Why must critics use Graham Greene’s biography, and especially his Catholicism, as a way to defuse his work?
Working in the shadow of his own biography: Graham Greene in 1978. Photograph: Tony McGrath
This year sees the 70th anniversary of the publication of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, and also of the trip to Mexico that inspired The Power and the Glory. But it is Greene’s conversion to Catholicism, 12 years earlier, that’s held to be the most significant event in shaping his work. The author himself grew increasingly frustrated at always being described as a Catholic writer.
Of course, in the purely descriptive sense, the tag is accurate. Greene was a Catholic writer in the same sense that he was an English writer, or a white writer. Too often, however, it is used as an explanation for the way that he wrote. Can Greene’s Catholicism never be divorced from his work? Many of his novels – The Power and the Glory, A Burnt Out Case, The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter in particular – are described as great Catholic novels rather than great novels per se. In his introduction to The Comedians he laments, “It is often forgotten that, even in the case of a novel laid in England, the story, when it contains more than ten characters, would lack verisimilitude if at least one of them were not Catholic. Ignorance of this fact of social statistics sometimes gives the English novel a provincial air.”
This begs, rather than answers, the question laid against him: if he was so worried about such perceptions, however misconstrued, why, time and again, did he make his protagonist a Catholic? Certainly his abiding themes – guilt, faith, doubt and (very occasionally) redemption – aren’t the exclusive preserve of Catholicism; they’re universal. It would perhaps be fairer to say that Greene’s work deals most consistently in disappointment – and if we’re to infer anything about the man from his work, his protagonists’ inability to transcend their situation seems telling. Why can we never allow Greene to transcend his own situation? Why can we not accept that in many of his most noted books (and those that have most lent themselves to film adaptation – The Quiet American, The Ministry of Fear, Our Man in Havana) – his personal religious views are largely irrelevant? Again, the author did himself no favours by dismissing many of these books as mere “entertainments”, in contrast to his more “literary” (and often theological) writings.
If we are to qualify his talent, it would perhaps be more accurate to describe him as a great lapsed Catholic writer. He described himself as a “Catholic agnostic“, apparently more interested in those struggling with their faith and exposing their feet of clay in the process. In this way, he revealed his eye for a great story. This, at the end of the day, is all you can ask of a novelist.