Illustration by Andrea Ventura.

Evelyn Waugh liked to tease Graham Greene by remarking that it was a good thing God exists, because otherwise Greene would be a Laurel without Hardy. It is a mark in Greene’s favor that he recounts the jibe in a tribute to Waugh written shortly after his friend’s death in 1966. Throughout his life, the fabulously successful Greene was ever ready to pull his own leg, such as when, in 1949, he entered a New Statesman competition by submitting three parodies of his own writing under pseudonyms. One of the entries was judged good enough to merit a guinea of the six-guinea prize. Greene then wrote a letter to the editor owning up to the prank and regretting that he had not won the contest outright, especially as the money would be tax-free—always an important consideration with Greene.

It is not insignificant that Waugh’s squib does not work the other way round, even though Waugh was far more firmly, if not indeed fanatically, committed to his faith than Greene ever was; in the course of a private audience at the Vatican, Pope John XXIII is said to have interrupted a tirade by Waugh against the reformist spirit sweeping through the church by observing gently, “But Mr. Waugh, I too am a Catholic.” Ironically, while Greene was known universally, and to his irritation, as the world’s preeminent “Catholic novelist,” Waugh was what Greene wished to be accepted as: a novelist who happened to be a Catholic.

Both men were converts, but while Waugh pledged himself absolutely to Rome and never wavered, Greene was always ambiguous in his religious commitment. In later years, he would claim to be a Catholic agnostic, which is an impossibility, as anyone who knows anything about Roman Catholicism can tell you. Either you are in or you are out; there is no middle way.

Given the large number of books that have been written about Greene, including a monster three-volume Life by Norman Sherry, one might wonder whether there was need of, or even room for, yet another. Richard Greene, biographer and poet—a rare combination—and no relation, so far as we know, has already given us a collection of Greene’s correspondence, Graham Greene: A Life in Letters. His new biography, The Unquiet Englishman, is perceptive, refreshingly unsolemn, lively, at times funny, and shrewd throughout. It’s also a wonderfully bright and entertaining read, for which we must be grateful in these shadowed times. His Graham Greene is an intrepid venturer into the world’s violent places who comes home and writes fictional accounts of his experiences. This seems right, for Greene was as far from an art-for-art’s-sake novelist as could be found. All the same, a little more art and a little less swashbuckling would surely have made him a finer writer than he managed to be.

Greene was born in 1904 in a small market town in Hertfordshire. His father was a teacher at Berkhamsted, a minor public school—which in the way of things English means it was a private school—where later he became headmaster. His salary and perks, including accommodation for his wife and their six children and free education for their four sons, ensured that the family was comfortably off. The Greenes subscribed to the Anglican religion, in the unemphatic way of most of the well-to-do English middle class of the time. However, Greene’s was a fervent soul, and one evening in December 1920, when he was 16, he found God—or, as no doubt he would have said, God found him. He was idling on the grounds of the school. He could hear at a distance the school orchestra playing Mendelssohn and, nearby, a rabbit moving about in its hutch. Suddenly, out of the blue of twilight, God was there. “And so faith came to me—shapelessly, without dogma, a presence about a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way.”

The moment, and the description of it, are typical of the author of Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory. For most people who come suddenly to religion, or better say faith, the Lord announces himself as the spirit of inspiration, affirmation, joy; for Greene, loitering at the edge of night on that emblematically English croquet lawn, there is only an intimation of “violence, cruelty, evil.” As Richard Greene remarks: “He could only imagine Hell, not yet a heaven.”

