I admit it. I have a soft spot in my heart for brilliant writers who are not generally considered respectable through no fault of their own. Graham Greene is such a writer. Over the course of about half a century, Greene’s astounding literary career covered almost every genre; including fiction, journalism, travel memoir, drama, and screenwriting. He was simultaneously one of the most universally admired and denigrated writers of the twentieth century. Indeed, few writers could depict, dissect, and denounce the emotional, moral, and social turmoil generated from the events and ideas of the twentieth century as Greene, and it’s one of the great injustices of today’s literary scene that he is not more widely read today.Loyal readers of this column know Greene as a perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize for Literature whose nomination was repeatedly denied. Scholarship and investigative journalism have generally led to the conclusion that this rejected candidature was not due to lack of merit, but rather was due to the vehement hostility of the judge Artur Lundkvist, who enforced a “Catholics need not apply” policy upon the Nobel as often as possible. But I have allowed Greene to be known solely as the victim of bigots in high places for far too long. It’s time that I let him stand on his own merits.
One of Greene’s finest and most controversial novels is “The Quiet American”. This is the story of a world-weary British reporter and his acquaintance, a deceptively innocent and idealistic young American. Set in East Asia at a time when the United States was deathly afraid of the spread of communism, Greene tells a chilling story of idealism gone wrong, crippling cynicism, and the desperation of the ordinary individual in the face of warring political ideologues. Skillfully, Greene blends international politics with personal ambition. There are no clear heroes; everyone’s actions are tainted by their own selfish motives. Greene combines bitter wisdom with wistful skepticism, turning what might have been a tawdry political thriller in lesser hands into a profound and even heartbreaking morality play.
Greene once claimed that his books fell into two groups; “novels” and “entertainments.” Even when Greene was at his most frivolous, it would be unjust to assert that his “entertainments” were somehow shallower or less perceptive than his darker tales. Our Man in Havana is another brilliant political satire, but unlike “The Quiet American”, this story is unabashedly out for laughs. Incredulous, “what is the world coming to” laughs, but laughs nonetheless. The not-as-preposterous-as-you-might-think plot revolves around a middle-aged salesman who is hired by the British government to gather information on the international spy network in Cuba. In return for uncovering some secrets, the unlikely hero is offered a comfortable salary for himself and any associates he might need to hire. The only problem is that the hapless salesman hasn’t a clue as to how to conduct espionage, so out of desperation he invents a series of diabolical enemy plots and fiendishly destructive weapons in order to keep collecting the large sums of money paid to him and the employees that he invents. The profitable scam starts to unravel when the fictions turn out to be unsettlingly reflective of reality.
“The Power and the Glory” is arguably Greene’s best work. Based on Greene’s studies of the religious persecutions in Mexico in the wake of the socialist power seizure of the 1930’s (compellingly depicted in his travel memoir “The Lawless Roads”), “The Power and the Glory” reflects both Greene’s devout Catholicism and his wry, cynical views on human nature. This novel depicts southern Mexico reeling from the corrupt government’s attempts to obliterate religion. One of the government’s pet projects is massacring the clergy. All of the priests have either escaped northward or have been brutally murdered. Only one is left. Not one of the brave, selfless priests who brought comfort to a troubled people in real life; but a worldly man who embodies all of the generally but not always false charges leveled against churchmen by the government. This “whiskey priest” is fond of alcohol and has even fathered an illegitimate child. Greene is arguing that even the worst officials of the Church are better than the best representatives of the government. While the priest sneaks through the desert towns of Mexico, looking out for the frightened faithful, he is hunted by one of the government’s most devoted officials who intends to capture the priest, put him on trial for the dastardly deed of allowing the populace to practice their religion, and execute him. This official has no vices, and no mercy or humanity either. The two men (neither of whom is named) are locked in a game of cat and mouse. Duty, sacrifice, and above all, faith, form the backbone of this unconventional yet reverent masterpiece.
Greene’s talent for blending plot and dialogue has brought almost all of his novels to the screen. He is frequently cited as the most frequently filmed novelist of the twentieth century. Last year, “The Quiet American” was adapted into one of the most subtly powerful films in recent memory, starring Michael Caine in an Oscar-nominated performance. But if you want to see a great movie based on one of Greene’s works, you can’t go wrong with “The Third Man”, scripted by Greene, based on his novelette. A regular presence on Ten Greatest Films of All Time lists, “The Third Man” is a practically flawless suspense thriller set in the lurid streets of post-World War II Vienna. As a down on his luck American seeks to clear his recently deceased friend’s name, he accidentally uncovers a conspiracy involving murder and black market exploitation. I refuse to reveal any more of this movie’s carefully crafted plot twists, but it is one of the most intelligent and entertaining film experiences that you will ever see. And if you have ever doubted that a movie could be sustained by an all-zither soundtrack, well, “The Third Man” will permanently lay these reservations to rest.
This is just a sample of Greene’s work. There are lots of other works that deserve to be mentioned, but there is no room to discuss them here because for some insane reason my editors insist on including news about current events at Lawrence in this paper. In conclusion, all I can say is that even though Greene never won the Nobel Prize, he brought wit, perception, humor, and history to hundreds of thousands of readers, and even though a review like mine is a poor consolation for being denied a prestigious honor because of one’s religion, in a way a heartfelt review like this is perhaps in some ways a purer tribute. If Greene could read this review, I’m sure he’d say, “Thanks, but if you won’t take offense, I’d much rather have the Nobel Prize.” Who can blame him? I feel exactly the same way.