The works of the English novelist and dramatist Graham Greene (1904-1991) explore different permutations of morality and amorality in modern society, and often feature exotic settings in different parts of the world. A storyteller with a spare and elegant style, he divided his literary output into two categories. The first identified his long, serious works as "novels", while the second, which he called "entertainments", were shorter, taut-paced political thrillers with boldly-defined characters designed to satisfy the reader whose main concern is plot rather than theme. He also wrote screenplays and dramas, but they have not stood the test of time as steadfastly as his fiction, which has been translated into 27 languages.
Graham Greene was born on October 2, 1904, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in England. He was one of six children born to Charles Henry Greene, headmaster of Berkhamsted School, and Marion R. Greene. He did not enjoy his childhood, often preferring to skip classes rather than endure the baiting of his fellow students. When Greene suffered a mental collapse, his parents sent him to London for psychotherapy administered by a student of the famous Sigmund Freud. While he was living there, he became a voracious reader and began to write poetry. Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein became lifelong mentors to him before he returned to high school.
After graduating in 1922, Greene went on to Oxford University's Balliol College. When he was a junior in 1924, he contacted the German embassy and offered to write some pro-German articles for an Oxford paper. Intrigued, an embassy official accepted his offer, and sent him on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Rhineland, where Germany and France were vying for superiority in the creation of a separatist republic. As promised, Greene returned from Germany and wrote an article favoring Germany in the Oxford Chronicle of May 9, 1924.
His next attempt to enliven his studies brought him to a flirtation with the Communist party, which he abandoned after a mere six weeks, though he later wrote sympathetic profiles of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. Otherwise, Greene spent his vacations at Oxford roaming the English countryside. Despite all these efforts to distract himself from his studies, he graduated from Oxford in 1925 with a second-class pass in history, and a slender, badly-received volume of poetry with the effusive title Babbling April.
The following year Greene decided to convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, the religion of his fiancee. The shift brought him a new perspective in his search for the origins of human morality and amorality.
The same year he began his professional writing career as an unpaid apprentice for the Nottingham Journal, moving on later to become a subeditor for the London Times. The experience was a positive one for him, and he held this position until the publication of his first novel, The Man Within (1929). Here he began to develop the characteristic themes he later pursued so effectively: betrayal, pursuit, and the yearning for death.
His next works, Name of Action (1931) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931), were not well-received by critics, but Greene regained their respect with the first book he classed as an entertainment. Called Stamboul Train in England, it was published in 1932 in the United States as Orient Express. The story revolves around a group of travelers on the Orient Express, a setting mysterious enough to permit a large helping of melodrama and grotesque character-building. Journey without Maps, published in 1936, was a travelogue, detailing Greene's fascination with the lush and decadent outposts of colonization.
Twelve years after his conversion, Greene published Brighton Rock (1938), a novel with a highly melodramatic plot full of sexual and violent imagery that explored the interplay between abnormal behavior and morality.
The entertainment The Confidential Agent was published in 1939, as was the work The Lawless Roads, a journal of Greene's travels in Mexico in 1938. Here he had seen widespread persecution of Catholic priests, which he documented in his journal along with a description of a drunken priest's execution. The incident made such an impression upon him that this victim became the hero of The Power and the Glory, the novel considered by Greene to be his best.
During the years of World War II Greene slipped out of England and went to West Africa to do some clandestine intelligence work for the British Government. The result, a novel called The Heart of the Matter appeared in 1948, and greatly appealed to American readers.
Steadily, Greene produced a succession of works that received both praise and crtiticism. He was considered for the Nobel Prize but failed to become a candidate. Still, many other honors were bestowed upon him, including a 1966 accolade from Queen Elizabeth as a Companion of Honor, and the Order of Merit, a much higher honor, in 1986.
In 1979 Greene underwent surgery for intestinal cancer, but had no lasting ill-effects. However, in 1990, he was stricken with an unspecified blood disease so debilitating that he decided to move from his home in Antibes, the South of France, to Vevey, Switzerland, so that he could be closer to his daughter. He lingered until the beginning of spring, then died on April 3rd, 1991, in La Povidence Hospital.
Further Reading on Graham Greene
Full-length studies of Greene include John A. Atkins, Graham Greene (1957; rev. ed. 1966); Francis L. Kunkel, The Labyrinthine Ways of Graham Greene (1959); Lynette Kohn, Graham Greene, The Major Novels (1961); A. A. De Vitis, Graham Greene (1964); and David Lodge, Graham Greene (1966). For a variety of opinions on Greene's work see Robert O. Evans, ed., Graham Greene: Some Critical Considerations (1963). François Mauriac, Men I Hold Great (1951), discusses Greene.
Additional Biography Sources
Shelden, Michael, Graham Greene: The Enemy Within, Random House, 1994.
New York Times, (April 4, 1991).