The Birth of a 'Catholic Writer'

The Labyrinthine Ways
Graham Greene (Wikimedia Commons)


[This article was first published in the January 16 1981 issue of Commonweal]

Brighton Rock I began in 1937 as a detective story and continued, I am sometimes tempted to think, as an error of judgment. Until I published this novel I had, like any other novelist, been sometimes praised for a success and sometimes condemned with good enough reasons as I fumbled at my craft, but now I was discovered to be--detestable term!--a Catholic writer. Catholics began to treat some of my faults too kindly, as though I were a member of a clan and could not be disowned, while some non-Catholic critics seemed to consider that my faith gave me an unfair advantage in some way over my contemporaries. I had become a Catholic in 1926, and all my books, except for the one lamentable volume of verse at Oxford, had been written as a Catholic, but no one had noticed the faith to which I belonged before the publication of Brighton Rock. Even today some critics (and critics as a class are seldom more careful of their facts than journalists) refer to the novels written after my conversion, making a distinction between the earlier and the later books.

Many times since Brighton Rock I have been forced to declare myself not a Catholic writer but a writer who happens to be a Catholic. Newman wrote the last word on "Catholic literature" in The Idea of a University:

“I say, from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any Literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all.”

Nevertheless it is true to say that by 1937 the time was ripe for me to use Catholic characters. It takes longer to familiarize oneself with a region of the mind than with a country, but the ideas of my Catholic characters, even their Catholic ideas, were not necessarily mine.

More than ten years had passed since I was received into the church. At that time I had not been emotionally moved, but only intellectually convinced; I was in the habit of formally practicing my religion, going to Mass every Sunday and to Confession perhaps once a month, and in my spare time I read a good deal of theology--sometimes with fascination, sometimes with repulsion, nearly always with interest.

I was still not earning enough with my books to make a living for my family (after the success of my first novel and the spurious temporary sale of Orient Express each novel added a small quota to the debt I owed my publisher), but by reviewing films regularly for the Spectator and novels once a fortnight, I could make ends meet. I had recently had two strokes of good fortune, and these enabled me to see a little way ahead--I had received a contract from Korda to write my second film script (and a terrible one it was, based on Galsworthy's short story The First and Last--Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who had much to forgive me, suffered together in the leading parts), and for six months I had acted as joint editor with John Marks of the weekly Night and Day. My professional life and my religion were contained in quite separate compartments, and I had no ambition to bring them together. It was "clumsy life again at her stupid work" which did that; on the one side the socialist persecution of religion in Mexico, and on the other General Franco's attack on Republican Spain, inextricably involved religion in contemporary life.

I think it was under those two influences-- and the backward and forward sway of my sympathies--that I began to examine more closely the effect of faith on action. Catholicism was no longer primarily symbolic, a ceremony at an altar with the correct canonical number of candles, with the women in my Chelsea congregation wearing their best hats, nor was it a philosophical page in Father D'Arcy's Nature of Belief. It was closer now to death in the afternoon.

A restlessness set in then which has never quite been allayed: a desire to be a spectator of history, history in which I found I was concerned myself. I tried to fly into Bilbao from Toulouse, for my sympathies were more engaged by the Catholic struggle against Franco than with the competing sectarians in Madrid. I carried a letter of recommendation from the Basque Delegation in London to a small cafe owner in Toulouse who had been breaking the blockade of Bilbao with a two-seater plane. I found him shaving in a corner of his cafe at six in the morning and handed him the Delegation's dignified letter, sealed with scarlet wax, but no amount of official sealing wax would induce him to fly his plane again into Bilbao--Franco's guns on his last flight had proved themselves too accurate for his comfort. With Mexico I was more fortunate, an advance payment for a book on the religious persecution enabled me to leave for Tabasco and Chiapas, where the persecution was continuing well away from the tourist areas, and it was in Mexico that I corrected the proofs of Brighton Rock.

It was in Mexico too that I discovered some emotional belief, among the empty and ruined churches from which the priests had been excluded, at the secret Masses of Las Casas celebrated without the sanctus bell, among the swaggering pistoleros, but probably emotion had been astir before that, or how was it that a book which I had intended to be a simple detective story should have involved a discussion, too obvious and open for a novel, of the distinction between good-and-evil and right-and-wrong and the mystery of "the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God"--a mystery that was to be the subject of three more of my novels? The first fifty pages of Brighton Rock are all that remain of the detective story; they would irritate me if I dared to look at them now, for I know I ought to have had the strength of mind to remove them and to start the story again--with what is now called Part Two. "A lost thing could I never find, nor a broken thing mend."

