Henry Graham Greene, OM, CH (October 2, 1904 – April 3, 1991), was a visionary English novelist, playwright, short story writer, and critic. He also penned several screenplays for Hollywood, and in turn, many of his works, which are full of action and suspense, have been made into films. Greene's stylistic work is known for its explorations of moral issues dealt with in a political setting. His novels gained him a reputation as one of the most widely read writers of the twentieth century.
Graham Greene, known as a world-traveler, would often seek out adventure to fuel his stories and experience the political world of various nations up close. Many of his writings are centered on the religious beliefs of Roman Catholicism, although he detested being described as a "Catholic novelist" rather than as a "novelist who happened to be Catholic." His focus on religion did not deter readers or jade Greene's writings, but on the contrary, in novels such as Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Monsignor Quixote, and his famous work The Power and the Glory, it only made them more poignant. His intense focus on moral issues, politics, and religion, mixed with suspense and adventure, became the trademark of Graham Greene's ingenious works.
Graham Greene was the fourth born child to Charles Henry and Marion Raymond Greene. Greene was raised in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, and was a very shy and sensitive child. Graham was born into a large and influential family. His parents were first cousins, and were related to the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. His father was related to the owners of the large and influential Greene King brewery. The more distant relations of the family were comprised of various bankers, barristers, and businessmen.
Graham's siblings also made significant individual marks on the world. Greene's younger brother, Hugh served as the Director-General of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and his older brother, Raymond, was an eminent doctor and mountaineer, involved in both the 1931 Kamet and 1933 Everest expeditions.
In 1910, Charles Greene succeeded Dr. Thomas Fry as headmaster at Berkhamsted School, and Graham, along with his brothers, began attending Berkhamsted. Greene's years as a student at the school were full of profound unhappiness. Graham was constantly bullied, beat-up, mocked, and made fun of. He often skipped classes to find solitude in reading. His escapes only garnered him censure from his father, and he found that he could not balance the torrid treatment by his peers and the stern treatment by his father. During the three years at Berkhamsted, it is reported that Greene attempted suicide on several different occasions. Greene claimed that often he would sit and play Russian roulette—but Michael Shelden's biography of the author discredits this claim.
One day, Greene simply left school, leaving a letter for his parents that said he would not return. This led his parents sending him to a therapist in London to deal with his depression. Greene was seventeen at the time. His therapist, Kenneth Richmond, encouraged Greene to write and even introduced Greene to a few of his literary friends, like Walter de la Mare.
Greene returned to finish his high school education at Berkhamsted. He continued on at Balliol College, Oxford, where he published more than sixty stories, articles, reviews, and poems in the student magazine, Oxford Outlook. He reached a milestone in his life when his first volume of poetry was published in 1925, while he was still an undergraduate. In 1926, Graham Greene converted to Roman Catholicism, later stating that "I had to find a religion… to measure my evil against."
In 1926, Greene graduated and began a career in journalism. His first post was in Nottingham, a city he depicted in several of his novels, and while working he received a letter from Vivien Dayrell-Browning, also a Catholic, who had written to Greene and corrected him on points of Catholic doctrine. Greene was intrigued and they began a correspondence. Greene moved to London that same year and began working as an editor of The Times as well as The Spectator, where he was employed as a film critic and a literary editor until 1940.
In 1927, Greene and Vivien were married, although, Greene is the first to admit that he was not a family man and reportedly disliked children. Greene was unfaithful to Vivien and the marriage fell apart in 1948. Despite his feelings about children, the couple had two, Lucy (1933) and Francis (1936). Throughout his marriage, Greene had a number of affairs with various women. Often his mistresses were married women who lived in different countries. In 1948, Greene left Vivien for Catherine Walston, even though the couple never officially filed for divorce.
