Graham Greene

April 05, 1991

Like Shakespeare, Graham Greene tried first to entertain the crowd, to feed his family and pay the bills. Any profundity he might have harbored, any rumination on evil and guilt and forgiveness and sin, any outrage with power and its abuse, any sense of human failure, flowed from that.

This ambiguity of popular and literary intent undoubtedly denied the incredibly durable English novelist the Nobel Prize for Literature. It just as certainly insured for him a place in the enduring body of important literature that will be denied some who won that prize on the road to obscurity.

His journalistic youth gave Greene a sure touch with the particular. So when he wrote "Ministry of Fear," the details of the London wreckage he saw as an air raid warden lived forever; as did his views of Mexico in "The Power and the Glory" and his descriptions of Vietnam in "The Quiet American" and Haiti in "The Comedians." But from each of these, readers took something universal.

He could load such books as "The Heart of the Matter" with moral concerns he felt as a converted Catholic, and "Our Man in Havana" with ridicule of what he had done as a spy. That his stories lent themselves so well to movie adaptation -- or, as in "The Third Man," began as one -- helped materially without hurting literarily.

A Graham Greene book, once taken up, is difficult to put down. For that, some colleagues in the word game never forgave him. Whatever pain or contentment or guilt or torment he saw in life before his death Wednesday at 86, Graham Greene always found the right word to express it, a gift denied to so many others.

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