In the year of Our Lord 2008, I discovered Graham Greene. Rather, I discovered a love, reverence and respect for Graham Greene. I don’t think truly discovering the author is possible when the one in question had already achieved near celebrity status and received much adulation decades before one was born. I fell into that love between the pages of A Quiet American. My tan from Thailand still stuck to my skin and I could almost smell the humidity and taste the tropical atmosphere of the 1950s Vietnam that Greene makes so palpable with his dearth of words and stark descriptions.
Like a true compulsive, I voraciously rampaged my way through as many more of his books I could find that summer: The Captain and the Enemy, The Ministry of Fear, No Man’s Land, A Stranger’s Hand, The Heart of the Matter. Perhaps it is possible to have too much of a good thing: our dalliance flickered out and I took up with older, Russian men – Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. A year later I revisited Greene and read Travels with my Aunt. The title sounds twee; both the story and the aunt are anything but.
Three years have gone by and I have viewed the world through many different eyes, but providence did what it rarely does for relationships and brought Greene and I back together, this time in Argentina. The Honorary Consul contains Malbec-blooded passion as well as Greene’s ever-present addition of Catholic doubt and piety. He has no qualms about mixing virginal purity and mortal sin within pages of each other and explores them so thoroughly, from all manner of possible angles that we are left grappling with what his actual opinion is.
Greene’s extensive travel from his early twenties onwards makes him an ideal candidate in recounting tales of adventure: always with unpredictable twists, unique and imperfect characters, set against backdrops that you could never call clichéd. Instead of long-winded descriptions, Greene lets his characters actions speak for themselves – method acting, if you like. According to Greene, “everything is sensuality – the way one holds a tea cup is sometimes more revealing than the way one makes love.” The scenes of passion between Doctor Plarr and Clara in The Honorary Consul, not to mention between many of the other unlikely unions in his stories, are unconventional, will stay remembered and make you crave such raw experience.
Greene’s tales take us on emotional and spiritual journeys as well as geographical ones. His depictions of love, turmoil and shame are sometimes so real, one sometimes wonders whether we have not felt exactly the same, sometime before. His economy with words, still managing to paint pictures worth a thousand ideas and as many sensations, makes his novels concise and the perfect size to carry around with you everywhere.
Reading Greene is also great for one’s vocabulary and you are guaranteed at least a handful – depending on current vocab. standard – of succinct beauties such as uxorious (adj. obsequious devotion to one’s wife), crepitate (v. to make a cracking sound), zareba (n. protective enclosure of bushes surrounding a village) and garrulous (adj. excessively talkative).
If I had to assign a contrived label to Greene’s style it would be Exotic Realism. Exotic in location, action and people, and so real and evocative you can feel damp air cling at your skin and perspiration run down you cheek, surprising us when we look up and realise we are still in humdrum England – escapism taken away on new tangents.
Greene could never be accused of rehashing tired and hackneyed clichés, similes and imagery. Through the people that inhabit his world, we see Greene’s spirit as a poet and regularly get treated to beautiful concepts and pearls of wisdom. In The Honorary Consul, kidnapper and ex-jail bait Aquino draws attention to the fact that in prison all inmates are fed the same meal three times a day, regardless of the crime they have been immured for. Later, the Chief of Police, Colonel Perez (played by Bob Hoskins in the 1983 film version, also starring Michael Caine and Richard Gere) acknowledges that a husband is a vital ingredient in an affair – a maxim one can easily imagine Oscar Wilde once expounding.
As a writer, it is interesting and didactic to see how the writers of Greene’s novels, such as the meticulous Saavedra, in the same novel, approach their trade – “I write five hundred words a day after breakfast. No more no less.” Saavedra’s conviction that a writer is only able to write productively at home is one that resonated heavily with me.
The Power and the Glory was a potential stumbling block for us. Probably the most Catholic of Greene’s books, the majority of the novel is told from the point of view of a “whisky priest”, fleeing persecution in the anti-Catholic political climate of 1930s Mexico. There were very frequent times during my reading of the novel that I almost gave up: the tortured faith did just that – torture. But the addiction made me keep returning – I had to finish it.
A day after finishing the book (two and a half weeks is the longest I have taken over a work of Greene) I read – was it providence intervening again? – a commentary by Howard Jacobson in The Independent postulating that a truly superb writer will not pander to the reader’s needs, simply giving them what they want: enjoyable reads, “page turners”. A truly superb writer will, in Jacobson’s words, “… empower you somehow even as you resist. They stake out a battlefield you know you can't simply slink away from. Some wars insist on being fought.” He describes the exact war I was fighting with that whisky priest. I wanted to give up but I knew I had to get to the end because there was no doubt that there was something worth enduring the trauma for.
My mother – someone of a different generation, with very different religious views and different upbringing – is as much an admirer as I am. That Greene can have such devout following from two very disparate vantage points is surely a testimony to his greatness.
Greene is a genius: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
N.B: This is the second time in the last three years I have written a homage to Graham Greene. My original plan was to reinvigorate the first piece with my new ideas and opinions. However, upon reading the article my 21 year-old self had written, it was clear that nothing but a wholly new piece was required. If you are at all curious to see how my style and perspective have changed, I will post or email you the 2008 Graham Greene piece.
Incidentally, Graham Greene's family are the same people behind the Greene King chain of pubs.