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Henry Graham Greene (2 October 1904 – 3 April 1991), better known by his pen name Graham Greene, was an English novelist regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Combining literary acclaim with widespread popularity, Greene acquired a reputation early in his lifetime as a major writer, both of serious Catholic novels, and of thrillers (or "entertainments" as he termed them). He was shortlisted, in 1966 and 1967, for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Through 67 years of writings, which included over 25 novels, he explored the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world, often through a Catholic perspective.
Although Greene objected strongly to being described as a Roman Catholic novelist, rather than as a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Catholic religious themes are at the root of much of his writing, especially the four major Catholic novels: Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair; which are regarded as "the gold standard" of the Catholic novel. Several works, such as The Confidential Agent, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Human Factor, and his screenplay for The Third Man, also show Greene's avid interest in the workings and intrigues of international politics and espionage.
Greene was born in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire into a large, influential family that included the owners of the Greene King Brewery. He boarded at Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire, where his father taught and became headmaster. Unhappy at the school, he attempted suicide several times. He went up to Balliol College, Oxford, to study history, where, while an undergraduate, he published his first work in 1925—a poorly received volume of poetry, Babbling April. After graduating, Greene worked first as a private tutor and then as a journalist – first on the Nottingham Journal and then as a sub-editor on The Times. He converted to Catholicism in 1926 after meeting his future wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning. Later in life he took to calling himself a "Catholic agnostic". He published his first novel, The Man Within, in 1929; its favourable reception enabled him to work full-time as a novelist. He supplemented his novelist's income with freelance journalism, and book and film reviews. His 1937 film review of Wee Willie Winkie (for the British journal Night and Day), commented on the sexuality of the nine-year-old star, Shirley Temple. This provoked Twentieth Century Fox to sue, prompting Greene to live in Mexico until after the trial was over. While in Mexico, Greene developed the ideas for The Power and the Glory. Greene originally divided his fiction into two genres (which he described as "entertainments" and "novels"): thrillers—often with notable philosophic edges—such as The Ministry of Fear; and literary works—on which he thought his literary reputation would rest—such as The Power and the Glory.
Greene had a history of depression, which had a profound effect on his writing and personal life. In a letter to his wife, Vivien, he told her that he had "a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life," and that "unfortunately, the disease is also one's material." William Golding described Greene as "the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man's consciousness and anxiety." He died in 1991, at age 86, of leukaemia, and was buried in Corseaux cemetery.
Early years (1904–1925)
Henry Graham Greene was born in 1904 in St. John's House, a boarding house of Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, where his father was housemaster. He was the fourth of six children; his younger brother, Hugh, became Director-General of the BBC, and his elder brother, Raymond, an eminent physician and mountaineer.
His parents, Charles Henry Greene and Marion Raymond Greene, were first cousins, both members of a large, influential family that included the owners of Greene King Brewery, bankers, and statesmen; his mother was cousin to Robert Louis Stevenson. Charles Greene was second master at Berkhamsted School, where the headmaster was Dr Thomas Fry, who was married to Charles' cousin. Another cousin was the right-wing pacifist Ben Greene, whose politics led to his internment during World War II.
In his childhood, Greene spent his summers with his uncle, Sir William, at Harston House in Cambridgeshire. In Greene's description of his childhood, he describes his learning to read there: "It was at Harston I found quite suddenly I could read — the book was Dixon Brett, Detective. I didn't want anyone to know of my discovery, so I read only in secret, in a remote attic, but my mother must have spotted what I was at all the same, for she gave me Ballantyne's The Coral Island for the train journey home — always an interminable journey with the long wait between trains at Bletchley…"
In 1910 Charles Greene succeeded Dr Fry as headmaster of Berkhamsted. Graham also attended the school as a boarder. Bullied and profoundly depressed, he made several suicide attempts, including, as he wrote in his autobiography, by Russian roulette and by taking aspirin before going swimming in the school pool. In 1920, aged 16, in what was a radical step for the time, he was sent for psychoanalysis for six months in London, afterwards returning to school as a day student. School friends included Claud Cockburn the journalist, and Peter Quennell the historian.
