Greene's greatest successes may lie within his telling portrayals of failure

April 04, 1991|By George Grella

Although it is indeed a shame that Graham Greene may have been the most distinguished contemporary writer not to have won the Nobel prize, that omission has a certain appropriateness for his life and career. Loss, failure and betrayal, after all, were his stock in trade.

As subject and theme, they inspired most of his fiction and non-fiction; transmuted into setting, they formed the landscape of that enchanted, squalid place familiarly known as Greeneland; they may even have shaped his characteristic tone of paradox and ambiguity.

Throughout his long and productive career, Greene, who died yesterday at age 86, consistently practiced a kind of systematic reversal of expectations, a lifelong ironic quest toward a goal whose existence he seems to have doubted. He wrote several confessional works -- "Ways of Escape" and "A Sort of Life," for example -- that obscured, rather than revealed, the true depth of his personality. He wrote enthralling travel books -- "Journey without Maps," "The Lawless Roads" -- about dangerous and difficult excursions to places few people in their right minds would want to visit.

As in every other area of his rich and varied life, Greene's personal adventures followed an unusual and decidedly individual track. In his travels, which played so vital a part in his writing, he was always a step or two ahead of history, visiting places just before they exploded into headlines -- Haiti, Cuba, the Congo, Vietnam. He captured the most exotic locales with the same immediacy of hismany film scripts, but without ever falling into the easy patterns of the picturesque.

Most importantly, he wrote what were generally considered "Catholic" novels, like "The Power and the Glory," and "The Heart of the Matter," which troubled many Catholic readers, offering only scant consolation and hope to believer and non-believer alike.

Because he also wrote tense and riveting thrillers (he called them "entertainments") that raised profoundly moral questions, he added a whole new dimension to the form. Because his "serious" fiction exhibited the urgency and intensity of his thrillers, on the other hand, it made academic readers uneasy -- good books shouldn't be so exciting.

His crime novels display considerable sympathy for the criminal, his spy novels suggest the emotional and philosophical dilemma of the traitor.

None of his protagonists -- the alcoholic priest of "The Power and

the Glory," for example, or the sad chief of police in "The Heart of the Matter" -- succeeds at anything more than an obscure, interior heroism. And his "bad characters," like the boy gangster Pinkie in "Brighton Rock," behave with a purity of action and belief that commands a kind of admiration.

Naturally, the best last words about this remarkable stylist are his own. Recalling, in "The Lost Childhood," the inspiration that led him to his life's work, he refered to his imagination as "the region of uncertainty, of not knowing the way about," and wrote as good an epitaph as any in an essay about Sierra Leone called "The Soupsweet Land."

He wrote, "I had failed at failure . . . for a writer as much as for a priest there is no such thing as success."

*Mr. Grella is a professor of English at the University of Rochester, where he specializes in 20th century literature.

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