Graham Greene, preacher man

The Greene sound

Jazz musicians develop a personal ‘sound’, a unique way of getting music from their instrument which a fan can identify in seconds. Similarly, a writer’s way with the language can be instantly distinctive.

To read any amount of Greene is to become aware of his message, and his preachiness about his message – he cannot stop himself either as narrator, or via the characters he creates, from ramming home his core message of how horrible life is. A ‘message’ which amounts to a ‘sound’, an attitude, a way of shaping a paragraph so that it invariably lead to a despairing comment. This flat despair is Greene’s distinctive voice.

These examples are taken from Book One of The Heart of The Matter.

  • He felt almost intolerably lonely. (1983 Penguin paperback edition p.11)
  • …the odour of human meanness and unjustice… (p. 15)
  • He watched her go out of the dark office like fifteen wasted years. (p.20)
  • These were the times of ugliness when he loved her, when pity and responsibility reached the intensity of a passion. (p.22)
  • Poor Louise, he thought, it is terrible not to be liked… He was bound by the pathos of her unattractiveness. (p.28)
  • There was always a blacker corruption elsewhere to be pointed at. (p.35)
  • A man was surely entitled to that much revenge. Revenge was good for the character: out of revenge grew forgiveness. (p.39)
  • The thought of retirement set his nerves twitching and straining: he always prayed that death would come first. (p.43)
  • It seemed to him that he must have failed in some way in manhood. (p.46)
  • Prying in cupboards you came on humiliations; little petty vices were tucked out of sight like a soiled handkerchief. (p.48)
  • Against the beautiful and the clever and successful one can wage a pitiless war, but not against the unattractive. (p.50)
  • It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? (p.52)
  • They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered. (p.55)
  • People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person’s habitual misery. (p.56)
  • If only I could postpone the misery, he thought, until daylight. Misery is worse in the darkness. (p.57)
  • The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths. (p.58)
  • For the first time he realised the pain inevitable in any human relationship – pain suffered and pain inflicted. How foolish one was to be afraid of loneliness. (p.81)
  • Happiness is never really so welcome as changelessness. (p.98)
  • Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil – or else an absolute ignorance. (p.123)
  • In the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him – that no human being can really understand another, and no-one can arrange another’s happiness. (p.85)

I’m sure I heard that last one on Oprah. Or did I read it in a supermarket checkout magazine?

To read a Graham Greene novel is to submit to hundreds of pages of this kind of thing, pseudo-philosophy, nostrums, bromides and truisms about life, gosh, isn’t it long, isn’t it tough, isn’t love difficult etc. After a while it’s like reading hundreds of T-shirt slogans which all begin to blur into one, or the variations on the mottos on coffee mugs: Keep calm and… carry on, eat a cookie, hug your dog, love life, go shopping, eat a banana, call batman etc.

Greene’s novels carry on unstoppably telling you loads of ooh-aah secrets about life till you really want him to just GIVE IT A REST for a few pages. Describe the people. Describe the scene. He is so good at that. Let the story speak for itself and stop swamping it with ‘meaning’.

The sheer number of morals, maxims and what the Middle Ages called sententiae – aphorisms, apothegms, wise sayings – risks swamping the reader and becoming a drone, an irritating background buzz which distracts from the action, the plot, the characters, undermining the fictiveness of the fiction. Greene could consider letting the reader draw their own conclusions instead of ramming home the moral two or three times per page.

At many points the proverbs of despair do help explicate the psychological state of the characters, they have an artistic validity; but at too many other points they are just the Author’s Message, heavy-handed pointers, not allowing us to assimilate the fiction freely, constantly corraling us into just the one, monochrome and oppressive mind-set.

Greene the preacher

So oppressive do they become that you could view Greene’s novels as less as fictions and more as channels he devised to peddle hundreds and hundreds of pages of gruesome theology and cod psychology onto his readers. I doubt whether he could have written whole books devoted to psychology or theology, he wasn’t that systematic, coherent or plausible.

But the creation of ‘characters’ and the scraps of ‘plot’ which constitute the ‘novels’ were all he needed to enable him to palm whole notebooks of ‘insights’ and ‘wisdom’ off onto a gullible public. The ‘novels’ are like a figleaf, an excuse for an unstoppable flow of what amounts to nothing more nor less than preaching. He knows the ‘Truth about Human Nature’ and he is not going to let a page go by without leaning forward in his pulpit and hectoring us with yet another grim and ghastly insight.

Except that instead of preaching mid-Victorian sermons – such as he must have heard his father, the school headmaster, do over and over again throughout his childhood – about keeping a stiff upper lip, the value of Empire and the importance of moral purity, Greene is preaching the mirror opposite – mid-20th century existentialist platitudes about despair, horror and alienation, digging up and revelling in the minutiae of man’s inhumanity to man.

From our perspective in the early 21st century, both postures now seem as bizarre, as dated and as tied to their specific times and places as each other. Greene seemed old-fashioned, gloomy and depressing when I tried to read him in the 1970s. Now his obsessions seem as remote and strange as one of the Metaphysical poets.

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