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Not Easy Being Greene: Graham Greene's Letters | The Nation

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Not Easy Being Greene: Graham Greene's Letters

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Through numerous halfhearted suicide attempts and at least one round of electroshock therapy, Greene was relentlessly productive, as the chapters filled with his jobbing correspondence confirm. Hardly the cloistered novelist, Greene played a number of relatively public roles throughout his career, including film critic and book editor and later publisher, journalist and political advocate, but none less comfortably than that of professional Catholic. Sandwiched between The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair is the engine of his Catholic trilogy, The Heart of the Matter, released to great acclaim in 1949. "It's all too fantastic," he wrote to Walston that year, "my books in every shop." Initially elated over the book's reception in the Catholic community, Greene worried about being pigeonholed by others and perhaps himself. Having courted this attention with Catholic-catnip plot twists (he later expressed regret, for instance, over Sarah's posthumous "miracles" in Affair), he was deeply ambivalent about his new status as an icon of the faith as well as the endless debates the trilogy's success inspired. Interestingly, in that same letter to Walston he mentions priests who "flock reverently around" him and indicates that the reading of Scobie as a modern martyr was more intentional--and closer to his own empathies--than he would later admit. "Though now of course I take the opposite view to Scobie," Greene writes, "that nobody can ruin another person." (Evelyn Waugh, who described Greene as having "great balls theologically," criticized Scobie's suicide as "either a very loose poetical expression or a mad blasphemy.")

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Michelle Orange
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Greene turncoat Anthony Burgess once noted that Greene had developed "a highly idiosyncratic version of Catholicism, which could even accommodate a probable absence of the deity." It's a charge these letters tend to bear out: whether he is invoking copyright technicalities to avoid amending foreign editions of The Power and the Glory (after an outraged cardinal denounced the book for its portrayal of the priesthood) or trying to convince Dayrell-Browning, for whom he would convert, that he could adopt her "ideal of celibacy," Greene's struggle with the faith is reflected in the way he seemed to shape his Catholic identity to suit not just his audience but his purpose. With the deeply pious Waugh, Catholicism was a hillocked common ground, one Greene traversed in his letters with an uncharacteristic deference, theological balls in check. With Walston, his faith was an exciting and treacherous playground--the thing that brought them together and would ultimately keep them apart--and some of his most breathtakingly contraindicated musing is found in the mingling of spiritual and physical passions she stirred in him. "Cafryn, dear," he writes in 1947, "I want to kiss you, touch you, make love to you--& simply sit in a car & be driven by you.... I nearly slept at Mass today. How dead it was--not dead in the amusing phosphorescent way of last Sunday, aware of your shoulder half an inch from mine, but just limp & meaningless & boring. I'm not even a Catholic properly away from you."

Green was inscrutable in his faith as in so many other things; over time his letters suggest a life of dedicated churchgoing despite a seemingly untenable relationship with the church. Ultimately he may have been more of a cradle Catholic--prone to doubt but enthralled by the church's sacred mysteries; preferring the familial culture of the faith to its isolating dogmatic rigors--than his critics allowed. Greene was greatly disillusioned by the Second Vatican Council, which abolished the Latin liturgy and moved the church away from some of the strict theological tenets that converts seemed to hold especially dear (Greene felt that his friend Waugh, who died in 1966, was literally heartbroken by the event). In later years he remained critical but, like so many ambivalent Catholics, still attended Mass once or twice a month. In a 1978 letter to a fan, he wrote: "When I rather hastily said that if I was young today I would not become a Catholic I think I meant that the differences between the Christian beliefs were becoming less and less.... Our idea of transubstantiation has become far less physical and more philosophical." It took a few decades, but "Catholic agnostic" is the designation he settled on; it's an apt obfuscation, and he stuck with it.

"I'm writing a small bit of autobiography myself," Greene wrote to the poet George Barker in 1967, referring to what would become A Sort of Life, the memoir of his childhood that his psychoanalyst urged him to begin as a rampart against the massive breakdown Greene feared his deep depression in the late 1950s might portend. "It's something to fall back on when the imagination begins to fail. No more disgusting to my mind than old age itself." And yet, as the sheer volume of his surviving letters insists, Greene wrote his autobiography--self-disgust be damned--every day of his life, with a nomadic imagination and coiled moral introspection that is, in brief but sky-opening flashes, equal to his fiction. That he knew this and must have known that we would someday know it too is perhaps the determinedly elusive Greene's final, refractive jest.

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