'A Permanent Sense of Loss’: Nostalgia, Yearning and Faith in Graham Greene’s Novels


Dr Theo Savvas, Lecturer, Department of English, University of Bristol


18 November 2019

The speaker, who is a specialist in modern American literature, had improved on the title he and I originally chose, by heading it with a quote from Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter (1948) and introducing the word ‘Faith’ (the Catholic Christian faith), which permeates so many of Greene’s novels in one way or another. Theo said that he was not an expert on Greene (1903-1991) but felt that one could not talk satisfactorily on Greene without discussing the religious angle of the characters’ lives. This is present in The Heart of the Matter, in which Major Henry Scobie, deputy High Commissioner in a west African colony (Sierra Leone) is living in a sort of hell. He is married to a devout Catholic woman, Louise, a woman he has ceased to love. Their daughter Catherine had died years earlier, and this loss was the central, negative experience of his life. Green described Scobie as ‘…a weak man with good intentions, doomed by his sense of pity.’. In his earlier book, The Ministry of Fear, Greene had said ‘Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn’t safe when pity’s prowling around.’ In the complex plot of The Heart of the Matter, an inspector, Edward Wilson, tries (and fails) to pursue an adulterous affair with the Catholic Louisa, while a widow, Helen Rolt, becomes Scobie’s mistress - a fact that Louisa is well aware of, even if Scobie himself does not realise this awareness by his wife. In the end, Scobie falls into despair, and commits suicide, a sin from which he can never repent, the ultimate sin for a Catholic.


Graham Greene’s early life in Berkhamsted, one of the sons of the Headmaster of the public school there, is recorded in his volume of essays The Lost Childhood, and in Volume One of Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Greene, who married his wife Vivienne in 1928, and finally left her in 1948, having been a philanderer throughout their twenty-year marriage. Vivienne said to Greene: ‘If you stopped feeling so guilty, you might have to start treating me better.’  He never divorced her, living with a number of other women subsequently right down to his last companion in later years, Yvonne Cloetta.


Graham Greene’s early protagonists, such as Pinky in Brighton Rock (1938) and the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory (1941) are treated as sinners. He referred to: ‘… the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’. Early novels, like Stamboul Train and It’s a Battlefield dealt fleetingly with religion - here characters yearn above all for order. Green used the novels of Joseph Conrad as an inspiration, despite their different world. Theo observed that the novel has always been an expression of the fallen world of human experience.


Theo quoted TS Eliot’s After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934), p60: 

‘Most people are only very little alive; and to awaken them to the spiritual is a very great responsibility. It is only when they are so awakened that they are capable of real Good, but at the same time, they become first capable of Evil.’


In the immensely successful The End of the Affair, Greene drew on his long affair with Catherine Walston, wife of a civil servant, Henry in the novel. The character of Maurice Bendrix has no central, unchanging beliefs. His passion for Sarah is utterly real, however. On p36 of the novel (Vintage edition) Greene says:

‘The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God, and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation and contemplation to explain the intensity of love we feel for a woman’.


Greene suggested that an epigraph for his novel as a whole might be in Robert Browning’s Bishop Bloughram’s Apology (1855): 

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things,

The honest thief, the tender murderer,

The superstitious Atheist…


Faith, belief, is there throughout The End of the Affair:

‘Let him be alive, I will believe. Give him a chance. Let him have his happiness. Do this, and I’ll believe. (p76) 


Early in the novel we read: 

‘Aren’t lovers nearly always innocent? They have committed no crime, in their own minds, they are certain that they have done no wrong… Love excuses everything - so they believe, and so I used to believe in the days when I loved.’ 

On p54, he says:

‘We had chosen so happily to eliminate God from our world.’


A bomb falls on the house where Sarah and Bendrix are together. Sarah goes out into the wasteland, thinking Maurice has been killed - he hasn’t. But she has already sworn to herself that if he survives, she’ll end the affair and return to her husband Henry.


The word Nostalgia is relevant here. The Greek NOSTOS, returning home, homecoming, also embodies homesickness, and even the acute pain of coming home.  The end of Bendrix’s and Sarah’s affair brings with it a possible renewal of belief. On the final page of The End of the Affair, Bendrix declares:

‘What I chiefly felt was less hate than fear.  For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you - with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell - can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leaped, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all; if you are a saint, it’s not difficult to be a saint… but I won’t leap. I sat on my bed and said to God: You’ve taken her, but you haven’t got me yet. I know your cunning. It’s you who takes us up to high places and offer us the whole universe…. But I don’t want your peace, and I don’t want your love. I wanted something very simple and very easy: I wanted Sarah for a lifetime and you took her away.’


The final sentence of The End of the Affair is: ‘O God, you’ve done enough. You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and too old to learn to love, leave me alone forever.’  


Greene travelled restlessly in the 1950s and beyond. His later novels are structured around Catholic sensibility. An indifferent, jaded character will usually be contrasted with others who have kept their faith. In the Haiti based novel The Comedians (1966) we read: 

‘If you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we have… or is it the same faith under another mask?’


In his essay Remembering Mr Jones (1937) Greene speaks of the ‘rhetoric of an abandoned faith’ and ‘ the memories of a creed working like poetry through the agnostic prose’. Even in a novel such as The Honorary Consul (1973) filled with violence and the routine debasement of women (chiefly the young former prostitute Clara) the subject surges from page to page, as debates about faith, and especially Catholic belief, swirl around in the minds of several of the characters. This novel, perhaps more than any of Greene’s later works, attracted widespread praise. It is set in upcountry Argentina, in Corrientes, near the border with Paraguay, with constant references to the capital Buenos Aires. A superbly shaped narrative, in which dialogue exceeds observational description, it is dominated by incipient and eventually actual violence - or at least one single violent event. A sort of wild justice emerges at the close, for the 61 year-old whisky-sodden Charley Fortnum, the eponymous hero, though not actually the central character. The highly intelligent but morally unscrupulous Doctor Eduardo Plarr, who is the dominant figure throughout, does not emerge well either in his behaviour or in his eventual fate.


Copyright 2019   by Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor for Literature and Humanities, based on notes made at Dr Theo Savvas’s talk, with some additions.