Living by the remorse code; Graham Greene let guilt guide him in life and in literature
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 October 2007)

In a 1946 letter to Catherine Walston, the mistress who inspired The End of the Affair, Graham Greene posed a question: "What would a novelist do without a sense of guilt?" Greene and his millions of readers knew the answer. Without the guilt that unsettles the souls of his characters, his fiction would have withered. Among authors of the 20th century, he was the obsessed interpreter of guilt, the ultimate chronicler of remorse, a writer whose characters were forever sinking into the pit of self-reproach.

In a marvellous new collection, Graham Greene: A Life in Letters (Knopf), his first words to his future wife are an apology ("I really am very sorry") for an article on Catholicism that she found faulty. Decades later, after he converted to Catholicism, married her, had two children with her, then became an adulterer and a frequently absent husband, he brought the same repentant tone to their separation: "I can't tell you how sorry I am."

Guilt pursued Greene, and in a sense he pursued guilt. Was it only coincidence that both of his long-term affairs (one lasting three decades) were with women married to other men? As a Roman Catholic he came to know intimately many shades of guilt.

Boredom terrified him and he did all he could to keep it at bay. His affairs and travels were ways of treating his illness, which others have called everything from chronic melancholia to bipolar depression. Perhaps he couldn't name his condition, but he told his wife that his antagonism to domestic life, his restlessness and his moods were symptoms of a disease. "Unfortunately," he added, in a moment of startling self-revelation, "the disease is also one's material."

Greene has been ill-served by biographers: One wrote about him at insanely boring length, the other obviously disliked him. With this book Greene becomes, 16 years after dying, his own biographer. The editor, Richard Greene (no relation; he's a professor at the University of Toronto), unfortunately put a burnt-out title on the book. A Life in Letters has been used by editors and publishers for generations, and in the 21st century alone has appeared on collections of correspondence by Mozart, Chekhov, Wilde, Wordsworth, Steinbeck and Ronald Reagan, among others. But in every other way the editorial work is admirable. From tens of thousands of letters in the archives of the world, Richard Greene has chosen a few hundred that speak effectively about both the work and the life. The notes introducing the letters are helpful and never intrusive.

His letters to women chart a tireless romantic life. The passion of his love for Walston brought out the banal in him ("I never knew love was like this") and elicited a hint of pornography. He wrote in 1949 from Dakar in west Africa: "I have loved no part of the world like this & I have loved no woman as I love you. You're my human Africa. I love your smell as I love these smells. I love your dark bush as I love the bush here."

If he felt guilty over his sometimes overlapping passions, he softened his feelings with a forbearing, open-minded attitude to human relations.

To a friend who was guilty and despairing, he wrote: "We all make mistakes, we all make people we love suffer in one way or another -- c'est la vie." Perhaps it helped Greene to call himself a "Catholic agnostic."

A superb professional, he could be angered by the unprofessional conduct of colleagues. In 1964, he attacked Ralph Richardson, the star of his new play, Carving a Statue. Greene claimed Richardson refused to accept either Greene's or the director's view of his role. Greene thought the play a comedy, but Richardson played it with deadly solemnity. He also improvised lines and spontaneously altered scenes, depriving fellow players of their best moments.

Greene accused him of sacrificing others to build up his own image. He thought Richardson was cowardly as well as stupid, selfish, lazy and obstinate.

"The vanity of an ageing 'star' can do far more damage to the living theatre than any censorship exercised by the Lord Chamberlain," he told Richardson.

Was this Greene, for once, shifting the blame? Had he realized the fault was in the script? He and Richardson patched things up, but the play ran only a month. It has seldom been mentioned since.

Greene was Brian Moore's greatest admirer. He not only provided dust-jacket quotes, he wrote to UCLA supporting Moore's (successful) application for a part-time teaching job: "In my opinion his style has the simplicity and depth only equalled in my generation by Evelyn Waugh."

Greene considered Waugh the best of English novelists, and (unlike most critics) admired Brideshead Revisited. He loved even Waugh himself, a famously difficult friend. What he liked best about him, Greene remembered, was that "rare quality ... he would say only the kind things behind one's back."

A book editor and critic before he succeeded as a novelist, Greene was never inhibited by a famous name. He found J.B. Priestley annoying at best, and during his feud with Anthony Burgess, he wrote: "You are either a liar or you are unbalanced and should see a doctor." He didn't like James Joyce's Ulysses ("a big bore"), he disdained most of George Orwell's work, and on re-reading Andre Malraux's novels he found them disappointing. Malraux, speaking of his past, told credulous journalists many stories that turned out to be exaggerations or lies. "I dislike his mythomania," Greene added.

Like many Englishmen, Greene invested his school years with astonishing gravity, burning with anger when he recalled schoolboy humiliations. One day in 1950, visiting Kuala Lumpur, he encountered a certain Wheeler, a "rather flash" middle-aged version of a boy who had bullied him in school. Rather than saying, "What hell you made my life 30 years ago," he arranged to meet the fellow for drinks.

He wrote home to Catherine about all that had begun with that boyish struggle: "Suspicion, mental pain, loneliness, this damned desire to be successful that comes from a sense of inferiority." Usually, Greene pretended not to care about his career, but this passage makes it obvious that revenge helped fuel his desire for success.

At one point Greene wrote, "My letters are always so brief and dull." Not really, no.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image