- Writing period
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Henry Graham Greene OM, CH (October 2, 1904 – April 3, 1991) was an English writer best known as a novelist, but who also produced short stories, plays, screenplays, travel writing and criticism. His works explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world. Greene combined serious literary acclaim with wide popularity.
Although Greene objected strongly to being described as a Catholic novelist rather than as a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Catholic religious themes are at the root of much of his writing, especially the four major Catholic novels: Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory. Later works such as The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The Comedians also show an avid interest in the workings of international politics and espionage. Read Full Bio >>
Greene suffered from bipolar disorder, which had a profound effect on his writing, and drove him to excess in his personal life. In a letter to his wife Vivien he told her that he had "a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life", and that "unfortunately, the disease is also one's material".
Graham Greene was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, the fourth of six children. His younger brother Hugh became Director-General of the BBC, his elder brother Raymond an eminent physician and mountaineer.
His parents, Charles Henry and Marion Greene (née Raymond), were first cousins, members of a large, influential family that included the Greene King brewery owners, bankers and businessmen. Charles Greene was Second Master at Berkhamsted School, the headmaster of which was Dr Thomas Fry (married to a cousin of Charles). Another cousin was the right-wing pacifist Ben Greene, whose politics led to his internment during World War II.
In 1910, Charles Greene succeeded Dr Fry as headmaster; Graham attended the school. Bullied and profoundly depressed as a boarder, he attempted suicide several times, some, he claimed, by Russian roulette; Michael Shelden's biography discredits that. In 1920, at age 16, he was psychoanalysed for six months in London, afterwards returning to school as a day boy; school friends included Claud Cockburn and Peter Quennell.
While an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1925, his first work, a volume of poorly received poetry entitled Babbling April, was published.
After graduating with a second-class degree in history, Greene unsuccessfully took up journalism, first on the Nottingham Journal, and then as a sub-editor on The Times. While in Nottingham he started corresponding with Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Roman Catholic convert who had written him to correct him on a point of Catholic doctrine. Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926 (described in A Sort of Life) and was baptised in February the same year. He married Vivien in 1927, and they had two children, Lucy (b. 1933) and Francis (b. 1936). In 1948 Greene abandoned Vivien for Dorothy Glover. He had affairs with a number of women, yet remained married.
The 2003 Penguin Classics edition of Greene's masterpiece The Power and the Glory
Greene's first published novel was The Man Within (1929). Favourable reception emboldened him to quit his sub-editor job at The Times and work as a full-time novelist. However, the next two books were unsuccessful; he later disowned them. His first true success was Stamboul Train (1932), adapted as the film Orient Express (1934) - many of his books would be so adapted.
He supplemented his novelist's income with freelance journalism, book and film reviews for The Spectator, and co-editing the magazine Night and Day, which folded in 1937 shortly after Greene's film review of Wee Willie Winkie, featuring nine-year-old Shirley Temple, cost the magazine a lost libel lawsuit. Greene's review claimed that Temple displayed "a certain adroit coquetry which appealed to middle-aged men". It is now considered one of the first criticisms of the sexualisation of children for entertainment. The criminal libel could have led to Greene's imprisonment, and its avoidance Greene's friend according to Alberto Cavalcanti in an unpublished autobiography, was the motivation for the visit to Mexico which was to inspire The Power and the Glory. Mexico did not have an extradition treaty with the UK at the time.
Greene originally divided his fiction into two genres: thrillers (mystery and suspense books), such as The Ministry of Fear, which he described as entertainments, often with notable philosophic edges; and literary works, such as The Power and the Glory, which he described as novels, on which he thought his literary reputation was to be based.
As his career lengthened, both Greene and his readers found the distinction between the entertainments and the novels to become blurred. His later efforts, such as The Human Factor, The Comedians, Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American, combine these modes in compressed but remarkably insightful work. He also wrote the screenplay, and afterward the novella, for the now-classic film noir, The Third Man (1949).
Greene also wrote short stories and plays that were well-received, although he was foremost always a novelist, and he collected the 1948 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Heart of the Matter. His long, successful career and great readership (for a serious literary novelist) led to hope he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; although considered in 1974, he was not awarded it. Greene's friend and occasional publisher, Michael Korda, wrote in his memoir Another Life (1999) that Greene believed he was always one vote short of the prize, withheld by a judge who disliked his Catholicism and left-wing sympathies and "who seemed determined to outlive him".
Throughout his life, Greene travelled far from England, to what he called the world's wild and remote places. The travels led to him being recruited into MI6 by his sister, Elisabeth, who worked for the organisation, and he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War. Kim Philby, who would later be revealed as a Soviet double agent, was Greene's supervisor and friend at MI6. As a novelist, he wove the characters he met and the places where he lived into the fabric of his novels.
Greene first left Europe at 31 years of age, in 1935, on a trip to Liberia that produced the travel book Journey Without Maps. His 1938 trip to Mexico, to see the effects of the government's campaign of forced anti-Catholic secularisation was paid for by Longman's, thanks to his friendship with Tom Burns. That voyage produced two books, the factual The Lawless Roads (published as Another Mexico in the U.S.), and the novel The Power and the Glory. In 1953, the Holy Office informed Greene that The Power and the Glory was damaging to the reputation of the priesthood, but later, in a private audience with Greene, Pope Paul VI told him that although parts of his novels would offend some Catholics, he should not pay attention to the criticism. Greene travelled to the Haiti of François Duvalier, alias "Papa Doc", where occurred the story of The Comedians (1966). The owner of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where Greene frequently stayed, named a room in his honour.
