The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene
by Richard Greene.
W. W. Norton, 2021.
Hardcover, xvi + 591 pp., $40.

Reviewed by Adam Schwartz

Jean-Paul Sartre once classified Gustave Flaubert as a “singular universal.” For Sartre, such a writer’s oeuvre becomes a historical touchstone by addressing universal concerns through a singular life, vision, and setting. Graham Greene (1904–1991) voiced a similar notion, referring to circumstances that cause “an individual of more than individual significance to emerge from the crowd.”

The novelist’s latest biographer (no relation) ascribes such qualities to Greene himself: “Here is a single life on which much of the history of a century is written.” In so focusing in Graham Greene’s life story on his “engagement with the political, literary, intellectual, and religious currents of his time,” Professor Greene’s account avoids the self-indulgence and hostility of earlier biographies. Yet this sober chronicle of a singular individual is ultimately inadequately attentive to the universal religious and political themes that made Greene an exemplary literary intellectual of his century, particularly his textured relationships to Roman Catholicism and communism. If The Unquiet Englishman rightly recognizes the power and the glory of its subject’s work, then, it fails to capture fully the heart of the matter.

Like many late-Victorians and Edwardians, Greene’s parents subscribed to a liberal Christianity that eschewed dogma in favor of ethics, aesthetics, and trust in human nature’s steady betterment. Graham accepted this mindset in his largely tranquil youth but faced a decisive challenge to it when he became a boarder at Berkhamsted public school, where his father was headmaster.

Beginning in 1918, Graham’s loyalties were permanently split between his father and classmates. One fellow pupil, Lionel Carter, abused the vulnerable Greene relentlessly through inflicting physical pain with dividers and psychological distress by preying on his dual allegiances. This torment culminated in 1919–1920 when Carter suborned one of Greene’s few comrades, A. H. Wheeler, to forsake their friendship.

Although Professor Greene notes that this episode heightened Graham’s awareness of treachery, his discussion does not grasp wholly this trauma’s transformative effect on the novelist’s moral imagination. To Graham Greene, this betrayal shattered the optimistic anthropology of his familial liberalism by revealing “for the first time” the “genuine quality of evil.” This sensed initiation into the mysterium iniquitatis in turn engendered a lifelong tragic view of life that distrusted innocence, a sympathy for victims and those with splintered loyalties, and a conviction that betrayal is the cardinal crime. His reaction to his boarding school years thus begot the themes that would mold Greene’s life, thought, and art thenceforth.

More immediately, the clash of his received outlook and his adolescent anguish spurred suicide attempts and six months of precocious psychoanalysis. Yet his therapy was an insufficient salve for his scarred soul, even as ongoing rumination on his agonies destroyed fully the fragile vestiges of his liberal Christianity. Now “without any religious belief at all,” nor any secular means of reintegration, Greene adopted a pessimistic atheism as an Oxford undergraduate. But in 1925 his religious criticism sparked a rebuke from “some ardent Catholic” named Vivien Dayrell-Browning.

Greene quickly grew fascinated with her, and with her faith, as this hitherto “unbelievable theology” soon took on independent appeal. Specifically, orthodox Catholicism offered a unique theodicy that explained his school sufferings by showing a singular sensitivity to evil’s existence and persistence. He had felt since Berkhamsted that human nature is “black and grey,” but Roman Catholicism’s avowal of original sin gave Greene a theological understanding of this insight that was absent from liberal Christianity and secular psychology, one crystallized by John Henry Newman’s maxim that humanity is implicated in an aboriginal calamity. This dogma substantiated Greene’s suspicion of innocence and therefore made a boyhood betrayal more explicable.

The Church further enabled him to identify with a community that venerated victims of divided loyalties, especially the Elizabethan martyrs, and thereby asserted the “virtue of disloyalty.” Although he had been rebelling against his inherited worldview for years, Roman Catholicism supplied Greene’s first compelling affirmative alternative to liberalism, due to its surpassing apprehension of malevolence: it was “something fine & hard & certain, however uncomfortable, to catch hold of in the general flux.” Convinced that only this faith comprehended evil’s nature, repercussions, and remedies, and would defy modern denials of them, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926.

Greene married Vivien in 1927 and, despite disclaiming being a “Catholic writer,” he became a central figure in the Catholic literary revival, as his new religion shaped the artistic and intellectual elaboration of his chief principles, most strikingly in Brighton Rock (1938), his best selling work and his masterpiece. In particular, Greene contrasted believers in Good and Evil with believers in Right and Wrong. The former, epitomized by Catholics, are teleologically oriented, and thus accent ends, theology and metaphysics, and the transcendent; the latter, personified by liberals and some literary modernists, are deontologically inclined, emphasizing means, ethics, and the solely natural and human.

For Greene, adherents to the absolutes of Good and Evil must subvert the mediated reality of Right and Wrong by reorienting men to the eternal facet of existence that modern secularism had neglected in its exclusive focus on ephemerals. But he cautioned that such rebels must also avoid the arrogance he discerned among doctrinaire rationalists, by remaining open to mystery and even doubt. Greene took Thomas the doubting apostle as his patron saint when he converted, but he accentuated doubt increasingly from the 1950s, along with a corresponding stress on metarational “faith” over rational “belief”; Catholicism’s apophatic strain seemed a more authentic spirituality that distinguished the Church especially sharply from an empiricist, secular society, and from “the abstractions of the Methodists and Anglicans” and other religions that had conciliated rationalism. Concurrently, lengthy extramarital affairs prompted Greene to excommunicate himself and to abandon some of his earliest Catholic dogmas, such as original sin.

