Analysis: Hubert vanden Bergh on Grahame Greene

George Orwell claimed that Catholics cannot write: ‘The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature,” he said in his essay Inside the Whale. “How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? The novel is a particularly Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.’

Hubert vanden Bergh set out to disprove Orwell’s theory in a talk on Grahame Greene  given recently at Brompton Oratory.

Drawing from Greene’s four Catholic novels, written between 1938 and 1951, van den Burgh set out the writer's struggles with faith.

The Power and The Glory is about a priest in Mexico in the 1930’s.  The Communist party is trying to stamp out religion and the priest is on the run, going from village to village serving mass illicitly. He does not take the option of ensuring his safety by giving himself up and taking a wife as the Communists demanded of all priests at the time.  At the end of the book he is captured and shot by a firing squad.

The novel’s title, The Power and The Glory, is a rebuke to those seeking to repress Catholicism - a reminder that whatever man’s efforts to suppress the faith, the earth will always belong to God as in the closing lines of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.’

The love affair in the novel entitled The End of the Affair is between a married housewife and a non-married writer.  It goes on for several years during the Second World War.  The woman finds God halfway through the affair and is prompted by her new-found faith to end the relationship; shortly afterwards she dies of pneumonia. 

The novel Brighton Rock is about one woman’s attempt to stop a serial killer from murdering again.  

The last of the four books, The Heart of the Matter, concerns the tangled love life of a married police officer who is conducting an affair in a British Colony in West Africa.  The married man’s solution to free both women from himself is to commit suicide. 

Greene was able to articulate Catholicism and the working of grace.  Evelyn Waugh said of his Catholic novels: ‘There is active beneficent supernatural interference.  This is a brave invention of Mr. Greene’s.  His voice is listened to in many dark places and this defiant assertion of the supernatural is entirely admirable.’

For example, have the feelings resulting from a successful confession ever been better described than at the end of Brighton Rock? A priest shows the girl in the booth a way out of a moral dilemma and then, we are told by Greene of the girl’s emotions:

‘A sudden feeling of immense gratitude broke through the pain – it was as if she had been given the sight a long way off of life going on again.  He said, ‘Pray for me, my child.’

He inserts into his novels scenes from the Bible updated for a modern context. For example, Jesus’s suffering is implicitly recalled by Greene’s evocation of Judas in The Power and The Glory in the form of a peasant who betrays the priest to the Communist authorities.

Greene uses the priest in The Power and The Glory to cast the crucifixion in a new light for the reader:

‘It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death.  It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization – it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.’

The sacraments too are explained in a way which brings home their power to us. After the death of the female lover in The End of the Affair, her mother reveals she had her daughter baptised when an infant – a fact that remained a secret even to the one baptised – and it is this act, Greene implies, which may have led to her daughter’s eventual request to convert just days before her death.  

You know faith is taking because there are certain physical effects – sins don’t taste good anymore, and promiscuity provides no thrill, a fact observed independently by both lovers in The End of the Affair once faith has accosted them. 

And another effect is on the emotions – with the emergence of faith, the female protagonist in The End of the Affair notes her anger towards her lover subside whilst the male character – who comes to his faith after the female’s death – notes his almost comical inability to stop himself from carrying out unprompted acts of kindness for his flatmate, such as leaving out biscuits for him and tying his shoelaces.

Once instilled, faith resides in the faithful despite their best efforts to shake it off – they are faithful despite themselves and to their own detriment.

The evil committed by the adulterous protagonist in The Heart of the Matter - when he takes communion in a state of mortal sin - is described as follows: ‘He had a sudden picture before his eyes of a bleeding face, of eyes closed by the continuous shower of blows: the punch-drunk head of God reeling sideways.’

The affront to God is powerfully conveyed by this visceral language – and by the observation that, after this act of desecration, the devil shows his gratitude by ensuring his latest recruit receives a job promotion.  With his moribund career suddenly taking off, the character comments:

‘But, of course…it’s only because I have done these things that success comes.  I am of the devil’s party.  He looks after his own in this world.  I shall go now from damned success to damned success, he thought with disgust.’

Many of Greene’s characters do have the chance for a last-minute repentance, they do have a few minutes between knowing they will die and their death – the problem is, though, that it is impossible for them to summon up the repentance they so complacently thought they could evoke when the time came.

They fail to do this because the overwhelming emotion they feel on the point of death is fear, either at their imminent demise or else at the violent manner it will take. The serial killer is close to death at an earlier point in Brighton Rock and – as he attempts to escape his two knife-wielding pursuers – he tries to summon up as much repentance as he can but fails:

‘…his thoughts would carry him no further than the corner where his pursuers might reappear: he discovered that he hadn’t the energy to repent.  You could be saved between the stirrup and the ground, but you couldn’t be saved if you didn’t repent and he hadn’t time scrambling down the chalk down, to feel the least remorse.  He ran awkwardly, tripping, bleeding down his face and from both hands.’

The Catholic novels also show that when selflessness and discipline are melded, saintliness results and it is this – the highest of all goals – which Greene urges us to aim for. This is the last thought on the priest’s mind as he faces the firing squad in The Power and The Glory:

‘He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who had missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted - to be a saint.’

And yet the books also show that it is not our place to judge but God’s, and also that we cannot possibly anticipate this judgment - a sentiment expressed by every priest to appear on Greene’s pages, such as Father Rank on the very last page of The Heart of the Matter:

‘For goodness’ sake…don’t imagine you – or I – know a thing about God’s mercy.’

Greene would undoubtedly liked to have produced a depiction of Catholicism which showed more saintliness and less sinfulness but insisted that constructing a vision of pure faith and goodness in the novel was, as he pointed out, ‘beyond his talents.’ However, by drawing on his own struggles, he debunked the myth that Catholics cannot write.

Profile of Greene

Graham Greene has sold 20 million novels and counting.

Barack Obama has said that his favourite novel is The Power and the Glory while David Cameron said his was The End of the Affair

Greene was born in 1904, the son of the headmaster of the school he attended – Berkhamstead – and as a result was bullied which exacerbated his bipolar disorder. During his teens this led to his attempting suicide several times by means of Russian roulette.

He tried to escape despair by abusing alcohol and opium, garnering mistresses, and incessant travelling. 

In a letter to his wife Vivien, he described himself as ‘profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life’; but added that, ‘the disease is also one’s material.’

He converted to Catholicism after meeting his wife at Oxford. Initially the agnostic Greene fought the onset of faith. When he met the priest to whom he would go for instruction, Fr. Trollope, he soon realized he was ‘facing the challenge of an inexplicable goodness’.  
After 21 years of marriage and two children, Greene announced to his wife that he no longer loved her; he was involved with a married American, Catherine Walston.

Despite this situation, Greene retained his Catholic faith.  He ceased attending Mass aged 45 but continued to make trips to sites of pilgrimages for many years, and in his final years he began to receive the sacraments again; he died in the sole company of a priest in a hospital in Vevey, Switzerland.

To read the full text contact the author at:   [email protected]

Tags: Brompton Oratory, Damian Arnold, George Orwell, Grahame Greene, Hubert vanden Bergh

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