I had not meant to write more than this one book, commissioned by a publisher, on the religious persecution. I had no idea, even after I had returned home, that a novel, The Power and the Glory, would emerge from my experiences. The proofs of Brighton Rock, while I was away in Mexico, had occupied my thoughts, and perhaps the Franco volunteers on the German ship I took back to Europe began a train of ideas which ended in The Confidential Agent. Now, of course, when I reread Another Mexico, I can easily detect many of the characters in The Power and the Glory. The old Scotsman, Dr. Robert Fitzpatrick, whom I met in Villahermosa, with his cherished scorpion in a little glass bottle, was the kind of treasure trove that falls to the lucky traveler. In recounting the story of his own life he told me of the kindly disreputable Padre Rey of Panama with his wife and daughter and the mice-- not a scorpion--which he kept in a glass lamp. So it was that the doctor put me on the track of Father Jose in my novel; perhaps he even showed me the road to Panama, which I was to postpone visiting for nearly forty years, and then was amply rewarded. Above all he presented me with my subject: the protagonist of The Power and the Glory. "I asked about the priest in Chiapas who had fled. ’Oh,' he said, 'He was just what we call a whisky priest.' He had taken one of his sons to be baptized, but the priest was drunk and would insist on naming the child Brigitta. 'He was little loss, poor man.' "

So it is that the material of a novel accumulates, without the author's knowledge, not always easily, not always without fatigue or pain or even fear. I think The Power and the Glory is the only novel I have written to a thesis: in The Heart of the Matter Wilson sat on a balcony in Freetown watching Scobie pass by in the street long before I was aware of Scobie's problem--his corruption by pity. But I had always, even when I was a schoolboy, listened with impatience to the scandalous stories of tourists concerning the priests they had encountered in remote Latin villages (this priest had a mistress, another was constantly drunk), for I had been adequately taught in my Protestant history books what Catholics believed; I could distinguish even then between the man and his office. Now, many years later, as a Catholic in Mexico, I read and listened to stories of corruption which were said to have justified the persecution of the church under Calles and under his successor and rival Cardenas, but I had also observed for myself how courage and the sense of responsibility had revived with persecution--I had seen the devotion of peasants praying in the priestess churches and I had attended Masses in upper rooms where the sanctus bell could not sound for fear of the police. I had not found the idealism or integrity of the Lieutenant of The Power and the Glory among the police and pistoleros I had actually encountered--I had to invent him as a counter to the failed priest: the idealistic police officer who stifled life from the best possible motives; the drunken priest who continued to pass life on.

The book gave me more satisfaction than any other I had written, but it waited nearly ten years for success. In England the first edition was one of 3,500 copies--a printing one thousand larger than that of my first novel eleven years before--and it crept out a month or so before Hitler invaded the Low Countries; in the United States it was published under the difficult and misleading title of The Labyrinthine Ways, chosen by the publishers (selling, I think, two thousand copies). After the war was over its success in France, due to François Mauriac's generous introduction, brought danger from two fronts, Hollywood and the Vatican. A pious film called The Fugitive, which I could never bring myself to see, was made by John Ford, who gave all the integrity to the priest and the corruption to the Lieutenant (he was even made the father of the priest's child), while the success of the novel in French Catholic circles caused what we now call a backlash, so that it was twice delated to Rome by French bishops: Some ten years after publication the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster read me a letter from the Holy Office condemning my novel because it was "paradoxical' and "dealt with extraordinary circumstances." The price of liberty, even within a church, is eternal vigilance, but I wonder whether any of the totalitarian states, whether of the right or of the left, with which the Church of Rome is often compared, would have treated me as gently when I refused to revise the book on the casuistical ground that the copyright was in the hands of my publishers. There was no public condemnation, and the affair was allowed to drop into that peaceful oblivion which the church wisely reserves for unimportant issues. Years later, when I met Pope Paul VI, he mentioned that he had read the book. I told him that it had been condemned by the Holy Office.

"Who condemned it?"

"Cardinal Pissardo."

He repeated the name with a wry smile and added, "Mr. Greene, some parts of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that."

Graham Greene, the British novelist, was the author of The Power and The Glory, The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana, A Sort of Life, and many other works.

Also by this author
On Becoming a Catholic

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