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Graham Greene Centennial Celebrated

Visiting lecturer James Wood speaks on quiet American author’s legacy

By Vinita M. Alexander, Crimson Staff Writer

A birthday party is never quite the same when the birthday boy can’t make it to the festivities. But last Thursday, the Harvard Book Store admirably managed to overcome the honoree’s absence at the Graham Greene Centennial Celebration, held to canonize the month during which the iconic author of “The Heart of the Matter” would have celebrated his 100th year of life.

New Republic senior editor and Harvard College Visiting Lecturer on English and American Literature and Language James Wood and Smith College English Professor Michael Gorra, who both contributed introductions to Penguin Books’ centennial commemorative release of two of Graham’s most famous novels, presided over the centennial ceremonies.

While in his novels Greene may have soberly tackled the decidedly melancholic and despondent psyche of the victim, in reality he was no wet blanket. On the contrary, as Wood points out, the witty Greene had a sense of humor about him and was known to enter (and even win) satire contests devoted to mimicking the style of famous authors—including himself.

“The funny thing about Greene is that he offered a somewhat new and intriguing dichotomy of someone who was actually much funnier in person than he is in his written fiction,” Wood says. “T.S. Eliot was the same way—some of his personal verse is rather psychotic, but when it comes to writing in public verse, he worked up to a [formalized] proper mode of voice.”

Welcome to Greeneland

Modern audiences needn’t read a novel to appreciate Graham Greene—a quick trip to the Cineplex will provide a glimpse into the depth of Greene’s impact on modern culture.

Though Greene’s work only spans about 30 novels, it has inspired at least 10 major Hollywood motion pictures including, The Quiet American and The End of the Affair.

What keeps audiences and film directors going back to Greene for more? Wood suggests that modern audiences may be drawn to the “Greene hero” because in this era, where many times human social interaction is limited to the computer screen, contemporary viewers identify with the characteristic loneliness of the Greene hero.

Indeed, at the Centennial Celebration, Gorra’s profile of the typical Green hero as “a shell of humanity” who notably “preserves himself from involvement [in a situation in order to maintain his integrity]” is remarkably similar to modern literature’s steely hero. Wood furthermore describes Greene’s brand of heroes as “those sort of feeding on their own vitals, consumed by a sort of cynicism and lassitude.”

Regardless of how Greene’s taste in heroes is phrased, his fascination with the fallen and corrupted human is undeniable. Wood says Greene’s novels are not known for a consistent character type but rather for a characteristically modern and morally-depraved wasteland environment that critics have named, “Greeneland.”

“Whether it is in Britain, Argentina, or West Africa [in The Heart of the Matter], it’s recognizable by its seediness, moral grayness…and above all, a kind of devotion to peasant shabbiness,” Wood says.

It is one thing to interpret the number of film adaptations of Greene’s work as symbolic of his popular appeal, but quite another to assume that the films are of equally high quality and benefit the author’s reputation.

Greene’s sparsely-worded novels befit a particularly easy conversion to film—almost too easy. “Part of the attraction of translating fiction to the screen is the fact that it is all there,” Wood says. “I think that actually creates a problem because a movie is a director’s vehicle. You find that a [more suitable] novel will give the director license to do [what he creatively innovates on his own].”

Wood went on to more specifically pinpoint the difficulties of translating Greene’s work to film. “Greene’s work as film presents a problem because he is a very visual writer,” he says. “And I think it some cases, directors err because they adhere too closely to the text itself. I felt that about The Quiet American.”

But not all film adaptations of Greene works are created equal. Tellingly, Wood cites that the most successful Greene film interpretation is “the one that Greene [himself intentionally] wrote as a script, The Third Man,”

In Graham Greene’s case, it seemed that only the artist himself should be trusted to paint his self-portrait.

Popularity Breeds Contempt

Except for a few times very early in his career, Greene was rarely a starving author. But the painful memories of those starving days made him anxious to keep the dough rolling in.

His eagerness to make a living, sometimes before considering literary merits of his novellas, meant that Greene was comfortable writing both weighty literature and popular escapist fare like Stamboul Train, which he himself acknowledged he wrote purely for entertainment.

As a result of his entertainment novels and popular readership, Greene’s well-known love of traveling to seek out the world’s victims degenerated to a process that was simply performed to keep pace with his growing reputation. He was now expected to go on these political trips.

Woods confirms that Greene underwent a transformation once his work began to gain a wide reputation. “Greene was a popular writer. In the early part of his writing, Greene began to divide his own fiction and label some of his writing [as entertainment].”

Interestingly, Greene sometimes removed the “entertainment” label in later reprintings. “But as soon as a writer associates himself with a [light] genre, a problem is created,” Wood says. Light fare on a writer’s repertoire is not necessarily a problem for the readers, but rather for the academy of literature, because it supposedly impugns the idea that “fiction is this grandly, canonical crested suit as poetry.”

After penning his most famous best sellers in the 1940s (including The Power and the Glory and the Heart of the Matter), Greene began to show signs that he was aware of the burden to write according to what the public expected of him.

This self-consciousness due to his popular reputation affected Graham’s work and meant that there would always be a tension between Graham Green’s pop-cultural appeal and his appeal for a respectable literary reputation.

At the pinnacle of his career, it indeed became truly difficult for Greene to disentangle his genuine man from his public persona. He became dangerously accustomed to having not only his works but his image commercialized and marketed. In fact, The End of the Affair put him on the cover of Time.

Greene was consistently a writer on the edge. Although in his public writing he claimed to be committed to remaining aloof of political persuasions, he was no stranger to stirring up political controversy.

Greene relished the opportunity to champion the victim’s voice. In fact, Greene’s penchant for taking up the cross of the troubled more than once earned the ire of critics. But for someone who so frequently stirred the pot of conventions, Greene was sensitive to critics’ barbs.

Greene responded defensively to criticism of his coverage of the Vietnam War in his 1955 novel The Quiet American, claiming, “the New Yorker reviewer condemned me for accusing my ‘best friends’ [the Americans] of murder since I had attributed to them the responsibility for the great [bomb]…But [the facts] are the facts…[and] perhaps there is more direct rapportage in The Quiet American than in any other [of my] novels.”

It was a response characteristic of Greene, who always looked to give the victimized a voice, and 100 years later, modern readers still appreciate his perspective. -

—Staff writer Vinita M. Alexander can be reached at

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