Graham Greene, English novelist, journalist, and playwright, was born on October 2,
1901, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. The fourth of six children, he
was an awkward and painfully shy youth. He had no inclination toward
sports, and he often cut school so that he could read adventure stories such as those by authors Rider Haggard
and R. M. Ballantyne. Such stories influenced him greatly and helped
to shape his literary style.
Although many of his works combine elements of the detective
story, the spy thriller, and the psychological drama, Greene's weightier
novels are mostly stories of the damned. His heroes eventually are
forced to face their shortcomings and arrive at salvation only after a long
period of suffering and soul-searching agony.
Greene began his life in England, the son of
Charles Greene and Marion Raymond Greene, who was a first cousin to author
Robert Louis Stevenson. Greene's father, a brilliant intellect, became headmaster at Berkhamsted
Originally, he had intended to become a barrister, but he discovered
that he enjoyed teaching more, although his history lessons were often less
lessons than diatribes on why Liberalism had failed society.
Young Greene was educated at Berkhamstead and Balliol College,
Oxford. Plagued by debilitating insecurity, he tried running away from home
In his teens, he attempted suicide. His parents took him to a
therapist who encouraged him to
start writing as a means of developing a stronger self-image and a more
positive outlook on life. He introduced
Greene to several of his literary friends.
quickly learned that he had a natural talent for writing, and during his three years at
Balliol, he published more than sixty poems, stories, articles, and reviews,
most of which appeared in the student magazine, Oxford Outlook, as
well as in
the Weekly Westminster Gazette. In 1926, he converted to Roman
Catholicism, saying afterwards, "I had to find a religion... to measure my
evil against." When critics began exhuming the religious undertones in
his works, Greene complained that he hated the term being hung on him:
In 1926, Greene moved to London, where he went to work as a reporter for
the Times (1926-30) and for the Spectator, where he was a film
critic and a literary editor until 1940. There, he met Vivien Dayrell-Browning.
She had been a secretary at Blackwell's publishers and wrote to Greene at
Oxford, chastising him for his article linking cinema, sex, and religion.
The two met for tea and fell in love, although Vivien was slower to yield to
Cupid's arrow than was Greene. He began courting her with a letter of
"You carry magic with you always," he wrote her at the beginning of their
courtship, "it is in your eyes, & your voice, & your long dark hair, & your
whiteness." Vivien, though younger and sexually inexperienced (quite
the opposite of Greene), was cooler and more sophisticated when it came to
love and kept him at a distance.
The two finally married in 1927. Their relationship spanned two
decades, ending with a separation only when a bomb during the Blitz
destroyed their lovely and thankfully empty home at 14 Clapham Common,
Vivien having already been evacuated with the children. She was
terrified at the thought that Greene might have been in the house, but he
was secretly living with his paramour, Dorothy Glover, and escaped harm.
In an interview, Vivien said later, "Graham's life was saved by his
After their relationship ended, he had a string of mistresses, including in
the 1950s Swedish actress Anita Björk, whose husband, writer Stig Dagerman,
had committed suicide a year earlier. In 1938, Greene began an affair
with Dorothy Glover, a theatre costume designer; with whom he would remain
close until the late 1940s. She started a career as a book illustrator
under the name of Dorothy Craigie, writing children's books of her own,
including Nicky and Nigger and the Pirate (1960).
World War II, Greene worked "in a silly useless job," as he said afterwards.
He was in intelligence for the Foreign Office in London, under Kim Philby, who would later
gain notoriety for his defection to the Soviet Union. On one mission to
Africa, the writer found little to write home about. "This is not a
government house, and there is no larder: there is also a plague of
house-flies which come from the African bush lavatories round the house."
returned to England in 1942 and, following the war, traveled the world as a
freelance journalist, living for extended periods in Nice on the French
Riviera. With his anti-American comments, he gained access to some
of the world's major Communist leaders, including Fidel Castro, Ho Chi
Minh, Manuel Noriega, and Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos. But English novelist Evelyn Waugh, who knew Greene better than
anyone else, assured in a letter to a friend that the author "is a secret
agent on our side and all his buttering up of the Russians is cover.'"
bothering to end his affair with Glover, Greene began a
simultaneous affair with a stunningly beautiful Catholic convert, Catherine Walston
in 1946. Walston was also Greene's goddaughter.
