IN HIS SELF-DEPRECATINGLY entitled autobiography A Sort of Life, Graham Greene tells the story of how as a saturnine undergraduate he played Russian roulette with a loaded revolver--to see whether life would seem any more worth living after risking its permanent loss. Greene survived, and has written some 20 novels to document that survival. Yet some 60 years and five or six continents later, the characters in his books still muddle on, oppressed by this same unshakeable world-weariness. They find themselves in the thick of Third World liberation struggles, but somehow never take the politics seriously. They fall in love, but always with the assumption that love will never last. In fits of decency they even relinquish their ideological aloofness to take partisan stands, but never so much out of conviction as out of a shrugging sense that if you have to go about the tiresome business of living, you might as well do it with honor. They try praying it out, sinning it out, killing, conspiring and spying it out. But that stain of pessimism and moral fatigue never comes out in the wash. (Not to mention the revolution.)
It would be unfair not to acknowledge that Greene has had good reason for championing this posture of contemptuous detachment in the past. In several of his books set in the Third World, his jaded protagonists have stood in direct contrast to the crusading idealists who set out to save the world and end up wreaking more havoc than happiness. The most memorable and, sadly, the most prescient example of this theme came in Greene's The Quiet American, about Vietnam in the days when the Americans were still only supplying arms to the French. The reformist zealot there was a clean-cut, self-serious American adviser named Pyle who was bent on saving the Vietnamese for Democracy--by strategically wiping them out--and took as his bible the cold-warring treatises of an Ivy League academic named York Harding (Walt Rostow? Probably; it was too early for Sam Huntington.) Next to Pyle, the weary aloofness of the British journalist, Fowler, seemed almost noble. And next to what we know came of all that idealistic American sabre-rattling, Fowler's final decision to help the Viet Minh murder Pyle appears nothing less than heroic.
And although it's almost a maxim in Greene's world that cynics will always be cynics, the novelist usually does try to convince us that under their hard shells his anti-heroes really do want desperately to believe. If not in politics or in love, (at least not for long), then in religion and the afterlife. The place they perpetually go in Greene's novels to quaff their spiritual thirst is the Catholic Church; and if their inability to take God seriously keeps them from having faith, at least they can while away their time feeling guilty. The most successful portrait Greene paints of this inward struggle for piety is in The Power and the Glory, a really quite accomplished short novel. But there's a problem even here. The dissatisfied feeling lingers throughout the book that the whisky priest suffers guilt over his lost belief not because of his strong inner hunger for devotion, but because devotion is what's prescribed from outside, by the Church. Even at their most conscience-racked, Green's characters seem to need either a priest or an institution to order them to have faith. This may seem an almost sacrilegious thing to say about a man whose reputation is largely built on being a Catholic writer, but Catholicism for Greene is a prop. It's almost a gimmick, the straight man in a series of humorless, introspective routines. Want to introduce the possibility of belief into your characters' lives? Done--make them fallen or apostate Catholics. After that you don't even have to bother to flesh out the reasons for their guilt and self-contempt. The very fact that The Church is looking over their shoulder should be seen as reason enough.
SAD TO SAY, the protagonist of Greene's latest novel, The Human Factor, doesn't even have the long-lost piety to hang on to. He still sneaks into an occasional church (he's an ex-Protestant, not Catholic), and tries to summon up guilt and contrition, but somehow nothing happens. What Maurice Castle, middle-echelon British intelligence officer, near retirement age and with jurisdiction over Africa, lives for is security and peace of mind. All Castle really treasures is his routine, his two double whiskies before dinner, his comfortable house in the town outside London where he grew up, and his family. This attachment to the brood has an exotic twist; Castle is married to a black South African, a woman he met while spying there, who has a small boy (fathered by another man). But apart from the obligatory references to apartheid and Castle's off-the-job self-image as "an honorary black," they lead the dull and insistently predictable life of any suburban couple. At this point in his life (he is 64), Castle asks the bare minimum of life. And like most Greene heroes, he harbors the perpetual conviction that the less you expect from life the more you're likely to lose it.
The rationale for Castle's dread of danger and professional compromise is supposed to be his complete devotion to his wife and child. Greene certainly tells us enough about their love for each other, dramatizing it with numerous domestic scenes and intimate exchanges in bed. But for all the love that Castle assures us has passed between them over the years, there remains something of the removed foreign observer in Castle's attitude toward his black wife, Sarah, and her son, Sam. Describing a touching caress after a long day at the office, Greene writes: "He felt the black contours of her face as a man might who has picked out one piece of achieved sculpture from all the hack carvings littering the steps of a hotel for white tourists..." And when Castle tucks Sam into bed, he thinks: "He looked more African than his mother, and the memory of a famine photograph came to Castle's mind--a small corpse spread-eagled on desert sand, watched by a vulture." It's as if, the triumph of liberation forces having made it impossible for Greene's characters to go to colonialism, Greene is now bringing colonialism home to his characters.
