On Reading Graham Greene
In 2012, the acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer published a book-length essay about his long intimacy as a reader with Graham Greene (1904–1991), capturing in his title — The Man Within My Head — the fascination Greene has held for many. It’s something of a mystery how Greene’s oeuvre, consisting mostly of books that take the unassuming dimensions of commercial fiction, can so haunt the mind, insinuating profound questions of imposture and authenticity into our ruminations and — Greene being Greene — our prayers.
For much of his career, Graham Greene divided his output into “novels” and “entertainments” — the former comprising his explorations of religious themes (as in The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, discussed below) or the moral complications of international politics (The Quiet American, The Comedians), the latter encompassing stories of suspense whose plots he spun with an almost malicious relish that generations of booklovers have found addictive (The Ministry of Fear, The Third Man).
In his best novels, Greene’s talents combine to transform page-turning into a kind of pilgrimage, amplifying the what-happens-next of the narrative at hand with the more mysterious what-happens-next in which our lives unfold. The distinguishing landmarks of the alluring literary landscape known as “Greeneland” are the questions of virtue and desire, rectitude and compromise, shame and salvation that we’d ask ourselves if we had the time and courage to ponder the meaning of our own motives and activities. Engaging us as readers first and as seekers second but more lastingly, his novels remind us of something we already suspect but seldom articulate — a conviction that life must have higher stakes than we are wont to play it for. What gives his work its enduring hold on our imaginations is his uncanny ability to capture between covers the suspense in which our souls exist. Really.
The Power and the Glory
Set in Mexico in the 1930s, when the Catholic Church has been outlawed by the revolutionary government, The Power and the Glory portrays a corrupted and courageous cleric’s devotion to his calling, despite his alcoholism (Greene gives him no name other than “the whisky priest”), his licentiousness (his fatherhood is emblem of his forsaken chastity), and his tortured alertness to his unworthiness. Knowing he risks execution by carrying the sacraments from village to village and nourishing as best he can the spiritual needs of the poor, he struggles to uphold the vision of a God who both eludes and exhilarates him. He is stalked in his travels by a young police lieutenant whose fervent belief in political realities poses a philosophical as well as a physical threat to his prey, deepening the stakes of the chase. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, the whisky priest is a hero who, in his very unfitness for the role, reveals the imaginative nobility of faith, hope, and love even in — especially in — the most unexalted settings. That he is not a good priest, and maybe even not a very good man, defines the human quandary that gives Greene’s narrative its profound resonance.
The Third Man
Of Greene’s many self-described entertainments, perhaps none is more compactly satisfying than the novella he penned before composing the screenplay for The Third Man, which starred Orson Welles in one of his most memorable screen incarnations: the charming and sinister Harry Lime.
Spare, fast-paced, and utterly gripping, The Third Man concerns the adventures of Rollo Martins, a comic, earnest figure summoned to Vienna in the aftermath of World War II by his boyhood chum Lime. Arriving to discover that his friend has apparently been killed in a traffic accident, Martins is troubled by police allegations of Lime’s sordid criminality and by his own growing suspicion that the “accident” may have really been murder. Cleverly upsetting one expectation after another for both Martins and the reader, Greene fashions a roaring good tale set in the shadowy underworld of Vienna’s postwar political intrigue — and in the equally murky precincts of his own devilish morality.
The cinematic version of this tale is one of the great movies of all time, its imagery indelible; it is a tribute to Greene’s gifts that remembering the film while reading only enhances the pleasure of his cunning narrative.
The End of the Affair
A compelling tapestry of brooding desire, obsessive jealousy, and religious belief, The End of the Affair tells the story of Maurice Bendrix, who, stung by the abrupt end of an affair with a friend’s wife, has hired a private investigator to follow the woman who walked out of his embrace nearly two years before. What he ultimately discovers calls everything he has previously believed into question. It’s a haunting exploration of love, both human and divine, and of the force of faith in a faithless age. Of all Greene’s novels, The End of the Affair may best embody, if not explain, his mysterious imaginative power.