118 years of Trust Modern Classics THE TRIBUNE
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Chandigarh, Sunday, July 19, 1998
modern classics
Bollywood Bhelpuri


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Speaking Generally

Graham Greene-I

The finest English

novelist of his


by Ashok Chopra

ONE of the most widely read contemporary writers today, Graham Greene has been described by critics and scholars as the finest English novelist of his generation. Is it because he writes so well, with so much "humour in his sadness and so much sadness in his humour," or is it because all his novels have a meditative philosophy where faith and human fallibility are constantly, or is it because they have been set in the world of Third World politics?
Yes, almost all his novels have the Third World as the background, with it’s dailiness of daily life, it’s confusion of paradox and ambiguity which leads him on to bigger questions of good and evil, right and wrong, where the "sold is tested in the vice of faith and human fallibility."
Then there are both the locale of his novels where life is nasty, brutish and short, "a small slice of everyday life," and where the philosophical sub-texts touch our deepest sentiments and beliefs.
If one studies the old technique of looking at character and personality in two phases — the young Greene and the later Greene—it has the advantage of how his ideas grew, developed and got adjusted with the hard knocks of life and experience.
For a writer who does not accept things that are imposed, intellectually, for whom literature is identified with life, and experience (and therefore, cannot be straightjacket into right and left categories), it would be difficult to delineate the different strands of Greene’s political and spiritual evolution.
Speaking on the theme of "The writer in society," Greene once said: "The writer’s task is to be a piece of grit in the state machinery...to draw his own likeness to any human being to the guilty as much as to the innocent... to enlarge the bonds of sympathy in readers."

British novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991) was an Oxford-educated journalist, book reviewer, and film critic who joined The Times in 1926, before devoting himself to fiction writing, after the success of his first novel The Man Within (1929). While The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931) established his reputation as a writer of thrillers, his many "entertainment" — literate spy thrillers like Stamboul Train (1932), It’s a Battlefield (1943), Brighton Rock (1938) and Ministry of Fear (1943) — raised the standards of popular fiction. Soon Greene took to serious novels that made him one of the esteemed writers of his generation. Expressing moral concerns about grace, alienation, and redemption, he depicted individuals trying to escape society, the police, God, or themselves. He adopted some stylistic techniques from movies. His novels were often set in exotic locales, reflecting his wide travels and mirrored contemporary events. His works include England Made Me (1935), The Power and the Glory (1940). Journey Without Maps (1936), The Confident Agent (1939), The Heart of the Matter (1948), The Third Man (a screen play — 1949), The End of the Affair (1951), The Living Room (a play — 1953) and The Potting Shed (a play — 1957). After war-time service in West Africa, Greene travelled tirelessly as a foreign correspondent. His visits to Vietnam in the early 1950s provided the background for The Quiet American (1955), Our Man in Havana (1958) Burnt-Out Case (1961) followed research in the Belgian Congo; The Comedians (1966) which depicts conditions in Haiti under ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, was a result of his visit there in 1963. While, in between these he wrote The Complaisant Lover, (a play — 1959), he also gave us A Sense of Reality (1963), May We Borrow Your Husband (1967) Travels with My Aunt (Essays — 1969), A Sort of Life (autobiography — 1971) and Lord Rochester’s Monkey (Biography — 1972). Later books included The Honorary Counsel (1973), The Human Factor (1978), Dr. Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1980) and Monsignor Quixote (1982). Getting to Know the General (1984) is a non-fiction account of the Panamian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrara, while Yours Etc. (1989) is a collection of letters, after which he gave us the famous The Captain and the Enemy (1988). His last published book was Reflections, (1990).

In his six-decades writing career, Greene indulged not only in novels but so much else besides: poetry, children’s books, film scripts, film criticism, political reportage, biography, autobiography, literary criticism, travel books and plays and stories. Now, when you have such a wealth of writing to draw upon, the easiest way to tackle a writer whose interest was always on the dangerous side of things: the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist...(so as) in equilibrium keep, The Giddy line midway... is to break the entire corpus into distinct categories. There are two ways of going through Greene’s work and life — on the way the academies look at it, the other the way a normal reader would read for sheer pleasure and entertainment.
Academic literary criticism sooner or later brings everything down to plain method. Maybe this is because the pressures of academic life compel critics to reduce the most complex to clear teachable elements. And method, of whatever brand, as we know, is always easier to teach then discrimination. But as Joseph Brodsky says, "distinct concepts always mean a shrinkage of meaning, cutting of loose ends...while the loose ends are what matter in this phenomenal world." What happens finally is that we may get the landscapes physiology but never the life and feeling of great works where no story is ever told based on only one impulse. In fact, impulses, behind creation are many and complex.
But, Academies try and separate the different strands of Greene’s psyche or as Edmund Wilson says — give some meaning to "the chaos of (his) clear ideas." The attempt doesn’t always succeed and at times becomes too simplistic because Greene has always created his complex characters around a basic political belief who are bred also with a basic humanism. Greene’s personal philosophy can be seen through Dr Magzot in "The Comedians."
"I have grown to dislike the word ‘Marxist’. It is used so often to describe a certain economic plan. I believe of course in that economic plan in certain cases and in certain times here in Haiti, in Cuba, in Vietnam, in India. But communism...is more than Marxism, just as Catholicism is more than the Roman Curia. There is a mystique as well as a politique. We are humanists, you and I....Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside... and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate."
Various accounts by experts can be divided into the Catholic influences on Greene, the religious aspects of his novels, travel books, plays, stories, the People’s War in Greenland. Greene’s ‘postmortem’ fiction with its obsession with death, and finally Greene’s espionage fiction.
To docket works that combine psychology, aesthetics, religion, politics and so much more into pigeon holes may dilute the feeling that you get when you read the originals, but it does help to bring some of Greene’s prolific writings into a sharper focus. His novels can basically be divided broadly into three categories. First, the ones comprising the patriotic themes of his war-time fiction — The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, The Ministry of Fear — "distinctively seedy, compromised and flawed milieu...along with the exhilaration that became part of the British life from June 1940." The second category includes novels written after the war, where energy and intoxication are replaced by a world-weariness. Thirdly, we have the theme of espionage. Let’s start backwards because a good deal of Greene’s writing deals with espionage: The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear, The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor. I start from the end because this, in a way, sums up all that has gone before. As Professor Chace in his Spies and God’s Spies: Greene’s Espionage Fiction says, "Indeed, spying — the act of gaining and holding knowledge surreptitiously, the process of achieving advantage over others by remaining detached from them and yet cognisant of their activities, the contest of an emotional relationship in which one of the parties hold exclusive pieces to covet information about that relationship — is central to Greene’s work."

