Graham Greene was a prolific English novelist, playwright, short
story writer and critic whose works explore the ambiguities of modern
man and ambivalent moral or political issues in a contemporary setting.
Although Greene objected strongly to being described as a mere "Catholic
novelist", his religion informs most of his novels, and many
of his best works (e.g. Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter and
The Power and the Glory) are explicitly Roman Catholic in content
Greene was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, the fourth of six
children – his younger brother Hugh was later to become
the Director-General of the BBC, and older brother Raymond was
an eminent doctor and mountaineer. Their parents, Charles Henry
Greene and Marion nee Raymond, were first cousins and members
of a large and influential family which included the owners of
the Greene King brewery, and various bankers and businessmen.
Charles Greene was "second master" at Berkhamsted School,
where the headmaster was Dr Thomas Fry (who was married to another
cousin of Charles).
1910, Charles Greene succeeded Dr Fry as headmaster of the school,
and Graham attended the school as a pupil. Bullied and profoundly
unhappy as a boarder, Greene made several attempts at suicide
(some of them, Greene claimed, by playing Russian roulette - though
Michael Shelden's biography of Greene discredits the truth of
these incidents), and in 1921 at the age of seventeen he underwent
six months of psychoanalysis in London to deal with depression.
After this he returned to the school as a day boy, living with
his family. Schoolfriends included Claud Cockburn and Peter Quennell.
went to Balliol College, Oxford, and his first work (a volume
of poetry) was published in 1925, while he was an undergraduate,
but it was not widely praised.
After graduation, Greene took up a career in journalism, firstly
in Nottingham (a city which recurs in his novels as an epitome
of mean provincial life), and then as a subeditor on The Times.
While in Nottingham he started a correspondence with Vivien Dayrell-Browning,
a Roman Catholic who had written to correct him on a point of
Catholic doctrine. Greene converted to the faith in 1926, and
the couple were married the following year. They had two children,
Lucy (born 1933) and Francis (born 1936; died 1987). In 1948 Greene
left Vivien for Catherine Walston, but they remained married.
and other works
Greene's first published novel was The Man Within in 1929, and
its reception emboldened him to give up his job at The Times and
work full-time as a novelist. However, the following two books
were not successful (Greene disowned them in later life), and
his first real success was Stamboul Train in 1932 – as with
several of his subsequent books, this was also adapted as a film
(Orient Express, 1934).
income from novels was supplemented by freelance journalism, including
book and film reviews for The Spectator, and co-editing the magazine
Night and Day, which closed down in 1937 shortly after Greene's
review of the film Wee Willie Winkie, starring a nine-year-old
Shirley Temple, caused the magazine to lose a libel case. Greene's
review claimed that Temple displayed "a certain adroit coquetry
which appealed to middle-aged men", and is now seen as one
of the first criticisms of the sexualisation of young children
by the entertainment industry.
fiction was originally divided into two genres: thrillers or mystery/suspense
books, such as Brighton Rock, that he himself cast as "entertainments"
but which often included a notable philosophical edge, and literary
works such as The Power and the Glory, on which his reputation
was thought to be based.
his career lengthened, however, Greene and his readers both found
the "entertainments" to be of nearly as high a value
as the literary efforts, and Greene's later efforts such as The
Human Factor, The Comedians, Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American,
combine these modes into works of remarkable insight and compression.
Greene's novels are written in a contemporary, realistic style,
often featuring characters troubled by self-doubt and living in
seedy or rootless circumstances. The doubts were often of a religious
nature, echoing the author's ambiguous attitude to Catholicism
(by the end of his life he seems to have lost his faith, but still
considered himself a Catholic). He converted at a young age in
order to marry his first love. He was known to have had several
affairs, from long-lasting to casual ones. He was not the type
of man to desert his religion but he struggled with it as his
characters often do.
other "Catholic writers" such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony
Burgess, Greene's politics were essentially left-leaning, though
some biographers believe politics mattered little to him. In his
later years he was a strong critic of what he saw as American
imperialism, and he supported the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whom
he had met.
Throughout his life, Greene was obsessed with travelling far from
his native England, to what he called the "wild and remote"
places of the world. His travels provided him with opportunities
to engage in espionage on behalf of the United Kingdom (in Sierra
Leone during the Second World War, for example). Greene had been
recruited to MI6 by the notorious double agent Kim Philby.
reworked the colourful and exciting characters and places he encountered
into the fabric of his novels. A 1938 trip to Mexico to see the
effects of a campaign of forced anti-Catholic secularisation was
funded by the Roman Catholic Church. This resulted in the factual
The Lawless Roads (published in America as Another Mexico), and
the fictional The Power and the Glory. The novel was condemned
by the Vatican in 1953.
is so much weariness and disappointment in travel that people
have to open up – in railway trains, over a fire, on the
decks of steamers, and in the palm courts of hotels on a rainy
day. They have to pass the time somehow, and they can pass it
only with themselves. Like the characters in Chekhov they have
no reserves – you learn the most intimate secrets. You get
an impression of a world peopled by eccentrics, of odd professions,
almost incredible stupidities, and, to balance them, amazing endurances.”
Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads (1939)
of his books have been filmed, most notably 1947's Brighton Rock,
and he also wrote several original screenplays, most famously
for the film The Third Man.
Greene greatly enjoyed parody. In 1949, when the New Statesman
publication held a contest for parodies of Greene's distinctive
writing style, he submitted an entry under a pseudonym and won
second prize. The resulting work, The Stranger's Hand, was later
finished by another writer and brought to the screen by Italian
film director, Mario Soldati. In 1965, Greene entered a similar
New Statesman parody contest, again under a pseudonym, and won
an honorable mention.
short story "The Destructors" was featured in the movie
Greene moved to Antibes in 1966, to be close to Yvonne Cloetta,
whom he had known for several years, and this relationship endured
until his death. In 1981 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, given
to writers concerned with 'the freedom of the individual in society'.
One of his final works, J'Accuse - The Dark Side of Nice (1982),
concerns a legal matter that he and his extended family were embroiled
in nearby Nice. In the pamphlet, he declared that organized crime
flourished in Nice and that the upper levels of civic government
had protected judicial and police corruption in the city.
led to a libel case, which he lost. He was vindicated after his
death, however, when in 1994 the former mayor of Nice, Jacques
Médecin was convicted of several counts of corruption and
associated crimes and sentenced to prison. In the last years of
his life, Greene lived in the small resort city of Vevey, on Lake
Geneva in Switzerland. On his death at the age of 86 in 1991,
he was interred in the nearby cemetery in Corsier-sur-Vevey.
2004 saw the publication of the third and final volume of The
Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry, Greene's official biographer.
The writing of this biography created a story in itself in that
Sherry followed in Greene's footsteps, even coming down with diseases
that Greene had come down with in the same place. Sherry's work
reveals that Greene continued to submit reports to British intelligence
until the end of his life. This has led scholars and Greene's
reading public to entertain the provocative question, "Was
Greene a novelist who was also a spy, or was his lifelong literary
career the perfect cover?"