Russian Roulette

“I can remember very clearly the afternoon I found the revolver in the brown deal corner-cupboard in a bedroom which I shared with my elder brother.”

Sort of Life

That sentence, as tantalizing, evocative, and concise as anything Graham Greene wrote in his fiction appears, in fact, about halfway through his first volume of memoirs, A Sort of Life. It introduces a short confession of a brief time in the autumn of 1923 when the young Greene dabbled in Russian roulette. Six times over the course of a few months, the eighteen or nineteen year old undergraduate sought the “kick of excitement” of the “adrenaline drug” that taking the one-in-six chance of a revolver fired at the head provided.

Greene carried out this what we might call today “risky behavior” alone and in secret. His account, written with the hindsight of some forty-five years, and served up with customary sangfroid, is not calculated for shock or to engender sympathy. It is shared, merely, as a piece of the puzzle that Greene assembles into an autobiography, which, he admits, can only be “a sort of life.” “And the motive for recording these scraps of the past?” he asks. “It is much the same motive that has made me a novelist: a desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order, and a hungry curiosity. We cannot love others, so the theologians teach, unless in some degree we can love ourselves, and curiosity too begins at home.”

Home, for the child born Henry Graham Greene in 1904, was Hertfordshire, north of London, where his father was headmaster of Berkhamsted School. Despite his father’s position, or perhaps because of it, Graham was never particularly happy amid the school culture, preferring solitary reading to sports. As he looks back, he offers impressionistic memories rather than any strict chronology of events. Colorful episodes involving the first stirrings of sexual awakening, or the abiding unhappiness that prompted his being sent away from home to undergo treatment with a psychiatrist, or dabbling in espionage at a surprisingly young age, are presented in an almost sketchy manner, as if we already know the facts and Greene is finally explaining the subtext.

So the purpose in reading A Sort of Life is not to garner the facts of Greene’s life—there have been plenty of biographies written to provide those. No, what comes from reading this book, as perhaps came from the writing of it for Greene himself, is an attempt to capture the writer’s elusive nature under glass. It seems that, even at age sixty-six, as he set down these reminiscences from the perch of his considerable success, Greene was still unsure about his place in the world as an artist and as a man. There is an intentional pun in the title, of course, and Greene is certainly sorting through a muddle of memories to try to understand whence came his success as a writer—which he, tellingly, says “is always temporary,” adding, “success is only a delayed failure.”

Greene’s late adolescent flirtation with the loaded chamber of a revolver, then, becomes his abiding metaphor. “A kind of Russian roulette remained too a factor in my later life,” he realizes, “so that without previous experience of Africa I went on an absurd and reckless trek through Liberia; it was the fear of boredom which took me to Tabasco during the religious persecution, to a léproserie in the Congo, to the Kikuyu reserve during the Mau-Mau insurrection, to the emergency in Malaya and to see the French war in Vietnam. There, in those three regions of clandestine war, the fear of ambush served me just as effectively as the revolver form the corner-cupboard in the life-long war against boredom.”

From that blessed boredom came some rather great fiction.



The Callow Man Within

When you come to know and love a writer’s work based on his mature output, it can be almost a shock to read his early writings. I first discovered Graham Greene when he was still alive and writing, albeit late in his career (my introduction was The Human Factor, which I read when it had just been published), and I was drawn to his pared down, unsentimental prose and his razored dissection of moral issues. So I was surprised, to say the least, when I turned to Greene’s first novel, The Man Within, and found a very different writer at work. Published in 1929 when he was only 25, this debut bears few of the hallmarks we later come to associate with Greeneland. It is unabashedly romantic (not something you could often say about Greene), a story about menacing smugglers that borrows its sensibility from the kind of adventure stories boys used to read during the writer’s own Edwardian childhood.

This assessment is in no way meant to diminish Greene’s talents—the novel is written with a florid assuredness that is clearly shaped not only by Conrad (whose influence on Greene is often cited), but, perhaps a little more surprisingly, by D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy as well (Hardy, who we think of as a Victorian, died only the year before The Man Within appeared, Lawrence the year after). Greene’s descriptions of the Sussex countryside, often observed at twilight, feel as they could have been lifted from either of these men’s work: “He was almost on top of the light before he realized that its smallness was due to size and not to distance. The gray stones of a cottage suddenly hunched themselves up between the trees. To the man raising his head to see the ramshackle bulk it was as though the uneven, knobbled shoulders of the place had shrugged themselves from the earth.”

