At the heart of the matter

Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family, by Jeremy Lewis, Jonathan Cape, RRP£25, 580 pages

Graham Greene: Fictions, Faith and Authorship, by Michael G Brennan, Continuum, RRP£18.99, 173 pages

Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit, by Tim Butcher, Chatto & Windus, RRP£18.99, 307 pages

Graham Greene hated interviews. He granted one in 1968 to BBC television (his brother, Hugh Carleton Greene, was then director-general) but made two stipulations: the interview should take place on the Orient Express, thundering across borders to Istanbul; and his face should not be shown on screen during the hour-long conversation, only his hands. They titled the programme The Hunted Man.

Greene was always easier to hunt than to catch. Norman Sherry notes in the preface to his monumental biography: “A man who would write two versions of his diary is not a man who gives up his secrets easily.” Sherry’s attitude is baffled but deferential. Had he not worshipped Greene, he would never have spent the best (30!) years of his scholarly life on his project only to receive a cascade of scorn from critics when, in 2004, his third and final volume appeared.

In his new book, Shades of Greene, rather spitefully, Jeremy Lewis (accomplished biographer of Cyril Connolly and Allen Lane) digs up warnings made to Greene himself by friends when he appointed Sherry that his proposed biographer was “vulgar” and “not intelligent”. That, he implies, was precisely why he was chosen. Greene did not want anyone smart enough to see the face behind the mask – just the hands that wrote the novels.

Pathetically few novels stand the test of time, yet Greene’s fiction does, argue these three books, each from a particular angle. For Lewis it’s via the Greene clan, for Michael G Brennan via the church, for Tim Butcher his restless travelling. Why, then, does Greene still matter? Because – despite the Catholicism, the datedness and the misogyny (there is, alas, a lot of it), what Greene writes about is still urgent: namely the inevitable moral treacheries of a life fully lived and the dark places in the postcolonial world. Brennan points out that Greene’s worldwide sales are 20m and rising, all his major titles are in print and one of them, The Power and the Glory, is a standby text on sixth-form curriculums.

Graham Greene, sighs Jeremy Lewis, “has not been well served by his biographers”. Arguably because he didn’t want to be “served”. He made things difficult, not to say impossible, for any would-be Boswell. Lewis, accordingly, took a different tack. Some five years ago Graham C Greene, the publisher nephew of the novelist, inquired whether Lewis might care to write something based not just on Graham and Hugh Carleton Greene but on the whole “tribe”. It’s been done before with acknowledged dynasties – the Darwins, the Kennedys, the Churchills. Whether the Greenes are in this league is, perhaps, a moot point. The truth is, there’s only one Greene we really want to know about, but the rest of them are very nice biographical upholstery.

Once Lewis took on the assignment, he was faced with daunting challenges. There was simply too much material for a single book, so he ostentatiously skims over what other biographers have made, in his view, far too much of. For example, the “revolver in the desk drawer” episode, in which the adolescent Greene at one point played Russian roulette intending either to cure his chronic depression or blow his brains out (there was, Lewis records, a persistent “strain of madness” in the Greene tribe). Lewis, in a perfunctory sentence, dismisses it as a young man’s tomfoolery, not worth a sensible chronicler lingering on.

Lewis organises his material by cutting it down to the stories of the offspring of two brothers Greene: one a capitalist who made it big in coffee in Brazil; the other a headmaster of a minor state school. These patriarchs had six children apiece, “at least eight of whom led lives of distinction”. The most distinguished being the headmaster’s sons, Graham, and his elder brother Hugh, grand panjandrum at the BBC in the 1960s.

Lewis then decided to concentrate on this Greenean dozen during the second world war – an event that arguably brought out the best and worst in them. In the early pages of Shades of Greene, one rather struggles to recall what was said three chapters ago about “Tooter” or “Eppy” (the family loved its nicknames). Rarely has an index – here, the work of Douglas Matthews, our greatest living indexer – been more useful.

As one gets into the book, the Greenery begins to branch out in fascinatingly different ways. The 1940s saw the three works of fiction (The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair) on which Graham’s reputation principally rests. Over the same period he was recruited into MI6, following his sister Elisabeth. In his personal life, he was involved, adulterously, with Catherine Walston, the dedicatee of The End of the Affair and, transparently, the origin of its heroine.

The career of Graham’s elder brother Raymond had peaked, literally, with the “nearly got there” 1933 Everest expedition. He was, in the 1940s, one of the country’s leading experts on frostbite and anoxia and usefully instructed commandos how to combat these debilitating conditions, the better to combat the Germans. In the postwar period it was Raymond, an endocrinologist, who identified premenstrual tension as a hormonal not a hysterical condition.

Hugh Carleton Greene, a hard-hitting Telegraph reporter, opened British eyes to the abominations of Nazism in the 1930s and, during the war, helped shape the BBC into a formidable information weapon. It was the prelude to his becoming, in the swinging sixties (in battle with the profoundly un-swinging Mary Whitehouse) a BBC director-general second only in achievement to John Reith.

