Book Article

Graham Greene: 1904-1991

An appreciation of Graham Greene -- We look back at the prolific writer's career highlights including ''The End of the Affair,'' ''The Third Man,'' and ''Monsignor Quixote''

An appreciation of Graham Greene

When Graham Greene died in Switzerland earlier this month at the age of 86, the world lost a superb entertainer and a voice of conscience. He never won a Nobel Prize, a fact that aggrieved his admirers more than it vexed the master, who had little more than a shrug for his treatment by the Nobel judges. He reserved his words for his work — more than 20 novels (among them The Heart of the Matter, Travels With My Aunt, The Power and the Glory) as well as screenplays (Our Man in Havana, The Third Man), plays, short stories, journalism, and excellent movie and book criticism. He wasn't inclined to blab about himself. What we were not privileged to know about him is nothing compared with what we have of him on the page: wisdom, melancholy, beauty, pranks, acerbity, fun, the intimate and anguished search of a soul for God, the hunger of a man for justice on earth, a fierce and unconventional blaze of love.

He was modest. One of his most popular novels, The End of the Affair (1951), almost didn't get published. Greene thought it was too sentimental. It wasn't. He didn't know how to be sentimental. The novel is about a tragic adulterous affair in which God becomes a prank player; its themes are betrayal and renunciation. But, while the book is immensely sad, it is also — like all of Greene's works — immensely entertaining.

All his life Greene made his essential business — the search for grace in a world betrayed by original sin — our business. The son of a British headmaster, he worked as a copy editor at the London Times and found early success as a novelist. He met his future wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning, at Oxford, and in 1926 converted to Roman Catholicism, her faith. He called himself an atheistic Catholic. He couldn't quite believe and he couldn't not believe. How surprised he would be to find himself in heaven. He didn't think he was good enough.

He separated from his wife years ago; they never divorced; he had a long and loving relationship with Yvonne Cloetta, who also survives him. He went to Mass but was not a communicant — he excommunicated himself, anticipating the judgment that his loyal readers are bound to believe will not go against him in the highest court.

Graham Greene was in many ways conventional — he couldn't persuade himself that what Catholics in hot countries call ''the little sins of the body'' wouldn't weigh heavily against him, and he disliked Mass in the vernacular. But he was not conservative: He disliked Ronald Reagan and he disliked Pope John Paul II. He saw no alternative but to side with the victim: ''There are more sinners among the bourgeois than among peasants,'' a prelate says to a country priest in Monsignor Quixote (1982). His sympathies were with the victims of unrestrained capitalism, the peasants of Indochina, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti. (No one had a sense of place like Greene's. Read 1961's A Burnt-Out Case, for example, set in the Belgian Congo, and you will smell the jungle, and you will sweat, and you will feel the despair.)

But Greene's concerns did not spring from a rigid political ideology; the man who wrote thrillers and mysteries and romances about double agents like The Honorary Consul (1973) lived in a complex moral universe in which good and evil were inextricably entwined, a world, he once said, of ''black and gray.''

He took pleasure in dark mysteries like Brighton Rock (1938), in creating them and resolving them. Now this man of conscience, this wandering exile from his native England, has embarked on his last mystery, a trip to the ultimate foreign land. He leaves behind a daughter, Caroline Bourget, and a son, Francis... and the greatest body of work produced in our time.

Originally posted Apr 19, 1991 Published in issue #62 Apr 19, 1991 Order article reprints