Fennesz: Transit
On the Pope's Visit (2)

52 Authors: Week 39 - Graham Greene

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.

Week39-Graham Greene-Janet_html_Brighton

 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.

Week39-Graham Greene-Janet_html_Heart

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.

Comments

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I have not read a book by Graham Greene. Which one should I read first?

The Heart of the Matter, or The End of the Affair.

AMDG

Not having read Affair but having read the other three that Janet describes as the Catholic novels, I'd vote for Heart of the Matter. Theological considerations aside, I found it the most vivid story.

I have only read The Power and the Glory, Janet. And unfortunately read it before I converted to Catholicism. It is at home in my collection, along with some others that you mention. It deserves a re-read, and the others must have been waiting for me to be Catholic. Greene is someone I'm always meaning to get to. Great post and insights into the novels!

I've read The Power and the Glory (decades ago) and Mosignor Quixote (Just last year). I can't say I cared for Quixote. Too preachy, you might say. I remember being moved by Power.

The Third Man is definitely one of my favorite movies of all time. I was delighted when I watched it to learn from the credits that it was by Graham Greene. I'm also always delighted by anything Orson Welles is in.

Ok will try

Hey, Mac. How about doing 52 recipes next year?

If someone else will do all 52 of them. Well, 51--I think I did post something that could technically be called a recipe for eggnog and coffee plus bourbon.

How about 52 Cats? 52 Dogs? 52 Funny Things Douglas Adams Wrote? 52 Unmatched Socks?

How about 52 Sarcastic Comments?

By Jove I think she's got it!

52 Things That Seemed Like A Good Idea At the Time

See, only 49 left.

AMDG

I take it you didn't like my idea....

I saw the TV production of Monsignor Quixote with Alec Guinness and liked it, but I never read the book. The story was based on Greene's friendship with a Spanish priest, Father Leopoldo Duran, with whom Greene took driving trips through Spain each year. And it was Father Duran who officiated at Greene's funeral and burial in Switzerland.

This report in the Guardian about the funeral seems to show there was some belief still left in Greene:

In the pulpit Father Duran acknowledged briefly that Thomas the Doubter had been one of Greene's lifelong names for himself. But the priest went on to leave no single hairline of doubt in his sermon. He told the congregation that to avoid misinterpretation it was important to make clear the 86-year-old novelist, who died last Wednesday, had taken the initiative in calling him to his bedside: "I told him most directly, 'Graham, God is waiting for you just now - pray for us where you will be for ever in God's blessing. I now give the last absolution.'

"This I did. He passed away in the most peaceful manner. Without a gesture, he fell asleep. My faith tells me that he is now with God or on the way there." Mr Carleton Greene, the author's nephew, said afterwards that he did not think anybody in the family would mind the certitude of Father Durand's remarks. "After all it was Graham, who knew what kind of priest he was, who asked him to come."

Interesting. I sure hope there was some belief left in him.

Nothing wrong with your idea, Robert, but it is pretty far afield for this blog, and it just got me started thinking about other possible 52s--cats and dogs were half-serious, then I got silly.

I wouldn't actually want to do the 52 recipes, though. I'm not much interested in cooking myself, although I'm extremely interested in eating, and would not want to invest the time. Maybe do it on your blog?

Didn't Grumpy suggest 52 Movies as another possibility? I like that. Probably we wouldn't have as much trouble filling the slots.

Thank you Marianne. I am really glad to see this. I have been praying for GG because I found much in the books that was troubling, and there's nothing much comforting in anything I read online.

AMDG

I think we could do the 52 Movies easily. I also have been thinking about something else that may or may not be a good idea, and we could either do it alone or in concert with the 52 Movies. What if we picked 12 movies to talk about. We would have one for each month, and everyone would try to watch the movie by the first of the month even if they had seen it before. Maybe eleven movies. I'm sure December would be a bust.

AMDG

I just figured 52 record would be a lot easier than 52 authors or movies or whatever. :)

Just to know that Greene called a priest--what a consolation that is.

The thing is, he may have, on a conscious level, been a doubter, in fact he most certainly was, but there must have been someplace in his heart that was free from doubt because he drew such truth from the well of his heart in his writing.

I really hate having these two conversations--51 whatevers and Greene--mixed together like this. It's disconcerting.

AMDG

"The Third Man is definitely one of my favorite movies of all time. I was delighted when I watched it to learn from the credits that it was by Graham Greene."

Do you know 'The Fallen Idol,' Robert? Another great film scripted by Greene, and made by the same director, Carol Reed.

I haven't heard of "The Fallen Idol." What is it about?

It's about a young boy who idolizes his family's butler, but when he witnesses him commit what may be a crime, the boy tries to protect him, and causes bigger trouble in the process.

What about 52 saints (writing up saints we have particular devotions to or have derived inspiration from)? Too pi?

I think if I'm going to do something next year it will be movies. As I mentioned, I seem to remember Grumpy (or someone) suggesting this, and I do like the idea. I don't want to do another thing where it will be touch and go, or possibly yet touch and stop, as to whether the entire 52 will actually materialize. It's a bit compulsive of me, but having said there would be 52, I will feel it as a significant failure if there aren't. I can't personally make up a very large shortfall of authors (as I've said before, it probably should have been books, not authors), but with movies I could in a pinch probably manage at least half of them, at least to the tune of a couple of paragraphs or so. But with saints I wouldn't feel that I could supply very many without doing a lot more research than I would want to put into it. Maybe year after next, if we do something next year and it goes well.