In 1922, Greene was for a short time a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and sought an invitation to the new Soviet Union, of which nothing came. In 1925, while he was an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, his first work, a poorly received volume of poetry titled Babbling April, was published.
Greene suffered from periodic bouts of depression while at Oxford, and largely kept to himself. Of Greene's time at Oxford, his contemporary Evelyn Waugh noted that: "Graham Greene looked down on us (and perhaps all undergraduates) as childish and ostentatious. He certainly shared in none of our revelry." He graduated in 1925 with a second-class degree in history.
After leaving Oxford, Greene worked for a period of time as a private tutor and then turned to journalism – first on the Nottingham Journal, and then as a sub-editor on The Times. While he was working in Nottingham, he started corresponding with Vivien Dayrell-Browning, who had written to him to correct him on a point of Catholic doctrine. Greene was an agnostic at the time, but when he later began to think about marrying Vivien, it occurred to him that, as he puts it in A Sort of Life, he "ought at least to learn the nature and limits of the beliefs she held." Greene was baptised on 26 February 1926 and they married on 15 October 1927 at St Mary's Church, Hampstead, North London.
Greene's first published novel was The Man Within (1929). Favourable reception emboldened him to quit his sub-editor job at The Times and work as a full-time novelist. The next two books, The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1932), were unsuccessful; and he later disowned them. His first true success was Stamboul Train (1932) which was taken on by the Book Society and adapted as the film Orient Express, in 1934.
He supplemented his novelist's income with freelance journalism, book and film reviews for The Spectator, and co-editing the magazine Night and Day. Greene's 1937 film review of Wee Willie Winkie, for Night and Day – which said that the nine-year-old star, Shirley Temple, displayed "a dubious coquetry" which appealed to "middle-aged men and clergymen" – provoked Twentieth Century Fox successfully to sue for £3,500 plus costs, which resulted in the magazine folding, and Greene leaving the UK to live in Mexico until after the trial was over. While in Mexico, Greene developed the ideas for the novel often considered his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory.
By the 1950s Graham Greene was generally acknowledged as one of the finest writers of his generation.
As his career lengthened, both Greene and his readers found the distinction between entertainments and novels increasingly problematic. The last book Greene termed an entertainment was Our Man in Havana in 1958.
Greene also wrote short stories and plays, which were well received, although he was always first and foremost a novelist. His first play, The Living Room, debuted in 1953.
Michael Korda, a lifelong friend of Greene and later his editor at Simon & Schuster, once observed Greene at work. Korda observed that Greene wrote in a small black leather notebook with a black fountain pen and would write approximately 500 words. Once he reached 500 he would put his pen away and be done for the day. Korda described this as Graham's daily penance—once he finished he put the notebook away for the rest of the day.
Travel and espionage
Throughout his life, Greene travelled far from England, to what he called the world's wild and remote places. The travels led to his being recruited into MI6 by his sister, Elisabeth, who worked for the agency. Accordingly, he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War. Kim Philby, who would later be revealed as a Soviet agent, was Greene's supervisor and friend at MI6. Greene later wrote an introduction to Philby's 1968 memoir, My Silent War. As a novelist Greene wove the characters he met and the places where he lived into the fabric of his novels.
Greene first left Europe at 30 years of age in 1935 on a trip to Liberia that produced the travel book Journey Without Maps. His 1938 trip to Mexico to see the effects of the government's campaign of forced anti-Catholic secularisation was paid for by the publishing company Longman, thanks to his friendship with Tom Burns. That voyage produced two books, the factual The Lawless Roads (published as Another Mexico in the U.S.) and the novel The Power and the Glory. In 1953 the Holy Office informed Greene that The Power and the Glory was damaging to the reputation of the priesthood; but later, in a private audience with Greene, Pope Paul VI told him that, although parts of his novels would offend some Catholics, he should ignore the criticism.