The man in question is Francis Andrews, about the age of Greene himself at the time, who is in flight from a gang of smugglers he has betrayed. He seeks refuge at the aforementioned cottage where he finds a lovely, independent young woman, Elizabeth, keeping watch over a casket with the body of an old man who has just died—Elizabeth’s de facto guardian. Elizabeth shelters Andrews, and during one chaste night he falls irredeemably, if a little improbably, in love with her. When she encourages him to return to town to give testimony in the murder trial of his former associates in crime, he does so with a passionate conviction to do the right thing at her behest, even as he is fearful to face his adversaries in public. It doesn’t help that most of the townspeople side with the smugglers, either out of their own fear or indifference. Andrews’s dreams of being a hero backfire, and it is pretty much downhill from there as the story gains speed toward its inevitable tragic conclusion.


There are glimpses of the future Greene here: certainly the questions about friendship and betrayal, and Andrews’s brief lapse into sexual infidelity despite his heightened ardor for Elizabeth (at least in his head), signal themes that will motivate and haunt Greene’s later protagonists. Andrews shares some of the cynicism of those future avatars, but it is tempered by a sloppy sentimentality that a Querry in A Burnt-Out Case or a Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair would never cotton to (although, perhaps, we can imagine a young Maurice sharing these overwrought emotions when he was a callow young man like Andrews, still finding his place in the world).

The most interesting aspect of The Man Within is the psychological baggage that Andrews carries over his deceased father—an oft absent tyrant—and with Carlyon, his mentor in the smuggling game, whom he betrays. It is all very Freudian, as befitting the era (hello D.H. Lawrence), and it shapes the otherwise maudlin narrative in intriguing ways. With hindsight, Greene himself called The Man Within hopelessly romantic, but he allowed it to stay in print even as his fame grew, a fate not granted his next two novels, The Name of Action and Rumour of Nightfall, both of which he repudiated and would not allow reissued. The Name of Action is next on my reading list. But I’m also going to read some of Greene’s first memoir, A Sort of Life, and maybe gain some insight into that father thing.

The Middle of the Journey

       “You heard what the doctor called me just now – one of the burnt-out cases. They are the lepers who lose everything that can be eaten away before they are cured.”

       “You are a whole man as far as one can see,” said Parkinson, looking at the fingers resting on the drawing-board.

“I’ve come to an end. This place, you might say, is the end. Neither the road nor the river go any further.”

– from A Burnt-Out Case

I begin in the middle, with A Burnt-Out Case, a novel that Greene published in 1960. This was the approximate midway point of his career (although he had no way of knowing that) – his first novel, The Man Within, was published in 1929, thirty-one years before, and his last, The Captain and the Enemy, twenty-eight years later in 1988. So there is some symmetry to be found in those numbers. But, to be honest, I decided to begin my survey of Greene’s work with A Burnt-Out Case because my informal calculations suggest that Greene, who was born in 1904, wrote the book when he was 55, the age I am now. I wondered if this chronological connection would give the book a special resonance for me. I also noticed a further quirk of mathematical serendipity: Greene probably wrote the book in 1959, the year I was born, and I was reading it just a few months after what would have been Greene’s 110th birthday, which is twice 55. It was clearly where I was meant to begin.

Burnt-Out Case

A Burnt-Out Case is set in the Congo as the period of European colonization was giving way to independence, but it is not a political book. Like so much of Greene’s work, it is a story of moral despair and religious inadequacy, with a European protagonist on the run from the strictures of “civilization.” That protagonist is named Querry (a none-to-subtle modification of “query,” larded with connotations of questioning and doubt), a world-famous architect who seeks his way of escape by traveling as far into the jungle as available transportation will allow. He ends up at a leper colony run by Catholic priests, where he agrees to help the doctor, Colin, build a hospital. Colin is an avowed atheist, and Querry a Catholic in name only (or so he claims), affording the two men the fodder for thoughtful theological discussions on hot equatorial nights.

The atheist and the doubter are surrounded by true believers – the priests, of course, but most nefariously by the manager of a local factory, a pious bore called Rycker. Querry has attained renown as a “Catholic” architect, the builder of famous churches, and Rycker tries to befriend him and bask in the reflected glory of what he views as the architect’s God-blessed reputation. But it is precisely this kind of false celebrity that has driven Querry into these nether regions in the first place, and he has no interest in being associated with such a sanctimonious provincial. Rycker also has a much-younger wife, little more than a girl we are told, and Querry finds their relationship baffling and distasteful. The marriage is loveless and arid (a word that, tellingly, appears often in this novel set in the anything-but-arid jungle). Querry befriends the wife, Marie, and although the scenario does not play out as one might guess, it is nonetheless a typically Greene set-up of foreordained tragedy.

