By Norman SherryViking
Graham Greene once wrote a celebrated essay about a doppelgänger who cared enough to haunt and shadow him, even to masquerade as him. This "other" Greene appeared to have anterior knowledge of the movements of his model, sometimes showing up to grant an interview or fill a seat in a restaurant, so that Greene himself, when he arrived in some old haunt or new locale, would be asked why he had returned so soon. The other man was suitably nondescript yet camera-shy. He was caught once by a society photographer, and captioned in the press into the bargain, but a combination of flash and blur allowed him to escape unmasking. So who or what was he? Semblable? Frère? Or perhaps hypocrite lecteur?
This mode of imitation or emulation or substitution—at once a form of flattery and a species of threat, or at any rate of challenge—was and is analogous to the role that Greene himself played and still plays in the lives of many writers and readers. A journalist, most especially an Anglo-American travel writer, will run the risk of disappointing his editor if he visits Saigon and leaves out any reference to quiet Americans, or turns in a piece from Havana that fails to mention the hapless Wormold. As for Brighton, or Vienna, or Haiti—Greene was there just before you turned up. Leaving the Orient Express, you will glimpse the tail of a raincoat just at the moment when that intriguing and anonymous fellow passenger vanishes discreetly at the end of the platform. In Mexico or Sierra Leone some old veteran will mumble something about the stranger in the off-white suit who was asking the same questions only a while back. On one of my first ventures as a foreign correspondent, in 1975, I sat in the garden bar of a taverna in Nicosia, reading about the adventures of Dr. Saavedra in The Honorary Consul, visualizing what I had just seen along the haunted "Green Line" that slashed through the ruins of the city, and moaning with relief that Graham Greene had never been to Cyprus. Even so, as I crossed that same border in the broiling noon of the next day and heard only the cicadas and the click of the rifle bolts at the frontier, I was composing a letter to him in my mind.
It was a matter not just of place but of character. Disillusioned diplomat whose wife was drying up before his unseeing eyes? Snake-eyed cop? Priest to whom Eden was forever lost? Sentimental terrorist spokesman? All these went straight into the notebook. You could divide the eager freelances into roughly three types: those who had been influenced by Scoop, those who were stirred by Homage to Catalonia, and those who took their tune from The Quiet American. Overlap with Le Carré fans was frequent in the third instance: their preferred quarry was the naive guy at the U.S. embassy, insufficiently comprehending of the ancient hatreds and millennial routines that had been so quickly mastered by the old/new hands.
Greene's centennial year, just now past, saw the reissue of many of his classics in beautiful new editions from Penguin Books, along with publication of the third and closing volume of Norman Sherry's biography. In an effort to isolate and identify the elusive and evasive figure who could so plausibly be impersonated—to lay his ghost, so to speak—I set myself to reading it all. I think that what surprised me the most, when I had finished, was his sheer conservatism.
Greene, after all, was nothing if not radical, even subversive, in his self-presentation. Always at odds with authority, not infrequently sued or censored or even banned, a bohemian and a truant, part exile and part émigré, a dissident Catholic and a sexual opportunist, he personified the fugitive from the public school, Foreign Office, rural and suburban British tradition in which he had been formed. By what means did this pinkish roué gradually mutate into a reactionary?
The first and easiest reply is: By means of the sameness of his plot formula. This tends to consist of a contrived dilemma, on the horns of which his characters arrange to impale themselves with near masochistic enthusiasm. Dear God, shall I give him/her up, for your sake? Or might it be more fun to wager my immortal soul? The staginess and creakiness of all this was well netted by George Orwell, himself no stranger to the sweltering locale and the agonies of moral choice, in his review of The Heart of the Matter for The New Yorker in 1948. Of the central character he asserted,
Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women. And one might add that if he were the kind of man we are told he is—that is, a man whose chief characteristic is a horror of causing pain—he would not be an officer in a colonial police force.
I have always found The End of the Affair to be a sickly business in rather the same way, in that Sarah Miles, who might have continued being a perfectly good mistress as well as a more than adequate wife, decides to spoil everything for everybody—not by any means exempting herself—on the basis of an off-the-cuff promise to God. This resolution doesn't even result from an "answered prayer," since the crucial event on which she stakes everything (the sparing of her lover, Maurice Bendrix, during a Nazi air raid on London) has actually taken place by the time she troubles deaf heaven with her bootless cries.
These and other quasi-morality tales are all informed, it is needless to say, by Greene's own Catholicism (though one notices that he never ventures far beyond adultery or murder or espionage, or confronts a really harsh topic such as abortion). There is every reason to think that he enjoyed playing a version of the game in his own life: he originally converted to the faith in order to wear down the long resistance of a woman—his first wife, Vivien—who essentially refused to sleep with him until he had been "received" into Holy Mother Church. (For some reason this reminds me of Jessica Mitford, who decided at the last minute not to say, when asked at her naturalization hearing why she wanted to become an American citizen, that the Communist Party of the USA would not otherwise allow her to join.) In a rather defensive manner Greene later in his life complained when reviewers laid any stress on the predominance of Catholic themes and characters in his work; any novel about English people and society that did not contain some Catholics, he wrote, would be to that extent lacking in "verisimilitude." Notice that he did not choose to say "realism"; how likely is it, after all, as J. M. Coetzee inquires in a superb new introduction to Brighton Rock, that the depraved and deprived "Pinkie" and his wretched, slum-bred girl would both be so intimately familiar with the Latin forms? "Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi" … the repetition throughout is like that other "toll," of a continuous knell. But the dramatic convenience of such characters is this: they consign themselves to an eternity of torment while being fully aware that they are doing so. When Rose says to Pinkie, "We're going to do a mortal sin," she says it "with a mixture of fear and pride." This, by the way, is how she knows that it is to be her wedding day.