However, it is not the only reason for Greene’s tremendous popularity. He is admired because he casts his net into life — "that seamless web of confusion" where both the spy and its victim are a bundle of contradictions and his stories are not about "gilded butterflies...who loses or who wins, who’s in and who’s out...that ebb and flow by the moon." There is always doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. And with doubt and uncertainty comes loneliness, where "the search is not for the City of God or Marx but the city called the Peace of Mind."
The mainsprings of Greene’s creative genius comes from morbidity without which none of his work would be possible or significant. His novels Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, for example, commonly begin with or presume death and then circle back to the originating end as if only repetition of doom were possible. In fact, the 1938 published Brighton Rock is not only the best crime novel written during that golden age of crime story, but is a "classic" of this century. It is listed in The 100 Great Books: Masterpieces of all times with the comment"; It is doubtful whether a better one has been written since...it is one of those books you do not forget."
I know one thing you don’t. I know the difference between right and wrong. They didn’t teach you that at school... Rose didn’t answer; the woman was quite right; the two worlds meant nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stranger foods — Good and Evil. The woman could tell her nothing she didn’t know about these — she knew by tests as clear as mathematics that Pinkie was evil — what did it matter in that case whether he was right or wrong."

This crucial passage from the Brighton Rock reveals one of the bases of Greene’s fiction — the duality of human experience where all things merge into one another — good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics. So his themes were big — love, sex, authority, God, the paradoxical nature of truth, honest, strength, and of course goodness and evil which was the recurrent theme in all his novels. So also was danger, which to Greene was a cure of boredom. He delighted in the noveliest anecdote from his youth, and later sought out dangerous and God-forsaken zones wherein he located most of his mature novels. Robert Browning’s line; Our interests on the dangerous edge of things", was suggested by Greene as an epitaph to all his novels. And he did not shrink from the dangerous edge till the very end, as was clear from his last non-fiction book Getting to Know the General. (As far as evil is concerned, Greene’s preoccupation with it was closely linked to his religious consciousness, his awareness of God and His mercy. It is therefore not surprising that so many of his characters in spite of their experience of evil, cannot altogether stifle their longing for God or for a lost peace or ideal. They are pulled in opposite directions; they live on the point of intersection where the devil wrestles with God for the possession of the heart of man. In his fiction, especially The Power and the Glory, The Human Factor, The Heart of the Matter and Brighton Rock, Greene exhibits not only corruption, sin, egoism (of the demonic side of man) but also love, charity, fidelity and self-sacrifice — in general, the angelic principle which makes man turn to God. It is the dilectic of good set in motion by their surrender to evil which determines Greene’s characters. In The Marginalia of Graham Greene in which he comments on books he had read (published posthumously), he says, "Sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter fights only himself."
In The Heart of the Matter he spins out his credo loud and clear. "I can never understand why people who can swallow the normal improbability of a personal God boggle at a personal devil. I have known so intimately the way the demon works in my imagination....If there is a God that uses us and makes his saints out of such material as we are, the devil too may have his ambitions; he may dream of training even such a person as myself...into being his saints, ready with borrowed fanaticism to destroy love wherever we find it.
Before one goes on to discuss Greene’s classics, one must have a quick look at his autobiography in two volumes — A Sort of Life, which was a very discreet, selective memoir, as also Ways of Escape. Explaining it, Greene said:" When I wrote a fragment of autobiography under the title A Sort of Life. I closed the record at the age of about 27. I felt then that the future years belonged as much to others as to myself. I couldn’t infringe their copyright...they had a right to privacy, and it was impossible to deal with my private life without invoking theirs. All the same, I had tasted the pleasure — often enough a sad pleasure — of remembering, and so I began a series of introductions to the collected edition of my books, looking back on the circumstances in which the books were conceived and written. They too, were, after all, a sort of life." In one sense, Ways of Escape belongs with his travel books, since much of it is a record of journeys to distant places in Africa, Central and south America, South East Asia and the Middle East. It is a memoir which an ordinary reader not acquainted with Greene’s fiction would thoroughly enjoy even today.
(To Be Concluded)

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