Yet the tragic view of life that his school ordeal had spawned and that had attracted him to the Church outlived his rational acceptance of certain Catholic beliefs; this experiential and spiritual sense that evil “isn’t abnormal. It belongs to human life” ultimately mattered more to him than doctrinal justifications. If Greene finally found Catholic theodicy wanting intellectually, then, he felt such attempts nonetheless showed that this creed’s moral vision faced the reality of evil squarely, unlike liberalism and sects that had accommodated it, making Rome’s ethos a still relatively superior alternative to its modern rivals.

However drawn to the dangerous edge of spiritual life in his later years, Greene’s core conviction that Roman Catholicism was most suited to rebel against a post-Christian culture that dismissed the perdurance of evil hence helped him keep his equilibrium on that giddy religious line. Although Professor Greene often overlooks the intricacies of this faith journey, he nevertheless concludes soundly that “Greene claims for Catholicism the power of naming truthfully what is worst in life.”

Likewise, Professor Greene notes accurately “the dialogue between Catholicism and communism that would be so much a part” of Greene’s outlook. But his analysis does not limn sufficiently how Greene’s worldview and religion governed his appraisal of communism. For example, Greene considered both Catholicism and communism to be teleologies, thus satisfying his desire for orders based on Good and Evil rather than on Right and Wrong. He portrayed communism as fulfilling a religious urge continually, as when, in The Human Factor, one of the communist “faithful” helps spirit a British double agent to Soviet exile, and recalls his own recruitment when he was given communist books as “a missionary hands out the Bible.” To Greene, then, Catholicism and communism each met “his quest for absolutes” that liberalism and its progeny lacked.

Besides satiating that Waughean almost fatal hunger for permanence, Catholicism and communism enticed Greene by what seemed their mutual rebelliousness and willingness to take the victim’s side. For instance, in The Comedians, Greene argues through Dr. Magiot that “Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate.”

Beyond this active subversion of structures of sin and inequity that modern established societies accept apathetically, Greene contended that, at its best, communism also shared a commitment with Catholicism to the common people’s dignity. He made a telling analogy when positing in 1955 that Vietnamese communists treated previously anonymous peasants as individual persons: “Unless a priest, no one before the Commissar has approached him, has troubled to ask him questions, or spent time in teaching him. There is something in Communism beside the politics.” It was this extra “something” that fostered pregnant points of contact between the communist critique of modernity and Greene’s Catholic criticisms of it.

His efforts to forge such links, however, do not mean that he was a syncretist or that Catholicism was ever this attempted alliance’s junior partner. Greene perceived weighty incompatibilities between the two systems, and implied that communism needed Catholicism’s leavening influence. For example, his postulate that human nature is black and grey led him to regard the communist promise of temporal human perfection as a whitewash of evil’s permanence in this life.

Witnessing what he deemed the corruption and failure of revolutionary socialism in 1930s Mexico moved Greene to condemn the “facile and over-confident statement about man having nothing to lose but his chains.” Like other elements of his mentality asserting evil’s perdurance, this one too survived his loss of belief in original sin. As late as 1988, for instance, he held that human nature is fixed and imperfectible on this side of the grave, and that people must hence have a limited conception of political possibility: “It is not possible to create a New Man, so all we can expect is a change in conditions so that the poor are less poor and the rich are less rich. I am for more humanity, not for a new concept of humanity.”

Despite these clearly drawn lines, Greene hoped consistently for “socialism with a human face,” and even called Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies “providential,” judging by 1987 that, due to perestrokia and the political effects of John XXIII’s aggiornamento, “there is no longer a barrier” sundering communists and Catholics. Greene felt the key to a fruitful entente between Catholicism and communism was the virtue of doubt that he highlighted in his later years.

Such sentiments had been germinating since at least the early 1960s, and were encapsulated in his claim that “a doubting catholic can work easily with a doubting communist.” This stance is personified in Monsignor Quixote (1982), a novel that Greene thought “best expressed” his opinion of communism but that Professor Greene gives little substantive treatment. In this tale, the eponymous title character and his compadre, the communist Sancho, mutually confess doubts in their respective creeds. But, crucially, for all his sincere doubts, Monsignor Quixote never contemplates seriously becoming a communist, whereas Sancho’s dormant Catholicism is rekindled by the story’s end.

Similarly, Greene saw Catholicism as more open to mystery, and hence doubt, than communism, while reproving communist persecutions of Polish and Chinese Catholics, refusing the Order of Lenin in the late 1980s, and concurrently differentiating himself from his peers who had embraced communism: “Their God failed.” In both fact and fiction, therefore, Greene maintained that Roman Catholicism should lead an even reformed communism, for its tragic view of life and humility make it more honest about political action’s proper extent, and thus more sensitive to each person’s actual, instead of ideological, worth. Ultimately for Greene, religion does not merge into politics.

John le Carré once paid Greene an unintentional compliment: “Even when he was being oppositional, he imagined he was changing world history.” In fact, Greene’s opposition to modern secularism, whether in its liberal or communist form, was part of a fateful development in twentieth-century history, the renascence of Roman Catholicism amid, and as counterstatement to, the age of ideology.

Driven by a singularly individual experience of childhood suffering, Graham Greene’s imagination gave intellectual and ethical shape to a supernaturalist understanding of the universal problem of evil, one that interacted critically and creatively with his era’s competing worldly narratives of meaning by averring that an earthly New Jerusalem cannot be built out of the crooked timber of humanity. Hence, although Greene was apparently unaware of Sartre’s paradigm, he nonetheless enacted it, rendering a remark from his final days hauntingly prescient: “Perhaps people will think of me from time to time as they think of Flaubert.”  

Adam Schwartz is author of The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). A professor of history at Christendom College, his scholarly interests are in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.