The Insight of Graham Greene


Graham Greene OM CH (1904 – 1991) was an English novelist regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Acquiring a reputation early as a major writer, he penned both serious Catholic novels and thrillers and was shortlisted, in 1966 and 1967, for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In over 25 novels he explored moral and political issues often through a Catholic perspective, though he objected strongly to being described as a ‘Roman Catholic novelist’. Catholic themes are very much in evidence in his four major Catholic novels, however - Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair. Other works, such as The Confidential Agent, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Human Factor, and his screenplay for The Third Man, display an interest in the workings and intrigues of international politics and espionage.

Greene was born in Hertfordshire into a large family that included the owners of the Greene King Brewery. He attempted suicide several times while at school. Studying History at Balliol College, Oxford, he published his first work in 1925, then, after graduating, worked first as a private tutor and then as a journalist. After meeting his future wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browninge, he converted to Catholicism in 1926, but later in life took to calling himself a 'Catholic agnostic', or a 'Catholic atheist’. The favourable reception of his first novel, The Man Within, in 1929 enabled him to work full-time as a novelist, but he also worked in freelance journalism, and wrote book and film reviews.

Greene suffered from depression. In a letter to his wife, he wrote that he had 'a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life,' and that 'unfortunately, the disease is also one's material.’ Greene died in 1991, at age 86, of leukaemia. This selection of quotes shows something of the range of his thoughts and sensibilities:

'When we are not sure, we are alive.'

'Of two hearts one is always warm and one is always cold: the cold heart is more precious than diamonds: the warm heart has no value and is thrown away.'

'Champagne, if you are seeking the truth, is better than a lie detector.'

'Eternity is said not to be an extension of time but an absence of time, and sometimes it seemed to me that her abandonment touched that strange mathematical point of endlessness, a point with no width, occupying no space.'

'You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.'

'Time has its revenges, but revenge seems so often sour. Wouldn’t we all do better not trying to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife with a husband, nor a parent a child? Perhaps that’s why men have invented God – a being capable of understanding.’

'I have loved no part of the world like this and I have loved no women as I love you. You're my human Africa. I love your smell as I love these smells. I love your dark bush as I love the bush here, you change with the light as this place does, so that one all the time is loving something different and yet the same. I want to spill myself out into you as I want to die here.'