The biographer Richard Greene opens his epic biography of the Catholic novelist Graham Greene [1904-1991] with a scene from the author’s life in 1951 where he served as a British journalist [and possible spy for England’s MI6?] in the heart of Viet Nam. The French were fighting a losing battle to hold their colony; the final defeat would occur in Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Graham Greene was nothing if not a front-line reporter, and he joined the French in a coastal assault from the Gulf of Tonkin south of Hanoi.
Despite heavy fire, Greene stops to survey the damage around him. “It reminded him of the Blitz, but with many more corpses, some sticking out of a canal. In a sight he would never forget, he came upon a mother and her tiny son dead in a ditch. They had wandered into the field of fire between the French and the Viet Minh and had been brought down by just two shots, apparently French. Greene remembered especially ‘the neatness of their bullet wounds.’ These were his people—Catholics.” [p. xi.] Greene, thinking his own life might be coming to an end, found a Belgian priest who heard his confession. Despite being abandoned in the field by the French who suspected he was a spy given his World War II duties in intelligence, Greene navigated himself to the relative safety of the South. This and similar experiences in Viet Nam provided him the setting for one of his best-known novels, The Quiet American .
In 2007, long after Graham Greene’s death, President George W. Bush, then engaged in the Iraqi War, made a remarkable reference to The Quiet American in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “In 1955, long before the United States had entered the [Viet Nam] war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called The Quiet American. It was set in Saigon, and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism—and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’” [p. xiii.]
Richard Greene’s biography, A Life of Graham Greene: The Unquiet Englishman  is worthy of a read on many levels. Few people live as complex a life as Greene; few—probably no—writers produced a canon of memorable novels and plays as Greene in the twentieth century; few lived Catholicism in quite the fashion as Greene, which is not to say he was saintly. At first, I was inclined to say that his life merited a long stretch in Purgatory. But his biographer gives us plenty of detail to appreciate that Greene’s life contained its full share of anxiety and doubt. He suffered from depression and early in his adult life attempted suicide via a round of Russian roulette. His conscience was well developed with an eye toward impoverished populations and his soul could be roused to deep-seated anger at the sight of injustice. He took special interest in the various revolutions in Central and South America, and elsewhere, finding himself in the turmoil that resulted in the martyrdoms of Father Oscar Romero and the four American church women in El Salvador.
Graham Greene was the son of an English headmaster and exposed to book reading and inspiring story telling in this academic setting. Later he would write that “early reading has far more influence on conduct than any religious teaching.” [p. 8] This recollection is not as cynical as it may seem, for most of Greene’s career writing was value laden. I have long believed that good literature has a valuable role in catechetics. Greene began to write as a student at Oxford University, and for a time was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, even hoping to visit the Soviet Union. It was during this period of his life that he suffered from major depression. His biographer writes that Greene was later diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. “Over the years he was always reckless and inclined to boredom; suicidal depressions would sometimes give way to euphoria; he was thrill-seeking, promiscuous, and hard drinking; he misused drugs—common enough features of the illness.” [p. 15]
It is certainly true that Greene possessed large amounts of energy. When one looks at his body of written work and his extensive travels, it is amazing that he possessed the self-control and discipline to produce tightly edited novels. After graduation he began his career as a journalist and set off to cover the Irish troubles as a free lancer at some considerable risk to himself. In another piece called “the Average Film” he made irreverent reference to worship of the Virgin Mary. He received a correcting letter from a fervent Catholic, Vivienne Dayrell-Browning, and within several weeks he was in love with her. Browning, on the other hand, was in love with the idea of consecrated virginity in the Catholic tradition. Greene courted her energetically to the point of introducing himself to Catholicism.
