I'll Be Damned

Graham Greene's most fervent loyalty was to betrayal

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.

For Pinkie, meanwhile (not otherwise detectable as a reflective type), the same counter-redemptive ceremony merely consummates the ephemeral matter of "his temporal safety" in return for "two immortalities of pain." "He was filled with a kind of gloomy hilarity and pride. He saw himself now as a full-grown man for whom the angels wept." But Pinkie is not left without consolation. He can take pleasure only from giving or receiving pain, and his mind constantly returns to the schoolroom dividers with which he learned, before graduating to razors at the racetrack, to be a torturer and a maimer. We know from his memoirs that Greene was lavishly and inventively bullied and tortured while he was at school, and if we did not know this we could certainly guess. In The Heart of the Matter, published a decade later, the comparatively conscience-stricken Major Scobie is having a bad moment with his scrawny and tedious mistress and notices that "she was like a child with a pair of dividers who knows her power to injure." But by then, in the course of an equally bitter and arid moment with his wife, he has heard himself saying (this time in English, for some reason): "O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world." It must be said for Greene that he didn't trouble his non-Catholic readers with any very complex renditions of the liturgy.

On the other hand, or as against that, he did trouble such readers with reflections like this. Scobie encounters a fellow colonialist named Perrot at a disaster-stricken border station that divides British-held Sierra Leone from its neighboring Vichy colony. Perrot hands him a drink and says, in an accent that is cartoonishly Scots, "Of course ye know I find it hard to think of the French as enemies. My family came over with the Huguenots. It makes a difference, ye know." Greene continues,

His lean long yellow face cut in two by a nose like a wound was all the time arrogantly on the defensive: the importance of Perrot was an article of faith with Perrot—doubters would be repelled, persecuted if he had the chance … the faith would never cease to be proclaimed.

So at last we meet a Graham Greene character who keeps up his faith despite a torrid Conradian setting, but he is openly jeered at—because he is of Protestant provenance. A ruined Irishman expiring among the empty flagons and exhaling an Ave Maria would be sympathetic. But a righteous, continent Huguenot, never. (Incidentally, since the Huguenots were driven from France to England after a shocking pogrom sponsored by both throne and clergy, the identification with France itself, let alone with Catholic Vichy, seems a bit like blaming the victim.) Perrot is further scorned for speaking sarcastically about events in Freetown, the capital of humble Sierra Leone.

The words "big city" came out with a sneer—Perrot couldn't bear the thought that there was a place where people considered themselves important and where he was not regarded. Like a Huguenot imagining Rome, he built up a picture of frivolity, viciousness and corruption.

This seems doubly ungenerous when considered in the light of the epigraph from Leon Bloy with which Greene opened The End of the Affair: "Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence." Is this creative agony available only to those who believe in transubstantiation?

To be fair to Greene, whose answer to that question was fairly obviously in the affirmative, one must admit that he extended the same indulgence to one other group: the Communists. His two best-drawn heroes in this category, both noble men facing insuperable odds, are Doctor Magiot, in The Comedians, and Dr. Czinner, in Orient Express. (Here might be the place to say that I contributed an introduction to the latter for the new Penguin series.) The theme of martyrdom is constant, even with these secular materialists. "For a moment, Dr. Czinner"—confronted in a railway compartment—"flattened himself against the wall of a steep street to let the armoured men, the spears and the horses pass, and the tired tortured man. He had not died to make the poor contented, to bind the chains tighter; his words had been twisted." This is the observation of what later became known as "liberation theology" (something that, incidentally, seems to have fallen from view lately), and one notes in passing that "Czinner" is a not very artful name for a fallen Everyman.

Greene had briefly been a Party member while at Oxford, and although he was too intelligent and too prudent to remain a true adherent for long, he kept up a residual form of Catholic fellow-traveling until the end of his life. In 1967 he wrote a celebrated letter to the London Times. Its ostensible purpose was to join the protest against the imprisonment of two Russian writers, but its main effect was to qualify that protest by stating the following: "If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States of America, I would certainly choose the Soviet Union, just as I would choose life in Cuba to [sic] life in those southern American republics, like Bolivia, dominated by their northern neighbor, or life in North Vietnam to life in South Vietnam."

Greene never had to make this choice, if only because he was often refused a visa for the United States and never "chose" to spend much time in the Soviet Union. He did, however, keep up a lifelong friendship with a permanent resident of that latter state, Kim Philby. Perhaps the most ruthless and successful espionage agent of the entire Cold War, Philby had actually risen to be a senior British intelligence officer and a colleague trusted by James Angleton, of the CIA, while acting as a dedicated agent of the KGB. Greene contributed the introduction to Philby's Soviet-edited memoir, My Silent War, in which he wrote, "He betrayed his country—yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?" Leave aside that "perhaps." This, with its sanctimonious echo of "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," also recalls E. M. Forster's hope that he would "have the courage" to betray his country before his friends. This itself was almost as morally slippery as the original "casting the first stone" injunction: in any case, Philby, who sold out the colleagues he had trained himself, certainly betrayed both. Norman Sherry records that Greene lost his temper only once in the course of all their interviews—when Sherry pointed this out.

