English novelist, short-story writer, playwright and journalist, whose novels treat moral issues in the context of political settings. Greene is one of the most widely read novelist of the 20th-century, a superb storyteller. Adventure and suspense are constant elements in his novels and many of his books have been made into successful films. Although Greene was a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature several times, he never received the award.
“The main characters in a novel must necessarily have some kinship to the author, they come out of his body as a child comes from the womb, then the umbilical cord is cut, and they grow into independence. The more the author knows of his own character the more he can distance himself from his invented characters and the more room they have to grow in.” (Graham Greene in Ways of Escape, 1980)
Graham Greene was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, as the son of Charles Greene and Marion Raymond Greene, a first cousin of the author Robert Louis Stevenson. Greene’s father had a poor academic record but became the headmaster of Berkhamsted School, following Dr. Thomas Fry. Charles Greene had a brilliant intellect. Originally he had intended to become a barrister. However, he found that he had liking for teaching and he decided to stay at Berkhamsted. Often his history lessons were less lessons than comments on the crack-up of Liberalism. His brother Graham ended his career as Permanent Secretary at the Admiralty.
Greene was educated at Berkhamstead School and Balliol College, Oxford. He had a natural talent for writing, and during his three years at Balliol, he published more than sixty poems, stories, articles and reviews, most of which appeared in the student magazine Oxford Outlook and in the Weekly Westminster Gazette. In 1926 he converted to Roman Catholicism, later explaining that “I hand to find a religion… to measure my evil against.” When critics started to study the religious faith in his work, Greene complained that he hated the term ‘Catholic novelist’.
In 1926 Geene moved to London. He worked for the Times of London (1926-30), and for the Spectator, where he was a film critic and a literary editor until 1940. In 1927 he married Vivien Dayrell-Browning. After the collapse of their marriage, he had several relationships, among others in the 1950s with the Swedish actress Anita Bjцrk, whose husband writer Stig Dagerman had committed suicide. During the 1920s and 1930s Greene had, according to his own private reckoning, some sort of of relationship with no less than forty-seven prostitutes. In 1938 Greene began an affair with Dorothy Glover, a theatre costume designer; they were closely involved with each other until the late 1940s. She started a career as a book illustrator under the name ‘Dorothy Craigie’ and wrote children’s books of her own, among them Nicky and Nigger and the Pirate (1960).
During World War II Greene worked “in a silly useless job” as he later said, in an intelligence capacity for the Foreign Office in London, directly under Kim Philby, a future defector to the Soviet Union. One mission took Greene to West Africa, but he did not find much excitement in his remote posting – “This is not a government house, and there is no larder: there is also a plague of house-flies which come from the African bush lavatories round the house,” he wrote to London. Greene returned to England in 1942. After the war he travelled widely as a free-lance journalist, and lived long periods in Nice, on the French Riviera. With his anti-American comments, Greene gained access to such Communist leaders as Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, but the English writer Evelyn Waugh, who knew Greene well, assured in a letter to his friend that the author “is a secret agent on our side and all his buttering up of the Russians is ‘cover’.”
Greene’s agent novels were partly based on his own experiences in the British foreign office in the 1940s and his lifelong ties with SIS. As an agent and a writer Greene is a link in the long tradition from Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe to the modern day writers John Le Carrй, John Dickson Carr, Somerset Maugham, Alec Waugh and Ted Allbeury. Greene’s uncle Sir William Graham Greene helped to establish the Naval Intelligence Department, and his oldest brother, Herbert, served as a spy for the Imperial Japanese Navy in the 1930s. Graham’s younger sister, Elisabeth, joined MI6, and recruited his Graham into the regular ranks of the service. His old friend, Philby, Greene met again in the late 1980s in Moscow.
Greene received numerous honours from around the world, and published two volumes of autobiography, A SORT OF LIFE (1971), WAYS OF ESCAPE (1980), and the story of his friendship with Panamanian dictator General Omar Torrijos. – Greene died in Vevey, Switzerland, on April 3, 1991. In the service the priest declared, “My faith tells me that he is now with God, or on the way there.” Two days before his death Greene signed a note that gave his approval to Norman Sherry to complete an authorized biography. The first part of the book appeared in 1989.
