Graham Greene | Critical Review by David Pryce-Jones

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Greene.
This section contains 3,619 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by David Pryce-Jones

SOURCE: "Graham Cracker," in The New Republic, January 23, 1989, pp. 28-31.

In the following review, Pryce-Jones criticizes Greene's political loyalties and offers unfavorable assessment of The Captain and the Enemy.

Within living memory, broad-chested and vigorous John Bull has become the skulking and down-at-heel Englishman who feels sorry for himself. How was it possible to have engineered poverty and called it socialism? How was it possible to have turned one's back on millions of needy people abroad and called it decolonization? Graham Greene is not answerable for developments of this kind, but as the most prestigious and long-living writer of his generation, he did more than his fair share to generate the atmosphere that seemed to justify decay and doom. He has uniquely romanticized failure. A future Gibbon will quarry Greene's collected works for The Decline and Fall of Great Britain.

To feel sorry for oneself is perhaps a natural failing in whoever supposes that he is losing status and power. In Greene's best years, it is true, defeatism stalked the land. Still, it was never necessary to accept this as the one and only reality of the time, appeasing rather than resisting. Self-pity of Greene's variety is objectionable on account of the plea for privilege contained within it; the self-pitier begs for allowance to be made for his circumstances, to be excused the consequences of his actions, to be held unaccountable for any generalizations from his views, to be left to enjoy exemptions and double standards.

Greene's popularity arose from the skill and single-mindedness with which he made special pleas for those failures that are easy to identify with emotively: unhappy childhood, love that has soured, a sense of being hemmed in or hunted by a bully, a society in which the powers that be are indifferent or brutish. His characters fall into two narrow ranges. There are the tormented boys and persecuted underdogs, and the unscrupulous adults from a genuine or would-be upper crust. The latter are the agents and patients of a society that cannot help producing cruelty, and to which allegiance could not possibly be due. Of course, those who are comfortable and safe are enormously flattered to see themselves as victims. Evelyn Waugh, who preferred the hard road of reality that might end in a masterpiece, kept a close eye on Greene, and was the first to note the strategy of his rival: "His early books are full of self-pity at poverty and obscurity; now self-pity at his successes."

Poverty and obscurity were alike imaginary, without significance. Brewers since the 18th century, the Greene family was lodged securely at the top of British society. (In 1984, to celebrate Greene's 80th birthday, the family brewery marketed 100,000 bottles of a light ale bearing his name.) Greene's father was headmaster of Berkhamsted, an ancient public school, and close relations included senior and respected civil servants. His mother's first cousin was Robert Louis Stevenson. At Balliol, one of the most distinguished Oxford colleges, Greene's contemporaries included Cyril Connolly, Peter Quennell, and Harold Acton, destined all to take their place in the establishment.

In memoirs and diaries of the day, Greene crops up in the company of his peers, in Jamaica with Noel Coward, in Capri with Gracie Fields, at a lunch in the Greek Embassy in honor of Queen Frederika of Greece, staying in country houses with the rich and titled. Following the publication of his first novel in 1929, Ottoline Morrell wrote to congratulate him, and to take him up. Waugh proposed him for White's Club, a stronghold of the landed aristocracy, and Greene gladly accepted his election. For years he lived in Albany, the most famous and exclusive building of its kind in central London, and had a house in Italy. In 1966 Greene moved to France, to the fashionable Boulevard Malesherbes in Paris, and to Antibes.

These rewards and graces accord deservedly with Greene's standing and industry. The Captain and the Enemy is his 23rd novel, almost his 50th book, coming after travel books, plays and film scripts, children's books, short stories, a biography, critical essays, much and varied journalism spread over the past six decades. Here (and in huge sales worldwide in all major languages) is proof of what can be achieved by a professional who does his thousand words a day. He has received the Order of Merit and the Companion of Honour. Is it victimization to have been denied the Nobel Prize? A member of the Swedish jury is rumored to be particularly obstructive.

The interplay of underdogs and bullies provided "the usual Left-wing scenery," as George Orwell long ago summarized Greene's fiction. Greene's characteristic division between a "good" side and a "bad" side comes straight from the Age of Dictators. The cold war offered the ideal context in which to enlarge "the usual Left-wing scenery." Greene exploited it tirelessly to project a long series of admirable and stalwart underdogs, often (though not exclusively) Marxists, always wrongfully persecuted by an equally long series of American bullies, with here and there a chinless British wonder. Some of the American bullies are especially destructive because they do not have the wit to perceive what they are doing.

