John Banville on Graham Greene

Pure delight of a review essay in The Nation.


Greene chafed under the privilege into which he was born. His family may have been top dogs, but from his earliest days Graham was firmly on the side of the underdog. His parents’ people were moneyed, with business interests including brewing, which involved the slave trade: An ancestor, Benjamin Greene, ran a business on the island of St. Kitts in the West Indies that was worked by 225 slaves. Greene’s parents were first cousins, and both had tainted genes. Charles Greene’s father suffered from what Graham judged to be manic depression, like himself, and his maternal grandfather, an Anglican priest, was also mentally ill. The latter labored under a burden of guilt—presumably he had Doubts—and according to Graham, “when his bishop refused his request to be defrocked, he proceeded to put the matter into effect himself in a field,” doffing his frock and standing naked before his goggle-eyed parishioners. Perhaps understandably, the Reverend Greene became an unmentionable in the family, so that his grandson assumed he was dead (though in fact he lived until 1924) and must have posed “a living menace” to his daughter and her family. Out of such stuff are novelists made, and a “Catholic novelist” in particular.

I particularly liked this little story about Evelyn Waugh, another ‘Catholic novelist’:

Waugh was far more firmly, if not indeed fanatically, committed to his faith than Greene ever was; in the course of a private audience at the Vatican, Pope John XXIII is said to have interrupted a tirade by Waugh against the reformist spirit sweeping through the church by observing gently, “But Mr. Waugh, I too am a Catholic.”

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