Graham Greene: Triumph and Conversion

William Backhouse 28 February 2020
Image Credit: The Estate of Yousuf Karsh

“A baleful vulture of doom hovers over this modern crucifixion story, but above the vulture soars an eagle – the inevitability of the Church’s triumph”. The sentimental epigram concludes the blurb of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. The crucifixion is certainly central to the novel’s plot, which culminates in the betrayal and execution of its main character, a whisky priest on the run from Mexican anticlerical purges. His ‘journey to the cross’ is an unrelentingly grim, protracted game of cat-and-mouse with the local police, beset by taunting mestizos, haunting dreams of his cynical illegitimate child, and unquenchable cravings for illicit spirits.

The soaring eagle is rather more difficult to find in the story. With the chasing army getting ever closer, and the priest’s thirst for spirits growing ever stronger, it is more tempting to read The Power and the Glory as being about the church’s drawn-out defeat by secular powers and its own sins, rather than its triumph over them.

Much of Greene’s own life has its own elements of the crucifixion. In his drily titled autobiography A Sort of Life, he describes how he endured the betrayal of close associates at school, the agony of a divided loyalty between his Headmasterly father and rebellious schoolboy peers, and a deep-seated unhappiness which led to an attempt to “cut [his] right leg open with a penknife”. The tone becomes more macabre still when Greene details how, in a season of profound ennui, he began to play Russian Roulette with his brother’s revolver on Berkhamsted Common.

Intermittent periods of light relief do punctuate the narrative. The juvenile espionage trip to Germany, muddling through a revered academic ceremony at Balliol in an improbable drunken stupor – Greene’s life was not without comic touches. Yet there is no inevitable eagle of triumph in these pages. Even in setting out the circumstances of his conversion to Catholicism, he obstinately resists the penitent sinner narrative. No moment of spiritual realisation seems to have catalysed the conversion, and readers will detect little remorse for the wild living which seems to have been the pattern of his twenties. Indeed, Greene apparently later took to calling himself a ‘Catholic agnostic’. He relates with amusement the story of a priest who, challenged to articulate arguments for God’s existence, replied “I knew them once, but I have forgotten them”.

Greene’s priests, like their author, take pride in profoundly heterodox worldviews and personalities. Fr Leon Rivas, a character in The Honorary Consul, asserts a strikingly iconoclastic theodicy. He holds that evil in the world exists because of God’s resurgent evil side. This can only come as a shock to Christian and Christianised readers who are used to the idea that the God of Christianity is only good, and essentially so.

The Power and the Glory’s pointedly unnamed whisky priest, meanwhile, is repelled by the pious disgust with which people view their own sin. There is a darkly comic element to the impatience that he shows to one of his fellow prisoners, an obsequious woman who apparently didn’t quite cut the mustard as a would-be nun. Outside of the exotic landscapes of ‘Greeneland’, the author in the real world proudly attributes to Pope Paul the advice that he shouldn’t pay undue attention to the many Catholics who would find parts of his books offensive.

It is rather limiting, therefore, to insist on understanding Greene’s life and his work within familiar and orthodox religious narratives. Nothing seems to have been inevitable about his conversion, which melted out of his erudite desire to understand his fiancée’s newfound religion. There is little triumphant about it either, being instead a reluctant acquiescence to a tired and unpersuasive worldview. Depressive aches, frustrated ambitions, and, at times, desperate sadness suffuse the pages of A Sort of Life before and after his conversion. Neither does The Power and the Glory conclude with unspoilt triumph. A despotic governor is still in power, the faithful are left like sheep without a shepherd, and the priest’s daughter is still cynical and fatherless.

But all of this begs a rather deeper question – is triumph essentially unspoilt? And does its inevitability require the forces of good to exceed those of evil in resilience, purpose, or purity? The original crucifixion story does not look like a triumph. A convicted criminal dies a horribly humiliating death, wearing a crown of twisted thorns, while a watching crowd drenches his parched mouth with vinegar and gambles for his meagre possessions. The gospel narratives do continue into the resurrection, in which their central character subverts the ultimate enemy of human existence – death. Yet they too end with troubling unhappiness. The traitor Judas dies a gruesome death, the powerful political and religious authorities are resolutely set against the nascent religion, and a ragtag band of uneducated nobodies are left with a mountainous task ahead of them.

Perhaps, then, the tarnished and frustrating personal history of Graham Greene, like the plot of one of his most enduring novels, does merit the sentimental epigram after all.