restricted access Saints, Sinners and Comedians: The Novels of Graham Greene (review)
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Reviewed by
Roger Sharrock. Saints, Sinners and Comedians: The Novels of Graham Greene. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1984. 298 pp. $19.95.

Typical of much of the intelligent and sensible criticism on Greene since the early Sixties is Roger Scharrock's Saints, Sinners and Comedians. Sharrock examines the works as representative of a developing oeuvre, correctly assessing the secular stance that characterizes both the novels and entertainments, the latter a category that Greene no longer maintains, from The Man Within to the crucial Brighton Rock. The works from Brighton Rock through The End of the Affair he calls Greene's "Catholic" novels, meaning simply that Roman Catholic attitudes are implicit in the construction of character and the presentation of event. A Burnt-Out Case he sees as an epilogue to the interests and concerns of the major novels that precede it, and the works since A Burnt-Out Case as evidence of the incorporation of certain journalistic and private observations that justify the idiosyncratic tragicomedy of the more recent novels and novellas. Occasionally Sharrock makes use of terms such as "fideism," a term perhaps more appropriate to theology than to literary criticism, but he does so to chart the moral and ethical spectrum that Greene acknowledges as he hones his characterization to particular ends.

Sharrock's observations concerning style—he sees Greene moving from layered imagery through metonymy into a narrative mode that depends for effect on an austerity and simplicity of language that speaks directly and emotively to character and theme—are both provocative and cogent, as are his remarks about the dialectical means of presenting thesis through character confrontation and dialogue, a [End Page 812] Strategy that Greene himself acknowledges in the Introduction to as early a novel as Stamboul Train in the Collected Edition.

Sharrock present lucid and persuasive insights into the various stances that Greene has taken vis-à-vis his religiously oriented materials. He neither dismisses the reliance upon them nor exaggerates their importance as Greene has moved from a secular controlling view through one in which eschatological concerns determine a largely dialectical approach to the resolution of thesis. The authorial stance or controlling view since The Comedians, perhaps Greene's most problematic novel, he calls Catholic "atheism," judging it a fine focus that permits Greene to move gracefully into the tragicomedy that distinguishes the majority of the novels since A Burnt-Out Case. I myself am not sure that Catholic "atheism" is the best term to describe this controlling view, much preferring the one that Greene himself allowed in his conversations with Marie-Françoise Allain (published as The Other Man), "semi-lapsed." And to this I would couple his seemingly offhand remark that he hopes that God is still dogging his footsteps, as, indeed, God still seems to be dogging the footsteps of Eduardo Plarr in The Honorary Consul. And, I might add, that the term "semi-lapsed" would better serve to explain the Manichaeism of Dr. Fischer of Geneva than does the word "atheism," as well as the implication that purgatory is here and now. Yet the terminology is largely irrelevant, for the attitude that Sharrock suggests is viable.

Sharrock's book will be of particular interest to those wishing to assess Greene's latest fiction, from The Honorary Consul to Monsignor Quixote, the latter one of Greene's sunniest and most delightful works in whose sky there seems hardly a cloud. Monsignor Quixote, as does Travels with My Aunt, evokes the ghost of Cervantes to justify not only the picaresque form but also the characterization. And the chilling novella Dr. Fischer of Geneva Sharrock judges, correctly I think, a Christmas story on the subject of love and hate, a fable that, paradoxically perhaps, reaches the same conclusion that Monsignor Quixote does: as Jones, the narrator, says in the penultimate paragraph, "Death was no longer an answer—it was an irrelevance."

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