Greene met her when, after her conversion to Roman Catholicism, she
asked him out of the blue to be her godfather, a ceremony witnessed by Greene's wife, Vivien. He was 42 and internationally
celebrated for novels such as The Power and the Glory. She was 30 and
the mother of six children.
Greene met Walston, fell in love, and then sustained a long and passionate
affair which was conducted with the full knowledge of all members of both
families. Harry Walston himself came to be utterly and helplessly complicit in the
relationship. Greene dedicated The End of the
Affair to his paramour. In the book, a writer is having an affair with a
neighbor’s wife. He and the neighbor have a strange friendship, as did
Greene and Catherine’s husband. When a German bomb hits the building
where the lovers are meeting, the woman spontaneously prays to God that she
will change her life if only her lover is not dead. Amazingly, he
is not. But this sets off a titanic tug-of-war in several characters’
souls about the relative claims of human and divine love.
End of the Affair was a scandalous success, so much so that some
Catholic wags complained that it gave the impression that Christ had said: "If
you love me, break my commandments." Greene and Walston were certainly
active in doing that. He began rationalizing the affair, going so far
as to get confirmation from some priests that it was all right to go to confession
again, even knowing that he would immediately return to the illicit liaison. Greene’s
earlier sense of the acute tension between earthly and heavenly impulses
gradually slid into a more lax form of Catholicism better suited to his own
Greene termed his more popular contemporary thrillers--works such as Orient Express
(1932) and The Ministry of Fear (1943)--mere “entertainments” in an attempt to set them apart from his more serious
fiction. His light-hearted romps through populist literature were
mostly inspired by his own
experiences in the British foreign office in the 1940s and his lifelong ties
As both agent and writer, Greene is a crossover between authors such as Christopher
Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Daniel Defoe and more modern day writers such as John Le Carré,
John Dickson Carr, Somerset Maugham, and Alec Waugh. The author came
by his intrigue with spies and clandestine affairs quite easily.
His uncle, Sir William Graham Greene, helped to establish the Naval Intelligence
Department, and his oldest brother, Herbert, served as a spy for the
Imperial Japanese Navy in the 1930s. Graham's younger sister,
Elisabeth, joined MI6 and recruited Graham into the regular ranks of the
most important and enduring works include Brighton Rock (1938), which
was also made into a film (right), The Power and the Glory (1940), The
Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951), all
of which set a tone of high literary, as well as moral, distinction.
While Greene may have dabbled from time to time in "entertainments," the majority of his
work marks him as a literary novelist of great stature.
He was also a first-rate journalist, something that some critics
attribute to his excelling as a novelist. Many of his novels
are set in sites of topical journalistic interest: The Quiet American
(1955) is the account of early American involvement in
Vietnam. Our Man in Havana (1958), set in Cuba, foretells the
coming of the Marxist revolution there. A Burnt-Out Case (1961), in the
Belgian Congo, takes place just before that nation's struggle for independence.
The Comedians (1966), in François Duvalier's Haiti, unfolds before
the dictator's overthrow. The Captain and the Enemy (1980), set in
Panama, details the rise and fall of the pre-Noriega nation.
addition to such timely ventures, the author also displays a marked sense of
finely honed comedic value in his short-story collection, May We Borrow
Your Husband? (1967), as well as in the novel, Travels with My Aunt (1969).
He also wrote several plays, including The Living Room (1953) and
The Potting Shed (1957), both thinly disguised religious dramas, as
well as The Complaisant Lover (1959), a witty and intelligent play
about marriage and infidelity. He is also noted for his short stories,
essays, film critiques, and scripts, including the mystery melodrama,
The Third Man (1950, above).
Not surprisingly, Greene has been the subject of numerous
biographies. When professor Norman Sherry started writing his version,
Greene gave him a map of the world, marking all of the places he had
visited. Sherry decided to go to all of the spots that Greene had marked.
He took twenty years to complete the book. Greene limited himself to
writing only five hundred words a day and would stop writing even in the
middle of a sentence. Nonetheless, he published nearly one hundred
books, plays, and scripts in his lifetime.
Graham Greene died in 1991.
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