Behind the jolly Greene giant: Geoffrey Wheatcroft says one of our greatest writers was only playing games

Share
Related Topics
ALTHOUGH Graham Greene's lengthy liaison with Catherine Walston has been known for a long time - as has his other lengthy liaison, with the secret service - we have waited until now to learn some of the more lurid details of both. What adultery and spying had in common was the way they illustrated Greene's chief characteristic, his incurable frivolity.

Catherine was the dedicatee of Greene's novel The End of the Affair; their own affair began with a painful confrontation with her husband, a rich farmer who later became a Labour peer; before the affair had reached its end, the guilty couple had 'committed adultery behind every high altar in Italy'. It's all good stuff. It feeds our insatiable appetite for salacious gossip about the famous - and it all calls into question Greene's career and reputation. By the end of his life he was widely described as our greatest living writer. Some of us not only doubted that, but quietly wondered whether he was ever entirely serious or sincere about anything?

There is an element of treachery in my saying this. Fifteen years ago I used to meet Greene (at the Spectator, where I was literary editor, a job he had held about 40 years earlier). I liked him, was innocently proud to know him, prouder to have lunch with him, proudest of all to receive friendly letters with that curious stylised signature in which 'GG' looked rather like the zigzag emblem of the S S. Still, treachery was one of Greene's own favourite themes, from his doting enthusiasm for Philby, Burgess and co, to his elaborate exploration of adultery, in fiction and in real life.

Adultery and treason are both serious subjects, or can be. But they appealed to Greene because of the scope they offered for games-playing. When someone once asked Anthony Blunt why he had done it, he murmured: 'Cowboys and indians, cowboys and indians.' Greene would have understood. Life, love, literature - all were for him a form of game. He loved to tease and he loved practical jokes: both symptoms of unhappiness, and of the pathological restlessness of a man who finds seriousness unbearable.

He was playing games as a boy when he experimented with Russian roulette; he was playing a different sort of game towards the end of his life when he said, 'I would rather end my days in the Gulag than in California' (words that are not so much silly or odious as incapable of being uttered seriously). He was playing games when he 'spied' for the secret service. He was playing games behind the altar with Mrs Walston - and in front of the altar before that.

Greene was famously a Catholic convert, and a 'Catholic writer'. He claimed to resent the label, but that was fair cheek coming from someone who had written books like Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, or The Heart of the Matter. The truth was that his conversion to Catholicism was a smart career move, even if he didn't realise it at the time. George Orwell pointed out that one reason many good novels were being written by Catholics was because 'the conflict not only between this world and the next world but between sanctity and goodness is a fruitful theme of which the ordinary, unbelieving writer cannot make use'.

But Orwell also saw what was wrong with, and indeed false about, The Heart of the Matter. Quite apart from the absurdity of its plot and of Scobie's elaborate suicide - 'White all through, with a stiff upper lip, he had gone to what he believed to be certain damnation out of pure gentlemanliness' - the book reeks of bad faith. Or perhaps of pretended faith. By the end of his life, Greene liked to describe himself as a 'Catholic agnostic', whatever that might be. But almost from the beginning there was a flavour of insincerity and of affectation. As Orwell saw, The Heart of the Matter is not only an essentially frivolous book, it represented 'a weakening of belief, for when people really believed in Hell they were not so fond of striking graceful attitudes on its brink'.

Another contemporary likewise saw through the book. Evelyn Waugh was gentler than Orwell - he was a devoted if sometimes despairing friend of Greene's - but he, too, disliked that same attitudinising. Scobie's self-damnation for the love of God was 'either a very loose poetical expression or a mad blasphemy'.

In the end there is a stark comparison between those two friends, fellow-novelists and ostensible co-religionists, which even those who find Waugh's personality and beliefs unsympathetic should see. Noel Annan - no religious or political reactionary - has acutely said that Waugh is not only a better writer than Greene but has a view of life and its purposes which, whether one shares it or not, is far more logical and coherent. Waugh was tormented, like Greene, but in a different way: tormented by the complete sincerity of his faith, not least his belief in the reality of the 'four last things': death and judgment, Heaven and Hell. If Greene was tormented it was by his own insincerity. That is why I am convinced that Greene's reputation will not only undergo the usual eclipse that follows a writer's death but will stay in eclipse.

There are already signs of this. Ten or twenty years ago it was dangerous to query Greene's status as the greatest living writer, or to point out that his latter books - Doctor Fischer of Geneva an egregious example - were such tripe that they would not have been published under any other name. Now, more writers, critics and readers publicly wonder how some of his books could ever have been taken seriously. To be fair to that amiable old farceur, there is no very strong evidence that he himself took them much more seriously than he did his babyish political opinions, or his capering behind altars with someone else's wife.

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Retail Lecturer / Assessor / Tutor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Business Studies Tutor / Assessor / Lecturer - Tollerton

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tiger skin seized from a smuggler by customs officers in Lhasa, Tibet  

Save the tiger: Poaching facts

Harvey Day
 

Save the tiger: 7 saddening facts about the extinction of Javan tigers

Harvey Day
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried