Faith Noir: On Graham Greene and the Catholic Novel

The Harvard Advocate
Fall 2009


In every photograph of Graham Greene, the author seems slightly startled, his eyes staring out into some distant beyond or into his own soul. A biographical sketch of his early life takes shape as a litany of failure: a miserable boarding school education during which he was bullied for being the headmaster’s son; afternoons spent spinning the cylinder in solitary games of Russian roulette; half a year of psychoanalysis at age sixteen; unsuccessful attempts at poetry and journalism; an unhappy marriage and a series of affairs; a libelous review of a Shirley Temple film for which the magazine in which it was published was forced to fold. Despite this last setback, it was film—the money he brought in as a critic, as well as the royalties from adaptations of his own novels—that made up a large part of his livelihood, enabling him to write. (The other source of income was his espionage work as a double agent for the British M16, an excuse to travel to other parts of the world as material for his fiction.) Pinballing back and forth between the extremes, Green swung from the heights of exhilaration to the depths of depression. He wrote bleak dramas set against a landscape of sin as well as lighthearted parodies of the intelligence community; sought baptism to become a Roman Catholic like his wife, renounced it, and claimed it again; and embraced Castro’s communism with sudden ardor at the end of his life after a career of lampooning it. Medical diagnosis would identify this condition as bipolar disorder—yet his depressed, conflicting tendencies also hint at a more metaphysical malaise.

More than perhaps any other literary form, the novel depends on the prolonged contemplation—and often melancholy—of its author. But the Catholic novelist is more than unhappy: he writes as a way of knocking against the gates of heaven, to which he has been denied entrance. His writing is a transcription and translation of his despair. To make God a mere character is already a transgression, a source of guilt and shame; to write with sincerity about the evils in His world one must have struggled with His absence. “Being a member of the Catholic Church would present me with grave problems as a writer if I were not saved by my disloyalty,” Greene once wrote. “If my conscience were as acute as Francois Mauriac’s showed itself to be in his essay God and Mammon, I could not write a line.” The example was not a particularly accurate one, for Mauriac himself struggled with his dual identity as religious man and writer. To be a truly good Catholic and dissolve oneself in its dogma, he said, “one would have to be a saint. But then one could not write novels.”

Seeking to define himself as a novelist first, Greene rebelled against the label of Catholic writer and all the heavy-handed religious expectations that accompanied it. His prose takes on a self-lacerating quality, rubbing at the raw wounds of skepticism, rather than soothing characters with the swaddling clothes of prayer. (The reader too suffers: how often can one read of doubt without coming to embrace it as a reality above faith?) In The Power and the Glory—chronologically the second of the four books most critics consider his “Catholic novels,” which also include Brighton RockThe Heart of the Matter, andThe End of the Affair—a lieutenant lies in his squalid, beetle-infested lodgings and thinks with disdain of the priest he is trying to capture:

It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy—a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.

Greene’s most convincing characters are—like the lieutenant—not those who dutifully recite their Hail Mary’s, but instead those who suffer painfully from uncertainty, or do not believe in God at all. The author’s split consciousness, his divided loyalties, brought him intense misery during his life. But it also allowed him to hear other frequencies, dimly sensed yet ignored by so many.


Classical Hindustani ragas begin with the drone of a tanpura, a long-necked lute with four strings. This one note, sustained by an apprentice for whom such monotony is an honor, sounds throughout the entirety of the performance. It enters before the plucking of the sitars, the drumming, the vocals that build into a complex wave of sound and subside into nothingness; it is what remains when the musicians cease playing at last.

In Greene’s novels, too, one note hums beneath the action, suffusing all of his work with the timbre of melancholia. “What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery,” says police officer Scobie in The Heart of the Matter. “Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil—or else an absolute ignorance.” The film noir atmosphere through which the characters wade is one of inescapable unhappiness and sin, Picasso blue stirred with dark violet. American abstractionist painter Frank Stella once wrote an essay praising Caravaggio for defining painterly space through the use of projective roundness and poised sphericality, which had the effect of making a “domed mansion of the void.” Greene’s innovation was to transfer this idea to literature—redefining its space as a heavy, unshakeable mantle of sin, in which every action and word takes on a special weight.

Catholic novelists before and after Greene had thrown stones into this darkness, exploring the consequences of moral crises by single individuals in the midst of an apathetic humanity: “Christians keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it,” wrote Walter Percy in The Moviegoer. “There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment in the life of one suffering from malaise is that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human.” Yet Greene went far further. Sin settles like a fine, ineradicable dust into everything with which humans come into contact; so omnipresent is it, and so inevitable, that even God becomes superfluous. In Greene’s books, despite the number of letters and tirades addressed toward the divine being, He never speaks at all. This replacement of God by sin explains an otherwise cryptic comment Greene once made: that his characters can “never sin against God as hard as they try.”