Of course it would do no good to stress Castle's fear of any moral challenge intruding on his well-guarded homelife, if such a challenge were not precisely what was in store. Castle, you see, is a double-agent who passes secrets to the Russians. I mention this crucial detail midway through this review because it's only at that point in the book that the reader discovers it. By that time, a number of outrages have occurred to rattle Castle's conscience and force him to put his sacred private life on the line. Suspecting a leak but collaring the wrong man, his superiors in the BSS have prematurely liquidated the man who shares Castle's office, a lonely but likeable fellow named Darvis. "C," the chief of operations, has also asked Castle unadvisably to be the British liaison in a fanciful (or perhaps not so fanciful) project code-named "Uncle Remus," in which the U.S., Britain and West Germany are helping the white South African minority to retain political power with tactical nuclear weapons. To add injury to insult, Castle learns that the man who helped his wife escape from her country, a Communist agent and a close friend named Carson, has recently died in a South African prison, officially of pneumonia. (But understanding how Pretoria operates, Castle knows otherwise.) Castle may be cowardly, apolitical and jealous only of his own happiness, but this is finally too much.
Yet as in several of Greene's other novels, it is not any overwhelming personal sense of justice that prompts Castle to spill the "Uncle Remus" plans to the Russians. ("I don't know what justice means," Castle snaps at one point.) It is rather his lingering sense of gratitude toward his dead friend Carson, along with the requisite twinge of guilt, and his feeling that out of his love for Sarah he should help save her people from suffering. A Greene character would never make such a courageous gesture out of ideological conviction; although this is perhaps just as well, given all the harm Greene has seen done in the name of ideological purity around the globe. Still, just as in his other novels it takes the Church to shake his heroes out of their boozy battles with doubt and despair, here it takes someone else making a moral claim on Castle to spur him to act. When he finally defects to save his neck, and settles down as an honorary Soviet citizen, he does so only out of a reluctant sense of personal loyalty. There may be personal heroism involved here, but it is all done grudgingly.
Needless to say, Castle's decision tugs at our sympathy, and several reviewers have speculated that Greene means through this novel to justify in a roundabout way the defection in the '60s of his good friend, Kim Philby. But if we take Castle's side, it is largely because the British superiors he defies in the book come off as such cardboard villains. "Uncle Remus," conceivable even now, is done here too baldly to be believed. It is also a bit much that the heads of British intelligence meet over lunch and after shooting parties, to discuss plans for liquidation and trout fishing with the same clubbish joviality. It becomes all too easy to understand why Castle refuses to believe in either side, and just retains faith in his private sense of honor. As in the eventually tiresome discussions between Castle and Sarah, the outside world is all black and white, and neither color is believable. Castle can only have personal conflicts; in this world other moral dilemmas never become so knotty as to warrant thoughts of suicide, say, or perhaps genuine political outrage. Both extremes always strike Greene as a waste, and a kind of moral inertia sets in. It's not that life is all that valuable. It's just that neither trying to combat injustice nor doing yourself in is likely to solve anything either. This is another place where Catholicism comes in handy; Greene's characters always have to consider that there might be an afterlife, and then where would suicide get them?
If all this cynicism and lassitude still leaves Greene stranded, it does serve to throw a lot of weighty-sounding words into the air: piety, belief, hope, despair, loneliness, love...By sheer dint of having bandied these concepts about for so many years, Greene has gained a reputation for possessing a dose of profundity. Yet Greene's is a worldly wisdom that is never fully-earned. It is a posture of knowing pessimism that we are expected to take as an a priori supposition, and which Greene keeps us from questioning too deeply with his fleeting, almost cinematic prose; he gives a whiff of a deep thought and then moves quickly to another scene, another shot, before we have time to look for the source of the scent. In the place of any real character development. Greene peppers his narrative with the kind of jaded aphorisms that sound wise and deep when most Greene novels are read, in the drowsy last hour before going to sleep, but that measure up disappointingly shallow in broad daylight.
GREENE SHOULD BE politely applauded for elevating the spy genre above the level of James Bond schlock. But John LeCarre has also done that, and you don't hear people whispering his name as a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. To introduce "the human factor" into adventure stories is admirable, and Greene has always done it with finesse; the problem is that he never gives that humanity the extra dimension it achieves in the work of truly major writers. Greene leaves us with kiss-and-tell philosophy, and a coolness toward life that throughout his books is never satisfactorily justified. He maroons us with statement like: "I have always been torn between two beliefs; the belief that life should be better, and the belief that when it appears better it is really worse." It sounds nice, but it's no way to live, or to make us believe in life. Take that from someone who has been known to quote such statements as insightful commentaries upon existence--and who at first blush was much more impressed than he is now, upon reflection, by Graham Greene's indefatigable fatigue with life.