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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.'

'The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.'

'I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn't settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.'

'Like some wines our love could neither mature nor travel.'

'We forget very easily what gives us pain.'

'Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.'

'I can never think of you as a friend. You can do without a friend.'

'It's a strange thing to discover and to believe that you are loved when you know that there is nothing in you for anybody but a parent or a God to love.'

'Most things disappoint till you look deeper.'

'A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.'

'Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, selfishness, evil -- or else an absolute ignorance.'

'I had to touch you with my hands, I had to taste you with my tongue; one can't love and do nothing.'

'Pain is easy to write. In pain we're all happily individual. But what can one write about happiness?'

'Hate is a lack of imagination.'

'You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.’

'But it is impossible to go through life without trust; that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.'

'People who like quotes love meaningless generalisations.'

'If only it were possible to love without injury – fidelity isn’t enough: I had been faithful to Anne and yet I had injured her. The hurt is in the act of possession: we are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation. In a way I was glad that my wife had struck out at me again – I had forgotten her pain for too long, and this was the only kind of recompense I could give her. Unfortunately the innocent are always involved in any conflict. Always, everywhere, there is some voice crying from a tower.'

'I measured love by the extent of my jealousy.'

'I don't care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organisations...I don't think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren't there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?'

'Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel; sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust.'

'Innocence is a kind of insanity.’

'Her face looked ugly in the attempt to avoid tears; it was an ugliness which bound him to her more than any beauty could have done. It isn't being happy together, he thought as though it were a fresh discovery, that makes one love--it's being unhappy together.'


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