Graham Greene
Creative Commons AttributionGraham Greene - Credit: Forgács Máté

"A stranger with no shortage of calling cards: devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing, to name just a few."

Thus wrote Michelle Orange on the strange, multi-faceted nature of English-born author Graham Greene, who created such 20th century literary classics as The Quiet American, Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory.

Henry Grahame Greene (1904 - 1991), the fourth of six children born to first cousins Charles Henry and Marion Raymond Greene, grew up in Hertfordshire and attended Berkhamstead School, where his father was headmaster. Singled out as a 'softy' by his fellow pupils, and revolted at being forced to live in such close proximity to other boys, he found boarding school incredibly difficult. In his distress he made several suicide attempts, using whatever he had to hand, such as deadly nightshade or hayfever medication. He was finally allowed to become a day pupil after spending six months in psychoanalysis.

After leaving school, Greene attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied history. Greene once described his student years as 'drunk and debt-ridden', yet his first volume of poetry, Babbling April, was published then, and he became a prolific contributor to the student magazine. He was also, albeit briefly, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain,  and in 1933 he held true to his early left-wing principles and joined the Independent Labour Party.

Graduating from Oxford in 1925 with a second-class degree, he began working as a journalist in Nottingham, before moving on to become sub-editor of The Times. Raised in the Church of England, Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926 after meeting Vivien Dayrell-Browning. They were married in 1927, although Greene proved to be a self-confessed 'bad husband and fickle lover'. Their first child, Lucy, was born in 1933, followed by Francis in 1936. In 1947, Greene left Vivienne for Catherine Walston, but the couple were never divorced.

In 1929, Greene published his first novel, The Man Within. Its success encouraged his decision to leave The Times and become a full time fiction writer. However his next two books, The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1932), proved unpopular, and it was only the publication of Stamboul Train in 1932 (adapted for screen in 1934 as Orient Express) that finally secured his writing career. He supplemented his income during this period of uncertainty by working as a critic for The Spectator. He began to separate his work into two distinct categories: 'entertainments' and 'novels'. His last ‘entertainment’, published in 1958, was Our Man in Havana. In total he wrote 28 novels, including Brighton Rock (1938), The End of The Affair (1951) and The Quiet American (1955). The Third Man (1949) was a novella which became a screenplay, memorably filmed in Vienna with Orson Welles stealing the show. Almost all of Greene's novels were made into films or television programmes. He also wrote four collections of short stories, several screenplays and a number of plays.

Greene was an avid traveller, ever on the hunt for fresh inspiration. He was particularly fascinated with countries that were experiencing conflict – 'the worlds’ wildest, remotest places' – such as Kenya, Cuba, Poland and Vietnam. A 400-mile trek through the jungle of Liberia in 1935 gave him the material for Journey Without Maps (1936). Witnessing Mexico's religious purges in 1938 resulted in Lawless Roads (1939) and The Power and The Glory (1940). As a result of these experiences he was recruited by MI6, and during World War II he was posted to Sierra Leone where he worked for the Ministry of Information.

His ferocious interest in politics and religion often ruffled feathers, and he seemed to revel in courting contoversy with his opinions. Throughout his life he attracted a powerful circle of friends, the most controversial being the spy traitor Kim Philby and General Omar Torrijos, the Panamanian dictator. In 1971, Greene's autobiography, A Sort of Life, related his solitary games of Russian roulette whilst at university, which he had previously alluded to yet never fully explained. The muddled details led others to question the validity of these accounts.

Greene published his final novel Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party in 1980, whilst living in Vevey, Lake Geneva, with his partner Yvonne Cloetta. He died peacefully on 3 April 1991 and is buried in Corsier-sur-Vevey cemetery.

"Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation."

Greeneland - The World of Graham Greene

Graham Greene Birthplace Trust