Graham Greene discussion

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Interesting comment from Frank Kermode in the LRB

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message 1: by Drew (new)

Drew (drewmelck) | 9 comments Mod
Hi, in last week's London Review of Books Frank Kermode reviewed "A History of Christianity: The First 3000 Years" by Diarmaid MacCulloch. In the course of the review there was an interesting aside on The End of the Affair which I thought might be worth sharing with you:

The other day I came across a long forgotten interview I did with Graham Greene in 1963. Speaking of The End of the Affair, he said that he had made ‘an appalling mistake’ in that novel, and the mistake was ‘the introduction of something which had not got a natural explanation’. He found it impossible to carry on with the original scheme of the novel when its principal figure was dead and his invented events were obeying a fictional logic not of his but of God’s devising. It was as if the woman and her lover belonged to different orders of truth. Greene believed in God as a plotter; but he could not reconcile God’s and the human plot. It was, perhaps, like trying to reconcile truth and statements of truth.

I can't quite work out what he's getting at, but it seemed pertinent to this group's interests and therefore worth sharing. Anyone care to shed some light on it?


message 2: by Helen (last edited Apr 16, 2010 05:23AM) (new)

Helen (helenmarylesshankman) | 247 comments Mod
Interesting! This is what he said about the same subject in Ways of Escape, from 1980.

The story…which now began to itch at my mind — of a man who was to be driven and overwhelmed by the accumulation of natural coincidences, until he broke and began to accept the incredible—the possibility of a God. Alas! It was an intention I betrayed.There is much that I like in the book—it seems to me more simply and clearly written than its predecessors and ingeniously constructed to avoid the tedium of the time sequence (I had learned something from my continual rereading of that remarkable novel The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford), but until I reached the final part I did not realize the formidable problem I had set myself.

Sarah, the chief character, was dead, the book should have continued at least as long after her death as before, and yet, like her lover, Bendrix, I found I had no great appetite to continue now she was gone beyond recall and only a philosophic theme was left behind. I begin to hurry to the end, and although, in the last part, there are scenes, especially those which express the growth of tenderness between Bendrix and Sarah's husband, which seem to me successful enough, I realized too late how I had been cheating the reader…The incident of the atheist Smythe's strawberry mark (apparently cured by Sarah after her death) should have had no place in the book; every so-called miracle, like the curing of Parkis's boy, ought to have had a completely natural explanation. The coincidences should have continued over the years, battering the mind of Bendrix, forcing on him a reluctant doubt of his own atheism. The last pages would have remained much as they were written (indeed I very much like the last pages), but I had spurred myself too quickly to the end.

So it was that in a later edition I tried to return nearer to my original intention. Smythe's strawberry mark gave place to a disease of the skin which might have had a nervous origin and be susceptible to faith healing.



message 3: by Jen (new)

Jen (missonethousandspringblossoms) | 39 comments Hmmmm.


message 4: by Gary (new)

Gary | 22 comments Yesterday I bought 2 Greene books. THE COMEDIANS,and A BURNT-OUT CASE. don't know when I get to them in the mounds of unread books in this place, but eventually I will.

Cheerio!


message 5: by Jessica (new)

Jessica (jesstrea) | 412 comments Mod
I envy you, reading those both or the first time...

I should reread them. But I'll wait a bit.


message 6: by Drew (new)

Drew (drewmelck) | 9 comments Mod
Helen wrote: "Interesting! This is what he said about the same subject in Ways of Escape, from 1980.

The story…which now began to itch at my mind — of a man who was to be driven and overwhelmed by the accumulat..."


