Christ-haunted. In the past couple of months I’ve read 7 ½ novels by Graham Greene and that phrase has occurred to me over and over again. And recently, when I re-read a post that Maclin wrote in 2011.
It is the world as viewed from within the Church that fascinates me, and what fascinates me most of all is the dialogue between belief and unbelief. Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy dramatize this encounter in the most memorable ways. But people on the other side—artists and others—often shed their own sort of light upon it. Even in unbelief they may present the essential questions in powerful ways, or express, as well or better than a believer, the longing for pure unattainable love and beauty which is what I seem to have in place of the sense of the presence of God.
Over and over again in the novels I read, there is a man who is haunted by a desire to believe, or a resistance to belief, or, most frequently, by the Catholic Church. There is a group of four novels that are frequently referred to as “The Catholic Novels:” Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair, but some of his other novels are no less Catholic than these. We are constantly being reminded of the Church. Even in The Third Man which is the least Catholic of all those I read, we find the protagonist, Rollo Martins, confronting the evil Harry Lime with, “You used to be a Catholic,” and Harry replies, “Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that. I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do.” And they all do believe, whether they wish to or not.
In preparation for writing this post, I planned to read Graham’s first and last novels, his four “Catholic novels,” and The Third Man, because the movie is so well-known. I also read part of The Honorary Consul because it was the only unread Greene novel that I had in the house at the time. Unfortunately I found that his last published novel, The Tenth Man was one that he had written many years earlier as an idea for a movie, and had completely forgotten until it was brought to his attention by a movie company, so except for the first half of The Honorary Consul, I haven’t read any of his later work which largely consisted of stories of international intrigue.
Graham’s first novel, The Man Within, begins with a man on the run. His pursuer has a sort of sixth sense that tells him where his prey will be. The reason for his uncanny ability is that the pursuer, Carlyon is the man’s best friend, indeed, the only friend he has ever had in his whole life. The reason for the pursuit is that our man, Andrews, has betrayed the band of smugglers of which he was formerly a part. This book, written shortly after Graham converted to the Catholic Church, contains all of the recurrent themes that are found in Graham’s novels. Repeatedly we find a man who is beset by his own faults and doubts, and frequently on the wrong side of the law; a deep and troubled friendship between two men; the presence of God hovering, or pursuing, or being rejected; and a woman who makes a difference. On the surface, faith is on the perimeter of this novel, but looking back you can see its pervasive influence, and it just now occurred to me that that one could make a good case for Carlyon’s pursuit of Andrews being analogous to the pursuit of God for the man within.
The name goes all the way through Brighton Rock candy .
In Brighton Rock, the first of the so-called Catholic novels, we meet Pinkie, the most vicious and murderous 19 year old mobster that one can imagine. He carries a bottle of vitriol (sulfuric acid) in his pocket. He is filled with hate and loves to hurt, and yet, music moves his soul. And the dance music of Brighton is mixed with the music of his past.
…suddenly he began to sing softly in his spoilt boy’s voice: ‘Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.’ In his voice a whole lost world moved—the lighted corner below the organ, the smell of incense and laundered surplices, and the music. Music—it didn’t matter what music—‘Agnus dei,’, ‘lovely to look at, beautiful to hold’, ‘the starling on our walks’, ‘credo in unum Dominum (sic)’—any music moved him, speaking of things he didn’t understand.
The very seed of his hatred seems to come from the experience of watching the ungainly coupling of his parents from his own bed in their room every Saturday night. The thought of sex is nauseating to him, and Graham often writes of Pinkie’s soured virginity. In the course of events, though, Pinkie is forced to marry a plain, young woman, Rose, to keep her from testifying against him in court. Because of their youth, they have to lie to marry and, of course, they, both Catholic, cannot marry in the Church. They talk repeatedly about the fact that they aren’t really married—that they are living in mortal sin—and they deliberately choose it. This is the first instance I found of this deliberate rejection of grace in Greene’s work, but it’s by no means the last.
However, even though their marriage is far from ideal, the marital act begins to change Pinkie. He begins to feel a tenderness toward Rose. He feels that she completes him in some way. And though there is an outward narrative involving Pinkie’s disintegrating mob, the real tension in the story is Pinkie’s inward struggle. Of all the Greene novels that I read, this is the most psychologically complex, and the most chilling.
The Power and the Glory is aptly named. It is indeed very powerful, and the glory, although hidden under a mountain of misery and corruption, shines through. It takes place in Mexico in the time when priests were hunted down and forced to either marry and deny the Faith, or face death. The protagonist is the last priest in the state, I can’t remember if we even know his name, and he is not a good priest. Before the persecution, he was filled with pride, and cared more for the honor that came to him because of his priesthood than he did about the souls of his congregation. He has gradually come to neglect his prayers. He is a drunkard, and in one meaningless violation of his vow of chastity, he has fathered a child. However, he knows and believes the truth.
Throughout the novel, the priest confronts the fact that he will be damned because of his fall from grace, and his inability to confess as there are no other priests, but he never fails to serve the people with whom he comes in contact even though he is on the run, exhausted, and spiritually spent. He, alone among Greene’s protagonists, is friendless. The woman who makes a difference for him is his own child. Unlike the others, his opposition to the law is not of his own making. His struggle is not a struggle to believe—he believes intensely—but to endure in the knowledge that he himself is lost.
