Colin Wilson on Graham Greene's autobiography
Oliver Edwards once said that he had always wanted to be a philosopher, but Cheerfulness kept breaking in. It sounds flippant, but I think he was stating a real dilemma. It is a fact of literary Psychology that pessimism is an extremely difficult attitude to sustain. Schopenhauer wrote The World as Will and Idea in his twenties; then, for the remainder of his seventy-two years, he had to stick to essays, because there Was no way of topping that magnificent roar of despair. Spengler encountered the same problem after The Decline of the West. Many people who knew T. S. Eliot agree that the real reason he stopped writing poetry was that he got more cheerful as he got older; the logical culmination of his career is not the Four Quartets but the Book of Practical Cats.
For years now, Graham Greene has Provided me with one of my favourite games; as I read each of his new books, watch for the tell-tale signs of creeping contentment. It looked as if it had broken through with Our Man in Ha. vana, in 1958, but he quickly retrieved himself with that fine study in leprosy and anxiety, A Burnt Out Case. Travels with my Aunt had an almost Pickwickian feeling of benevolence; this, I thought, is the point where he gives way and writes his Practical Cats. But the opening pages of his autobiography* reassured me. "The first thing I remembe. r is sitting in a pram at the top of a hill with a dead dog lying at my feet." shad to whistle with admiration. The old master still has a trick or two up his sleeve. Cheerfulness won't get him Yet.
I suppose what bothers me about Greene as a writer of ideas — for he is that — is the unspoken suggestion that he is a pessimist because he sees deeper than other people. Long before I read hi an I remember hearing a talk on Paul Claudel on the Third Programme — this must have been about 1945 — and being startled when the speaker made a *A Sort of Life Graham Greene (Bodley Head E1.80) reference to the "empty-headed Catholicism of Chesterton and Belloc," which had now been replaced by the more serious variety of Greene and Waugh. It seemed to imply that Chesterton was a kind of Catholic P. G. Wodehouse. I recalled that Chesterton had said he saw Hell in his teens, and apparently he meant it pretty literally. So when I read Brighton Rock, with its savage portrait of the breezy Ida Arnold, I found myself wondering whether, if Chesterton's optimism was deeper than it looked, Greene's pessimism might perhaps be shallower.
In the prologue to The Lawless Roads, a travel book published in 1939, Greene attempts to justify his outlook. He talks about schoolfellows who "bore about them the genuine quality of evil," " Collifax, who practised torments with diViders; Mr Crandon with three grim chins . . . a kind of demoniac sensuality; from these heights evil declined towards Parlow, whose desk was filled with minute photographs — advertisements of art photos. Hell lay about them in their infancy." He talks of workingclass youths greeting girls with careless roughness.' " . . . Sexual experience had come to them too early and too easily." Two teenagers who committed suicide by lying with their heads on the railway line; the girl (fifteen) was pregnant for the second time. . . And Greene quotes Cardinal Newman's statement that "the human race is implicated in some terrible, aboriginal calamity." That certainly looked convincing enough—as if Greene, like Ivan Karamazov, had decided to give God back his entrance ticket because he couldn't stand the suffering of the world. But even then, I was a little puzzled by his examples. Was Parlow really evil because he kept a few pictures of naked models? Why are so many of Greene's images of evil concerned with sexual promiscuity? One occasionally got the impression of an old lady making tutting noises as she reads the News of the World.
There was a particularly revealing sentence in his other travel book, Journey Without Maps. Describing a dangerous and unpleasant situation in Africa he adds : I was discovering in myself a thing I thought I had never possessed : a love of life." Never? In that case, how could he claim to be an impartial judge? It is like a man with permanent indigestion declaring that food is overrated. William James pointed out that there are mental patients for whom life seems to be one long series of impossible obstacles, and that the best way of curing these is through bullying treatment' — forcing them to make an effort. This produces acute distress, followed quite suddenly by a sense of enormous relief. If danger could produce this same effect on Greene, it would seem to imply that his malaise is not quite as metaphysical as it seems.
In fact, Greene comes close to admitting this in a remarkable essay called 'The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard,' in which he describes the permanent boredom of his teens :
For years, it seems to me, I could take no aesthetic interest in any visual thing at all: staring at a sight that others assured me was beautiful, I would feel nothing. I was fixed in my boredom.
In this state of permanent greyness, he found his brother's revolver, and took it out on to Berkhamsted Common to play Russian roulette; he inserted one bullet, spun the chambers, pressed the revolver to his head and pulled the trigger. When there was just a click, he experienced an overwhelming feeling of relief and happiness. "It was as if a light had been turned on . . . I felt that life contained an infinite number of possibilities." But if you turn on a light, what you see was already there before you turned it on. So if he now saw that life was full of infinite possibilities . . . Again, it seems clear that Greene had allowed himself to drift into the bored, depressed state that schoolchildren get into if their holidays are too long. That is, it was his own fault, and no particular reflection on the world.