Throughout the years Greene has been one of the most voluble critics of the West, seizing upon what he takes to be evidence of folly and wickedness in the democracies and publicizing it in books and articles and interviews (or, faute de mieux, by means of a barrage of letters to the press). No writer outside the Communist Party has led such a campaign against the West, or found such justification for the Soviet Union. Greene is sincere. His projection of the cold war years is pure melodrama, but he has come to believe it absolutely. He supposes himself to be on the run, defending the good from the bad, an innocent who is right to feel sorry for himself.

At Oxford in 1922, under the influence of Claud Cockburn, Greene joined the Communist Party, only to leave it for the Catholic Church. Catholicism inhibited him from romancing either side in the Spanish Civil War. He began his political tourism, instead, in Mexico. First-hand experience of the persecution of the Catholic Church there led to The Lawless Roads in 1939. In that idiosyncratic book of reportage, he described local anti-clerical and Communist barbarities, and a day came when he hated the Mexicans. Changes of regime, he saw, would not mean changes of heart. A culture was at work in which a few fought to give orders, and everyone else obeyed: "In Mexico there were always other generals." The democratic alternative, as exemplified by passing American tourists or businessmen, might even be worse, "just the drugstore and the Coca-Cola, the hamburger, the sinless empty graceless chromium world."

Had that limited and melodramatic characterization in any way approximated the reality of democracy, the Second World War might have gone hard indeed. Was Nazism (or Communism) to be resisted for Coca-Cola? Once more, Greene's disparagement amounts to self-pitying regret that what he held to be unattractive was so visible before his fastidious eyes. Afterward, in London as the war was beginning, he published an essay to proclaim that life under German bombing was just and poetic. "The innocent will be given their peace, and the unhappy will know more happiness than they have ever dreamed about, and poor muddled people will be given an answer they have to accept. We needn't feel pity for any of the innocents." To be deprived of the empty chromium world was really a stroke of luck. This was another typical, patronizing measurement of reality by standards of artifice and romance.

For the rest of the war, Greene was away in Sierra Leone, as a member of MI6, the foreign branch of the Intelligence service. He rose in MI6 to become a friend and subordinate of Kim Philby, then not yet suspected of being a traitor. With the onset of the cold war, the British establishment had to rethink its position; the balance of power had shifted against it. Much influential opinion maintained that America was seeking a historic revenge by deliberately supplanting the British presence in the world. Some refined the proposition to argue that the British presence had become an anachronism, and ought to be brought to an end no matter what the consequences. Finally a few believed that exquisite British pink was best deepened on the map into progressive Soviet red. (Philby was a displaced power-hungry imperialist of that type.) No sort of thinker, Greene borrowed according to his mood from all these reactions to political flux.

British and French measures of defense against Communist or nationalist insurgents seemed foolish to Greene. Written with the added authority of someone once on the inside, Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor are novels celebrating the bankruptcy of British intelligence in its efforts at defense. Such efforts were a waste of energy, evidence only that the innocent were persecuted and the upper crust unscrupulous. In Malaya, Greene found himself feeling sometimes "a measure of compassion" for the Communist guerrillas, who apparently overcame their sexual passions in the jungle and wrote poetry. Colonialist planters, by contrast, drank and attended Scottish dinners with "A Wee Bit Haggis." In Kenya during the Mau Mau disturbances, Greene caricatured British attitudes toward the Kikuyu with the words, "It was as though Jeeves had taken to the jungle," while Dedan Kimathi, who bound his followers to him with ceremonies of blood-letting and bestiality with goats, was smoothed away with the observation that "over and over again one was moved by the simplicity of this savage enemy." In Vietnam, it was embarrassing to lunch with the French General de Lattre de Tassigny, who was a loser, and clownish enough, besides, to inquire whether Greene was still a spy. What a pleasure it was, therefore, to take tea not long afterward with Ho Chi Minh, who was a winner, and to congratulate himself on having in his pocket a small silver cocktail shaker from Asprey's.