If betrayal is the motif of so many Greene novels, then its cousin treason was the motif of Kim Philby's entire life. In that sense alone Philby might have made the ideal friend for Greene. But that still left open the question of whom he had betrayed. It was surely more Greene's gentle native England than the wicked, vulgar United States. But to this Greene had a sort of reply ready. In the English past it had been considered "treasonous" to be a Roman Catholic. Official persecution was the underside of Elizabethan England. Many fine men, like Father John Gerard, had been slandered and tortured for their disloyalty (which happened to take the form of working for Catholic potentates on the mainland in order to prepare for an invasion). So strongly did Greene identify with these reactionary subversives that he became a Shakespeare-hater, accusing the national bard of being an accomplice in repression, if only a silent one. In a public address in Hamburg, accepting a Shakespeare prize from some well-meaning but unknowing academics, he astonishingly referred to John of Gaunt's dying speech about "this England" as "complacent" and pointed out that it was first published in 1597: "Two years before, Shakespeare's fellow poet Southwell had died on the scaffold after three years of torture. If only Shakespeare had shared his disloyalty, we could have loved him better as a man."

That was bad history as well as bad literary criticism. If Shakespeare had become an agent of the Vatican and King Philip of Spain, he would not have been a successful playwright in a flourishing and relatively uncensored Protestant London. (The obtuseness of Greene is increased rather than diminished when we appreciate the considerable scholarship suggesting that Shakespeare probably came from a Catholic family that had decided to practice the religion in secret, and that it was this, if anything, that explained his reticence on the matter.) Greene was very fond of his own professed attachment to the underdog. In that same lecture he asserted that "[the writer] stands for the victims, and the victims change." In Our Man in Havana we find that "there was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim." Simplicity here demands simplicity in return. Simply put: Is someone an underdog who aligns himself with an absolutist papacy, or with the state security services of the USSR?

It was The Quiet American, far more than any other novel, that gave Greene his still-enduring reputation for prescience. Had he not, in the figure of Alden Pyle, encapsulated the combination of American arrogance and naiveté that eventuated in the "quagmire" of Vietnam? The novel was published in 1955, shortly after the shattering defeat of French arms at Dien Bien Phu, and this coincidence made its acuity appear almost uncanny. Yet who was it who had written this, in 1952?

The Indo-Chinese front is only one sector of a long line which crosses Korea, touches the limits of a still-peaceful Hong Kong, cuts across Tongking, avoids—for the moment—Siam, and continues into the jungles of Malaya. If Indo-China falls, Korea will be isolated, Siam can be invaded in twenty-four hours and Malaya may have to be abandoned.

This almost absurdly crude statement of the "domino theory" was published by Graham Greene in Paris Match. It can be found in his Reflections, under what I consider to be the suggestive title "Indo-China: France's Crown of Thorns." If you re-read The Quiet American today, you will see that it blames the blundering Americans largely for failing to understand or to emulate the sophisticated French style of colonialism in Vietnam. For many of us the original sin—if I may annex that term—of the American intervention was precisely its inheritance of a doomed French war. For Greene, rather, it was the failure to live up to that legacy. Whatever this was, it was not a revolutionary or radical position. And it seems to have been content to overlook quite a few "victims."

But however frenziedly inconsistent he was on everything else, Greene was unwaveringly hostile to the United States. When, in the closing volume of his biography Norman Sherry gets to the publication of The Comedians, in 1966, he says of the Smith couple therein depicted: "At last, sympathetic Americans in a Greene novel." Well, that Mr. and Mrs. Smith have some sterling qualities is beyond doubt. But they are represented as culpably and laughably unworldly, obsessed with vegetarianism and abstention from alcohol. (Protestants, in fact.) They are, further, quite unable to see the horrors of the Duvalier regime, reluctant as they are to be too "judgmental" about anything for which black people can be blamed. This satire upon their innocence was rather clever of Greene, I always thought, because he was able to borrow the fatuous apologetics of the anti-American fellow-traveler and, so to speak, transfer it to an American target.

This element in Greene's prose needs no guilt-sodden, sweat-stained policeman to hunt it out. In more than one published reminiscence and interview he told of the seminal influence of The Pirate Aeroplane, an adventure story written by Captain Charles Gilson and read by Greene in early boyhood, in which an avaricious American airman, cheroot between his teeth, violates and plunders a lost civilization. Even in Travels With My Aunt, one of his lightest and wittiest books, Greene's narrator passes through Paris and achieves an understated masterpiece of condescension by saying, "I noticed a plaque which tells a visitor that here La Fayette signed some treaty or celebrated his return from the American revolution, I forget which."

