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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.1 (2001) 54-75
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Men, Women, God, and So Forth
J. C. Whitehouse
There's always more to an author than any individual book suggests, and before we look at The End of the Affair I'd like to make a few brief remarks about Graham Greene's fiction as whole.
He's perhaps the modern English writer coming closest to one distorting stereotype, in which the Catholic novelist is seen as obsessed with sex, guilt, and an unappealing religiosity. Certainly there's plenty of sex, sin, and guilt in Greene's books, but there's always much more to the sinners than their sin, and his work is marked by pity, compassion, and a sense of human fraternity and solidarity. Yet Greene was also an individualist, markedly egocentric, ploughing his lonely furrow through life as through art, surrounded in both by other lives, other destinies, which what he called "the chip of ice in the writer's heart" enabled him to explore and use. All his novels deal with individuals in their own specific personal situation, upon which important institutions and large-scale events impinge to varying degrees, but always peripherally. His stubborn independence provoked an artistically fruitful--if morally problematic--tension between his membership of the Church, [End Page 54] the events of his personal life, and his activities as a writer. In his determination to avoid labels and remain a free agent, Greene always refused to call himself a Catholic writer, insisting that he was merely "a writer who in four or five books took characters with Catholic ideas for his material" (In Search of a Character, 1961, 26, n. 1). He also insisted that as a novelist he must be allowed to write from the "wrong" point of view:
I belong to a group, the Catholic Church, which would present me with grave problems as a writer if I were not saved by my disloyalty . . . As a novelist, I must be allowed to write from the point of view of the black square as well as of the white: doubt and denial must be given their chance of self-expression . . . (Letter to Elizabeth Bowen, reprinted in Whitehouse, ed., 1997, 34-35)
None of this, however, means that he escaped either being seen as a Catholic writer or the often uninformed, facile, and condescending comments the label provoked. Many critics have taken a guilty pleasure in reading the novels, suspecting that in doing so they are being manipulated by an inbuilt ideology, and have then exorcised their guilt by exposing that ideology for the unsatisfactory and unconvincing thing they want it to be, stressing that the religious element in his fiction is contrived, unconvincing, paradoxical and, worst of all, out of touch with an intelligent humanistic skepticism (Whitehouse, 1999, 87-89).
The sources of Greene's inspiration are often antipathies rather than sympathies: the banality and boredom of the world without God, facile optimism, conventional piety, pharisaism, and the pathetic inadequacy of human attempts to explain our nature and our life, and to produce heaven on earth. Whether embryonic, developed, or waning, faith, hope, and charity are the only way to salvation in human or theological terms. His novels occasionally suggest a dim and clouded glimpse of what the real life we consciously or unconsciously [End Page 55] long for might conceivably be, and how often we miss it. That glimpse, the overpowering silence of God, and the enormous effort faith requires, form the bedrock of Greene's fiction. They are the real "terrors of the soul." The nightmare of Monsignor Quixote, the eponymous hero of Greene's last major novel, sums this up tersely and effectively:
He had dreamt that Christ had been saved from the Cross by the legion of angels to which on an earlier occasion the Devil had told Him that he could appeal. So there was no final agony, no heavy stone which had to be rolled away, no discovery of an empty tomb. Father Quixote stood there watching on...