In this context, it would be well to keep in mind the future novelist’s age at the time, his troubled mental state—not long after that dark evening of the soul when the Pentecostal fire descended upon him, he was diagnosed as manic depressive, or bipolar, as we say now—and that every self-respecting poète maudit finds hell a far more warming prospect than a cold heaven. All the same, that was the moment when the young Graham discovered far more than just his religion; he discovered what would come to be called, by critics friendly and unfriendly, “Greeneland.” If, that is, we believe his account of what happened: Rare is the novelist who can resist embellishing a scene. When dealing with Greene’s autobiographical writings, as the author of The Unquiet Englishman delicately notes, “caution needs to be exercised.” All the same, the vignette, whether true, exaggerated, or invented, vividly predicts the atmosphere and at least some of the preoccupations of the future novelist: a figure standing alone in a darkling scene, sensing the immanence of wickedness, sin, and suffering, as well as the possibility of redemption.

Greene chafed under the privilege into which he was born. His family may have been top dogs, but from his earliest days Graham was firmly on the side of the underdog. His parents’ people were moneyed, with business interests including brewing, which involved the slave trade: An ancestor, Benjamin Greene, ran a business on the island of St. Kitts in the West Indies that was worked by 225 slaves. Greene’s parents were first cousins, and both had tainted genes. Charles Greene’s father suffered from what Graham judged to be manic depression, like himself, and his maternal grandfather, an Anglican priest, was also mentally ill. The latter labored under a burden of guilt—presumably he had Doubts—and according to Graham, “when his bishop refused his request to be defrocked, [he] proceeded to put the matter into effect himself in a field,” doffing his frock and standing naked before his goggle-eyed parishioners. Perhaps understandably, the Reverend Greene became an unmentionable in the family, so that his grandson assumed he was dead (though in fact he lived until 1924) and must have posed “a living menace” to his daughter and her family. Out of such stuff are novelists made, and a “Catholic novelist” in particular.

Greene’s parents were intelligent, kindly people. Charles Greene was a handsome fellow, and in his photograph in The Unquiet Englishman he sports a dashing and most un-schoolmasterly mustache, while his wife, Marion, in her picture, is characteristic of the era in being feyly lovely and tightly corseted. Richard Greene—ah, what a trial to the reviewer is this proliferation of Greenes!—tells us that as a young man, Graham had little time for his well-meaning but somewhat bumbling father, cleaving instead to his high-minded mother, who had the distinction of being a cousin, if a distant one, of the great Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, an abiding influence on Greene’s own fiction. As the years went on, however, the father rose in the son’s estimation, while the mother sank, mainly because she was a snob, and Graham Greene was never that.

As we know, snobbery has always been a plague upon English social life, and never more so than in the Edwardian era, as the imperial world grew weary and the old absolutes began to totter on their plinths. Berkhamsted school was very modest compared to Eton or Harrow, but it had its own traditions of intolerance, exclusivity, and brutality. Pupils who boarded were known as aristocrats, day boys formed the middle class, and underneath all there toiled what Greene’s friend and fellow Berkhamsteder, the writer Peter Quennell, described as “a despised proletariat, the ‘train boys,’ so called because they arrived by train from various adjacent towns.” Richard Greene writes of these scholarship students: “Also called ‘train bugs’, this last group attended the school with financial assistance and were mocked for their accents, bad clothes, and supposed smell.” Acting out of what his son called a “rather noble old liberalism,” Charles Greene, to his great credit, sought by various civilizing measures to alleviate the plight of the downtrodden among his charges. Young Graham also offered sympathy and support to the bullied among his fellow pupils.

And where in such a school hierarchy was the live-in son of the headmaster to find a foothold? Even allowing for exaggeration and Greene’s slight tendency to romance the facts, his boyhood seems to have been little short of intolerable, and entirely so on occasion. In his autobiography, he described the green baize door that marked off home from school, those two separate countries, writing, “I had to remain an inhabitant of both.”

Naturally, he ran away, leaving a note for his parents saying he would not come back until they promised that he would not have to return to St. John’s, his school “house,” where he had suffered at the hands of a pair of bullies and was forced to deal with “filth,” by which he seems to have meant, his biographer ventures, “that boys were farting all the time.” Young Graham was soon found and fetched home, and despite his parents’ sympathy, he was required to return to school and its mephitic vapors.