Graham Greene published his first novel in 1929, and with the publication of The Man Within, he began devoting all his time to writing. Greene quit his full-time post and supplemented his income with freelance jobs. Along with working for The Spectator, he also co-edited the magazine, Night and Day. In 1937, the magazine closed down after Greene wrote a review of Wee Willie Winkie, a film starring Shirley Temple. In the review, Greene wrote that Temple displayed "a certain adroit coquetry which appealed to middle-aged men." This comment caused the magazine to lose a libel case, and it remains the first criticism in the entertainment industry of the sexualization of children.
His first real success came with the publication of Stamboul Train in 1932 (adapted into the film, Orient Express, in 1934). He met with other success as he continued to write, often having two very distinct audiences. There was the audience that loved Greene's thrillers and suspense novels like Brighton Rock and there was a completely different audience who admired Greene's genius in literary novels such as The Power and the Glory. Considered the best novel of his career, it was both acclaimed (Hawthornden Prize winner in 1941) and condemned (by the Vatican). While Greene was able to divide his works into two genres, his reputation as a literary writer gained him more recognition.
Greene's diverse talent was recognized when his mystery/suspense novels began to be valued as much as his more serious novels. Such works as The Human Factor, The Comedians, Our Man in Havana, and The Quiet American showed Greene's ability to create an entertaining and thrilling story and combine it with serious insight, depth of character, and universal themes.
With the success of his books, Greene expanded his literary repertoire to short stories and plays. He also wrote many screenplays, his most famous one being The Third Man. In addition, several of his books were made into films, including 1947's Brighton Rock and The Quiet American(2002), set in Vietnam and starring Michael Caine (for which Caine was nominated for an Oscar).
Greene was considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature several times, but he never received the prize. Some attributed this to the very fact that he was so popular, as the scholarly elite disliked this trait. His religious themes were also thought to have played a role in whether or not he was awarded the honor, as it might have alienated some of the judges.
Greene's writings were innovative, not only in the religious themes he incorporated, but also in his avoidance of popular modernist experiments. His writings were characterized by a straightforward and clear manner. He was a realist, yet his technique created suspenseful and exciting plots. His word combinations led many to feel like they were reading something cinematic. His descriptions were full of imagery, yet he was not superfluous in his word usage, a trait that was admired by his audience and contributed to his wide popularity.
Another facet of Greene's writing style was the ability he had to depict the internal struggles that his characters faced, as well as their outward struggles. His characters were deeply spiritual with emotional depth and intelligence. They each faced universal struggles, but Greene portrayed them as highly individualistic. The reader cares deeply for the characters facing rampant cynicism and world-weariness. His characters often faced living conditions that were harsh, wretched and squalid. The settings of Greene's stories were poverty stricken countries like Mexico, West Africa, Vietnam, Haiti, Argentina—countries that were hot, humid, and abject. This trait led to the coining of the expression "Greeneland" for describing such settings.
Even with the most destitute of circumstances Greene's characters had the values and beliefs of Catholicism explicitly present in their lives. Greene was critical of the literature of his time for its dull, superficial characters who "wandered about like cardboard symbols through a world that is paper-thin." He felt that literature could be saved by adding religious elements to the stories. He felt the basic struggle between good and evil, the basic beliefs in right and wrong, the realities of sin and grace, were all tools to be used in creating a more sensitive and spiritual character. Greene believed that the consequences of evil were just as real as the benefits of being good. V. S. Pritchett praised Greene, saying that he was the first English novelist since Henry James to present, and grapple with, the reality of evil. This ever present portrayal of evil was scorned by the leading theologian of the day, Hans Urs von Balthasar, who said the Greene had given sin a certain "mystique." Greene not only dealt with the opposites of sin and virtue, but he explored many other Christian aspects of life as well, such as the value of faith, peace, and joy. Greene received both praise and criticism from Catholic writers and scholars.
As Greene grew older, his writings changed. No longer did he focus as intently on religious views. Instead, his focus became more wide-spread and approachable to a broader audience. He turned to a more "humanistic" viewpoint. In addition to this, he outwardly rejected many of the orthodox Catholic teachings he had embraced earlier in his life. Readers of his work began to see that the protagonists were much more likely to be believers in Communism rather than Catholicism.