The fellow traveler must be selective in what he reports and admits. If the Soviets have actually done anything that can be criticized, he must maintain that the West has done the same to an even more harmful degree, and therefore that the Soviet fault is excusable. Greene is a master of these false equations. What he likes to call "British tortures" in Ulster, for example, seem to him on a footing with Stalinist show trials, "which we had been so quick to condemn." In 1968, in a preface to Philby's memoirs, Greene likened him to a Catholic in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. as if the Tudor religious wars somehow resembled Stalinism. In the Soviet Union in 1986, Greene thanked his hosts in the Literaturnaya Gazeta of September 10 for "the warm welcome I have received in the U.S.S.R." and went on to enthuse over his old friend Philby. "I personally feel a great admiration for him, for the consistency with which he came to his new convictions and defended them in the struggle against fascism." Struggling against fascism, yes, in the years when the Soviet Union was fighting Hitler; but in fact Philby was betraying his own democratic, anti-fascist country.

In Prague early in 1948, Greene depicted the Soviet coup as a farce, during the course of which he was obliged to sleep on a sofa and to scrounge food with diplomats in a hotel basement. He asks now, "Who could have foretold on that fantastic night the Slansky trial, all the Stalin horrors, the brief spring, and then Dubcek and Smrkovsky dragged as prisoners to Moscow?" The answer is, anybody sober and unromantic enough to have taken the trouble to look at Soviet reality. Nor was it any bother to visit Poland as the guest of Pax, the front organization erected by the Communist Party to try to control the Catholic Church; or to state in public that East Berlin was preferable to West Berlin. He summed it all up in a letter to the London Times in September 1967; "If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States, I would certainly choose the Soviet Union."

Freedom, tolerance, pluralism, wealth are things Greene takes for granted for himself; the airplane ticket in his pocket permits him to turn his back safely on totalitarianism. Analysis consists, for Greene, in outburst. He has no understanding of the political or historical processes that have led the United States to occupy its position in the world. His criticism of America is, at bottom, aesthetic. It expresses a superior distaste, a revulsion at people who do not know the correct forms of behavior.

Americans, as Greene put it in The Quiet American, are "big, noisy, boyish and middle-aged." One of this type proved "an emblematic statue of all I thought I hated in America." That particular novel helped to cast over American action in Vietnam a taint, an air of superciliousness, which became widespread. (The character of certain American actions helped, too.) The Communist victory led to persecution, and eventually to the boat people, which was as predictable as the events in Czechoslovakia. In 1971 Greene could write, "South Vietnam has suffered under the Japanese and the French, it has suffered under President Diem and his successors. It has suffered under the Americans, but when has it 'once' suffered under communism?" Reproved by a critic, he replied that the Communists had merely been fighting a civil war, adding defensively, and with the fellow traveler's usual glibness, "Why do supporters of the Pentagon always write of men, women, and children being 'butchered' in a communist offensive, and yet the poor victims of an American offensive become merely 'casualties'?"

For some years now, events in Latin America have dominated his writings. The perception that in this culture "there were always other generals" has been put out of mind. Greene takes particular pride in "my friend Fidel Castro," giving accounts of meals and audiences with him in Havana, pointing out to admiring interviewers which pictures in the Antibes apartment were gifts from Fidel. "I'd still fight for Cuba," he was declaring in 1969. Cuban intervention in Angola, he asserted, was not Soviet-sponsored, but an independent and justified initiative of Castro's.

His advocacy of the Sandinistas, in particular, is passionate and unqualified. As with the Czechs in 1948, then with the Vietnamese, so now he doubts whether the Sandinistas are Marxist-Leninists. Once again he finds no reason to foresee (at this late date, no reason even to speculate) that the future might bring horrors. In 1986 he wrote that "the key positions of foreign affairs, health and education and culture are all held by Catholic priests." The Archbishop is opposed to the Sandinistas, to be sure, but "the church does not belong to the Archbishop, it belongs to the Catholic people…. There are Marxists in the Government, yes, but Marxism is an economic theory not a heresy."

One pronouncement after another reveals his distance from reality. "I would have thought that Nicaragua was the first Latin American country under authoritarian rule (Somoza supported by the United States), to have reverted by revolution in the direction of democracy." And there is no persecution of churchgoers in Nicaragua because "I have attended Mass in Managua and I have seen religious celebrations in the streets of León and Catholic posters along the main roads." Speaking little or no Spanish, Greene nonetheless knows that the Miskito Indians were removed by the Sandinistas for their own good: a Maryknoll nun told him so. She may have been the only American whose word was good enough for Greene.

The lengths to which Greene goes to quarrel with American representatives are childish, provoking the authorities, for example, to refuse him entry visas, resigning from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and so on. Under the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained his file of 45 pages, of which 16 had been inked out. This the great dissenter sold at public auction. Once again masking the truth about recurrent and very tangible royalties, he wrote to the London Times to wonder "whether it might be worth my while to obtain a second installment and later a third one, a good means of earning a livelihood in old age."

