Nothing Like Sin
by Manuel Vicent (translated by Louis S. Bedrock), December 4, 2013
Graham Greene’s childhood was divided between two loyalties. His father was director of the school of Berkhamsted, located in an old building connected to the house in which Graham lived and in which he had been born through a door upholstered in baize.
This door was also a passageway between two sides of Graham’s brain. In one part of his brain simmered the schoolyard brutality where his classmates demanded that he participate in the fierce rituals against the teachers; in the other part were his father and siblings within the peaceful setting of his home. During recess, his morbid timidity made him vulnerable to the humiliations inflicted by the toughest and smartest member of the group, Carter, to oblige him to take the side against the school’s director. This torture produced a schizophrenia from which Graham Greene never recovered. He confessed that he became a writer to get even with Carter. Defeating Carter, who would later appear in the guise of various losers in his novels, became a mission.
This neurosis had a serious cost. When he was 16 years old he was discovered caressing the grip of a 32 caliber Smith & Wesson that belonged to his brother. Graham Greene played Russian roulette four times with that firearm the cylinder of which held six bullets. During the filming of Our Man In Havana, he told the story to Fidel Castro. Castro told him, “If the cylinder held six bullets and you fired at your forehead four times, you’re mathematically dead.”
“I don’t believe in mathematics,” answered Greene. In the end, his fate was a life which was an extended suicide, at times happy, at times tormented, that lasted 86 years.
As a result of the episode with the pistol, his parents put him under the care of a psychiatrist in London. Lying on a couch, the young man explained his most often recurring erotic dream: “Your wife comes into my room with her breasts bared and I kiss them.”
Without blinking, the psychiatrist asked, “What do you associate with my wife’s breasts?”
The youth answered, “Two subway cars.”
Upon hearing this, the psychiatrist, to rid himself of Greene, diagnosed him as cured, and Graham, overcome with a great sense of freedom, entered Oxford like an unbridled horse, became a journalist, an editor at The Times, a literary and film critic, and at the age of 23, converted to Catholicism in order to marry a Catholic girl—Vivien Dayrell Browning.
However, Greene only began to believe in the god of the Catholics when he met a hedonistic, drunken priest in Mexico who, pursued by revolutionaries, and finding himself safely across the border, crossed back to the other side of the border to offer the final sacrament to a dying man, and was himself shot to death while still in a state of mortal sin. This dreg of society, who would later be the protagonist of Greene’s best novel, The Power and the Glory, led him to experience the delights of sin, and amidst his struggles for existence, Graham Greene discovered that this secret pleasure was the only thing that gave meaning to his life as a writer, spy, unfaithful husband, passionate lover, and traveler through the most troubled places on the planet.
Toward the end of 1946, with Europe still smoldering, Graham Greene, already famous, met Catherine Walston, a 30 year old North American woman married to Harry Walston, a Jewish multi-millionaire landowner from England who was a member of The Labor Party. She was a kind of Lauren Bacall: a mother of five children, frivolous, attractive, who would walk through the rooms of the mansion barefooted with a glass of whisky in her hand. Our man remained completely captivated by this woman with a passion that lasted for 13 years, and through which the emotion of adultery blended with the pleasure of repentance — a form of grace that consists of reaching heaven through perdition. Every day this tempestuous and capricious millionairess would drive him to the ecstasy of wanting to shoot himself in the head to save his soul. They separated in 1960 because she had fallen in love with someone else and abandoned him.
When Graham Greene had become a rosy old man, with watery blue eyes and a kind-hearted smile, he would sit in a wicker armchair on the terrace of his small apartment that looked out upon the French Riviera. A bottle of JB that was one third finished would be at his side. He still attended Mass every Sunday. Immaculately dressed, his long legs slightly bent with age, he walked arm in arm with his lover Yvonne Cloetta with whom he lived the final 30 years of his life. He was still a practicing Catholic although he didn’t believe in Hell — only in Purgatory because Purgatory was a lesser, more refined form of punishment.
Few neighbors could imagine that this old man, stewed in alcohol, carried within him a soul on the border of the abyss.
Graham Greene never lost the aura of having been a spy in the service of the crown during World War II. Most of the time the work was bureaucratic, boring, routine, and even squalid; nevertheless, it stimulated the imagination of the writer. Although he came from Oxford, he was recruited for the service by Kim Philby, an easy-going chap who directed a group of spies from Cambridge that were snobbish, sophisticated, and shady characters.
Graham Greene was sent to Sierra Leone, and as always, extracted a story from that mission: The Heart of the Matter. When Kim Philby, a double agent, went over to the side of the Soviet Union after being exposed, Graham Greene converted him into the main character of The Human Factor.
There was always the double dealing: between life and death, politics and religion, love and hate, suffering and compassion, innocence and the presence of evil, unfolding in an ambiance of heat and humidity, and seasoned with a clammy lust that leads the protagonist toward a tragic destiny in which he must swallow the bitter draught of the loser.
Graham Greene, like any good Catholic, was excited by the sleaziest whorehouses. He took his lover Yvonne to one of these places in Paris. He left her at the bar with a drink in front of her while he entered the labyrinth with his arm around a prostitute. His lover was a married woman whom he had rescued from her executive husband in the jungle of Cameroon; a proper French woman who kept her every passion in its place. But after this adventure, she began to believe that Graham’s soul was darker than he had revealed in his guise of a mild mannered bourgeois. She fell in love with this man right down to the darkest recesses where black fish, that never saw the light, swam.
Many of his novels were made into movies, but only two, The Third Man and The Quiet American, remained in the collective imagination. The sewers of a divided post World War II Vienna and a Vietnam that is being abandoned by the French colonialists are forever united by the powers of Graham Greene to tell strong stories, without adjectives, that are apparently lightweight, but filled with labyrinths that represent the human soul.
He died in Vevey, a village in Switzerland to which he had withdrawn to be near one of his daughters. His funeral was the last scene from any of his novels. On one side of the church was Vivian, his first wife, then 86 years old, whom he had never divorced. On the other side was Yvonne, 60 years old, his last love, who never had separated from her husband either. In the middle was Graham inside a coffin, in front of a door that led, at the same time, to Heaven and to Hell.