One of Greene’s talismans was a line from a poem by Æ, pen name of the Irish poet George Russell: “In the lost boyhood of Judas / Christ was betrayed.” Greene’s biographer quotes this in a chapter titled “Masks,” where he deals with Greene’s loyalty to his old friend, fellow intelligence officer, and KGB double agent Kim Philby, who had fled to Russia in 1963. Richard Greene writes: “In a sense, Greene’s defense of Philby began in the dormitory at Berkhamsted School where he had been caught between loyalty to the other boys and loyalty to his father, out of which emerged a personal mythology concerning trust and betrayal.”

A prominent, indeed notorious, passage in this “personal mythology” was the occasion in the early 1920s when Greene played, if that is the word, a game of Russian roulette. By then, he was at Oxford, unhappy, chronically bored, and for most of the time, as he said, in a “general haze of drink”; he was also undergoing psychoanalysis, which he blamed for the fact that for years afterward he “could take no aesthetic interest in any visual thing.” And he was hopelessly in love with his younger siblings’ governess, a woman 10 years his senior.

Desperate circumstances required a desperate remedy. In his autobiography, he makes the claim of chancing upon a revolver—“a small ladylike object with six chambers like a tiny egg-stand”—in a cupboard in a bedroom he shared at home with his brother Raymond. Greene goes on to say that he took the gun out to Berkhamsted Common, loaded a single bullet, spun the chamber, “put the muzzle…into my right ear and pulled the trigger.” It was not a suicide attempt, he explained, but a bid to escape from boredom and unhappiness. “The discovery that it was possible to enjoy again the visual world by risking its total loss was one I was bound to make sooner or later.” Surely in this we hear not the voice of the 19-year-old Greene but of the world-weary, rich, and famous “Catholic novelist” who wrote those lines. He took the revolver back with him to Oxford and had five more goes with it there, then gave up the dangerous game.

Did he really play it, and as he said he did? “This is one of the most famous episodes in Graham Greene’s life,” his biographer writes. “However, it may not be entirely true.” Greene’s mother dismissed the tale as made up, and his brother, who owned the gun, said there was no ammunition with it. The novelist himself later suggested that the bullets were blanks, and that he knew they were.

There is no doubt that the flight from boredom—or perhaps apathy is a better term—was a driving force in Greene’s life, as it is, indeed, in the lives of all of us, to a degree rarely acknowledged. It sent him to roam the world along the “dangerous edge of things,” in a phrase of Robert Browning’s which he quoted frequently. On these journeys he risked life and limb many times over: in Indochina when the French were there; in Vietnam when the Americans succeeded them, disastrously; and in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Asked in an interview why so many of his books were set far away from England, Greene said, “It’s a restlessness that I’ve always had to move around, and perhaps to see English characters in a setting which is not protective to them.”

Greene had endured London in the Blitz at the start of the 1940s and later the terrifying onslaught by V-1 and V-2 rocket bombs, and perhaps nothing was ever again as vivid to him as the experience of living in constant fear of imminent death. He seems to have enjoyed it all, remarking to his friend Anthony Powell, in the coolly brittle tone popular at the time, “London is extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new open spaces, and the rather Mexican effect of ruined churches.”

After Oxford, Greene worked as a sub-editor at The Times of London; “subbing” was a discipline which afterward he said he could strongly recommend to any aspiring writer. He also began to write journalism.

