Born 115 years ago, Graham Greene, the English novelist and short-story writer, managed in his last phase to cross beyond all the usual boundaries within which traditional fiction writers have generally worked. I am referring here to novels like The Comedians (1966), The Honorary Consul (1973) and specially, Getting to Know the General (1984), as also his autobiographies, A Sort of Life (1971) and Ways of Escape (1980).
Like D.H. Lawrence, Greene was a restless soul and kept travelling all around the world all his life in his quest of source material as well as travel for its own sake. Beginning with his early phase during which Greene made a journey across Liberia in 1935, described in his Journey Without Maps, he was continually on the move. Quite a few of his novels are set in countries abroad; for example, The Heart of the Matter is located in West Africa, The Quiet American in Vietnam, Our Man in Havana in Cuba, and Getting to Know the General in Central America.
Greene not only crossed over physical boundaries, he also managed to transcend cultural ones in search of experience till he had friends and loved ones in several nationalities and cultures. He literally proved in his life the maxim that great literature knows no boundaries. Of all English novelists, Greene came to be closest to becoming a truly international figure before he died in 1991 at the age of eighty seven. By the end of his last phase of writing, beginning around the mid-1960s, Greene had produced some thirty novels, ‘entertainments’, plays, books for children, travel books, collections of short stories, essays in criticism, reflections and reviews as well as two volumes of autobiography. The Comedians and twelve other novels, and two of his short stories had been filmed during his lifetime. Famous film directors and producers grew so fond of the man and his work that his The Third Man was actually written as a film treatment. From a struggling writer in the mid-1930s, Greene rose to be a celebrated world-class literary figure and lived a life of relative affluence. He was named a member of the Order of Merit, and made a Companion of Honour in 1966.
Graham Greene was never awarded the much-coveted Nobel Prize for Literature, which is generally considered the highest honour given to a writer, a sign of ultimate recognition at the global level. However, since Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Nobel in 1965, laying down a whole set of reasons why a writer must be known for his work rather than by the Nobel, the prize has come to be regarded more as a “political” choice than a true sign of literary recognition. Viewed from this perspective alone, the achievement of Graham Greene as a novelist is truly outstanding. When he died in 1991, a fellow novelist called him “our greatest living novelist until today”, a Nobel laureate for Literature spoke of Greene as “the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness and anxiety” and a celebrated actor described him as “a great writer who spoke brilliantly to a whole generation”.
Greene was the only writer of his time who made personal friends not only with fellow novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but also with dictators, rulers and generals of struggling Central American nations, with a streak of compassion for men. He was trusted by some of the latter as unofficial ambassador and one-man goodwill mission. For his own part, Greene had the love of adventure and the courage to undertake assignments fraught with danger, and returned as always with a fresh spring of creativity as a novelist. It was owing to this initiative and courage at a fairly advanced age that Greene was able to give a whole new dimension to the English novel: the novel became in his hands a portrait of people and their leaders struggling for survival and for freedom against heavy odds. It was at the same time a tool in his hands to present living and moving pictures of the neuroses of rich and famous men caught up in this age of anxiety. In some of these portraits, Greene rises to heights undreamt of by the English novelists of the past.
The only one in “the great tradition” who comes close to Greene is Joseph Conrad, but I think he goes beyond Conrad in the range and variety of his portraits.
All in all, by his unique individual talent, Graham Greene has extended and enriched the great tradition of English fiction coming down from the eighteenth century. The body of his work has come to stay.
December 7, 2019
Like D.H. Lawrence, Greene was a restless soul and kept travelling all around the world all his life in his quest of source material as well as travel for its own sake