In a happy coincidence Greene approached a priest, George Trollope, for his conversion instructions. Trollope had been a seasoned actor before entering the seminary as a “late vocation.” His biographer comments that “Greene detected a sorrow in Trollope, a yearning for his old life. [p. 43] In his autobiography Greene confides that his biggest struggle with Catholicism was not its doctrines, but belief in God, period. Greene met with Trollope at least twice a week and even accompanied him on his pastoral rounds. His respect for Trollope as well as his affections for Vivienne were the determining factors in his acceptance of baptism. He admitted later that he did not have much emotional connectedness to Catholicism until he went to Mexico and witnessed the persecution of Catholics. However, his biographer cites numerous examples of Greene’s seeking consolation
His 1937 foray into Mexico was the inspiration for his most “Catholic” novel, The Power and the Glory . Some considerable planning went into this trip, the brainchild of the Catholic publisher Frank Sheed in conjunction with the Vatican and Mexican Church authorities. Greene, by now a visible force in the literary world, would tour the country to document a novel on the anticlerical Mexican government which had arrested and executed many Catholic priests. Biographer Greene details the novelist’s navigation of the country where anticlerical dictators were gradually being replaced but where functioning parish churches were still few. In Tabasco Greene encountered the true “whisky priest” he would immortalize in his subsequent novel. A fugitive priest living in a nearby swamp would come into civilization only during the night. A doctor would tell Greene that he brought one of his sons to the priest for baptism. “He is what we call a whisky priest.” The drunken priest insisted on naming the boy “Brigitta.” [p. 119]
The Power and the Glory proved to be the most famous of Greene’s novels and the one most overtly identified with his Catholicism, eccentric as his practice might be. Greene fretted then and throughout his life about the meaning of a Catholic novelist, wondering how a Catholic sense of the soul and of providence altered the craft of fiction. Biographer Greene put it this way: “a good writer who happens to be a Catholic is going to be different from a writer who happens to be something else.” [p. 106] Curiously, Greene was sometimes at odds with various components of Catholicism. In the 1950’s the Vatican considered banning The Power and the Glory on the grounds that its portrayal of the whisky priest would scandalize the “simple faithful.” [pp. 248-250] When The Quiet American was published in 1955, many Catholics on the right in the United States were offended by the caricature of a meddling, dangerous U.S. bureaucrat.
The Quiet American  captivated me when I read it for the first time during the Covid lockdown last year. [See my Amazon review.] Although it is not “overtly Catholic” the theme of the work is the immorality of first world colonialism. For a reader with a historical bent, this is a chilling work that details the ugly underbelly of the expulsion of the French from the Vietnamese peninsula in 1954. The title of the book is a parody: the young American bureaucrat never stops talking and exhausts the aging British war reporter who tries to save him from himself. Greene produced this work about five years before the United States began sending the first wave of advisors which would lead to the wholesale Viet Nam war of the 1960’s ans 1970's.
Greene’s career took him to Hollywood, where several of his novels were made into movies through the twentieth century, but his wanderlust continued to take him around the world and particularly where there was “action,” which generally meant social upheaval. He was one of few people to visit Cuba and interview Fidel Castro. Castro confided to Greene that he believed the Catholic Church and communism had much in common. Greene had been sympathetic to the revolution and the overthrow of Batista, but as he came to know the new generation of Cuban reformers, he remarked “I do not wish to live long enough to see this revolution middle-aged.” [p. 375]
Greene made several forays into El Salvador during the country’s bitter civil strife during the 1970’s and 1980’s, even intervening in the hostage negotiations involving Salvadorian rebels and three captive businessmen. The murders of Father Oscar Romero and the four American religious women missionaries were appalling to him. But by this stage of his life Greene was no wide-eyed idealist. His biographer writes that “It is usually assumed that Greene was swept along by enthusiasm for rebel movements. He wasn’t.” [p. 467] He was a close observer of the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal and a confidante of Panamanian president Omar Torrijos, who confided to Greene that, like the author, Torrijos had a depressive and self-destructive streak.
Greene returned to regular observance of the sacraments in his later years, in part through a close friendship with a priest who vacationed with him for years. He placed great store in the prayers of other people and having Masses offered for his intentions. He still carried an agnostic strain and did not like the authoritarian style of Pope John Paul II. He maintained a close friendship with the Catholic theologian Hans Kung and thanked him for “helping me keep one foot in the Catholic Church.” In his final reflective years Greene sometimes considered that he might have been a better fit in the Episcopal Church. But his biographer offers a telling point: “The Catholic church was where almost a billion of the world’s poorest people brought their deepest yearnings, and Graham Greene was unlikely to walk away from that.” [p. 503]
Richard Greene’s biography is a captivating piece of literature in its own right. This is a lively narrative of an intriguing human being and the world in which he resided. Richard Greene is respectfully honest and balanced. He leaves critical analyses of Graham Greene’s work to specialists while at the same time inviting the reader into the formative influences of the writer’s mind. The biographer’s treatment of Graham Greene’s Catholicism is satisfying to the point that we have some sense of how an imperfect practitioner of the faith can still convey his religious values. It was this imperfect Graham Greene who serves as a hopeful paradigm for every one of us who still labors with internal regions of unbelief and human failure—in his story, and in his stories.
The Amazon link to Richard Greene’s biography, The Unquiet Englishman, is here.
There is a Graham Greene website which features information on everything Greene, from his books to walking tours of all the cities he visited, which can be found here.
Many of Graham Greene’s books have been made into movies. The trailer for The Quiet American is here; for The Power and the Glory, here; for Our Man in Havana, here.
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