The Heart of the Matter is, I believe, the heart of all Greene’s work. In Book I of the novel we meet Henry Scobie, a British intelligence agent in Sierra Leone during World War II. “Squat, grey-haired,” his Commissioner laughingly calls him “Scobie the Just.” He is scrupulously honest in his business dealings. He loves the country, and the people of the country. He wants to remain in his job even though he is passed over for the promotion that is rightly his. He also scrupulously fulfills his duties to his wife, but he is probably a man who should never have married. He is happiest when he is alone.
And from this point we watch the slow dissolution of Scobie’s life. As I read, I was forcibly reminded of Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell. Just as surely as Lawrence Wentworth wrapped himself in the darkness of his own self, Scobie, bit-by-bit descends into his own little self-made hell, but by a different path. I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my mind around exactly what people mean when they talk about “the tenderness that leads to the gas chambers,” but it is through a perceived tenderness and care for others that Scobie makes his way to that eternal crucible. At every misstep, it seems to him that he is sinning in order to help another person, and that he must help them in this way. It is a type of despair—the belief that God’s mercy is insufficient to heal the other person without Scobie’s misled compassion.
In what might be the saddest passage I’ve ever read, Scobie receives Communion in a state of mortal sin to hide the fact of his infidelity from his wife.
“To order our days in thy…peace that we be preserved from eternal damnation…” Pax, pacis, pacem: all the declinations of the word “peace” drummed on his ears through the Mass. He thought: I have left even the hope of peace forever. I am the responsible man. I shall soon have gone too far in my design of deception ever to go back.
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.”
“I’m all right,” he said, the old longing pricking at the eyeballs and looking up towards the cross on the altar he thought savagely: take your sponge of gall. You made me what I am. Take the spear thrust. He didn’t need to open his Missal to know how this prayer ended. “May the receiving of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I unworthy presume to take, turn not to my judgment and condemnation.” He shut his eyes and let the darkness in. Mass rushed towards its end: Domine non sum dignus…Domine, non sum dignus…Domine, non sum dignus….
Only a miracle can save me now, Scobie told himself, …but God would never work a miracle to save Himself. I am the cross, he thought, He will never speak the word to save Himself from the cross, but if only wood were made so that it didn’t feel, if only the nails were senseless as people believed.
But with open mouth (the time had come) he made one last attempt at prayer: “O God, I offer up my damnation to you. Take it. Use it for them,” and was aware of the pale papery taste of an eternal sentence on the tongue.
Now we have moved from the priest who offers his damnation because he has no choice to the man who chooses his own damnation.
Any given day might find The End of the Affair in the list of my ten favorite novels. While Maurice Bendix, the narrator of the novel, is agnostic, or perhaps even an atheist, he can’t deny that he is watching the making of a saint. However, as the nascent saint is his former mistress, Sarah Miles, he’s more angry than inspired. However, the story of Sarah’s conversion, and its testament to the power of the Sacraments is inspiring. I read everywhere that this novel, written in 1951, was influenced by his affair with Catherine Walston which lasted from 1946 until 1957. Bendix, so it seems, speaks from Greene’s point of view. His house was bombed during the Blitz, and a similar event is the turning point of the novel. However, one wonders what Greene was thinking when he used the affair which was far from over to tell the story of a man whose lover leaves him for God. I thought, before I read the other novels, that I would have a great deal to say about The End of Affair but reading the other novels has changed the way I look at it, and the ending, which seemed very clear to me when I read it before, seems more ambiguous now. Before I move on, though, I want to say that you should not watch the movie and if you have seen the movie, you should forget it. It is a dreadful turning inside-out of the book.
Both The Third Man and The Tenth Man were written as ideas for movies, so they are very short—The Third Man is less than 100 pages. Anyone who is interested in classic movies would be familiar with The Third Man and I will say here what I have never said before in my life, which is that you should watch the movie first, and perhaps skip the book altogether. It’s an all right story, but the characters in the book lack definition and motivation, whereas the script, the camerawork and the acting in the movie are excellent.
I watched a movie of The Tenth Man with Anthony Hopkins a few years ago, and I liked it very much. I had no idea that it was written by Graham Greene. The book is only 160 pages long and it isn’t as complex as most of his work, but it’s a good story. Of all the novels, it’s the one which most clearly speaks to repentance and redemption, although the Church is barely mentioned. It doesn’t have a happy ending—Greene’s novels are very short on happy endings, but it does have a very satisfying ending.
Returning to Maclin’s quote, specifically this part, “Even in unbelief they may present the essential questions in powerful ways, or express, as well or better than a believer…,” the question is, “On which side of the fence does Graham Greene stand?” Some sources suggest that he only converted to Catholicism because he wanted to marry a woman who would only marry a Catholic, and that he never really believed. After reading these novels, though, I would find it inconceivable that he didn’t have real faith, at least for a while. He not only knows facts about the Church, he seems to have a deep understanding of the way that God moves on our souls.
What is terrifying to me about this is that Greene also really seems to understand the determined rejection of grace. The passages that speak of this, like the one quoted above, ring with authenticity. He led a very dissolute life (which you can read about here if you wish to be distressed), and died estranged from his wife and children.
In the article from the Daily Mail he is quoted as saying, “I think my books are my children.” I’ve been thinking about this and about how it is the duty of children to pray and intercede for their deceased parents and perhaps in some way Greene’s books can intercede for him, or at least encourage his readers to pray for his soul. I’ve been praying.
Once again I found some biographical information at Wikipedia.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.