Great. That helps a lot actually. Funny how GG explains it so much more simply that the genial Mr Kermode ;)


message 7: by Helen (new)

Helen (helenmarylesshankman) | 247 comments Mod
I agree. I love Ways of Escape, it's like GG is there in the room with you, chatting about his books.


message 8: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen | 42 comments Can someone recommend one of Greene's "lighter" books?


message 9: by Jessica (new)

Jessica (jesstrea) | 412 comments Mod
I'd recommend "Our Man in Havana." It's funny in unexpected ways.


message 10: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen | 42 comments Thanks.


message 11: by Greenelander (new)

Greenelander | 59 comments I'll second that---it's laugh out loud funny at times, but always with that dark Greene edge.


message 12: by Helen (new)

Helen (helenmarylesshankman) | 247 comments Mod
I agree, great choice.


message 13: by Gary (new)

Gary | 22 comments Of all i've read of his, i still have to say my favorite thus far is THE QUIET AMERICAN.


message 14: by Jessica (last edited Apr 26, 2010 06:18PM) (new)

Jessica (jesstrea) | 412 comments Mod
but it's not one of his "lighter" reads, which is what Kathleen wants --

have you tried either of those 2 you mentioned yet (in message 4)?


message 15: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen | 42 comments Thanks, everyone. Sounds good.


message 16: by Gary (new)

Gary | 22 comments I plan to.... right now i am reading A RELIABLE WIFE, which is wonderful,and barely started IN THE LIGHTHOUSE,and will get back into it.


message 17: by Greenelander (new)

Greenelander | 59 comments Some of the short stories are quite quirkily funny too, definitely lighter reading. The short stories make perfect bedtime reading.

Btw, has anyone read Travels with My Aunt?


message 18: by Jessica (new)

Jessica (jesstrea) | 412 comments Mod
I haven't read 'Travels..' and I haven't read many of his stories yet, either.

Much to read still--


message 19: by Helen (new)

Helen (helenmarylesshankman) | 247 comments Mod
I read it, Greenelander. I read somewhere that a film is in the works. Did you like it?


message 20: by Greenelander (new)

Greenelander | 59 comments Helen, haven't read it yet but always meant to---a trip to the library is clearly in order! How would you describe it relative to his other books we've discussed, and what did you think of it?


message 21: by Helen (last edited Apr 29, 2010 12:53PM) (new)

Helen (helenmarylesshankman) | 247 comments Mod
It's a much lighter book, very droll and comical and a bit naughty. He tweaks what would have been considered good taste and polite sensibilities back in the 1960's. It's almost like he is letting out his breath after holding it in for many years, in his position as an Important and Serious Author. In Ways of Escape, he said that he wrote it for fun, that he never expected anyone to actually agree to publish it.

It was certainly cute,(which is a weird thing to say about anything GG has ever written!) and though it has a comic outlook, it still has some powerful insights about life and living. I can't compare it to any of his other books, because really, it stands alone.


message 22: by Greenelander (new)

Greenelander | 59 comments That settles it, then. I HAVE to read this! Thanks, Helen.


message 23: by John (new)

John Murry (johnmurry) | 3 comments Greene's quote, "When we are unsure we are alive", says a great deal about his concept of God. Like Kierkegaard before saying, "Because it is absurd I believe", Greene is conveying a belief in doubt which gives way to faith. And I wouldn't trust Ways of Escape. He was, after all, a masterful storyteller. That's true even when it comes to his own life. And certainly when it involves his own motives and the ability to toy with his readers....


message 24: by Greenelander (last edited Jul 13, 2010 02:14PM) (new)

Greenelander | 59 comments John wrote: He was, after all, a masterful storyteller. That's true even when it comes to his own life.

I agree, and I would add perhaps especially when it comes to his own life: surely GG was the ultimate spin doctor on the life of GG. He not only wrote his "autobiography"---in two instalments, no less---, he also "authorized" a version of his life for posterity. His apparent concern that his life be seen in a very particular light from a very particular angle should ring all sorts of warning bells for anyone interested in uncovering the "real" GG, who will probably only ever be known best through his fiction anyway. And I will go right out to the end of this limb and add, Which is exactly as it should be.

As for his views on doubt, they are right in line with mainstream Christian teaching: there is no faith without doubt, doubt is a prerequisite for faith, and faith is possible only because and when doubt exists.


message 25: by Helen (new)

Helen (helenmarylesshankman) | 247 comments Mod
In the biography, GG tells Sherry that he will never lie to him, but there are some questions that he just won't answer.


message 26: by Helen (new)

Helen (helenmarylesshankman) | 247 comments Mod
Hey, Greenelander, whatever happened with "The Captain and the Enemy?" Did you finish it?


message 27: by John (new)

John Murry (johnmurry) | 3 comments Hey Greenelander-
I totally agree with you about the GG and his life/"real" life.

