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Faith and Failure in Graham Greene


This was the paradox that Graham Greene carried within himself: He professed the reality of the Faith but chose not to practice it.


In 1981, in a collection of interviews with Marie-François Allain later published as The Other Man, Graham Greene admitted: "My life is marked by a succession of failures which left their traces on my work. I think they're the warp and weft of it." The moral terrain of Greene's novels, which he described as "the narrow boundary between loyalty and disloyalty, between fidelity and infidelity, the mind's contradictions, the paradox one carries within oneself," corroborates this admission. Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, which has been adroitly edited by Richard Greene (no relation), shows how the novelist's personal life also confirms Greene's unsparing self-assessment. But the letters further illustrate that nothing enabled Greene to understand the failure in his life and work more clearly than his Catholic faith.
Greene opened his autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), with a memorable sentence: "If I had known it, the whole future must have lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets." This was incisive self-knowledge, for the tortures he underwent as the son of the headmaster of Berkhamsted School left psychological wounds that never healed. He recalled being subjected to "a system of mental torture" so traumatic that he actually tried to kill himself, most spectacularly by playing Russian roulette. This "bad period," as he always called it, deepened Greene's sense of the treachery in the human heart, and it is this which animates his greatest work.
Some of Greene's best letters were addressed to his mother, to whom he wrote with candor and warmth. As he admitted to Allain: "I loved and admired my mother precisely because she did not trespass on my privacy." Apropos his father, Greene wrote that he "never disputed by so much as a word my decision to become a Catholic," which was remarkable in an Englishman. After his father's death, Greene wrote his mother: "This may seem Popish superstition to you, or it may please you, that prayers are being said every day for Da in a West African church, & that rice is being distributed here in his name among people who live on rice & find it very hard to get."
In all his letters of condolence, whether to family or friends, Greene reaffirmed his Catholic faith by reaffirming that death is only an end to mortal life. When a Russian friend's husband committed suicide, Greene wrote,
I don't believe myself that death is everything, or rather my faith tells me that death is not the end of everything and when my faith wavers I tell myself that I am wrong. One can't believe 365 days a year . . . . There is a mystery which we won't be able to solve as long as we live. Personally even when I doubt I go on praying . . . . Why not try at night talking to your husband and telling him all you think. Who knows whether he mightn't be able to hear you and now with a mind unclouded.
The point is often made, mockingly, that Greene was a character in a Graham Greene novel, but here one sees that there was a truth to that which was anything but risible.


In 1926, Greene fell in love with Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a recent convert to Catholicism, who introduced Greene to the Faith that he would keep, waveringly, for the rest of his life. When Greene confided in his young bride that "What I long for is a quite original marriage," she could scarcely have imagined the dance in which her husband would eventually lead her.

But the letters further illustrate that nothing enabled Greene to understand the failure in his life and work more clearly than his Catholic faith.

In 1929, Greene published his first novel, The Man Within, which sold 13,000 copies, an astounding amount for an unknown author's first novel. "And the funniest part of the absurd, joyful situation," Greene wrote his brother, "is that the book is quite terribly second-rate . . . . How is the world fooled?" The world's applause brought out the truth-teller in Greene. When he received the Hawthornden Prize in 1942 for The Power and the Glory, he wrote his mother: "I suppose at the bottom of every human mind is the rather degraded love of success. One feels ashamed of one's own pleasure." His susceptibility to failure did not make him unwary of success.
After his auspicious debut, Greene wrote a total of 22 novels; 3 books of short stories; a biography of the 17th-century rake John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester; 4 plays; and 3 books of travel. His greatest novels -- Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951) -- all treat Catholic themes. Greene also wrote a series of what he called "entertainments," or thrillers, many of which, like The Stamboul Train (1932) and The Third Man (1949), were brilliantly adapted for film. In everything he wrote, moral failure takes center stage. As he remarked in one of his essays: "Goodness has only once found a perfect incarnation in a human body and never will again, but evil can always find a home there. Human nature is not black and white but black and grey."
Before the war, Greene purchased an elegant old house on Clapham Common, owned previously by Zachary Macaulay, the historian's father. When it was bombed during the Blitz, his wife's extensive antique collection was demolished, though his own library was miraculously spared. He treated the house's loss with tell-tale resignation. "Oddly enough," he wrote a friend, "it leaves one feeling very carefree." The bombing of the house (which would make a pivotal reappearance in The End of the Affair) marked the collapse of Greene's marriage, though he never divorced his wife.

