Known for his espionage thrillers set in exotic locales, Graham Greene is the writer who launched a thousand travel journalists. But although Greene produced some unabashedly commercial works -- he called them "entertainments," to distinguish them from his novels -- even his escapist fiction is rooted in the gritty realities he encountered around the globe.
Known for his espionage thrillers set in exotic locales, Graham Greene is the writer who launched a thousand travel journalists. But although Greene produced some unabashedly commercial works -- he called them "entertainments," to distinguish them from his novels -- even his escapist fiction is rooted in the gritty realities he encountered around the globe. "Greeneland" is a place of seedy bars and strained loyalties, of moral dissolution and physical decay.
Greene spent his university years at Oxford "drunk and debt-ridden," and claimed to have played Russian roulette as an antidote to boredom. At age 21 he converted to Roman Catholicism, later saying, "I had to find a religion...to measure my evil against." His first published novel, The Man Within, did well enough to earn him an advance from his publishers, but though Greene quit his job as a Times subeditor to write full-time, his next two novels were unsuccessful. Finally, pressed for money, he set out to write a work of popular fiction. Stamboul Train (also published as The Orient Express) was the first of many commercial successes.
Throughout the 1930s, Greene wrote novels, reviewed books and movies for the Spectator, and traveled through eastern Europe, Liberia, and Mexico. One of his best-known works, Brighton Rock, was published during this time; The Power and the Glory, generally considered Greene's masterpiece, appeared in 1940. Along with The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, they cemented Greene's reputation as a serious novelist -- though George Orwell complained about Greene's idea "that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class nightclub, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only."
During World War II, Greene was stationed in Sierra Leone, where he worked in an intelligence capacity for the British Foreign Office under Kim Philby, who later defected to the Soviet Union. After the war, Greene continued to write stories, plays, and novels, including The Quiet American, Travels with My Aunt, The Honorary Consul, and The Captain and the Enemy. For a time, he worked as a screenwriter for MGM, producing both original screenplays and scripts adapted from his fiction.
He also continued to travel, reporting from Vietnam, Haiti, and Panama, among other places, and he became a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Some biographers have suggested that his friendships with Communist leaders were a ploy, and that he was secretly gathering intelligence for the British government. The more common view is that Greene's leftist leanings were part of his lifelong sympathy with the world's underdogs -- what John Updike called his "will to compassion, an ideal communism even more Christian than Communist. Its unit is the individual, not any class."
But if Greene's politics were sometimes difficult to decipher, his stature as a novelist has seldom been in doubt, in spite of the light fiction he produced. Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, and R. K. Narayan paid tribute to his work, and William Golding prophesied: "He will be read and remembered as the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man's consciousness and anxiety."
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Greene's philandering ways were legendary; he frequently visited prostitutes and had several mistresses, including Catherine Walston, who converted to Catholicism after reading The Power and the Glory and wrote to Greene asking him to be her godfather. After a brief period of correspondence, the two met, and their relationship inspired Greene's novel The End of the Affair.
Greene was a film critic, screenwriter, and avid moviegoer, and critics have sometimes praised the cinematic quality of his style. His most famous screenplay was The Third Man, which he cowrote with director Carol Reed. Recently, new film adaptations have been made of Greene's novels The End of the Affair and The Quiet American. Greene's work has also formed the basis for an opera: Our Man in Havana, composed by Malcolm Williamson.