Graham Greene was a gentle mad dog of an Englishman who went out in the midday sun in order to give the world a proper talking-to. “I travel because I have to see the scene,” the novelist once said. “I can’t imagine it.” And so Greene set off on a 20th-century pilgrim’s progress—Liberia, Mexico, South America, Vietnam—to find the doomed fools, whiskey-priests and pregnant pasionarias who populated his bleak morality tales. Yet Greene was a voice of conscience who also knew how to tell a corking good story (The Heart of the Matter, The Third Man, The Power and the Glory). By his death, on April 3 at 86, his 26 novels and sundry works had sold more than 20 million copies and had been translated into 27 languages.
It is characteristic of Greene that the details of his passing were almost as complicated as his design for living. He was buried last week in the Swiss village of Corseaux, above Lake Geneva. He had moved last year from his home in France to Switzerland, where his daughter, Caroline Bourget, lived. Money, not sentiment, seems to have dictated Greene’s wish to be buried there. His literary estate, estimated at between $20 and $40 million dollars, would have been heavily taxed had he been interred in Britain. A close friend told the London Evening Standard that Greene chose Switzerland “to frustrate the British Inland Revenue.”
Some of his kith and kin may be frustrated as well. Among the mourners—and potential beneficiaries—were daughter Caroline, 57; Greene’s son, Francis, 54, who lives in Devon, England; his estranged wife, Vivien, now 85, who manages a dollhouse museum in Iffley, Oxfordshire; and Greene’s mistress of many years, Yvonne Cloetta, a married French woman to whom he discreetly dedicated two of his books. Just who will inherit what is a matter of conjecture. Said his nephew, Graham Carleton Greene: “There will be some knotty problems to sort out. I’m sure there will be some surprises.”
Duplicity and intrigue, love betrayed and motives mixed: the very ingredients of the sort of plot Greene relished throughout his handsomely checkered life. “All writers,” he once observed, “have something of the double agent in them.” So do English schoolboys whose fathers are the headmaster. Greene fils was treated as a spy among the boys at Berkhamsted. where Greene pere presided. Young Graham became so distraught that his parents sent him to a London psychoanalyst. Greene decided boredom was his problem and played Russian roulette a few times with his brother’s revolver.
At Oxford. Greene flirted with a political version of this game—the Communist Party—for about three weeks. He then embarked on a conventional enough literary career, working as a copy editor at the Times of London, then as a film critic. and writing his first novels, including Orient Express, This Gun for Hire and Brighton Rock. When World War II broke out, Greene joined the British secret service, where he met and befriended, among others. Kim Philby, who years later defected to Moscow just before being unmasked as a Soviet mole. (Greene spliced Philby and two codefectors, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, into his 1973 novel, The Honorary Consul.)
In Greene’s world, political treachery collided with—and often conspired with—feckless religious fervor. Greene had converted to Roman Catholicism before marrying Vivien Dayrell-Browning, an English Catholic, in 1927. They separated in the 1960s after their children were grown, but Greene maintained an uneasy alliance with the church. As devoutly as Greene sought spiritual truth, he disdained conservative dogma, and he often crossed swords with church hierarchy over his leftist politics. Thus the paradox of Greene: Latin American royalties from his 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote reportedly funded Kalashnikov guns for El Salvador’s FMLN; Spanish royalties bought prayer books for the Trappist monks of Galicia.
Greene was an international celebrity, but he anguished over success. Hollywood, for example, struck him as the latter-day temptation of Christ. Of adaptations of his novels, he said, “The cinema version, with the rare exception of The Third Man, usually turns out to be awful. The Comedians could have been all right, but it was spoilt by Elizabeth Taylor.”
Greene worked on into his 80s in a spare apartment in Antibes high above the Côte d’Azur, writing every morning in longhand with a fountain pen. “Ballpoint pens,” he said, “arc good only for filling in forms on a plane.” The product of this medieval-style labor was a vivid contribution to the literature of dissent, tempered by Greene’s doleful view that evil flourishes even when good men do their damnedest. His tales of moral ambiguity eventually lost ground on the cold war battlefield to John le Carré and his bowler-hatted killer elite. Yet Le Carré himself looked up to Greene and said at his death, “He was some kind of guiding star for me when I was a young writer.”
More than a few writers followed Greene’s dazzling light, among them British novelists Muriel Spark and P.D. James. Indeed, James has resurrected a sticky issue, “it was scandalous,” she said in an interview after his death, “that he never won the Nobel prize for literature.” Therein lies another sordid tale in the Greene mode. Back in the 1950s, it seems, Greene had a lengthy affair with Swedish actress Anita Björk that may have been resented in some cultural circles. Greene told an interviewer three years ago that Dr. Artur Lundkvist, now 86 and a longtime member of the Swedish Academy, once declared, “Graham Greene will receive the prize over my dead body.”
None of which mattered to Greene, or so he insisted. Commenting on this and larger matters two years ago, Greene mused, “I regret a lot of things in my life. I’ve failed many people in relationships because of egotism, probably, and selfishness. But I’m not upset at not winning the Nobel prize. It’s a lottery, not an accolade.” Besides, he concluded, “the writer and the priest never have a sense of success, because the priest feels he hasn’t been a saint, and the writer knows he hasn’t been another Dickens.”
—Mark Goodman, with additional reporting by Terry Smith in London