After bolting, he wrote Vivien: "You see, my restlessness, moods, melancholia, even my outside relationships, are symptoms of a disease . . . & the disease, which has been going on ever since my childhood . . . lies in a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life. Unfortunately, the disease is also one's material. Cure the disease & I doubt whether a writer would remain." However fallacious, this was reasoning he never abandoned, as his many "outside relationships" attested.
Four mistresses provided Greene with all the "material" he could require: Dorothy Glover, an English stage designer, who shared his fondness for Victorian detective fiction; Catherine Walston, a married Catholic from Rye, New York, whose passion for travel, drink, sex, and theology matched his own; the Swedish actress Anita Björk, whose youth and beauty infatuated the aging lothario; and Yvonne Cloetta, a married Frenchwoman, who set up part-time households with the novelist first in Antibes and Capri and then in Vevey. After making Greene his dinner, Cloetta would return home and make another for her husband. Greene's revolt against married domesticity might have begun in passionate defiance but it ended in farce.
Some of Greene's most remarkable letters were written to Walston. In one, he tried to coax her into leaving her husband, Lord Walston, the British Labour politician, by promising, "I would tell the truth to you always." This must have sounded strange coming from the man who had one of his narrators say: "In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths." From Freetown, where Greene set The Heart of the Matter, he wrote: "A human relationship like ours has been is inextricably physical & mental. I have no real belief that the physical side is seriously wrong . . . but you will remember that for the last two years I've urged you to go to confession & communion between our meetings. I can see a great benefit in that. Communion might help to reduce the occasions happily." How Walston took this counsel is anyone's guess, though she cannot have been flattered to hear her inamorato declare: "I never knew love was like this, a pain that only stops when I'm with people, drinking. Thank God, from tomorrow there are lots of engagements." Here, at least, he was being honest.
In other letters, he could almost be writing dialogue for a romance novel. "I drink Swedish akvavit out of the little silver beaker you gave me," he wrote Björk after their affair, "& always with thoughts of you." It was not as if he ever tried to conceal the vapidity of this illicit attachment. "A strange girl," he writes one correspondent about Björk. "I won't ring up in case a stranger is now installed & I don't feel I can write again . . . . If you see or write her, you can indicate that she's still, unfortunately, in the blood stream & I'm quite unable to look for a successor." Here one sees something of the dreary promiscuity that would soon overtake an entire society.


"No . . . I've broken the rules. They are rules I respect, so I haven't been to communion for nearly thirty years . . . . In my private life, my situation is not regular. If I went to communion, I would have to confess and make promises. I prefer to excommunicate myself."

Greene, like Evelyn Waugh, was one of the world's last great travelers, and there is much in these letters that captures his zest for place. In Haiti, he attended a voodoo ceremony with, of all people, Truman Capote, which he described with almost cinematic vividness:
The man carrying the hen swung it like a censer, & then would dash to this & that member of the congregation & plaster his face & body with the live bird . . . . More interminable prayers & then the bird's feet were cracked off like cheese biscuits & the attendant put the live bird's head in his mouth and bit if off -- the body of course went on flapping while he squeezed the blood out of the trunk . . . .
If certain aspects of Greene's life portended the sexual revolution, here we see glimmers of that fascination with savagery that now enthralls the pagan West. Even Greene, however, wearied of these forays into the heart of darkness. To one correspondent, he admitted: "It's extraordinary how dull and boring the bizarre can be."

In A Burnt-Out Case (1961), Greene wrote about the erosion of faith in a leper colony. Waugh, to whom Greene wrote some of his warmest letters, deplored what he saw as the incoherence of the novel. "God forbid I should pry into the secrets of your soul," Waugh wrote his friend. "It is simply your public performance which grieves me." Unnerved by Waugh's criticism, Greene confided in Walston: "I feel as though I've come to the end of a long rope with A Burnt-Out Case & that I'll probably never succeed in getting any further from the Church. It's like, when one was younger, taking a long walk in the country & at a certain tree or a certain gate or the top of one more hill one stopped & thought 'Now I must start returning home.'"
Although muddled in many respects, Greene understood the true relation between literature and the Faith. "There are leaders of the Church who regard literature as a means to one end, edification," he writes in one letter. "That end may be of the highest value, of far higher value than literature, but it belongs to a different world. Literature has nothing to do with edification . . . . Catholic novelists (I would rather say novelists who are Catholics) should take Newman as their patron. No one understood their problem better or defended them more skillfully from the attacks of piety (that morbid growth of religion)." In an exchange of public letters about literature and society, Greene quoted Newman:

I say from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any Literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all.

He might also have quoted something else Newman wrote in the same lecture:

One literature may be better than another, but bad will be the best, when weighed in the balance of truth and morality. It cannot be otherwise; human nature is in all ages and all countries the same . . . . Man's work will savour of man; in his elements and powers excellent and admirable, but prone to disorder and excess, to error and to sin. Such too will be his literature; it will have the beauty and the fierceness, the sweetness and the rankness, of the natural man . . . .

Such an unflinching understanding of man's fallen nature would have deeply appealed to Greene, who told Allain: "As for the human aspect . . . well, there I've failed time and again! Yes, on the human plane there have been plenty of failures no doubt about it; I've betrayed a great number of things and people in the course of my life, which probably explains this uncomfortable feeling I have about myself, this sense of having been cruel, unjust. It still torments me often enough before I go to sleep." This was forthright remorse, with which we can all empathize. But what can we make of Greene saying this, when asked if he received communion? "No . . . I've broken the rules. They are rules I respect, so I haven't been to communion for nearly thirty years . . . . In my private life, my situation is not regular. If I went to communion, I would have to confess and make promises. I prefer to excommunicate myself."
This was the paradox that Greene carried within himself: He professed the reality of the Faith but chose not to practice it. The boundary he inhabited between fidelity and infidelity was very narrow indeed. In this excellent edition of the letters, Richard Greene maps out that boundary with unusual accuracy and verve.



Edward Short. "Faith and Failure in Graham Greene." (January 18, 2009l).

Reprinted with permission of

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The Author


Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, Newman and History, and, most recently, What the Bells Sang: Essays and Reviews. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

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