Greene first travelled to Haiti in 1954, where The Comedians (1966) is set, which was then under the rule of dictator François Duvalier, known as "Papa Doc", frequently staying at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. And, in the late 1950s, as inspiration for his novel, A Burnt-Out Case (1960), Greene spent time travelling around Africa visiting a number of leper colonies in the Congo Basin and in what were then the British Cameroons. During this trip in late February and early March 1959, he met several times with Andrée de Jongh, a Belgian resistance fighter responsible for establishing an escape route for downed airmen from Belgium to the Pyrenees.
In 1957, just months after Fidel Castro had begun his revolutionary final assault on the Batista regime in Cuba, Greene played a small role in helping the revolutionaries, as a secret courier transporting warm clothing for Castro's rebels hiding in the hills during the Cuban winter. Greene was said to have a fascination with strong leaders, which may have accounted for his interest in Castro, whom he later met. After one visit Castro gave Greene a painting he had done, which hung in the living room of the French house where the author spent the last years of his life. Greene did later voice doubts about Castro's Cuba, telling a French interviewer in 1983, "I admire him for his courage and his efficiency, but I question his authoritarianism," adding: "All successful revolutions, however idealistic, probably betray themselves in time."
After meeting his future wife Vivien Dayrell-Browning, Greene was baptised into the Catholic faith on 26 February 1926, and they were married on 15 October 1927 at St Mary's Church, Hampstead, North London. The Greenes had two children, Lucy Caroline (born 1933) and Francis (born 1936).
In his discussions with Father Trollope, the priest to whom he went for instruction in Catholicism, Greene argued with the cleric "on the ground of dogmatic atheism", as Greene's primary difficulty with religion was what he termed the "if" surrounding God's existence. He found, however, that "after a few weeks of serious argument the 'if' was becoming less and less improbable", and Greene finally was converted and baptised after vigorous arguments initially with the priest in which he defended atheism, or at least the "if" of agnosticism. Late in life, however, Greene took to calling himself a "Catholic agnostic".
Beginning in 1946, Greene had an affair with Catherine Walston, the wife of Harry Walston, a wealthy farmer and future life peer. That relationship is generally thought to have informed the writing of The End of the Affair, published in 1951, when the affair came to an end. Greene had left his family in 1947, but in accordance with Catholic teaching, Vivien refused to grant him a divorce, and they remained married until Greene's death in 1991.
Greene had also had several other affairs and sexual encounters during their marriage, and in later years Vivien remarked, "With hindsight, he was a person who should never have married." He had remained estranged from his wife and children, and remarked in his later years, "I think my books are my children."
Greene had suffered from manic depression (bipolar disorder).
Final years and death
After falling victim to a financial swindler, Greene chose to leave Britain in 1966, moving to Antibes, to be close to Yvonne Cloetta, whom he had known since 1959, a relationship that endured until his death. In 1973 he had an uncredited cameo appearance as an insurance company representative in François Truffaut's film Day for Night. In 1981 Greene was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, awarded to writers concerned with the freedom of the individual in society.
He lived the last years of his life in Vevey, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the same town Charlie Chaplin was living in at this time. He visited Chaplin often, and the two were good friends. His book Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (1980) bases its themes on combined philosophic and geographic influences. He had ceased going to mass and confession in the 1950s, but in his final years began to receive the sacraments again from Father Leopoldo Durán, a Spanish priest, who became a friend.
In one of his final works, a pamphlet titled J'Accuse – The Dark Side of Nice (1982), Greene wrote of a legal matter that had embroiled him and his extended family in Nice, and declared that organised crime flourished in Nice because the city's upper levels of civic government had protected judicial and police corruption. The accusation provoked a libel lawsuit that Greene lost; but he was vindicated after his death when, in 1994, the former mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, was imprisoned for corruption and associated crimes.
In 1984, in celebration of his 80th birthday, the brewery Greene's great-grandfather had founded in 1799 made a special edition of its 'St. Edmunds' ale for him, with a special label in his honour. Commenting on turning 80, Greene said, "The big advantage...is that at 80 you are more likely these days to beat out encountering your end in a nuclear war", adding, "the other side of the problem is that I really don't want to survive myself [which] has nothing to do with nukes, but with the body hanging around while the mind departs."