As Elisabeth, Graham and Hugh fought the good wartime fight, their cousin Ben was interned for dubious relations with the British Fascists. Another cousin, Barbara, had married into the German aristocracy. A third cousin, Felix, was a pacifist, a “photo hippie”, and generally useless. On Graham’s side, his eldest brother Herbert was a sponger and the blackest of Greene sheep. He is immortalised as the doomed cad, Anthony Farrant, in England Made Me, that bleakest of Greene’s prewar novels, which is all overfull ashtrays, shabby overcoats and seedy bedsits. If one wanted an explanation for why Greene, when he was rich enough (and he got to be very rich), took up residence on the Côte d’Azur, then this novel supplies it. England may have made him, but he did not want to live there. Exile, unusually for a writer, did not dull Greene’s edge; Lewis suggests it is because he had never been at home in England in the first place.

Michael G Brennan is also on the track of the elusive Graham Greene but following, as big-game hunters say, a different spoor. Greene hated the “detestable” description, “Catholic novelist”. He was more of George Orwell’s mind that there are no good Catholic novels – just good novels that happen to be by Catholics.

The received view of Greene’s faith is that having been raised a tepid Anglican, he converted to please his future wife Vivienne in 1926. He did not, at this period, believe in God as he later claimed. His belief was forged during his trip to Mexico – in the throes of state-sanctioned religious persecution – in 1938. The Mexico experience inspired the non-fictional The Lawless Roads and his novel The Power and the Glory.

It is conventionally assumed that Greene’s faith, after flaming sky-high in The End of the Affair (a novel in which God Himself figures as an adulterous third party), burnt lower in later life. In the 1968 BBC interview, Greene says that he no longer communicates or takes confession.

Brennan modifies this received view. He teases out a persistent, subtle and often contrarian engagement with Catholicism in Greene’s thinking, even before the conversion. Greene was, he argues, idiosyncratically Manichean in his early life and was later drawn to a Liberation theology which fused his theological and Marxist impulses. Hell, Greene once said, “doesn’t make sense to me” – yet he was forever looking for it in the Congo (A Burnt-Out Case), Haiti (The Comedians) and, closer to home, the English seaside (Brighton Rock).

Catholicism, Brennan argues, supplied not so much a doctrine as the “intellectual scepticism” that drives Greene and his fiction. It manifests itself as a fascination with theological paradox – for example, that without Judas, the traitor, there would be no crucifixion and no salvation. Is he not, then, the best of the disciples?

The epigraph to The Heart of the Matter – Charles Péguy’s paradox that no one knows God better than the sinner, unless it is the saint – reverberates, Brennan suggests, through all 20 of Greene’s major works; as does his other favourite tag – Mephistopheles’ bland reply when Marlowe’s Dr Faustus asks where Hell is: “Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it.”

Brennan’s monograph is short, lucid and convincing. Yet it raises a worrying sense of inferiority in those of Greene’s readers who are not, like Brennan, co-religionists. “Only a Catholic”, Evelyn Waugh said, could understand The Heart of the Matter. It would be a pity to be excommunicated from the full meanings of Greene’s fiction. Brennan’s treatise will help even non-Catholics to get there.

In Chasing the Devil, Tim Butcher, a former foreign correspondent and author of Blood River – a journey along the length of the Congo – embarks on his own hunt for Graham Greene. Butcher followed the trail blazed by the novelist and his cousin Barbara through the jungle and cities of Sierra Leone and Liberia in 1935 – a journey that produced travel books by both travellers. Lewis considers Barbara’s effort Land Benighted the better of the two, mainly because she simply records what she sees; Graham’s travel books always tend to have a little too much of Graham in them.

There was a fashion in the 1930s for novelists such as Waugh, Aldous Huxley and Rebecca West to travel to exotic places and write them up. Butcher persuasively suggests that Greene undertook his trip for British Intelligence, beginning his career as a spook some years earlier than the standard biographies claim.

Greene himself would have admired Butcher’s daring. Not for Butcher the safari comforts of the Greenes (including cooks and valets in their entourage) but machetes, sputtering mopeds, jungle and constant danger from native inhabitants who, he is informed, would quite happily remove his heart and eat it while it still beat.

Chasing the Devil would also have confirmed Greene’s cosmic gloom. These two countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone (with its symbolically named capital Freetown) were the offspring of the utopian dreams of British and American abolitionists: the “back to Africa” liberation movement that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries and fizzled out in the 20th. They are now more hellish than ever, as a result of constant rebellion, ineradicable tribalism, western indifference and blood diamonds – those “dirty pebbles” as model Naomi Campbell recently called them at the trial of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor.

The darkness, as Butcher witnesses, keeps getting darker. This is a very fine, very depressing, travel book. Not everyone will want to follow the author’s footsteps as literally as Butcher does in Chasing the Devil but his practical homage reminds us just how great, perceptive, and still relevant Greene is. Even for non-Catholics.

We’re coming up to the 20th anniversary of Greene’s death. His first novel was published 80 years ago. These three books, in their distinctly different ways, polish up his achievement in ways that both those who know him, and those yet to encounter him, will find invaluable.

John Sutherland’s most recent book is ‘Curiosities of Literature’ (Random House)

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