And now I want to say something about Graham Greene, specifically about Brighton Rock.

This is a 40-year-old impression, and may not be accurate. Not only was it a long time ago that I read the book, but I was not a Catholic or any kind of Christian at the time, so I probably missed some things.

But at any rate: if I remember correctly, there is an ordinary middle-class woman who is instrumental in bringing Pinkie down, and it seemed to me that Greene distinctly preferred Pinkie to her. Pinkie was treated as having a noble purity in his evil that was superior to this woman's crude solid normality. It seemed that the author was almost disgusted by her. I thought that was sort of perverse. I can see now, reading your description (Janet), what Greene was actually doing, but if I were to read the book again I might still find that aspect of it a little sick.

My vote is for 52 movies

I just wrote a really long answer to this and somehow hit something on the computer that closed the browser before I posted it. URGH

I felt that I should write something about the woman, Ida, but I just didn’t have room and I didn’t want to leave anything else out.

Ida strikes me a sort of zaftig pagan goddess. She is a goddess of sex, drink and good living, but she is also a goddess of retribution. She uses a Ouija board to help her find the murderer of Fred, a man she only knew briefly. She is relentless in her pusuit and knows no mercy, only justice. Of course, if anyone doesn’t deserve mercy, it’s Pinkie.

Pinkies, on the other hand, has a Catholic morality even though he’s rebelling against it. He knows right and wrong and he chooses wrong. He is an aesthete. He doesn’t drink; he is celibate; and his room is a sort of monk’s cell. His marital relationship to Rose (and I’m fairly positive that her name is a reference to Mary), illicit though it is, could lead Pinkie to repentance and a moral life if he would only cooperate.

Greene is almost certainly setting up a contrast between paganism and Christianity, but on which he comes down is beyond me, and maybe beyond him. Perhaps this was the battleground of Greene’s own life.

One thing that puzzles me and that I wish I could figure out is the Brighton Rock. Someplace near the end of the book, Rose and Pinkie are eating the candy and Rose says something about it being the same all the way through. I know this is significant. I don’t know why.

AMDG

Oh, and the whole book has a sick kind of feeling.

AMDG

I believe I said I didn't like it, but it was good anyway.

AMDG

52 movies was my idea. And i was thinking just the same today, that you have 1000s of old posts to use in the event of a shortfall

Not only that, but I would find it pretty easy to dash off at least a couple of paragraphs about most any movie that I found at all interesting.

"the whole book has a sick kind of feeling"

Yeah, I think I felt a little that way, and maybe focused on the portrayal of Ida (I had of course forgotten that name) in an effort to explain the sick feeling. I mean apart from the kid walking around with a bottle of sulfuric acid. I didn't have the vocabulary for it at the time, but now I see that part of what bothered me was the suggestion of Manicheanism, with Pinkie the spiritual (and therefore superior) and Ida the material (and therefore inferior).

When I looked up Brighton Rock to find a bit of caption for the picture, and read about the name going all the way through, it struck me that maybe Greene meant it as a metaphor for the baptismal grace that marked Pinkie and Rose.

Baptismal grace--that makes sense. I was thinking it referred to just Pinkie, and now I see it's probably both of them. And rock.

I didn't think about the spiritual/material difference before, but yes.

AMDG

In the 1950s, when people were uptight about designations like 'catholic novel', some people called Greene a gnostic.

I do not have an opinion since I have not read any of his novels. I always mean to but dont get there

He himself did not want to be known as a Catholic novelist.

Thinking about this at 2 AM, it occurred to me that it's Pinkie's move into the material that could have been his redemption, so I don't think Greene is saying that the spiritual is superior. Pinkie probably was Manichean in a way. I suspect that his desire to cut and maim and kill came from a hatred of the body, and his redemption could have been a love for the body.

I didn't get out of bed to post this, though. ;-) My body would have objected.

AMDG

AMDG

Your body is smart.

Allowing for the possible inaccuracy of my memory, I don't think it was so much Greene *saying* that the spiritual was superior as a sort of aesthetic bias in that direction. If that's correct, it speaks well of Greene as a Catholic that he resolved the situation as he did, against (maybe) his natural impulses.

I'm very surprised that you haven't read Greene, Grumpy. Seems like it would have been almost inevitable for you.

Do you remember how he resolved it?

AMDG

Well, I remember a major event at the end, which maybe we should not discuss in detail since others have not read it. But all I really meant by "resolved" there was what you said about his redemption by movement into the material.

Okay.

AMDG

I mean, you obviously understand my confusion and have cleared it up.

AMDG

I know

I have nothing further to add to this post but Mac told me how to do italics so I want to test it.

That way lies madness.

AMDG

It is like sin, Janet. Only Mac is God. You offend, he fixes it.

Glad we have that straight.

AMDG

I like the way this conversation is going.

I like knowing that someone will fix my mistakes and I don't have to do it.

AMDG

Maclin I sent you number 40 for the series by way of Facebook but I just remembered you are using it less. I will look and see if my computer can remember your email address

Thank you. I have a 40. Happy to have 41 as well.

I thought I was battling against the clock, which is the only way I can write!

I'm sorry, I should have let you know. I hope it didn't make you neglect something more important.

not at all. I had a headache and have been doing very little but read and sleep.

Writing with a headache sounds entirely miserable. For that matter I have trouble reading with a headache. It's not to the author's benefit, because I end up associating whatever I'm reading with pain.

Well then, don't ever read my blog with a headache.

AMDG

Don't worry, I avoid reading anything when I have a headache.

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