In 1986 Greene was awarded Britain's Order of Merit. He died in 1991 at age 86 of leukaemia and was buried in Corseaux cemetery.
Writing style and themes
Greene originally divided his fiction into two genres: thrillers (mystery and suspense books), such as The Ministry of Fear, which he described as entertainments, often with notable philosophic edges; and literary works, such as The Power and the Glory, which he described as novels, on which he thought his literary reputation was to be based.
As his career lengthened, both Greene and his readers found the distinction between entertainments and novels increasingly problematic. The last book Greene termed an entertainment was Our Man in Havana in 1958. When Travels with My Aunt was published eleven years later, many reviewers noted that Greene had designated it a novel, even though, as a work decidedly comic in tone, it appeared closer to his last two entertainments, Loser Takes All and Our Man in Havana, than to any of the novels. Greene, they speculated, seemed to have dropped the category of entertainment. This was soon confirmed. In the Collected Edition of Greene's works published in 22 volumes between 1970 and 1982, the distinction between novels and entertainments is no longer maintained. All are novels.
Greene was one of the most "cinematic" of twentieth-century writers; most of his novels and many of his plays and short stories have been adapted for film or television. The Internet Movie Database lists 66 titles between 1934 and 2010 based on Greene material. Some novels were filmed more than once, such as Brighton Rock in 1947 and 2011, The End of the Affair in 1955 and 1999, and The Quiet American in 1958 and 2002. The 1936 thriller A Gun for Sale was filmed at least five times under different titles. Greene received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay for the 1948 Carol Reed film The Fallen Idol, adapted from his own short story The Basement Room. He also wrote several original screenplays. In 1949, after writing the novella as "raw material", he wrote the screenplay for a classic film noir, The Third Man, also directed by Carol Reed, and featuring Orson Welles. In 1983 The Honorary Consul, published ten years earlier, was released as a film under its original title, starring Michael Caine and Richard Gere. Author and screenwriter Michael Korda contributed a foreword and introduction to this novel in a commemorative edition.
In 2009 The Strand Magazine began to publish in serial form a newly discovered Greene novel titled The Empty Chair. The manuscript was written in longhand when Greene was 22 and newly converted to Catholicism.
Greene's literary style was described by Evelyn Waugh in Commonweal as "not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry, and of independent life". Commenting on this lean, realistic prose and its readability, Richard Jones wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review that "nothing deflects Greene from the main business of holding the reader's attention." Greene's novels often have religious themes at their centre. In his literary criticism he attacked the modernist writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster for having lost the religious sense which, he argued, resulted in dull, superficial characters, who "wandered about like cardboard symbols through a world that is paper-thin." Only in recovering the religious element, the awareness of the drama of the struggle in the soul that carries the permanent consequence of salvation or damnation, and of the ultimate metaphysical realities of good and evil, sin and divine grace, could the novel recover its dramatic power. Suffering and unhappiness are omnipresent in the world Greene depicts; and Catholicism is presented against a background of unvarying human evil, sin, and doubt. V. S. Pritchett praised Greene as the first English novelist since Henry James to present, and grapple with, the reality of evil. Greene concentrated on portraying the characters' internal lives – their mental, emotional, and spiritual depths. His stories are often set in poor, hot and dusty tropical places such as Mexico, West Africa, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, and Argentina, which led to the coining of the expression "Greeneland" to describe such settings.
The novels often powerfully portray the Christian drama of the struggles within the individual soul from the Catholic perspective. Greene was criticised for certain tendencies in an unorthodox direction – in the world, sin is omnipresent to the degree that the vigilant struggle to avoid sinful conduct is doomed to failure, hence not central to holiness. Friend and fellow Catholic Evelyn Waugh attacked that as a revival of the Quietist heresy. This aspect of his work also was criticised by the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, as giving sin a mystique. Greene responded that constructing a vision of pure faith and goodness in the novel was beyond his talents. Praise of Greene from an orthodox Catholic point of view by Edward Short is in Crisis Magazine, and a mainstream Catholic critique is presented by Joseph Pearce.