As it happened, an article of his published in the undergraduate magazine Oxford Outlook led eventually to his marriage, the only one he contracted to, despite the many romantic liaisons he carried on throughout his life. In the piece, a rather prissy concoction inveighing against the current “over-sexed” age, he wrote: “We either go to church and worship the Virgin Mary or to a public house and snigger over stories and limericks.” This brought a stinging letter from an enthusiastic young Catholic, Vivienne Dayrell-Browning, private secretary to the publisher Basil Blackwell, who a couple of years before had brought out a slim volume of Greene’s verse under the ill-advised title Babbling April. Miss Dayrell-Browning admonished Greene for speaking of “worship” of the Virgin Mary—worship being reserved for God alone—and informed him that the correct term was “hyperdulia,” a lesser form of veneration. Such an exchange must inevitably lead to romance. The two met, had tea, went to the movies, and Greene was lost, or found, he was never quite sure which.

The path of love did not run smooth. There were tiffs, tears, tantrums, breakings off, and reunitings. Greene more than once proposed, and in the end was accepted on condition that he convert to Catholicism. He agreed, but that route too had its bumps and swerves. Greene argued hard with the priest from whom he took instruction in church doctrine. Unlike Waugh, he was never to be a rule-bound Catholic; religion, for him, had in it a strain of magic. In the 1970s, hearing from a concerned Catholic who felt the novelist had lost his faith, he replied that he had always made a distinction between faith and belief: “I think I still have faith, even though the belief is a bit ragged.”

Greene never did stoop to the vulgarity of the Pascalian wager, by which one decides to believe in God on the principle that if he exists, the gamble pays off, and if he doesn’t, the loser loses nothing. Faith, for Greene, was a visceral matter; his God was an omnipresent but disengaged father, heaven was highly improbable, and only hell was a powerful enough possibility to compel belief.

Although he would eventually leave his wife, Greene remained loyal to her in his fashion, while for the rest of her life Vivien—she had shortened her first name—referred to herself as Mrs. Graham Greene. Theirs seems to have been, early on at least, a form of mystical union. He once suggested that sexual intercourse had something in common with the taking of the Eucharist, though as his biographer dryly remarks, “He may just have been trying to convince her of the artistic and spiritual benefits of sleeping with him.”

Greene could have sought to have the marriage annulled, as Waugh did after he left his first, flagrantly unfaithful wife. But he seems to have been content to let matters rest between him and the woman who, perhaps not incidentally, bore a marked resemblance to his mother in form and personality. Anyway, the Vatican, though ever indulgent of the rich and famous, would probably have found the existence of the Greenes’ two children something of an impediment to permitting the dissolution of the marriage.

The number and intensity of Greene’s love affairs is a matter of legend. His greatest love—at least until 1959, when he met Yvonne Cloetta, who was to be his partner during the last three decades of his life—was Catherine Walston. The formidable Mrs. Walston was American, married, rich, beautiful, and a Catholic convert, and served as the model for Sarah in The End of the Affair, no more a convincing female character than any of the others Greene attempted. He met Catherine at a party in 1945, and the following year, when he was looking for a house to buy, she showed him one in Cambridgeshire and afterward, being the holder of a pilot’s license, flew him back to London in a light aircraft she had hired for the purpose. Greene wrote, “A lock of hair touches one’s eyes in a plane with East Anglia under snow, & one is in love.”

There were, however, complications, to say the least. “Greene’s life was now knotted in the most extraordinary way,” his biographer notes. “He was married to Vivien, living with Dorothy [Glover, a set designer he had met during the war], purportedly involved with a possibly non-existent Claudette Monde [a French journalist], and in love with Catherine Walston.” Eventually, he would rent a flat on fashionable St. James’s Street in London, next door to the one occupied by Catherine and her not entirely complaisant husband.

Catherine was certainly a game girl. When her husband, Harry, found out his girlfriend was pregnant, his wife obligingly traveled to Dublin, where the child was to be born, “went about with a pillow under her clothes until the delivery, and was then certified as the mother” and took the boy, James Walston, as her own. The Dublin rumor mill at the time had it that when she was there, she whiled away the time in a brief affair with a well-known Jesuit and alcoholic, one Father Donal O’Sullivan—shades of Greene’s whiskey priests.

