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Graham Greene | Biography

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Early Career

Henry Graham Greene was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, on October 2, 1904. Greene attended the Berkhamsted School, at which his father was headmaster and where the author proved to be a rebellious student. After attempting suicide by playing Russian roulette and running away from school, he was sent to London. There, he lived in the home of the psychoanalyst who treated him. Later Greene attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he converted to Roman Catholicism, primarily because of Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a devout convert to Catholicism he married in 1927, the year after his conversion.

After Oxford, Greene moved to London and worked as an editor at The Times to pay the bills while also doing his own writing. The success of his first novel, The Man Within (1929), allowed him to leave The Times and work for The Spectator as literary editor and film critic. He continued to write novels, which were moderately successful. These early novels were thrillers: fast-paced, suspenseful "entertainments," as Greene called them, although they usually explored deeper themes and moral issues.

International Travel and Intrigue

During World War II (1939–45), Greene was recruited as an agent with the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), which reports to the Foreign Office, and sent to Sierra Leone in Africa to spy on the activities of the Vichy government there. After the war, Greene traveled the world as a freelance journalist, also seeking settings for his novels. Separated from his wife and having left England, Greene was attracted to countries undergoing political upheaval, and he continued to write novels set in international hot spots, where revolutions, civil wars, or other unrest surrounded him. The Quiet American (1956) is set in Vietnam during the anti-French uprisings in the early 1950s; Our Man in Havana (1958) in Cuba just before the communist revolution; A Burnt-Out Case (1961) in the Belgian Congo shortly before the country won independence; and The Comedians (1966) in Haiti under the dictatorship of François Duvalier.

His travels kept him on the move for decades, as he not only wrote about but became involved with those close to the action, including Dictator Fidel Castro in Cuba. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had a file on Greene, because of his communist leanings, and watched his activities closely.

Major Works and Catholicism

Brighton Rock, published in 1938, was one of the first of Greene's novels to explore Catholic themes. Following an adolescent criminal raised as a Catholic, the book addresses questions about guilt, faith, and responsibility. Greene delved more deeply into these themes with his next novel, which many consider his finest: The Power and the Glory (1940), based on his travels in Mexico.

Some of Greene's books are similar to spy novels, based on his intelligence work, but Greene typically dug deeply into moral and ethical questions, trying to find God or truth in the midst of geopolitical intrigue. Greene's novels feature questionable characters facing moral or spiritual crises usually in settings of upheaval or decadence. He focuses on sinners, not saints: decadent or corrupt anti-heroes who perform heroic acts. The threat of menace, or evil, is always present, as are danger and depravity. Sharp dialogue, exciting plots, and fast-paced text make his novels compelling to read and provide moral issues for readers to contemplate.

As a writer deeply interested in religion and politics, Greene objected to being categorized as a "Catholic novelist," the title possibly implying thematic limitations or expectations. He preferred to be considered a novelist who happened to be Catholic, and later he considered himself a "Catholic atheist," in that he disapproved of traditional piety and found it difficult, if not impossible, to believe in God, heaven, and hell. But he did believe in the mysticism and magic of Catholicism and in its doctrines.

Critical Reception of The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory was received with critical acclaim and is still considered by many to be Greene's finest work. However, the Catholic Church condemned the novel for years, although Greene later reported Pope Paul VI had personally assured him his novels were not blasphemous. Clearly the characters of the priest and former priest in The Power and the Glory pose questions about clerical behavior and motivation at the time.

Death and Legacy

Greene died of leukemia in Switzerland on April 3, 1991, after a career spanning more than 60 years that included short stories, plays, poetry, essays, and screenplays. Although shortlisted, he never won the Nobel Prize, an oversight many find highly questionable, for he was a widely known writer whose work had great popular appeal and at the same time explored deep and abiding religious, moral, and political issues.

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