This autobiography (typically entitled A Sort of Life) is an excellent little book, beautifully written; and it confirms, beyond all possible doubt, the suggestions I have made above. It deals largely with childhood and early manhood, halting — conveniently — before the real success that began around 1940. In the final pages, as if to assure the reader that he is not concealing a happy ending, he explains that "for a writer, success is always temporary, success is only delayed failure." This is in keeping with the general spirit of the book, which breathes a rather charming atmosphere of 1890-ish melancholy. What emerges quite clearly is that Greene was a sensitive and rather depressed little boy, lacking in self-confidence and prone to bouts of self-pity. The high street of Berkhamsted apparently struck him as a sinister and dangerous place, "a region of danger where nightmare might easily become reality." These sketches of Berkhamsted, and later, of Nottingham, have a kind of magic, the smell of fish and chips on autumn nights, mists over the canal, a sadness reminiscent of Verlaine.
The real trouble seems to have started when he went to school — for his father was the headmaster. "I was the son of a quisling in a country under occupation." Most children dislike school, but most children can escape to their homes; Greene's home was the school. He apparently created an 'alternative world ' by reading bad adventure stories — Marjorie Bowen, Captain Gilson, Rider Haggard — which might be guaranteed to produce romantic claustrophobia. There were halfhearted attempts at suicide — eating deadly nightshade, drinking hypo, diving into the swimming pool after taking twenty aspirins — followed by a period of psychoanalysis that was more or less successful, obviously because he was living at the house of the psychoanalyst and receiving lots of attention. After this, there seems to be some divergence between the two accounts. In 'The Revolver in the Cupboard' essay, he states that he emerged from psychoanalysis "correctly orientated, able to take a proper, extrovert interest in my fellows . . . but wrung dry," in a permanent depression. According to the autobiography, he seems to have had rather a good time after the psychoanalytic period, going to theatres and reading and writing a great deal of poetry. This included Browning, with whom "I lived in a region of adulteries, of assignations at dark street corners, and of sexual passion far more heady than romantic love. . . Even in Swinburne I never felt so strongly the drive of desire — the sudden exact detail which could stir a boy physically." Although he does not stress it, he makes it clear that the sexual problem had become pretty dominant (" Lust and boredom and sentimentality, a frightened longing for the prostitute in Jermyn Street . . ."). He 'fell in love' with his brother's governess when he saw her lying on the beach with her skirt around the top of her thighs. The revolver episode followed. "It was like a young man's first successful experience of sex, — as if . . . I had passed the test of manhood."
All this is plain enough. What the Russian roulette experiment did — now and on a few later occasions — was to force him to pull himself together, to snap out of the self-pity. It was James's 'bullying treatment.' Significantly, The Man Within, his first novel, written a few years later, is about a coward's attempt to find selfrespect. Of this novel, and the two subsequent ones (both now out of print), Kenneth Allott remarked unkindly : "He is not yet a poet . . . only a romantic versifier with streaks of poetry." In fact, these novels are startlingly romantic. They were also flops. So Greene took a deep breath and tried the opposite formula, the journalistic ' realism ' of Stamboul Train with its perverts and gunmen and seedy failures. The result was success in terms of reputation and unexpectedly large sales. It did not last — subsequent books sold relatively poorly — but it was enough to establish the pattern : of Greene's own peculiar brand of savage fantasy, a world of betrayal, failure and indigestion, in which all the characters go around with "anger grinding at their guts" (probably due to biting their nails), and where the few optimists are either slimy or brainless. Its potency lies in the way it walks a tightrope between surrealistic violence and fin de siècle melancholy. It is all images. A road in Brighton Rock is "like a razor scar slashed in the chalk," and the sea is "poison bottle green," as if there were some subtle difference between this and ordinary bottle green.
These ' entertainments ' achieve the level of art because they are careless; in effect, Greene has used the landscape of early Eliot poems — Preludes and Pruf rock — as scenery for improbable tales of spies and gunmen, the yellow fogs and dripping mists give The Confidential Agent an atmosphere as potent as the Sherlock Holmes stories. But when Greene applies similar effects in the 'serious ' novels, their theatrical origin becomes apparent. Brighton Rock is a case in point. Greene began it as an 'entertainment,' then decided it deserved to be taken more seriously. But the characters are stock Victorian melodrama—the incredibly evil Pinky, the incredibly innocent Rose. The attempt to transpose the whole thing into a religious key is oddly revolting, like a combination of meringue and Yorkshire pudding One feels that he is now exposing himself to serious questions — whether the pessimism is the real thing, like Ivan Karamazov's, or merely a grown-up version of adolescent misery and Swinburnian world-rejection. And what Mr Greene is saying, painstakingly and with great explicitness in his autobiography, is that the latter is the case. He says it with charm and honesty, and presumably hopes that no one will think the worse of him for it. I don't; but I shall next time he tries to persuade me that a leper colony is a cool, objective symbol of the human reality. It is a case of crying ' Wolf ' too often. An ' entertainer' has a right to whatever 'effects' he can get away with, but a novelist does not have quite the same privilege. There is a story —T perhaps apocryphal — that Evelyn Waugh remarked to Greene : "You know, Graham, you've made more money out of God than Wodehouse made out of Jeeves." It pinpoints my vague feeling of irritation when I read a novel like The Power and the Glory, the feeling that old habits are tempting him to use pasteboard when he should be using marble.
I find one of the most impressive sentences in Greene's work in the final scene of The Power and The Glory, where the whisky-loving priest is about to be executed by firing squad. "It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint." Again, the insight of the Russian roulette : the failure is not inevitable; it is his own fault. The real trouble is not original sin, but romanticism and lack of self-discipline. It is odd that Greene has found it so easy to forget it.