premise that ‘there would be no going back for my chief character.’

A plausible inspiration, yet On the Way Back refused to develop beyond a first chapter. Its obstinacy runs as a sub-plot through Getting to know the General; the upshot is that Greene got to know both Torrijos and his country too well for fiction to breed in what Greene calls, with characteristic mock-Freudianism, ‘the dark cave of the unconscious’. In Greene’s other autobiographical volumes, his creative process is left in almost utter darkness; little more is said about it than ‘and then I wrote ... ’ Getting to know the General often seems about to cast some light on the subject, but, each time, it veers away, flipping the reader’s unseemly curiosity back into his face. The result is an oddly charmless book – ‘oddly’, because its tight, spare prose is as vigorous as anything Greene has written, and because the peregrinations it narrates are truly remarkable for a man then in his mid-seventies.

The sincerity of Greene’s sympathies with Torrijos and his country is apparent throughout Getting to know the General, but Greene consistently portrays himself as a detached, wry observer, preferring even a second-rate drink to the most impassioned political palaver. Perhaps, indeed, this is why Torrijos kept on inviting him, to provide a refuge from politics. The sub-plot of On the Way Back, however, is almost certainly another Greenian joke, exemplified by the haunted-house story Greene is so fond of. Thirty years before, a crazy old man is rumoured to have murdered his wife there; the place has been shut up ever since, but Greene persuades the supposed murderer to give him a tour. At first, Greene sees nothing but antiques and dust; then the old man stops and points to the living-room floor. ‘Do you know what’s there?’ he asks. ‘I hadn’t the social courage,’ says Greene, ‘to answer: “The skeleton of a woman.” ’

It would take more than social courage to discover what lies beneath the surface of Greene’s urbane inscrutability; even Allain hardly reaches it, though she crows as if she had. With Greene’s fiction, too, it seems to me that what you see is what you get: the attempt to find in his novels profundities of religious, political or personal wisdom is misguided, more a symptom of critics’ anxieties than of any response solicited by the novels themselves. What you get from Greene is not inconsiderable: finely-crafted, beautifully-written stories which, whether or not he calls them ‘entertainments’, have entertained millions of readers over the extraordinary span of nearly six decades. That, I think, is an achievement sufficient to win for Greene a secure place in the pantheon. It isn’t the highest place, but at least it enjoys the honour of being unmistakably and deservedly his own.