After his apparently benign involvement in a financial scandal, Greene had to leave Britain in 1966 moving to Antibes, to be close to Yvonne Cloetta, whom he had known since 1959, a relationship that endured until his death. In 1981 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, awarded to writers concerned with the freedom of the individual in society. One of his final works, the pamphlet J'Accuse — The Dark Side of Nice (1982), concerns a legal matter embroiling him and his extended family in Nice. He declared that organized crime flourished in Nice, because the city's upper levels of civic government had protected judicial and police corruption. The accusation provoked a libel lawsuit that he lost. In 1994, after his death, he was vindicated when the former mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, was imprisoned for corruption and associated crimes.
He lived the last years of his life in Vevey, on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. His book Dr. Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (1980) bases its themes on combined philosophic and geographic influences. He had ceased attending Mass and confession in the 1950s, but in his final years began to receive the sacraments again from Father Leopaldo Durán, a Spanish priest who became a friend. He died at age 86 in 1991 and was buried in Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery.
His official biographer, Norman Sherry, published the third and final volume of The Life of Graham Greene in October 2004. Sherry followed Greene's footsteps, at times suffering the diseases that Greene suffered and in the same place. The biography reveals that Greene continued reporting to British intelligence until his death, allowing literary scholars and readers to entertain the provocative question of whether Graham Greene was a novelist who also was a spy, or a spy for whom a life-long novelist's career was the perfect cover.
Greene's literary agent was Jean LeRoy of Pearn, Pollinger & Higham.
The literary style of Graham Greene was described by Evelyn Waugh in Commonweal as "not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry, and of independent life". This lean, realistic prose and readability was thought by Virginia Quarterly Review to be "the main business of holding the reader's attention." His cinematic visual sense led to a number of his novels being made into films, such as Brighton Rock in 1947, The End of the Affair in 1955 and 1999, and The Quiet American in 1958 and 2002. He wrote several original screenplays, such as The Third Man in 1949. He concentrated on portraying the characters' internal lives, the mental, emotional and spiritual depths. The stories usually occurred in poor, hot and dusty tropical backwaters in countries such as Mexico, West Africa, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti and Argentina, which led to the coining of the expression "Greeneland" to describe such settings.
His novels often have religious themes at the centre. In his literary criticism, he attacked the modernist writers Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster for having lost the religious sense and for lacking such themes, which, he argued, resulted in dull, superficial characters who wandered about like cardboard symbols through a world that is paper-thin. Only in recovering the religious element, the awareness of the drama of the struggle in the soul carrying the infinite consequences of salvation and damnation, and of the ultimate metaphysical realities of good and evil, sin and grace, could the novel recover its dramatic power. Suffering and unhappiness are omnipresent in the world Greene depicts, and Catholicism is presented against a background of unvarying human evil, sin and doubt. V. S. Pritchett praised Greene as the first English novelist since Henry James to present, and grapple with, the reality of evil.
The novels often powerfully portray the Christian drama of the struggles within the individual soul from the Catholic perspective. Greene was criticised for certain tendencies in an unorthodox direction — in the world, sin is omnipresent to the degree that the vigilant struggle to avoid sinful conduct is doomed to failure, hence, not central to holiness. Friend and fellow Catholic Evelyn Waugh attacked that as a revival of the Quietist heresy. This aspect of his work also was criticised by the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar as giving sin a mystique.
Greene responded that constructing a vision of pure faith and goodness in the novel was beyond his talents. Praise of Greene from an orthodox Catholic point of view, by Edward Short, is in Crisis magazine, and a mainstream Catholic critique is presented by Joseph Pearce.
Catholicism's prominence decreased in the later writings. The supernatural realities that haunted the earlier work declined and was replaced with a humanistic perspective, a change reflected in his public criticism of orthodox Catholic teaching. Left-wing political critiques assumed greater importance in his novels; for example, he attacked the American policy in Vietnam in The Quiet American. The tormented believers portrayed were more likely to have faith in Communism than in Catholicism.
In his later years, Greene was a strong critic of American imperialism, and supported the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whom he had met. For Greene and politics, see also Anthony Burgess Politics in the Novels of Graham Greene In Ways of Escape, reflections of his Mexican trip, he complained that Mexico's government was insufficiently left-wing compared with Cuba's. In Greene's opinion, “Conservatism and Catholicism should be .... impossible bedfellows”.
Despite his seriousness, Graham Greene greatly enjoyed parody, even of himself. In 1949, when the New Statesman held a contest for parodies of Greene's writing style, he submitted a pseudonymous entry and won second prize; first prize was awarded to his younger brother Hugh. The resulting work, The Stranger's Hand, was later completed by another writer and cinematically rendered by the Italian film director Mario Soldati. In 1965 Greene again entered a similar New Statesman competition pseudonymously, and won an honourable mention.
See List of books by Graham Greene for all works. << Less Bio
Transamerica Movie Premiere at the 4th Annual Tribeca Film Festival