Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Saints in Spite of Themselves: Characters in Graham Greene's Novels

In Graham Greene's novels, religious people are usually fakes or fools, and just about everyone else is pathetic or cruel. Widely travelled himself, Greene shows us much of the world - Mexico, Haiti, West Africa, the Congo, Spain, Monaco, Vietnam, Germany, Switzerland, France, and of course, his native England. Wherever he takes us, it's an atheist's world. Into this world, Greene introduces men who somehow find within themselves a courage to act on behalf of someone helpless, always at great cost to themselves. As much as that sounds like a formula, Greene kept it fresh across decades of writing.
[Picture: Greene (1904-1991) by Anthony Palliser
Source:Catholic Authors.Com,]

In The Power and the Glory, it's an unnamed alcoholic priest on the run during the anti-Church persecutions of the Mexican revolution circa 1930. He's weak, dishonest, scared. Still, when the man who betrays him to the authorities needs his last rites, this priest does his duty -- at supreme cost. For ironic contrast, Greene interrupts the novel at intervals to show us bits of a Catholic comic-book that tells of heroic martyrs who never waver in their faith.

Decades later, Greene showed another priest in Monseigneur Quixote, an old priest losing his faith, taking a tour of Franco's Spain in company of his atheist-socialist friend who has lost his faith in Communism. It's funny, as the innocent priest steps out from his cloistered existence. Like Power and several other novels by Greene, the novel reaches its climax in a communion at the end of a life. The delirious priest administers no bread, no wine, to his friend who has no belief, and it transforms the friend.

For me, the quintessential Greene character is Scobie, a lifeless police sergeant in The Heart of the Matter. He despises himself, and seeks only to keep his miserable wife from being unhappier. Like the protagonist of The Comedians, Scobie defines himself by what he eliminates from his life: personal effects from his office, personal comments from his journal of pure facts, and personal involvement with the people around him. When Scobie's own choices hurt others, his self-sacrifice becomes the only good thing he can do for them all. (See my essay Escape Clause: The Heart of the Matter). 

Yes, Greene was Catholic, and yes, suicide is the unforgivable sin, so, yes, Greene certainly enjoys positing situations that belie doctrine while they insist on salvation through faith. In The End of the Affair, an atheist angry at the influence of religion in his lover's life finds himself praying in his anger that God will just leave him alone. God doesn't leave him alone, and that's the core of all Greene's work.

Greene also had a dry and wicked sense of humor. He seems to have despised Americans, whom he always depicts as self-centered, arrogant, vulgar, and dangerously naive about their role in the world. Still, he's an equal opportunity despiser, as no nationality, least of all the English, comes across any better, and ALL governments are excuses for bullies to dominate the innocent. My favorite of his comic novels is his prescient spy novel Our Man in Havana, in which the aptly named Wormold tries to sell vacuum cleaners in Cuba on the verge of its Communist revolution. An English spy offers him spending money if he'll just send reports every month. To increase the pay, Wormold sends drawings of vacuum cleaner components and reports that they are scale drawings of huge components being assembled into some giant machine in the hills of Cuba -- and this is three years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wormold has to become a real spy, but, after he bungles his one attempt at killing a murderer, the villain (who must be Catholic?) tells him that he's like a clown, taking the same pratfalls every day, just as God keeps forgiving the same sins.

So Greene's characters behave badly, and believe nothing. He contrives situations that force them to act because there is some kernel of goodness in them - a desire not to hurt someone, a sense of duty, a sense of honesty - and they become martyrs, saints, or heroes in spite of themselves. In the same way, God speaks to this world through miracles, coincidences, pain, and through the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church -- in spite of what Greene depicts as the cycnicism or naivete of its priests.

(Between 1982 and 1985, I read most of the novels by Graham Greene, including  The Human Factor, A Burnt-Out Case, The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana, The Comedians, The Power and the Glory, Loser Take All, The Quiet American, The Third Man, The Tenth Man  (not a sequel!), Monseigneur Quixote, The Geneva Bomb Party, The Honorary Consul and The End of the Affair.  I also read books of his short stories, essays, and Lord Rochester's Monkey, his biography of a man famous for drinking, gambling, carousing, and converting on his deathbed in the late 1600s. My review is based on notes that I wrote during those pre-internet years.) 

[I wrote this article pre-blog in 2006 for my personal website www.Smootpage.com. ]

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