I think that his views on doubt, outlined pretty well in The Power and The Glory, are not at all in line with mainstream Christianity. It's far more complicated than the rational doubt and faith dichotomy you outlined. That's the essential reason Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or, to argue against that rationality and pragmatism.

He was called a heretic for writing The Power and The Glory (but was paid by the Vatican to take the initial trip to Mexico that inspired it). Pope John Paul II later whispered to Greene when they met that it was one of his favorite novels (or so it's said). Greene's "whiskey priest" is the Christ figure, the flawed Peter, the greatest of the "doubters" but in Greene's mind the most genuine Priest in Mexico.

It's his heavy focus on doubt that separates his Christianity from "mainstream" Christianity, not simply his mention of doubt. Of course, I have no idea where you live and that may have a great effect on what your view of "mainstream" Christianity is. An Episcopalian might agree with you. Maybe even a Lutheran. No American fundamentalist (and few protestants - or Catholics these days) would agree. Faith is "given" to fundamentalists (Calvinistsm fundamentalists of all types) when they "ask" God for it. It's a version of Gnosticism that both fundamentalists and more new-agey Christians embrace.

For the new age (Christ was a human and it's a great moral story) type, it's the "spark of God within". For the fundamentalists it's the very notion that God can enter, when asked, into the "heart". That means that, in everyone, there is a "God shaped hole", as they often say. Meaning that God exists within the person (or not if they reject him - but then they have the unfilled hole).

Both are Gnostic beliefs. Orthodoxy (and Greene's Catholicism) rejects that entirely. You cannot be "saved" in Greene's view. Salvation must be worked out over the course of a lifetime and even then it isn't ever complete. Greene's Catholicism itself is most in line with Catholic existentialist philosophers like Karl Jaspers, Miguel de Unamuno, and Gabriel Marcel. It's no real mystery as to why Greene adored Don Quixote in the way he did, as almost all existentialists do and most certainly Orthodox Christian existentialists (specifically, of course, the Spanish). Tilting at windmills is a metaphor, in a sense, for attempting to find God (even though it is impossible and unrealistic to believe He even exists). The view that Quixote was truly a "madman", as most "critics" seem to believe, is nonsense. He was a participant in an absurd world making beautifully ridiculous and well considered choices. He wanted to be a knight and he chose to be one. So he was.

I'd have to strongly disagree, with humility I hope, with your assessment of that portion of Greene's thinking.


message 28: by Kathleen (last edited Jul 15, 2010 02:33AM) (new)

Kathleen | 42 comments As a doubting Catholic and a lover of Greene's work (at least what I've read so far) and of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (I actually included a passage from Greene's Monsignor Quixote in a short paper I wrote on Kierkegaard), I found your post fascinating, John. Correct me if I'm wrong, but are you saying that Greenlander is on target in asserting that GG saw doubt as a prerequisite for faith, but that this view of the relationship between doubt and faith is not the view of mainstream Christianity?
Greenlander, feel free to chime in, too.


message 29: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen | 42 comments PS John, I never knew Jaspers was Catholic, and I would never have considered him a Catholic existentialist. If you ever care to elaborate on this, I'd be very interested. I'm merely being inquisitive, as the only work I've read of Jaspers' is Way to Widsom, and I've never read Marcel or MdeU.


message 30: by John (new)

