21 JUNE 1963, Page 20


Involved and Aloof

BY COLIN MACINNES MR. GRAHAM GREENE is a writer of such achievement, so long successful, and esteemed by so many readers for such a diversity of reasons, that he has almost become an accepted feature of the literary landscape; no longer volcanic, not yet fit subject for critical geology, but a presence acknowledged without question, since he is so manifestly there. And if this collection* of his tales may be the occasion of forcing ourselves to look at his art again, we might well begin—since Mr. Greene has always been one of the acutest auto-critics—by consider- ing the definition he attributes to an invented author in the second of these four pieces: He had offended the orthodox Catholics in

his own country and pleased the liberal Catholics abroad; he had pleased, too, the Protestants who believed in God with the same intensity that he seemed to show, and he used to find enthusiastic readers among non- Christians who, when once they had accepted imaginatively his premises, perhaps detected in his work the freedom of speculation which put his fellow Catholics on their guard.

This may establish Mr. Greene's philosophical position, yet leaves open the question of his gift for transposing it into words; and since this book seems more consciously 'written' than any other I recall, it provides the occasion of asking how acutely the writer's vision of mankind is con- veyed by style.

In the first place, we must realise the title of this collection makes large claims: true, it is but a sense of reality we are offered, but to offer even this is to offer a great deal. All the tales in the book can, of course, be read with pleasure with- out deep thought as to their `meaning'; yet since the writer's allegorical intention is so evident, we are entitled to try, however clumsily, to 'interpret' them:

`Under the Garden'

The clue here, again, is in the title, which I take to mean something like 'what lies beneath Eden, or apparent human bliss, or supposed reality.' Wilditch, condemned to cancer (which dire fact is not confirmed, though earlier hinted at, until the final paragraph), revisits, in an ultimate recherche du temps perdu, his childhood home. Browsing at bedtime over his mother's. Fabian books (Mr. Greene really lashes out a bit here—but not unjustly), he finds by accident a juvenile story of his own; which, in the small hours, he re-writes as an adult so that we have, in Part 2, a kind of flashback of his maturely interpreted infant memory.

In one sense, this is a re-discovery of child- hood by man, in the manner of Alain Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes: in another, it is an allegory of what I take to be Mr. Greene's vision of pre- * A SENSE OF REALITY. By Graham Greene. (Bodley Head, 15s.)

Christian history. The infant Wilditch, descend- ing the Dark Walk of the Garden and discover- ing the Island on the Lake, encounters Maria, a sort of Mother Earth (or Mary?) and Javitt (also Jehovah?) a kind of Father Time. They initiate the child into the banal folk wisdom of the ancients, show him old treasures, and present him with a golden chamber-pot (emblem of childishness? lost primal innocence? worthless- ness of dross?). He at last escapes from Javitt's oppressive sagacities to the world of mankind and time, though pursued to the last by the insistently croaking Maria. When we flash- forward from this flashback, we meet the old gardener Ernest—a sort of faded contemporary incarnation of Javitt—and visit the now ruined Dark Walk again to find only a chamber-pot of discoloured tin.

Surely Mr. Greene echoes Kipling in this legend—Kipling whom he in so many other ways resembles as a writer? There is the same switch of time from present to past, the same obsession with the latter, the same belief in the wise inno- cence of infants, the same sense of mankind doomed yet discovering his identity. The difference is that whereas Kipling, when impelled by his Daemon as he was in his best last stories, induced a real sense of magic in the reader, Mr. Greene's tale, though technically it cannot . be faulted, leaves an uneasy sensation of contriv- ance and pastiche.

`A Visit to Morin'

This describes the almost accidental encounter of an old French Catholic writer and a young English Protestant admirer. The Frenchman, who is a failed saint (and a brandy-boozer—not whisky this time), explains his spiritual downfall by defining the distinction between faith and belief—which, in Mr. Greene's terms, seems to be the difference between the inborn and the acquired; yet we are also left with the impression that the Protestant seeker after truth—who already possesses, so to speak, a faith in faith— will find it, and perhaps even belief also, as a consequence of this confession. There are inci- dental passages of great wisdom on writing, on Church ritual and dogmatism, and on life itself. My own chief doubt about this story—which seems to me, if not the most ambitious, the most perfect—is whether so skilled a dialectician as the young inquirer could ever have been a Protestant at all.

`Dream of a Strange Land'

It is as well this tale is frankly a fantasy (Dream . . .', we are told), for otherwise its `moral' may seem slim in the extreme. In brief, this is that a doctor who refuses, for legal' reasons, to disguise a poor patient's leprosy, but who will allow his house to be used for an illegal military gambling party, provokes,

indirectly, this poor patient's death. The flaw here surely is that to break a human law (that is, of preventing contamination of other humans by leprosy) is an entirely different moral matter from that of defying gambling regulations. How- ever, Mr. Greene by his brisk pace and ironic invention just gets away with it, so that this story has the 'morality' (and inconsequentiality) of a fairy-tale.

'A Discovery in the Woods'

This, like the first tale, is a religious-prehis- torical allegory, loaded with symbols so complex and numerous that, at the time of writing this, 1 have not yet been able to unravel them. Super- ficially, it is a macabre 'children's' story some- what resembling 'The Turn of the Screw' or Mr. William Golding's dreadful masterpiece. Under- lying this, the tale would seem to be emblematic of the search by already corrupted Youth-Man- kind for its own truth in its past. But the trouble here is that the surface story is so much less assured—and its symbols protrude so awkwardly and evidently—that one is not led so eagerly to try to decipher its inner meaning.

That Mr. Greene, as always, is 'readable,' cannot be denied; nor that he has, in this volume, soared in so many ways above the level of excellence he usually sets himself. But I am bound to record I cannot feel that the ultimate artist's quality—and the one specially indispen- sible to allegorical themes—which is that of grace, has descended on these tales. They seem to be, even if finely so, devised: to be 'fine writing,' despite Mr. Greene's own manifest faith in them.

Like all writers who mature, he has confronted the eternal themes of life-and-death and good- and-evil; and like so many mature writers, he has chosen as spokesmen either the very old or. young. Disease also plays its part—for disease affects particularly these two extremes of life; as also does corruption, to which each is more prone than any intermediary group since the young have innocence, and the old the possi- bility of wisdom. But on all these apprehensions there fails to fall a magic; and even more, a feeling of that faith (I do not speak here in denominational terms) to which Mr. Greene is so devoted. With all the writer's real concern with human destiny, there is so little sense of human beings: the characters seem manipulated, not allowed to live. These tales are involved in mankind, yet remain disturbingly aloof. And of this 1 believe the chief reason is that Mr. Greene's tragic sense, though profound, is incomplete: one feels the fatality hanging over man, but not the accompanying hope of his redemption.