As a writer Greene was very prolific and versatile. He wrote five dramas and screenplays for several films based on his novels. The Third Man (1949) was developed from a single sentence: “I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.” To do research for the film, Greene went to Vienna, where a reported told him about the black market trade in watered-down penicillin. With the Ј9,000 he had received from Alexander Korda, he bough a yacht and a villa in Anacapri. Later he portryed Korda in LOSER TAKES ALL (1955) – he was Dreuther, the business tycoon.
In the 1930s and early 1940s he wrote over five hundred reviews of books, films, and plays, mainly for The Spectator. Greene’s film reviews are still worth reading and often better than the films he praised or slashed. Hitchcock’s “inadequate sense of reality” irritated Greene, he compared Greta Garbo to a beautiful Arab mare, and gave a warm welcome to a new star, Ingrid Bergman. When Hitchcock had troubles with the screenplay of I Confess (1953), Greene refused to help the director, saying he was interested in adapting only his own stories for the screen. In the story a priest is wrongfully accused of a murder. Although Greene knew that some critics considered his novels entertainment, his own models were Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford. In his personal library was a large collection of James’s work.
Greene’s first published book was BABBLING APRIL (1925), a collection of poetry. It was followed by two novels in the style of Joseph Conrad. The title for THE MAN WITHIN (1929) was taken from Sir Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) “There’s another man within me that’s angry with me.” Greene started to write it after an operation for appending on his sick leave from The Times. The film version of the book, starring Michael Redgrave and Richard Attenborough, was made in 1947. Greene received a letter from Istanbul in which the film was praised for its daring homosexuality.
“In Stamboul Train for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film. The devil looks after his own and I succeeded in both aims, though the film rights seemed at the time an unlikely dream, for before I had completed the book, Marlene Dietrich had appeared in Shanghai Express, the English had made Rome Express, and even the Russians had produced their railway film, Turksib. My film came last and was far and away the worst, though not so bad as a later television production by the BBC.” (from Introduction, in Stamboul Train, 1974)
After the unsuccessful attempts as a novelist, Greene was about to abandon writing. His first popular success was STAMBOUL TRAIN (1932), a thriller with a topical and political flavour. Greene wrote it deliberately to please his readers and to attract filmmakers. One of its characters, Quin Savory, was said to be a parody of J.B. Priestley – Greene depicted nastily the writer as a sex offender. Priestley had just published a novel, which led some reviewers to compare him with Dickens. In Greene’s story Savory was a popular novelist in the manner of Dickens. Next year he attacked another well-loved writer, Beatric Potter, in an article called ‘Beatrix Potter: A Critical Estimate’. Also the American actress, Shirley Temple, aged nine, got her share when Greene wrote in the magazine Night and Day that “her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality…” This time Greene had to pay for his remark.
THE CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (1939) is a problematic work. In it the mysterious Forbes/Furstein, a rich Jew, plans to destroy traditional English culture from within. However, in 1981 the author was invited to Israel and awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He had visited Israel in 1967 for the first time, and spent some of the time lying against a sand dune under Egyptian fire, and thinking that the Six Day War “was a bit of misnomer. The war was too evidently still in progress.” Greene’s religious convictions did not become overtly apparent in his fiction until THE BRIGHTON ROCK (1938), which depicted a teenage gangster Pinkie with a kind of demonic spirituality. Religious themes were explicit in the novels THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1940), THE HEART OF THE MATTER (1948), which Greene characterized as “a success in the great vulgar sense of that term,” and THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1951), which established Greene’s international reputation. The story, partly based on Greene’s own experiences, was about a lover, who is afraid of loving and being loved. These novels were compared with the works of such French Catholic writers as Georges Bernanos and Franзois Mauriac. “At a stroke I found myself regarded as a Catholic author in England, Europe and America – the last title to which I had ever aspired,” Greene later complained.
Greene returned constantly to the problem of grace. In his review of The Heart of the Matter George Orwell attacked Greene’s concept of ‘the sanctified sinner’: “He appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distinguй in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class nightclub, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only.” The novel was set in Sierra Leone where the author had spent a miserable period during the war. Major Scobie, the hero of the story, dies saying: ‘Dear God, I love…’ The rest is silence.
The End of the Affair was drew partly on Greene’s affair with Catherine Walston, whom he had met in 1946. She was married to one of the richest men in England, Henry Walston, a prominent supporter of the Labour Party. Catherine was the mother of five children. Greene’s relationship with her continued over ten years and produced another book, AFTER TWO YEARS (1949), which was printed 25 copies. Most of them were later destroyed. In The End of the Affair Catherine was ‘Sarah Miles’ and the writer himself the popular novelist ‘Maurice Bendix’, who narrates the story and tries to understand why Sarah left him. Maurice discovers that when he was injured in a bomb blast during the war, Sarah promised God that she would end the affair if Maurice is saved. Sarah dies of a pneumonia. Maurice’s response to his divine rival is: “I hate you as though You existed.’