John Murry (johnmurry) | 3 comments Hi Kathleen-
I am a doubting Catholic myself. You know Greene took the name Thomas when he converted. Unlike most he was not referencing More or Aquinas but Thomas the Apostle. Or Thomas the Doubter as most know him. Jaspers was a protestant. I meant to include that there are Protestants who share similar beliefs, like Jaspers, Tillich, Kierkegaard (though Walker percy says he'd be a Catholic today), and Barth (to some extent). They, along with the Catholic existentialists, placed great importance on doubt. Kierkegaard with his "leap of faith" and his numerous quotes like "because it is absurd I believe". They all focus heavily on "demythologizing" Christianity. They refuse to relegate Christianity to the moralists by believing that it is simply a good tale with a great message. They refuse to believe in Christ as simply a man. They separate entirely history and faith. While this may sound like Calvinism it isn't, precisely because of their heavy, heavy focus on doubt and on man's inability to ever understand or "believe", as most say they do or believe they should. Salvation, then, must be fought for constantly; even against the obvious irrationality that it ought to be even considered as "truth" or "real". Unamuno is a must, I think, in understanding this and he is so easily linked, in my opinion to Kierkegaard. He said "Life is doubt, and faith without doubt is nothing but death.". That sounds an awful lot like Greene's assertion that "when we are unsure we are alive". In Greene's Monsignor Quixote his Monsignor is seen by the people as a real descendant of Don Quixote. In Unamuno's Our Lord, Don Quixote: The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, he himself treats him as a real man.
So I am disputing Greenelander's basic idea, yes. He is right "objectively", but it is far more complicated than he asserts.


message 31: by Greenelander (new)

Greenelander | 59 comments Wow! First of all, thanks everyone, for picking up this thread and running with it! There's much food for thought here. Thanks especially to John for teasing out some of the finer points inherent in my "basic idea".

I would agree with you that I have simplified what is a very tangled doctrinal knot, given all the ramifications in philosophy and theology that you have alluded to. And perhaps I should have clarified that by "mainstream" Christianity, I definitely did not mean modern American fundamentalism, which in my view is something quite other than mainstream Christianity---perhaps another discussion there!

Nevertheless, John, it seems to me that you and I differ more in degree than in substance. My intention was not to provide a detailed analysis based on the the "rational doubt and faith dichotomy" you have described, but rather to state an axiom that is often overlooked: faith is only possible in concert with doubt.

Wherever there is true faith, there will, and indeed must, always be doubt. There is a huge difference, that I think modern American fundamentalism overlooks, between certainty and faith. Certainty admits of no other possibility. Certainty is absolute knowledge. By its nature, it precludes faith. We do not need to have faith that the sun will rise every morning. We know it. There is nothing to believe or not believe about it.

But the moment uncertainty---doubt---is admitted to a proposition, and only then, the possibility of faith steps in. This is the "basic idea" which for me, as I read GG, is at the heart of all his fiction.


message 32: by Greenelander (new)

Greenelander | 59 comments Helen wrote: "Hey, Greenelander, whatever happened with "The Captain and the Enemy?" Did you finish it?"

Yes, Helen, I did. I have to admit that it was a bit of a disappointment, perhaps because the story spun off in a rather unexpected direction, with a rather different focus from the classic Greenes.

On second thought, in light of this thread, probably I'd recommend it, as it has much to say about the relationship between life and story, between reality and fiction.


message 33: by Helen (last edited Jul 14, 2010 02:11PM) (new)

Helen (helenmarylesshankman) | 247 comments Mod
Hmmm. That sounds interesting.

I'm in the middle of England Made Me--so far it's terrific, really poignant, pitiful and chilling characters, imprisoned in their lives and personalities. The descriptions of the settings are gorgeous. It's infused from the beginning with a sense of dread. Partly, it's about a huge, world-wide business that's teetering on the edge of collapse. Feels very timely with the implosion of the markets last year. Has anybody else read it?


message 34: by Drew (new)

Drew (drewmelck) | 9 comments Mod
Not to be too fundamentalist myself (as an agnostic Lutheran), but didn't Descartes create a new basis for faith predicated not on certainty but doubt? (I doubt therefore I think; I think therefore I am) In his eyes the proof of god's existence was based on the fact that we are able to doubt it and are therefore consituted as free agents. Post-renaissance faith of the Catholic/traditional persuasion always has this thought in the background and Greene's position is quite conventional in this way. Of course, the way that he weaves these arguments into the fabric of his novels is another matter, and definitely not conventional, thanks be.


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