Some critics, particularly at the time of its publication, dismissed A Burnt-Out Case as a minor Greene work, a bit heavy-handed in its symbolism and set-up perhaps, but I would argue that the vantage point of time has offered it some literary redemption. Greene, by all accounts, was reacting to the label of a “Catholic novelist” that had been pinned on him after the publication of The Heart of the Matter, a label that, while apt, he found constricting. Querry is clearly a fictional stand-in for Greene, who wrestles with his ambiguity about faith in so much of his work. As Elizabeth Hardwick once observed, we are never given the full measure of why Querry has “cracked up” and retreated to the jungle (he talks of a mistress who committed suicide), and, arguably, he is not the most richly drawn of Greene’s protagonists because we don’t get too deeply into his head and must rely instead on what he chooses to reveal verbally.

As a middle-aged reader myself, I found the story an accurate depiction of the mid-life impulse to escape the past and start over, to reinvent oneself rather than rest on one’s achievements – or failures. It is a restless book, filled with questions rather than answers. It is, of course, also a bow to Conrad, a writer whose influence is never far away in Greene’s work. There are surface elements shared with Heart of Darkness (in an introductory letter, Greene admits that “The Congo is a region of the mind”), and Greene was aware, no doubt, that by the time this book was written “the dark heart of Africa” was already something of a cliché. And yet we are drawn into this uncomfortable, mysterious world (at least I am) because of what R.W.B. Lewis has called “Greene’s achievement of making visible in that darkness, and exactly by means of it, the unforgettable dramas of extraordinarily living human beings.”

Thematically, A Burnt-Out Case fits squarely into the middle of Greene’s opus, with its familiar concerns: love, the expatriate life, infidelity (read: sin), damnation, and, most of all, faith. I suspect I will be revisiting it as my reading continues.

Why Graham Greene?

On the increasingly rare occasion that someone asks me who my favorite writer is, I usually, quickly and with little hesitation, say Graham Greene. The End of the Affair, I tell them even if they haven’t asked, is my favorite of his novels.

Now, there are any number of other novels that I might cite if I were asked to name a favorite, near-perfect work of fiction: A Passage to India or Howard’s End, to be sure, or The Great Gatsby and A Portrait of a Lady, certainly. As for novels that have entertained me, haunted me, jolted me, stayed with me, the list is unbridled: Memento Mori, Run River, The White Hotel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Huckleberry Finn, The American …

But, The End of the Affair dazzled me the first time I read it, some thirty years ago, and it has not disappointed with repeat readings over the years. Not my first venture into Greeneland—that would have been The Human Factor, which I read as a teenager when it was newly published—it remains the Greene book that resonates most for me, with its uncompromising exploration of faith and love, wrapped in a taut story that displays Greene’s awe-inspiring ability to craft a plot-driven narrative that is about so much more than plot. It is a book that kindles my devotion and envy—quite simply, I wish I could have written it, or could write anything approaching its perfection. I suppose that is why I claim it as my “favorite.”

The last year and a half in my life has been a bit directionless and marked with some sadness. My only daughter left for college two thousand miles away and my father died after a painful-to-witness decline from Parkinson’s Disease. Though kept busy enough with quotidian concerns, there have long stretches where I have felt directionless, unfocused, certainly intellectually disengaged. So…casting about for a self-edifying project to begin the new year, I started to think about reading The End of the Affair once again. Then I started thinking bigger, realizing that there is still so much of Greene’s work I have not read. Why not read or reread all the novels, I thought, and really get to know the man and his work?

By my count, Greene wrote 26 novels. Hence, the title of this blog: 26 Grahams. But I hope to read widely and liberally—not just all the novels, but the stories and plays, essays and travel writing, and memoirs, as well. Perhaps, too, I’ll dip into some of the biographies written about Greene, and maybe even some critical works. A lot of reading, to be sure, and I am guessing my little new year’s project could stretch on indefinitely beyond this year.

Let’s see where this literary immersion, this—to borrow Greene’s own phrase—journey without maps leads. I hope this adventure in reading will bolster my already great appreciation for a great writer, but I hope, too, it will open some windows into my understanding not only of his work but of why it speaks to me with such special force.

So, I begin. But not at the beginning…