To the Editors:
Bruce Bawer’s criticism is generally a pleasure to read. His analysis is perspicacious, thorough, and rational. However, he seems to have seriously gone amiss in his recent examination of Graham Greene’s oeuvre. The most troubling aspect of his three-part article [in the September, October, and November 1989 issues] is the manner in which he freely confuses Greene the writer with Greene the man, and uses the failings of the latter as reason for dismissing the former. He allows irritation and exasperation with Greene’s personal foibles to cloud his critical discernment. While it may be true that Greene’s adoption of Catholicism and left-wing politics has lacked a solid and committed foundation, this cannot be used to prove the point that Greene is a second-rate writer. Mr. Bawer dwells too insistently on matters that are ultimately irrelevant to whether or not Greene is a great writer. Any student of literature learns quickly that there is rarely a correlation between the excellence of a writer’s character and the merits of his literary works. The two are, however inexplicable and puzzling, unrelated.
Those familiar with Greene’s novels know that he is a writer who cannot be quoted out of context.
In discussing The Heart of the Matter, Mr. Bawer quotes a sentence that he feels illustrates Greene’s melodramatic approach to Catholicism. Those familiar with Greene’s novels know that he is a writer who cannot be quoted out of context. Taken singly, isolated from the prior passage which it is meant to round out and cap, the quoted segment is bound to appear overdramatized. Furthermore, Catholicism, by its very nature, by its emphasis on sin, guilt, and the mysteries of the cross, is a dramatic and brooding religion. Mr. Bawer seems uncomfortable with this fact. He resents the “dark and difficult knowledge that Catholics share” and is more interested in leveling and homogenizing Catholicism than in deeply probing Greene’s fictional approach to its complexities.
There are other infelicities in Mr. Bawer’s essay: the cheap Freudian explanation that has Greene replacing Berkhamsted with the Catholic Church and his father with God; and Mr. Bawer’s discomfiture with the idea that “the greater one’s sins are, the closer one is to God,” which leads him to ask what we are to make of someone like Hitler. The link to God is established by the suffering condition of the sinner: the greater the sin, the greater the suffering, and it is the fact of this suffering that brings the person in closer contact with God. By bringing Hitler into the picture Mr. Bawer indulges his own penchant for “melodrama” and “sheer effect.”
Finally, it is simply not true that the “average intelligent reader—Catholic, Protestant, lewish, agnostic, or otherwise” finds it impossible to take Greene’s heroes, ergo his books, seriously. Greene’s importance as a writer rests with his having engaged the most troubling and tormenting facets of Catholicism and richly dramatized them. The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and The Power and the Glory—these three novels will assure him a permanent place in the literary canon. The fact that Greene has written entertainments, or that his political and religious stances lack conviction, cannot diminish the importance and solidity of his best works, works that continue to be read and appreciated by average as well as exceptional readers.
To the Editors:
So the news from Bruce Bawer is that Graham Greene has over the years been guilty of flippancy, selfishness, detachment, bordello-hopping, doctrinal impurities, anti-Americanism, an inclination to Marxism, and other improprieties. All of this affects my judgment of him as an artist as much as Picasso’s saying that all women were either goddesses or doormats, or Evelyn Waugh’s snobbery, or Yeats’s authoritarian politics, or Joyce’s fondness for soiled female undergarments, or Michelangelo’s homosexuality, or Robert Frost’s coldness to his children: it has no bearing whatsoever on my judgment of Greene as a novelist.
I do not judge a novel on the basis of either its ideas or its author’s personal habits. I think I have read most of what Greene has written and have re-read several of my favorites of his books. If he has limitations, so does every writer; Joyce was incapable of imagining sex without smut, Yeats of imagining a shopkeeper with a soul. If Greene has been inconsistent and contradictory and heterodox in his Catholicism, what readable writer hasn’t?
I do not judge a novel on the basis of either its ideas or its author’s personal habits.
I think Mr. Bawer dislikes Greene’s rather haughty British manner. That’s his business, but it has nothing to do with artistic values, including Greene’s uncanny ability at his best to set a scene and a mood or to cause a paragraph of plain prose suddenly to explode with a single metaphor or twist of phrase. Greene may be more of a reader’s writer and a writer’s writer than a critic’s. He doesn’t require explication, only sophistication and aesthetic sensibility.
As for his beliefs and his typical protagonists’ dilemmas, I am reminded of something Joyce wrote in a newspaper article in 1909. Referring to the works of Oscar Wilde, Joyce spoke of “the truth inherent in Catholicism: that man cannot reach the divine heart except through that sense of separation and loss called sin.” That is heresy, and it strikes home. And it is enough “message” for any novel.
I despise radical-left politics as ardently as Mr. Bawer does, and I agree that the critical establishment is predominantly left-wing and eager to approve left-wing writers. But it is possible to admire both Greene and his old friend Evelyn Waugh, who was about as far to the right as one could get without being pro-Hitler, even as the two men respected each other. We ought to be able to admire both as writers, if we care about wit, mastery of the language, worldliness, and the inexhaustible adventures of the well-told tale. I’ll let the Vatican and the State Department worry about the rest of the baggage.
Mr. Bawer seems especially upset by what he calls a lack of logic in Greene’s political and religious beliefs. I have yet to meet the political belief that could stand up to a rigorous logic; and as for religion, does one really wish to defend the logic of Sainte-Chapelle or Chartres? The Virgin, as surely he recalls, is not a Dynamo. If Graham Greene prefers the rosary to a sewing machine and a character’s irrational faith to reality, he is hardly alone among artists.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 5, on page 78
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