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Graham Greene (Henry Graham Greene) Biography

(1904–91), (Henry Graham Greene), The Life of Graham Greene, Babbling April, The Times, The Man Within

fiction writing political berkhamsted

English novelist, born in Berkhamsted, near London, educated at Berkhamsted School and Balliol College, Oxford. His father was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School; Greene has encouraged critics to see the divided loyalties which resulted as an origin of his fiction's distinctive antinomies and conflicting faiths—what he calls, quoting Robert Browning, its general concern with ‘the dangerous edge of things & The honest thief, the tender murderer | The superstitious atheist’. Schooldays drove him close to breakdown and suicide—he was one of the first schoolboys in England to be psychoanalysed, in 1920—and Norman Sherry's The Life of Graham Greene (1989) has traced the cruelties of his fellow pupils as a source of the repeated interest of his fiction in fugitives, betrayal, secrecy, and lost innocence.

Oxford saw the publication of his only book of poems, Babbling April (1925), brief membership of the Communist Party, and a romance with Vivien Dayrell-Browning which required his conversion to Catholicism in 1926, before they married in 1927. Greene was by this time working as a sub-editor, first in Nottingham, later for The Times, an experience which may have encouraged the directness and economy which—along with brisk scenic construction perhaps learned from work as a film critic—marks much of his fiction. His first novel, however, The Man Within (1929), is a romantic period piece: like the two (later suppressed) which followed, The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931), it bears traces of childhood admiration for authors such as Marjorie Bowen, Rider Haggard, John Buchan, and a distant relation, Robert Louis Stevenson. Stamboul Train (1932) initiated his habitual setting in a contemporary world both highly realistic yet sufficiently idiosyncratic to have coined the critical description ‘Greeneland’—a seedy domain of mean actions, disappointed hope, and the conviction that ‘human nature is not black and white but black and grey’.

Greene cites personal financial anxiety as a factor encouraging realism at this time: it also disposed him to share the left-wing political perspective of the 1930s. This appears in the portrayal of the odious Swedish industrialist, Krogh, in England Made Me (1935); sympathy for Republican Spain in The Confidential Agent (1939); and questioning of the economic systems that create the depressed industrial landscapes of It's a Battlefield (1934) and A Gun For Sale (1936). Greene has suggested that he is a political writer rather than a Catholic one, though he has more often been critically assessed as the latter. Like that of his friend, Evelyn Waugh, his Catholic faith was not apparent in his early writing: when it does appear, it is usually held in complex, often paradoxical tension with political or other secular values. These tensions began to figure centrally in Brighton Rock (1938), and continued through the other novels often held to be the core of Greene's achievement, The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948)—drawing on wartime work for British Intelligence—and The End of the Affair (1951).

With the exception of A Burnt-Out Case (1961), later fiction makes Catholicism a less central concern. Greene also renounced British settings until returning to Berkhamsted for the late spy story The Human Factor (1978). Instead, in novels such as The Quiet American (1955), Our Man in Havana (1958), The Comedians (1966), set in Papa Doc's Haiti, and The Honorary Consul (1973), a story of kidnapping in Argentina, Greene reflects the distant places and political conflicts he was drawn to in later years by his work as a journalist, or by friendships with world leaders such as Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Salvador Allende, and General Torrijos of Panama—or sometimes just by an urge to escape the boredom he claimed as a lifelong affliction. Though this later fiction typically uses ‘the dangerous edge’ of its setting to reflect and amplify stresses within its characters, central figures now often survive and even achieve a precarious enlightenment. From a tragic phase around the time of the Second World War, Greene's later writing sometimes moves towards romance and even comedy—darkly in Doctor Fischer of Geneva (1980) and his last published novel, The Captain and the Enemy (1988); more freely in Monsignor Quixote (1982) and Travels with My Aunt (1969).

Also including essays, literary criticism, plays, short stories, travel writing (Journey Without Maps, 1936; The Lawless Roads, 1939), autobiography (A Sort of Life, 1971; Ways of Escape, 1980), and screenplays (most notably The Third Man, 1950), Greene's literary career spanned seven decades of the twentieth century and made him one of its most popular as well as critically admired authors. Though he described some of his earlier writing in the thriller genre as ‘entertainment’ to distinguish it from serious fiction, a particular achievement was his drawing together of the popular and the intellectual novel, reciprocally adding moral and psychological depth to the thriller, and, like his mentors Stevenson and Joseph Conrad, elements of adventure to literary fiction. His appeal to a generally disillusioned age is also guaranteed by a continuing streak of romanticism which shows a credible if compromised heroism surviving in graceless, fallen worlds.

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