"To be praised was agony … the excitement, was overshadowed by the knowledge of failure…. I belong on the side of the victims." Culled at random from his autobiographical writings, phrases like these fly by the score in the face of truth. On the side of the victims, in Antibes? Knowledge of failure, with royalties paid from all over the world in a country with tax concessions for writers, in White's Club?

Greene's self-serving fantasies were evident in J'Accuse, a pamphlet he published in 1982 about a private family matter. Greene's long-standing companion had a daughter married to a young man now accused of being a small-time local crook. Greene claimed that in the divorce proceedings of this couple, and then in custodial arrangements for their children, the authorities had conspired at a miscarriage of justice. Once he had supposed that the CIA might murder him in Central America; now he intimated that he might be gunned down on the Riviera. For this, Zola's title! (Later Greene inveighed in the press against the purchase by an American publishing house of his publishers in London, whose chairman was his nephew. On the side of the victims, browbeating his own relative in the correspondence columns?)

Greene's recent novels have been built upon fantasies too large and too improbable to sustain a narrative: the wrong man appointed a monsignor; a bank manager caught up in the travels of his aunt with a war criminal in Latin America; a man who pays another to go in his stead before a firing squad; a millionaire who tests his dinner guests by placing on their plates crackers with expensive gifts inside, with the exception of one containing an explosive device. The Captain and the Enemy also has no contact with observable life.

The new book is, not surprisingly, a document of self-pity. A 12-year-old boy is at the mercy of unscrupulous adults. At his English public school, this boy is confronted by a stranger, the Captain, who is an aging and inept confidence trickster. The Captain explains that he and the boy's father have played backgammon, and that the boy is the reward for the winner. Listening without demur, the boy leaves school to settle for years in a dim basement with the Captain and his mistress. The book's detail—currency, architecture, conduct—derives from pre-1914 England. The Captain and the Enemy evokes not another nightmare from childhood, but anachronism. As though by means of a time machine, the scene switches to contemporary Panama, where the Captain is now flying guns to the Sandinistas. "The Enemy" are the Americans and their stooges, who have a hand in the Captain's death as he crashes his aircraft onto Somoza's bunker in Managua. The boy, ostensibly aged 22 at this point, is left to conclude, "I'm on my own now."

Unfortunately, local changes have caught Greene on the hop. Where it was once right for the Panama of Torrijos to resist America, it is wrong for the Panama of Noriega to do the same. (The writer Lee Langley has noticed Greene's attempt to reverse out of another bind of a similar sort. In Brighton Rock, published in 1938, when anti-Semitism was all the rage, the criminal character was "a small dark Jew with a neat round belly" and had "Semitic features." In post-war editions of the novel, however, this has been amended to "a small dark man" whose features have become "Italianate.") The Captain says of himself that he had been a prisoner of war of the Germans. Apparently he had nothing more than a dictionary to read at the time, as a result of which words like "fuliginous" and "glabrous" feature in his vocabulary. This heavy-handed joke is all there is to humanize the character, to support the complete reversal of role whereby this rather miserable liar and cheat somehow acquires an aircraft, as well as the skill and the determination to fly it to a heroic death. Nor can the Enemy be considered particularly outrageous in wanting to keep tabs on this weird figure in their midst.

Panama and its politics, in short, have been grafted onto a fiction of an antique England in the attempt yet again to match "bad" bullies against "good" underdogs. Melodrama, again, is the result of this willful ordering of the world. It seems that even the slightest evocation of an English boyhood leads Greene's imagination directly to the wicked wilds of the CIA. By now America has been distorted to serve as a superior force, or more to the point, as a horrid father figure, in whose light he can justifiably feel sorry for himself.

If Graham Greene had lived in the heyday of British power, he might have had confidence in his gift for story-telling. As things were, he claimed the privileges customary to wealth and freedom while feeling free to ignore the customary responsibilities. In this respect, he spoke for many in Britain and elsewhere who believed that they should be allowed to continue enjoying their ease and safety without paying the price for them. A view of himself and of the world emerges in Greene's work which finds virtue in surrender. Nobody expressed with more literary force the longing to escape painlessly from the totalitarian realities of the '30s and the cold war. Greene's appeasing instincts provided the melodrama upon which his reputation has been built, but those same instincts also ensured that even in his lifetime his work would become a period curiosity.

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