Greene’s early books were not successful. In the second half of the 20th century, young authors dejected by poor sales and dismissive reviews would be encouraged by their editors to look to Greene’s example and keep on. Just remember, one was told, he published six novels before he hit the jackpot with Brighton Rock! When success came, it came with a tremendous splash. After the war, his novels sold in the hundreds of thousands, his plays ran for months, and he made a fortune from film adaptations.

But were the books any good? Richard Greene makes a better case for them than they do for themselves. They have not worn well. If we contrast, for example, Brighton Rock with Georges Simenon’s Dirty Snow, published 10 years after Greene’s overwrought thriller–cum–religious tract, we cannot but acknowledge Simenon’s dark masterpiece as by far—by very far—the greater and more enduring of the two.

And what to make of postwar melodramas such as The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, or indeed The End of the Affair? The first is risibly portentous and the second embarrassing; the last is a quite good middlebrow novel until two-thirds of the way through, when it becomes a queasy meditation on the nature of sin, self-sacrifice, redemption, and the miraculous, to which the only possible response is laughter. It may be that his most accomplished works are Lord Rochester’s Monkey, a biography of the once scandalous poet done with the lightest of touches, and the screenplay for The Third Man, the greatest mainstream movie ever made. Among the novels, The Quiet American is the one that will most likely live on, but for its remarkable political prescience, not its literary merit. What he classed as “entertainments” contained his best work: Travels With My Aunt is far more than entertaining.

How in Greene’s time could so much be made of so many of his second-rate books? He was the darling of the middlebrows—not a pejorative term; what would fiction do without the middlebrow reader?—and of the critics alike. The publication of a “new Greene” was an event to be marked on calendars around the world. Papa Doc Duvalier, the Haitian dictator who had contemplated having Greene assassinated, kept a copy of The Comedians on his desk along with a revolver and a Bible.

Greene worked in the public sphere and kept himself in the public eye. Brighton Rock, published in 1938, the year of the Munich betrayal, spoke to the anxieties of Auden’s “low dishonest decade.” After the war, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the rest of the horrors, when the devil seemed to walk abroad in plain sight, Greene—never an intellectual and leery of modernism and the modernists’ disdain of the audience—had the courage, and the decency, to write simply and straightforwardly about the momentous issues of the day, about wars, revolutions, and the depredations of tyrants of right and left, while at the same time addressing the things of the spirit, such as religion, morality, and the duty of the citizen, both to the state and to the state of his or her own soul. As the Cold War spread its permafrost on both sides of the Iron Curtain, people craved signs and, when they got them, took them for wonders. Greene’s books were no wonders, but they sufficed to allow readers to imagine they were not just being diverted for a few hours but were wrestling with the great, eternal questions of human existence.

Fiction has its limits. The novel, a comic rather than a tragic form, is a thing of nuance, of the everyday; it is, one might say, Anglican, and when it is required to perform the Catholic rites, it fails. Henry James, the greatest practitioner of the art of the novel at its purest, knew a thing or two about the world’s wicked ways, but would he have been able to cope with Hitler and Stalin, or even Papa Doc? Perhaps what works best in extremes is the unmediated gaze. What novelist has delineated the nature of evil more clearly than Primo Levi does in If This Is a Man? Who has described the reality of torture and probed the motives of the torturer so deeply as the Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry in At the Mind’s Limits? What more telling record of the rise of fascism could there be than the diaries of Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, in Germany, or Mihail Sebastian’s Journal: 1935–1944 in Romania?

To be fair, Greene had his own doubts as to the quality of his fiction. At the very end of his life, when he was in and out of the hospital with killing regularity, Yvonne Cloetta’s daughter sought to cheer him up by reminding him of all the wonderful things he had written. “A few, yes, are good books,” he conceded. If only he had left it at that. Instead, he added, “Perhaps people will think of me from time to time as they think of Flaubert.” One must indulge the hopeful musings of an old man mortally ill, and tiptoe away from the deathbed.