Graham Greene infiltrated my life from the start. Long before my birth, my father was a supervisor in the diamond mines of Sierra Leone – bang in the heart of Greeneland. I grew up with his stories and photographs.
In my succession of childhood homes (first in Northeast England, then in Southern and East Africa) copies of The Heart of the Matter and Journey Without Maps were ever-presents on the bookshelves. I knew the blurbs and first paragraphs by heart, though I never went further.
At school in my early teens I got my first taste of Greene on screen. The Third Man instantly became my favourite film, and still is. On a Third Man tour of Vienna in 2009, I explored the sewers and stood in the Harry Lime doorway.
Greene has been omnipresent throughout my life, yet my exposure to his novels was mostly confined to blurbs read as I browsed in bookshops. From the gists alone I became familiar with Greene’s characters: Pyle, Raven, Bendrix, Pinkie, Querry, Scobie, Wormold, Plarr, Aunt Augusta, Maurice Castle. It wasn’t until four or five years ago that I read a Greene from cover to cover, The Comedians. It’s not generally rated as one of his best, but no matter. It found its mark with me.
Since then, in bursts, I’ve ticked off most of the others. Although his novels are often centered on topical issues of his day (the seedy underworld of 1930s England; Papa Doc’s Haiti; religious persecution in Mexico; WWII and its immediate aftermath; the First Indochina War; Cold War espionage; the West’s relations with apartheid South Africa), they haven’t dated. The political machinations remain all-too familiar, and the personal dilemmas are timeless and universal.
Curiously, considering the geographic and thematic range of his work, the novels are remarkable consistent. You’re never in any doubt that you’re in Greeneland. The separation of his ‘entertainments’ from his more serious work isn’t as clear cut as presumed. Many of his ‘serious’ novels (eg The Human Factor, with its running gag about Maltesers) contain comic relief.
The Human Factor is undoubtedly one of my favourite Graham Greenes. I didn’t think much of the movie adaptation (Nicol Williamson in the lead was its one redemption, though the person originally screen-tested for the role was – God forbid – Jeffrey Archer), but the book engagingly evokes the mundane reality of spycraft even more realistically than Le Carre did with George Smiley.
Of the others, there aren’t any I wouldn’t return to happily. But if pushed to hold onto The Human Factor and three, no, let’s say four others, my choice would probably be: Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, Travels with My Aunt, and The Captain and the Enemy.
As an individual Graham Greene is oddly compelling. He lacked the bravura of Hemingway, and yet, in his quiet, understated, British manner he had a front row seat for many of the key moments of the mid-20th century. His (sadly flawed) official biography by Norman Sherry required three hefty volumes. A BBC TV documentary about his life also ran to three parts. What he lacked in obvious charisma he made up for in enigma; in his reserved way he was a spellbinding presence. His books are similarly bewitching, and constitute one of the most significant oeuvres in British literature.