All of this was bound to make his fellow Catholics squirm. Evelyn Waugh couldn’t put a finger on his uneasiness, but he rightly sensed the presence of something deeply profane in Greene’s work, which he would dub a “Quietest heresy.” Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar too criticized Greene for his “mystique” of sin. Even by-the-book Catholics want unity—but not at the expense of their system itself. Stylistically or thematically, most have chosen to traverse the abyss by writing in a manner lofty or abstract enough to bridge these questions: not Greene.


On a cold April day in 1953, a man from the Paris Review was sent to speak with Greene in his posh flat on St. James’s Street. Having at last made it through the preliminaries of drinks and discussion of his critics—Greene disliked wasting words, and all of his responses are phrased with an urbane and slightly disdainful precision—the interviewer subtly worked his way around to the question of sin. Just then, the telephone rang. Greene “smiled in a faint deprecatory way, as if to signify he’d said all he wished to say,” and took the call to discuss a film he was producing in Italy that summer. The waiting journalist undertook a close study of the collection of seventy-four miniature whiskey bottles Greene kept ranged above his bookshelf; at last realizing that he had been forgotten, he closed his interview with an ellipsis and left.

Greene’s productive relationship with the cinema arguably surpassed that of any other twentieth century artist, outweighing at times even his literary commitments. His own writing lends itself to the screen; over eighteen films have been made of his books, the most recent being British director John Boulting’s adaptation of Brighton Rock earlier this year. Part of this “cinematic” quality has to do with the exoticism of Greene’s chosen landscapes: Mexico, Brighton, West Africa. And part of it has to do with the gritty realist style in which he wrote. (“‘Hullo,’ said the somber thin man in black with a bowler hat sitting beside a wine barrel”: a typical line.) Like the pointillist paintings of Seurat, in which thousands of colored dots resolve themselves into a lake-shore, the realist novel is a masterpiece of illusion. Bound and taken together, sketches of a character’s appearance and random snatches of atmosphere resolve into suggestive wholes. Black leafless trees like broken water pipes and rain dripping down a man’s stiff coat are enough to color an entire page sinister, much as in film, multiple static images presented one after another cohere as a single, moving scene. In that sense, his technique has much in common with the work of contemporaries like Vittorio de Sica and other Italian neorealist directors of the ’40s and ’50s.

But, notably, the cinematic adaptations of Greene’s novels are not European art films. They are thrillers, just as his books are thrillers: the realist genre taken to its extreme, a gun once described now fired. Greene always insisted that one’s childhood literary preferences are what most influence one’s technique, and he was weaned on the pulpy adventure stories of Rider Haggard and R.M. Ballantyne. His affinity for the form makes sense, for the thriller also aligns surprisingly well with the novel of conscience; the ticking bomb now applies to nothing less than one’s spiritual life. Greene’s Catholic novels slide down the greased rails of suspense and dialogue: “If you excite your audience first,” he said, “you can put over what you will of horror, suffering, truth.”

Thus the ghosts of Balthasar’s nightmares obtain substance. Moral failure is not only inevitable in Greene’s books; it is also necessary for redemption. The world of sin finds its release in knife pulling, attempted murders, adulterous affairs. And it is here, amidst these sordid exploits—the stuff of movies—that something like divine grace radiates forth.


Can the Catholic novel still exist?

The question presents more grounds for apprehension than the general fretting over the death of the novel or literature as a whole. No modern writer has taken up the heavy vestments assumed by Greene. Most of the writers we associate with Catholicism—Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark, Shusaku Endo, the British and American novelists of the postwar period—have already passed on to the refuge they could not find in prose. And the conditions that the Catholic novel has traditionally depended on—both its particular brand of social realism and its uncynical assumption that qualities like good and evil exist—are slowly vanishing as well. As the main character, a novelist, asks in The End of the Affair:

How can I disinter the human character from the heavy scene—the daily newspaper, the daily meal, the traffic grinding toward Battersea, the gulls coming up from the Thames looking for bread, and the early summer of 1939 glinting on the park where the children sailed their boats, one of those bright condemned prewar summers?

Greene’s “heavy scene”—the use of realist techniques to depict a world already condemned to sin—represents the farthest extreme toward which the Catholic novel can tend. At the heart of every great work lies a great, unknowable mystery: what Eliot calls “the heart of light, the silence.” Like every writer with an ideology, the Catholic novelist is given this mystery ready-made. So assured was Greene of the world’s inherent guilt that he had no need to refer to morality directly, and could keep it as the profound, silent center around which he wrapped his melodramatic plots.

Today’s would-be Catholic writers have no recourse to that kind of certainty, and they sag under the strain. One can still enjoy Greene’s work, but only in the way that one savors a sacramental wafer: as a precious, blessed fragment of something long since departed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s