The world of Graham Greene, to me, is one where everything is bathed in a slightly sickly green shade of light. A piece of your clothing has had a bit of vomit merely brushed off with a few sweeps of the hand, and wherever you step your shoes sink into the mud until the cold water seeps in and starts to wet the bottoms of your socks.
In this, one his most famous novels, Greene used one of his own affairs as the raw material to write a novel that probes love, hate, and the presence (or lack thereof) of God in each of our lives.
The narrator is a not-very-successful writer, Bendrix, who, at the beginning of the novel, meets one of his neighbours in a rainstorm, and thus begins to give us the back story of how he carried on a love affair with this man Henry’s wife, Sarah, until she abruptly ended it during the bombing of London in WWII. Bendrix still carries intense feelings of love and hate for Sarah, and when Henry confides in him that he fears Sarah may be seeing someone else, Bendrix takes the chance to probe deep into Sarah’s life, to try to find out how she felt about him, why she abruptly ended the affair, and who it is that now has become the recipient of her love and attention.
The novel gripped me from the beginning with its intensity, and I think the unadorned first-person narration had a lot to do with that. It’s funny because I don’t think I can strongly identify with the intense and obsessive love and hate described by the narrator. And I think that Greene’s discussion of religion and especially Catholicism veers too far into what amount to questions of technicalities and categorization. But I still think it’s quite an amazing and powerful novel.
There aren’t many authors that can equal Greene in describing gloomy, rainy London, especially when it is darkened and destroyed by the bombing during WWII. Or the banalities of suburban life. Greene even lightens the mood a bit with the character Parkis, a private investigator who can’t help being a sort of sad clown, though at the same time he, along with Henry, are the most warm and human characters in the story.
A lot of the story does deal with religion, especially Catholicism, and though it’s a powerful thread throughout the story, I do think that the author overdoes it a bit near the end, in the funeral discussions and scenes. Greene converted to Catholicism as an adult, and in his stories I feel like he often almost misses the point in being such a hard-nosed stickler for rules and rituals. As if it makes a lick of genuine difference to the fate of a person’s soul if one of the characters here was baptized but never told about it, or the manner their body was disposed of after their death. It reminds me of something said by another (far more cheerful) English Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, “Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.”
It’s still a pretty great novel, and a wonderful portrait of how you can sometimes come to doing the right thing after you’ve exhausted all the wrong you can do. But I always try to keep my visits to Greeneland brief and with plenty of time for recuperation.