Catholicism's prominence decreased in his later writings. According to Ernest Mandel in his Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story: "Greene started out as a conservative agent of the British intelligence services, upholding such reactionary causes as the struggle of the Catholic Church against the Mexican revolution (The Power and the Glory, 1940), and arguing the necessary merciful function of religion in a context of human misery (Brighton Rock, 1938; The Heart of the Matter, 1948). The better he came to know the socio-political realities of the third world where he was operating, and the more directly he came to be confronted by the rising tide of revolution in those countries, the more his doubts regarding the imperialist cause grew, and the more his novels shifted away from any identification with the latter." The supernatural realities that haunted the earlier work declined and were replaced by a humanistic perspective, a change reflected in his public criticism of orthodox Catholic teaching.
In his later years Greene was a strong critic of American imperialism and sympathized with the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whom he had met. Years before the Vietnam War, he prophetically attacked the idealistic but arrogant beliefs of The Quiet American, whose certainty in his own virtue kept him from seeing the disaster he inflicted on the Vietnamese. (For Greene's views on politics, see also Anthony Burgess' Politics in the Novels of Graham Greene.) In Ways of Escape, reflecting on his Mexican trip, he complained that Mexico's government was insufficiently left-wing compared with Cuba's. In Greene's opinion, "Conservatism and Catholicism should be ... impossible bedfellows".
In 1949, when the New Statesman held a contest for parodies of Greene's writing style, he submitted an entry under the name "N. Wilkinson" and won second prize. His entry comprised the first two paragraphs of a novel, apparently set in Italy, The Stranger's Hand: An Entertainment. Greene's friend Mario Soldati, a Piedmontese novelist and film director, believed it had the makings of a suspense film about Yugoslav spies in postwar Venice. Upon Soldati's prompting, Greene continued writing the story as the basis for a film script. Apparently he lost interest in the project, leaving it as a substantial fragment that was published posthumously in The Graham Greene Film Reader (1993) and No Man's Land (2005). A script for The Stranger's Hand was written by Guy Elmes on the basis of Greene's unfinished story, and filmed by Soldati in 1954. In 1965 Greene again entered a similar New Statesman competition pseudonymously, and won an honourable mention.
Greene is regarded as a major 20th-century novelist, and was described by John Irving, prior to Greene's death, as "the most accomplished living novelist in the English language." Novelist Frederick Buechner called Greene's novel The Power and the Glory a "tremendous influence." By 1943 Greene had acquired the reputation of being the "leading English male novelist of his generation", and at the time of his death in 1991 had a reputation as a writer of both deeply serious novels on the theme of Catholicism, and of "suspense-filled stories of detection". Acclaimed during his lifetime, he was shortlisted in 1966 for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1967, Greene was among the final three choices, according to Nobel records unsealed on the 50th anniversary in 2017. The committee also considered Jorge Luis Borges and Miguel Ángel Asturias, with the latter the chosen winner.
Greene collected several literary awards for his novels, including the 1941 Hawthornden Prize for The Power and the Glory and the 1948 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Heart of the Matter. As an author, he received the 1968 Shakespeare Prize and the 1981 Jerusalem Prize, a biennial literary award given to writers whose works have dealt with themes of human freedom in society. In 1986, he was awarded Britain's Order of Merit.
The Graham Greene International Festival is an annual four-day event of conference papers, informal talks, question and answer sessions, films, dramatised readings, music, creative writing workshops and social events. It is organised by the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust, and takes place in the writer's home town of Berkhamsted (about 35 miles northwest of London), on dates as close as possible to the anniversary of his birth (2 October). Its purpose is to promote interest in and study of the works of Graham Greene.
He is the subject of the 2013 documentary film, Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene.
His short story "The Destructors" was featured in the 2001 film Donnie Darko.