The seducer communist

A Preface to Greene
March 27, 1998

Longman's series, Preface Books, purports to be "a series of scholarly and critical studies of major writers", serving as a guide for those who need "modern and authoritative guidance" to the writer's work. It comes as a surprise then, that Cedric Watts's "critical" insight into Graham Greene's work should be clouded by disapproval of Greene's politics and personal morality.

References to Greene's commercial success combined with veiled and snide asides about his financial astuteness leave the reader bemused about the author's "scholarly" intentions. An attempt to dilute and diminish the vision, to denigrate the integrity of the artist, lurks at the edges and in the interstices of this lucid text and is subsequently spelt out.

This, in deference to the huge sales of his novels in the United States, Greene should have known better than to be so consistently critical of United States foreign policy: "sometimes he gave the impression of wilfully biting the hand that fed him. Obviously, he had been helped along the route to wealth and fame by US publishers, US film-makers, US readers and reviewers, and US interviewers".

Watts's cynicism seems to run almost parallel to his admiration for Greene. It is a contradictory voice that dictates the pace of this study, the antagonistic tone more evident in the first section. This biographical section weaves in brief explication of Greene's work with emphasis on the debatable charge of anti-semitism in the early novels.

In the significant discussion of "Contexts and Issues", political matters are given short shrift: "Greene's political allegiances changed in the course of time, and, during much of his life, were layered like the skins of an onion, with an elusive centre." It is painfully clear that much of this approach is sadly dated. Several pages of quotations on "issues" and "contexts" is a poor substitute for analysis.

The focus on the art of the novelist contains some of Watts's most committed and involved writing. A sparkling analysis of Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory serves as a good example. However, given that such a series is designed as an introduction for young minds, little is said about Greene's quest for a language that could translate moral imperatives and modern experience; a language of radical wit and wisdom that is neither Catholic nor Communist but humanist.

Watts seems to encourage the student to examine and appreciate the art of the novelist without being seduced by the vision. The confrontation of religious values and communist ideals in The Power and the Glory is presented as "the religious case and the ethical case that appeals to liberals and socialists".

Although Watts acknowledges the distinctive linguistic intelligence and humane sensitivity in Greene's work, the discussion is predominantly textual and stylistic without reference to Greene's creative extension of the frontiers of the novel to encompass the diversities of the human spirit.

He illustrates in some detail the influence of Jacobean dramatists, metaphysical poets and T. S. Eliot on Greene's distinctive style, yet Greene's talent for combining atmosphere and idea, location and action to precipitate theological questions is described as "theological shock tactics". Is this meant as disparagement or simplification?

The diminishment of Greene, the man, unleashed by Michael Shelden's biography and the lack of sensitivity to Greene's commitments in Norman Sherry's authorised volumes, colour Watts's critical assessment. While he details the facts of Greene's activism there is little appreciation of Greene's creative use of doubt to reveal moral imperatives. Greene's novels open new ways of seeing reality. To live morally in Greene's world view is to live politically. The themes evolved from the national realities of the 1930s to the global concerns of today but Greene's vision remained unchanged.

Maria Couto is the author of Graham Greene: On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the Novels.

A Preface to Greene

Author - Cedric Watts
ISBN - 0 582 25020 X and 25019 6
Publisher - Longman
Price - £38.00 and £14.99
Pages - 230

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