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Reflections of Graham Greene

16 September 2017

The Reflections: 1923-1988Reflections: 1923-1988 by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are three 20th-century authors that I have thought peculiarly Christian. They are G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. There are several others that I consider ordinarily Christian, like Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and a few more. But the three first-named all converted to the Roman Catholic Church in adult life, and to do such a thing meant, at least to my teenage mind, that they had given a lot of thought to the Christian faith and had made a serious life-changing decision about it. I thought that even before I had read many of their books.

Did their writing warrant the prejudice with which I approached it? G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy certainly did. Evelyn Waugh’s The loved one was as funny as the English II lecturer said it was, in an off-the-cuff remark. I never got to take English II, but a lot of us attended the lectures at Wits by a guy called Cronin because his lectures were far more entertaining and interesting than any others in the university, and were regularly attended even by architecture and engineering students.

The rather dour and humourless English I lecturer once reproached me for my prejudice when I wrote in an essay that I thought William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was about Original Sin, and he commented that I should not approach the book with preconceived ideas. I thought that I hadn’t,. because I only came to that conclusion after reading the book. But I certainly approached Chesterton, Waugh and Greene with preconceived ideas. A friend recommended Graham Greene’s The power and the glory, though, and it went way beyond any preconceived ideas I might have had.

I’ve read other books by all three authors, but this one, a collection of essays, op-ed articles, reviews and other miscellaneous pieces, is one of the best. It’s taken a long time to read, because it is not something to be read at a sitting, but rather savoured, one piece at a time. I’m rather sad that I have to return it to the library, I’d like to have a copy to dip into occasionally, as bed-time reading. Many of the pieces are very short, two to three pages. They are arranged chronologically, and as I read further my respect for Graham Greene as a writer deepened.

Because the pieces are arranged chronologically it is easy to see how Greene develops as a writer. Part of it is just a matter of growing up and maturing. When he wrote his early pieces he was not much older than I was when I wrote my essay on William Golding, and I criticised one of them quite strongly in another blog post here Pandering to colour prejudice | Notes from underground. That was written in 1923.

But it is not just maturity. It was after his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in 1927 that there is a marked change in his writing, a change in viewpoint. It was Søren Kierkegard, the Danish Protestant existentialist, who wrote an entire book with the title Point of View for my Work as an Author, and Reflections helps to explain Graham Greene’s point of view as an author.

He was very well-travelled, and wrote about South America, the Caribbean, Russia, China, Vietnam and many other places. A lot of his novels are set in the places he visited, The Quiet American, which I have not read, but want to, is set in the early stages of the Vietnam war, His contemporary articles in this book show a great deal of insight into the nature of that conflict, and perhaps both his reporting and his fiction helped to inspire The Ugly American, written about a later stage of the war.

His descriptions of Cuba before and after the revolution that overthrew the dictator Batista are also very interesting. While not uncritical of Castro’s rule, Green notes the enormous improvements that had taken place, and contrasts it with Haiti, a state run by a gang boss and a bunch of thugs.

Several of the pieces in the book are forewords he wrote for books by other authors, which had the effect of making me want to read some of the books. He described some of his own personal disasters — a trip to China in which he managed to antagonise most of his fellow travellers, and a film script for his worst film which had to be so mangled by the requirements of the British censors that the story was rendered almost meaningless.

One essay that I thought particularly brilliant was The Virtue of Disloyalty, and I thought so much for Jonathan Haidt’s moral compass. In the essay Greene criticises Shakespeare for being too loyal to the powers that be, but it also serves as a good refutation of Jonathan Haidt’s view of morality. If you don’t know who Jonathan Haidt is, see here: The moral high ground — or is it? | Notes from underground

And I rather like this extract from an address he gave in Moscow in 1987 at the time of glasnost and perestroika:

Talk is often an escape from action — instead of a prelude to action –and big abstract words have to flow too far and too fast. I feel incapable, really, of summarizing some of the excellent and long essays which were read in my section. It would do injustice to the authors, and my memory as an old man is getting weak.

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