Thursday, April 23, 2009

Graham Greene

Graham Greene has been one of my five favorite writers since tenth grade or so. I always wanted to know more about him but as his biographers discovered he only rarely took personal questions. His two autobiographies proved even more frustrating and elusive. They spoke little of himself.

There was always great debate about why he was never awarded a Nobel Prize especially given some of the lesser lights the prize went to so often. I think I'm correct in saying that it was William Goldman (another great admirer of Greene's) who wondered if it was Greene's Catholicism (heretical as it was) that kept him from getting it. But Catholics have won many times. Nathan Perkins wondered if it was Greene's left-wing politics. But the prize has been given to many writers more left than Greene. Other theories have been put forth over the years but none of those seemed to address the real possible reason--

In some circles Greene had a rather seedy reputation. He spent a lot of time in whorehouses, he was not known to refuse a drink, he stole one of his best friend's wife (though hardly against her will) and his general behavior often contradicted the impression readers got from his novels and stories and screenplays and he (correctly) predicted that in Central America priests would someday pick up arms to overthrow their fascist governments.

We'll never know.

Richard Greene (no relation) has edited a volume of Greene's Uncollected Letters. Michelle Orange reviews the volume in the new issue of The Nation. Talk about your man of parts.

"Richard Greene warns, `"The sum of all these discoveries is to make Graham Greene a stranger to us again."'

Michelle Orange:

A stranger with no shortage of calling cards: devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing, to name just a few. "But who are you, Mr. Greene?" Yvonne Cloetta, his last mistress, remembered Greene being asked throughout his career. "I am my books," he insisted, a problematic deflection for several reasons, the most obvious being that the Greene oeuvre and its secondary materials support any number of conclusions about who their creator was and what he believed. Indeed, in Greene's two memoirs he manages--resolutely, annoyingly--to reveal little of his emotional life. Considered as a literary trope, Greene's contradictions hold the appeal of universality: in him, we can all locate some part of ourselves. As a man, he may be too like us for adulatory comfort. Even among his fans, abiding love for Greene is rare; for a man who considered disloyalty to be a privilege of the faithful, the hair shirt fits.

Ed here: I'd challenge Orange on one thing. Greene's essay "On The Virtues of Disloyalty" is one of the most valuable insights into human behavior I've ever read. It taught me to distrust all groups, even those whose principles I generally agree with. All groups, no exceptions, expect you to march in lock-step and if you refuse for a principle of your own you are banished and despised. Disloyalty is in fact and in deed a virtue.


Kevin Wignall said...

Great post, Ed. I've been a fan of Greene's since discovering the comical novels in my early teens (Travels with My Aunt, Our Man in Havana) before moving on to the big stuff (Brighton Rock, The Quiet American, etc). As you say, he was a man of many parts, but then aren't we all? In the end, I think he's right - we are our books, no more, no less.

Frank Loose said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Ed. We don't hear enough about Greene these days. I remember a few years ago when The End of the Affair was made into a movie. I enjoyed it and it prompted me to rediscover Greene's writings, having not read him since High School. I have read only a half dozen of Greene's books, but one of them, The Heart of the Matter, is a stand-out favorite. The ending of that book is among the most moving that i have read.

Anonymous said...

What a fine post. Years ago I was smitten with Greene's novel The Power and the Glory, about a despised boozy priest who, it turned out, was the only cleric in the Mexican state to stand up to a murderous radical despot. It was about what lies within the heart of flawed, inconsequential people. (Henry Fonda played the part uncomfortably.) It inspired my best novel.

Richard Wheeler

charlie stella said...

It taught me to distrust all groups, even those whose principles I generally agree with. All groups, no exceptions, expect you to march in lock-step and if you refuse for a principle of your own you are banished and despised. Disloyalty is in fact and in deed a virtue.Bingo ... I can't think of a time when I picked one side or another (whether it was a fraternity I refused to join, a union I did join, both major political parties, corporate management, the mob or any other form of “organization” {to include the MWA}) and wasn’t chided for refuting a “lock-step” lemming mentality. Graham Greene obviously didn’t need the Nobel Prize … we still have his work ... and their prize (like most prizes) has become diluted over time.

Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the 1964 Nobel prize but declined to accept it. Whether I’d agree with the why or why not, good for him.

And good for you, Ed.

Paul D Brazill said...

There was great documentary years ago about people who went around the world passingthemselves off as GG. Anyone remember it?

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent post. Greene really was one of the great novelists of the last century.