Greene as Ever

Someone once said that Graham Greene was a man who wants to know, but never wanted to be known. How can one ever forget a man who was one of the greatest writers of the last century and whose books continue to be widely read even today?

The British novelist died on April 3, 1991. Thirty years after his death, his writings (25 books, short stories, travelogues, plays, screenplays, novellas, children’s literature) remain relevant, shaping the public imagination more than any serious writer of his generation.

Most of Greene’s novels were set in the familiar playgrounds of Third World politics of Latin America, Africa and South Asia. The central theme in all his battles had been the fight for the underdog against the bully. He saw writing as enabling the writer to maintain his sanity and justify his own existence in a world inherently tragic and fraught with meaninglessness.

If only Greene was alive today, perhaps his hunting ground for stories could well be India, Turkey, Hungary, Russia or Burma.

“I think a writer ought to be a bit of grit in the state machine,” he once said. “That applies to a democratic state machine, a socialist state machine or a Communist state machine.”

Greene was born of middle-class parents on October 2, 1904 in Berkhamsted, U.K. He was still at school when he began to travel along unconventional paths. His experiences included Russian roulette, alcohol, drugs, psychoanalysis, a flirtation with Communism and the British Secret Service. All these, tempered by the Roman Catholicism he adopted after marriage, provided material for some of his books.

Like most novelists, Greene began with journalism but soon gave up his job to freelance and write novels because according to him, “novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction.”

Greene’s first novel “The Man Within” (1929) was a mildly successful one and was made into a film. This pattern repeated throughout his career, for Greene and the movies virtually grew up together. Eight more works before World War II enhanced a growing reputation and in 1940 he published “The Power and the Glory”.

During World War II he worked for the foreign office, though he claimed he was an unsuccessful spy. After the war, he got a contract from MGM to write “The Tenth Man”. Thereafter, he spent his life travelling and writing.

Greene’s career took off with his fourth novel “The Stamboul Train”, a lively thriller with political overtones. This vein was continued in “A Gun for Sale”, “The Confidential Agent” and “The Ministry of Fear”.

It was “Brighton Rock” that clearly opened a new phase in his work in which questions of faith are dramatized within the tensions of a still popular novelistic form. The spiritual debate continued to be explored in subsequent novels like “The Power and the Glory,” “The Heart of the Matter,” and “The End of the Affair.”

Almost all his novels have a meditative philosophy akin to ours where faith and human fallibility are constantly tested. His works have a high moral content, whether clear or not on first reading. To his fans, it was always apparent where he stood on universal values. Greene once said “The world is not black and white, it is more black and grey.” This bleak worldview found an echo in many of his novels which explore the moral twilight zone.

Catholicism and Catholics figured largely in Greene’s novels who was a ‘serious’ catholic of sorts himself.

He joined the Church in 1926 during Pope Pius XI’s reign. Pius XI was an outspoken critic of totalitarianism. He refused to receive Hitler, while Mussolini was relieved to hear the Pope’s death. It was the Pope’s revolutionary Catholicism that attracted Greene.

Since then Greene has been a radical Catholic, a left wing sympathizer with the underdog and this forms the subject matter of his works such as “It’s a Battlefield”, “England Made Me”, “The Lawless Roads” and “The Quiet American” set in Saigon.

Greene is among the few leading writers who embraced films, writing screenplays with many of his novels adapted for the screen, making cinema richer. Films like “The Third Man”, “The Tenth Man”, and “Our Man in Havana” are classics in their own right.

Indeed, Greene was one of the greatest writers of the last century. Britain made him a “Companion of Literature” in 1984 and a Member of the “Elite Order of Merit” in 1986. In 1984, France made Greene a “Commander of Arts and Letters”. Frightened by the philosophic implications of his writing, the Nobel Committee, perhaps, steered clear of him. But Greene couldn’t care less. His humanism and talent was recognized the world over. And that is why he will continue to be known and remain evergreen in the annals of Literature.



Journalist and author/editor based in Bangalore, India. Interests vary from books, music, travel, cycling, walking, news & nostalgia and phone photography.

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Stanley Carvalho

Journalist and author/editor based in Bangalore, India. Interests vary from books, music, travel, cycling, walking, news & nostalgia and phone photography.