The Third Man is among Greene’s most popular books. The story about corruption and betrayal gave basis for the film classic under the same title. Successful partners on The Fallen Idol (1948) and Our Man in Havanna (1960), Graham Greene and the director Carol Reed achieved the peak of their collaboration on this film. “I am getting terribly bored with… everybody except Carol who gets nicer and nicer on acquaintance,” Greene wrote to Catherine Walston from Vienna in 1948. In The Third Man Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna to discover that his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) has died in a car accident. It turns out that Lime was involved in criminal activities, and Lime’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) suspects that his death may not have been accidental. A porter recalls a mysterious third man at the scene of the death. One evening Martins sees a man obscured by the shadows, who suddenly disappears – he is Lime. The meet and Lime rationalizes his villainy in a speech at a fairground Ferris wheel: “In Italy for 30 years the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce. The cuckoo clock.” Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) threatens to deport Anna and Martins betrays Lime to secure her freedom. In a chase through the sewers Martins kills Lime, and Anna leaves him after the funeral. – Music, composed by Anton Karas, became highly popular. “The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author : as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.” (Greene in Ways of Escape) The character of Harry Lime inspired later a series on American radio, performed by Welles, short stories published by the News of the World, and the TV series of The Third Man, starring Michael Rennie. And in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) Kate Winslet fantasized about Harry.
Greene’s ability to create debate and his practical jokes brought him often into headlines. He recommended Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as his ‘Book of the Year’ in the Sunday Times and praised the men involved in the Great Train Robbery. In a letter to the Spectator he proposed a scheme to bankrupt the British postal system. In the 1950s Greene’s emphasis switched from religion to politics. He lived at the Majestic hotel in Saigon and made trips to Hong Kong and Singapore. In 1953 he was in Kenya, reporting the Mau Mau upraising, and in 1956 he spent a few weeks in Stalinist Poland, and tried to help a musician to escape to the West. In Ways of Escape Greene told a story about the Other, who called himself Graham Greene, but whose real name was perhaps John Skinner or Meredith de Varg. In the 1950s the Other lost his passport in India, and was sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment. A decade later he was photographed in a Jamaican paper with “Missus drink”, an attractive woman. “Some years ago in Chile, after I had been entertained at lunch by President Allende, a right-wing paper in Santiago announced to its readers that the President had been deceived by an impostor. I found myself shaken by a metaphysical doubt. Had I been the impostor all the time? Was I the other? Was I Skinner? Was it even possible that I might be Meredith de Varg?”
The Asian setting stimulated Greene’s THE QUIET AMERICAN (1955), which was about American involvement in Indochina. The story focuses on the murder of Alden Pyle (the American of the title). The narrator, Thomas Fowler, a tough-minded, opium-smoking journalist, arranges to have Pyle killed by the local rebels. Pyle has stolen Fowler’s girl friend, Phuong, and he is connected to a terrorist act, a bomb explosion in a local cafй. The Quit American was considered sympathetic to Communism in the Soviet Union and a play version of the novel was produced in Moscow. OUR MAN IN HAVANNA (1958) was born after a journey to Cuba, but Greene had the story sketched already much earlier. On one trip he asked a taxi driver to buy him a little cocaine and got boracic powder. The novel was made into a film in 1959, directed by Carol Reed. During the filming Greene met Ernest Hemingway, and was invited to his house for drinks. THE COMEDIANS (1966) depicted Papa Doc Duvalier’s repressive rule in Haiti, and THE HONORARY CONSUL (1973) was a hostage drama set in Paraguay. THE HUMAN FACTOR (1978) stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for six months. In the story an agent falls in love with a black woman during an assignment in South Africa. The book did not satisfy Greene and he planned to leave it in a drawer – it hung “like a dead albatross” around his neck. Interested to hear what his friend Kim Philby thought of it he sent a copy to Moscow, but denied that his double agent Maurice Castle was based on Philby. TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT (1969), which was filmed by George Cukor, took the reader on on journey round the world with an odd couple, a retired short-sighted bank manager and his temperamental Aunt Augusta, whose two big front teeth gives her “a vital Neanderthal air.”