Sherry's work is so replete with absurd and sinister remarks by Greene on his own un-Smith-like travels as a tourist of revolution in the Caribbean and Latin American zone that one could fill this page with balls-aching propagandistic remarks that impeached him out of his own mouth. It was unfortunate for "Papa Doc" Duvalier that he went so far as to be denounced for heresy by the Catholic Church: this licensed a full-out attack on him by Greene, even if the successor regime in Haiti, the "Baby Doc" nightmare, did receive the endorsement of the Holy See and of Mother Teresa. Of Fidel Castro, Greene would not hear an ill word spoken; he even differed with Kenneth Tynan and other sympathizers on the point and chose to celebrate (as I strongly suspect Tynan would not have) the then warm relations between Fidel and the papal nuncio. In 1987, with two years left to go in the life of Soviet communism, Greene turned up in Moscow and made the following speech at some "peace" conference or other:

We are fighting together against the death squads in El Salvador. We are fighting together against the Contras in Nicaragua. We are fighting together against General Pinochet in Chile. There is no division in our thoughts between Catholics—Roman Catholics—and Communists.

That may have been during the Gorbachev period, but he had been doing this sort of thing ever since the 1950s, when he indulged the Stalinist regime in Poland because it maintained a Catholic front organization called Pax Christi. Yet if we are charitable, and admit that there was a pulse of humanism under all this piffle (who, after all, except for some very dogmatic and often Catholic conservatives, will say a good word for the contras, or Pinochet, or the death squads?), this still leaves us empty-handed when it comes to General Manuel Noriega, of Panama. Greene obviously liked Panama as a country, and may have had some justification for his friendship with Omar Torrijos, a mediocre personality even as depicted in Getting to Know the General but quite possibly a man of some charm. Noriega, however, was purely and merely a sadist and a thief. He may not have instigated the murder of Torrijos (though Norman Sherry seems to implicate him in this crime), but he most certainly arranged the kidnapping, torture, and killing of one of Panama's most distinguished dissidents, Dr. Hugo Spadafora. The good doctor might have been a Greene hero if he had occurred in a different political context, but as it was Greene took the side of the oppressor, even telling an interviewer after the dictator's deposition in 1989, "I hope General Noriega will harass the invaders from bases in the mountains." In one of his last novels, Monsignor Quixote, Greene has an old priest and an old Communist rambling around Spain in a beat-up car and exchanging likable platitudes about the nature of (and the similarity of) their faiths. But what is quixotic about wishing an extension of life and power to a fascistic zombie like Noriega?

The term "anti-American" is a loose one, and loosely employed. My own working definition of it, admittedly a slack one also, is that a person is anti-American if he or she is consistently contemptuous of American culture and furthermore supports any opponent of U.S. policy, whoever this may be. And if an author accuses America of being insufficiently colonial in Vietnam, and lives long enough to endorse a Noriega resistance in Panama, he meets the qualification. That such a position should also be so largely "faith-based" is not as much of an irony as it might seem—not in the age of globalized (but of course anti-"globalization" and anti-American) jihad.

It is an irony, however, that Greene should have spent so much of his career trying to adapt himself to that most singularly American of the arts, the cinema. The distinction he made in his fictions—between novels and "entertainments"—was one that he first evolved to excuse himself for writing an openly catchpenny movie script in the form of Orient Express. A few years later, in 1937, he composed an essay on the film industry in which he claimed, "The poetic cinema, it is worth remembering, can be built up on a few very simple ideas, as simple as the idea behind the poetic fictions of Conrad: the love of peace, a country, a feeling for fidelity." In the same essay he chose to laud the cinematic honesty of D. W. Griffith.

Even his rivals and critics grant him a facile "I am a camera" skill. Evelyn Waugh conceded that with Greene's prose "the affinity to the film is everywhere apparent … it is the camera's eye which moves." J. M. Coetzee adds,

In Brighton Rock the influence of Howard Hawks can be felt in the handling of the violence at the racetrack; the ingenious use of the street photographer to advance the plot suggests Alfred Hitchcock. Chapters characteristically end with the focus being pulled back from human actors to the greater natural scene—the moon over city and beachfront, for instance.

These filmic qualities are, to put it not much higher, well-made clichés. So, for that matter, are the virtues "love of peace, a country, a feeling for fidelity." But Greene managed to betray all those, too. His many lost and exhausted and discredited causes need not evoke much nostalgia in us, but it is somehow fitting that his most lasting impression should be a celluloid one.