On October 2, 1904, Graham Greene was born. For fifty years, Greene was one of England’s most highly regarded novelists, writing both literary examinations of moral issues and lighter tales of espionage and political intrigue.
Greene was born at the boarding school where his father was a housemaster. By the time Greene began attending school, his father had become the school’s headmaster. He was a miserably unhappy student, in part because of his depression, a health issue he struggled with throughout his life. Greene made multiple suicide attempts in his early teens, and at sixteen, was sent to London for six months of psychotherapy. That was quite unusual for the era.
He studied history at Oxford University, and in his last year there, published his first book, a volume of poetry called Babbling April. After receiving his degree, Greene worked for a time as a private tutor, then as a reporter.
He met his wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning when she wrote to question him about a point of Catholic doctrine he had gotten wrong in one of his newspaper articles. Greene was an agnostic, but as his relationship with Vivien deepened, he thought he should better understand her faith. His studies led him to be baptized as a Catholic in 1926, and they were married the following year.
Greene’s first novel, The Man Within, was published in 1929. It wasn’t a best-seller, but it was well enough received that Greene left reporting to become a full-time novelist. His next two novels were less successful; Greene eventually disowned them, and they’ve never been reprinted. His first big success came in 1932 with the thriller Stamboul Train (also known as Orient Express), of which Greene said, “for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please.”
Greene supplemented his income by writing a freelance book and film reviews for London newspapers, one of which got him into legal trouble. His review of the Shirley Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie made reference to the “dubious coquetry” of 9-year-old Temple; the studio took offense at Greene’s implication that the movie was deliberately appealing to pedophiles and sued, winning the case.
Greene left England for Mexico until the trial was over. It wasn’t a particular hardship for him; he frequently visited remote parts of the world, and many of his novels were inspired by the time he’d spent in other countries. Because of his travels, he was recruited to join MI6—the British foreign intelligence agency, roughly analogous to our Central Intelligence Agency—by his sister, who worked there. He was posted to Sierra Leone during World War II. For a time, one of his supervisors at MI6 was Kim Philby, who was later revealed to be a Soviet spy.
For many years, Greene divided his books into “novels” and “entertainments.” The “entertainments” were the lighter books, often spy novels and thrillers; the “novels” were the serious literature on which he expected his literary reputation would rest.
Many of Greene’s “entertainments” were inspired by his travels. The Comedians was about life in Haiti under François “Papa Doc” Duvalier; A Burnt-Out Case was inspired by his visits to African leper colonies; and The Quiet American, about the growing American involvement in Vietnam in the years leading up to the Vietnam War, was rooted in Greene’s experiences as a reporter in Southeast Asia.
Greene’s “novels” were frequently rooted in Catholicism; while he had not been raised in the faith, he took it very seriously. In his literary criticism, Greene argued that religion was essential to literature; the stakes of permanent damnation or salvation were what gave the novel its dramatic force.
Four of his best and most popular books are collectively known as his “Catholic novels,” and they explore questions of sin and morality in a variety of contexts. Brighton Rock is a thriller set in London’s criminal underworld. The Heart of the Matter, about a British intelligence officer in Africa (again, Greene draws on his own experiences), explores themes of pity, and of what sins we are willing to commit, to make others happy. The End of the Affair is a tragic love triangle set in London at the end of World War II; and The Power and the Glory is the story of a Catholic priest living in Mexico in the 1930s, when Catholicism had been banned.
By the end of the 1950s, Greene was no longer finding the distinction between “novel” and “entertainment” very useful. His last book to be officially designated an “entertainment” was 1958’s Our Man in Havana, a dark political comedy that in some ways anticipates the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. And when the official “collected edition” of Greene’s works was published in the 1970s and 1980s, all of his books were simply labeled as “novels.”
That’s not to suggest that Greene had given up writing lighter stories. His 1969 novel Travels WIth My Aunt is one of his most overtly comic books, the story of a retired bank manager and his eccentric aunt traveling through Europe.
Greene’s last novel, The Captain and the Enemy, was published in 1988; it told the story of a boy taken from his boarding school to live in London with a mysterious stranger known only as “The Captain.” Greene died on April 3, 1991, of leukemia.
By the time of his death Greene was recognized as one of the finest novelists of his generation. The records of the deliberations for each year’s Nobel Prize in Literature are released to the public after 50 years, and in 2016, we learned that Greene had been one of the last three authors considered for the 2016 Nobel Prize, along with Jorge Luis Borges and the eventual winner, Miguel Ángel Asturias.
His literary style was clear, spare, and easily readable. Evelyn Waugh described it as “not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry, and of independent life.”
In addition to novels, Greene wrote plays, short stories, travel books, and screenplays. He was an Academy Award nominee for his screenplay to the 1948 film The Fallen Idol, based on one of his own short stories. More than sixty films were based on Greene’s novels, and he wrote the screenplays for five of those adaptations, including the 1938 version of Brighton Rock. Other Greene-based films available in our streaming collections (with screenplays by other writers) are 1972’s Travels With My Aunt, starring Maggie Smith, and 2002’s The Quiet American, with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. Dangerous Edge is a 2013 documentary about Greene’s life and career.
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