This week we celebrated the birthday of Henry Graham Greene. The playwright, explorer, poet, and spy was above all one of the most widely read novelists of the 20th century. He wrote 24 novels, nearly all of which were adapted to film. His works include The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock, and The End of the Affair. Despite several nominations, Greene never won the Nobel Prize.
Greene was born October 2, 1904 in Hertfordshire, England. His father was headmaster at Berkhamsted School, where Greene later attended. This situation caused Greene considerable grief from his fellow students. Bullied from a young age, Greene made several suicide attempts by the age of sixteen, when his parents finally sent him to London for psychoanalysis. Greene described his time in London as “perhaps the happiest six months of my life.”
After graduating from Balliol College, Oxford, Greene began writing for The Times. He published his first work in 1925, a collection of poetry entitled Babbling April. After achieving modest success with his novel, The Man Within, Greene quit The Times to become a professional novelist.
Through the influence of his future wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning, Greene converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926. The two became acquainted after Dayrell-Browning wrote to Greene correcting his mischaracterization of Catholicism in a Times article. Greene wrote, “I was interested that anyone took these subtle distinctions of an unbelievable theology seriously, and we became acquainted.”
Greene’s vacillating attitude towards Catholicism continued throughout his life. Indeed, even upon his reception into the Catholic Church, Greene chose St. Thomas for his confirmation saint—popularly known as Thomas the Doubter. While the religion played a dominant role in many of his works, Greene hated the label “Catholic writer.” Church authorities chastised Greene for his novel The Power and the Glory, although Pope Paul VI later commented, “Mr. Greene, some parts of your book are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that."
Greene achieved prominence with the publication of Stamboul Train in 1932, later adapted into the film "Orient Express." He categorized his works into “entertainments” and literary works, although he increasingly blurred these distinctions as his career continued. Greene’s writing reflects the uncertainty of a generation that suffered through two world wars and the dissolution of the British Empire. In his novels, tortured characters grapple with moral ambiguity and corruption. Yet Greene had a tremendous gift for interjecting these struggles into energetic plots set in exotic locales.
Ultimately, Greene achieved popularity through his ability to combine fast-paced adventure with literature that reflected the disillusionment and relativism of the 20th-century man. Greene passed away in 1991 at the age of 86.