Greene's political views were different from other "Catholic writers" of the time, like Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Burgess. While they maintained a strictly right-winged agenda, Greene was always leaning left, and his travels influenced these ideas. Though many claim that politics didn't interest Greene, his novels all began to reflect on and criticize American imperialism. Greene became a sympathizer with those who opposed the American government, like the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
During World War II, Greene began to travel extensively; this travel would play a major part in the rest of his life. In fact, it was his travels and the people he met in various countries that inspired many of his plots, themes, and characters. In 1938, for example, the Roman Catholic Church funded Greene's trip to Mexico. The purpose of this trip was for Greene to observe and write about the effects of a forced anti-Catholic campaign against secularization. This event led to Greene writing The Lawless Roads (or Another Mexico, as it was known in America) and it formed the core of the fictional novel, The Power and the Glory.
During World War II, a notorious double agent, Kim Philby recruited Greene to work for England's own MI6. This stint in espionage fueled Greene's desire to travel, as well as provided him with memorable and intriguing characters. Greene became obsessed with traveling to the "wild and remote" places of the world. His travels led him to François Duvalier's Haiti, where he set his 1966 novel, The Comedians. Greene became so well-known in Haiti that the proprietor of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, named a room in the hotel in honor of Greene. After the war ended, he continued to travel as a free-lance journalist. He spent a long period on the French Riviera, in particular, Nice. He also made several anti-American comments during his travels, thus opening doors to Communist leaders like Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, whom he interviewed. Greene's close friend, Evelyn Waugh, wrote a letter in support of Greene as "a secret agent on our side and all his buttering up of the Russians is 'cover'."
There is so much weariness and disappointment in travel that people have to open up—in railway trains, over a fire, on the decks of steamers, and in the palm courts of hotels on a rainy day. They have to pass the time somehow, and they can pass it only with themselves. Like the characters of Anton Chekhov they have no reserves—you learn the most intimate secrets. You get an impression of a world peopled by eccentrics, of odd professions, almost incredible stupidities, and, to balance them, amazing endurances (Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads, 1939).
During the final years of Graham Greene's life, he received many honors. In 1981, he was the recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, awarded to writers who are concerned with "the freedom of the individual in society." In, J'Accuse—The Dark Side of Nice (1982), one of his last works, he wrote about the travesties he saw while living in Nice. He wrote specifically about the organized crime that corrupted the very foundations of the civic government and the severe judicial and police corruption abounding in the society. His writings were not ignored, and this led to a libel case, which he lost. Vindication came in 1994, three years after his death, when the former mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, was finally convicted and sentenced to jail for several counts of corrupt behavior and criminal actions.
Greene's affairs over the years were depicted in several novels, and in 1966, he made a move to Antibes. His purpose was to be close to Yvonne Cloetta, a woman whom he had known for many years. This relationship, unlike many others, endured his travels and continued until his death. Nearing the end of his life, Greene moved to the small Swiss town of Vevey, on Lake Geneva. Even though he confessed to still being a Catholic, he had not practiced the religion since the 1950s. Towards the end of his life he made a point of attending Mass and honoring the sacraments. On April 3, 1991, Graham Greene passed away and he was buried in Corsier-sur-Vevey in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland. He was 86 years old.
Previous to this time, Greene had published two volumes of his autobiography, A Sort of Life in 1971, and Ways of Escape in 1980. In October 2004, a third volume of his life was published by Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene. Sherry followed Greene's footsteps, traveling to the same countries, and even contracting several of the same diseases that Greene had been afflicted with. Sherry discovered that Greene had continued to submit reports to British intelligence until the end of his life. This led scholars and Greene's literary audience to entertain the provocative and necessary question: "Was Greene a novelist who was also a spy, or was his lifelong literary career the perfect cover?"
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