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In a recorded interview played at the First International Conference on Literature and Religion (Nov. 8-11, Fu-Jen University, Taipei, Taiwan) Graham Greene answered a question concerning the expression "Catholic atheist" that has surfaced in recent studies of his work (V. S. Pritchett, NY Times Magazine 26 Feb. 1978: 40). Somewhat amusedly Greene said that the term he had intended was "Catholic agnostic," adding that journalists, even those with tape recorders, were not to be trusted. In his excellent study of Greene's works, The Pursuit of Salvation: A Critical Guide to the Novels of Graham Greene, George M. A. Gaston, although he makes reference to "Catholic atheism" as an aspect of Greene's fictional universe, has not fallen into the trap of accepting it wholly. Rather he takes Greene as [End Page 358] Greene once asked to be taken, as a writer who happens to be a Catholic rather than as a Catholic writer. He understands that Greene is not to be taken seriously when making comments about commitment and that his off-hand remarks frequently say more about his beliefs than do those that appear more dogmatic, such as the one he made to Françoise-Marie Allain, published in The Other Man, that he hopes that God is still dogging his footsteps.
Gaston's thesis, "that there is an important line of development leading from those earlier eschatological works to the more recent, secular ones," is undeniable. He takes into full account the fall-from-grace aspect of the novels, aware that Greene's attitudes have modified as time and experience and wisdom have come to him. In pursuit of his thesis Gaston sets about locating evidences of grace in the novels from Brighton Rock through The End of the Affair where, to be sure, they abound. The increasing ambiguities of the works beginning with A Burnt-Out Case pose no special problems for him, and he is generally up to the task of finding evidences of his salvation theme. His insights are, in about equal measure, provocative and provoking. His discussion of Travels with My Aunt, for example, a pivotal book in the later phase of Greene's development because he gave up the category of "entertainment" with its publication, is both sensible and sensitive. Gaston correctly discerns Henry Pulling affirming life, despite the modest irony implicit in the quotation from Browning's "Pippa Passes," which concludes the narrative.
Yet it is not always possible to agree with Gaston's interpretations; nor need it be. For Greene in his later works is dealing purposefully with ambiguity as an integral aspect of the tragicomedy he discovered as a consequence of the writing of A Burnt-Out Case, the landscape of Cervantes where, as he says in the introduction to that novel, he intends to stay. Gaston is fully aware of the problematical aspects of these books, especially those in what may be Greene's darkest novel, The Comedians, reading Brown's joining of Fernandez as an undertaker at the book's conclusion as life-affirming. Such a reading, however, excepts the carefully drawn relationship among Brown, Papa Doc, and Baron Samedi. Brown's failure in what is, I think, a better reading of the text, one that considers the setting as a trope for hell itself, becomes in Kierkegaardian terms the failure of the individual to actualize the self, in religious terms implying the loss of the soul. The real point, however, is that The Comedians lends itself to various interpretations, all of which depend upon a proper appreciation of Greene's use of a macabre humor and dark comedy that incorporate ambiguity. To me the novel is more a dance of death than a celebration of life. If Gaston's interpretation is finally unconvincing, it is nevertheless cogent. [End Page 359]