Graham Greene: Political Writer, Michael G. Brennan, 2016, Palgrave Macmillan, 208pp, £58 (hardcover)

In an interview with the Evening Standard newspaper in 1978, the novelist Graham Greene (1904–1991) spoke of his unease on the question of political allegiance: ‘If I live in a capitalist country, I feel Communist; if I am in a Communist country, I feel a capitalist.’ These remarks echoed the sentiments expressed in his famous address at the University of Hamburg on ‘The Virtue of Disloyalty’, almost a decade earlier. Ambivalence, for Greene, was not merely a matter of preference or inclination; it was a question of moral duty. The writer should be able to be ‘a Protestant in a Catholic society, a Catholic in a Protestant one, to see the virtues of the capitalist in a Communist society, of the Communist in a capitalist state.’ Total loyalty to the state, in short, compromises the integrity of the writer. That the speaker of these words was for many decades engaged in espionage on behalf of the British government speaks to the remarkable complexity of Greene’s extraordinary life. Michael Brennan, who is a professor of English Studies at the University of Leeds, has written a thoroughly researched and deeply insightful account of Greene’s political interventions, both fictional and journalistic. What emerges is a fascinating genealogy of one man’s political thought as it develops alongside, and responds to, the tumultuous upheavals of the twentieth century, from the privations of the Great Depression, through the Second World War, to the intrigues and compromises of the Cold War.

Graham Greene: Political Writer is arranged chronologically, so we begin in the 1920s and 30s. If an encounter with impoverished agricultural workers in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire (he moved to the Cotswolds with his wife in March 1931) marked the beginning of a political awakening for Greene, his decision to imbue his fiction with social and political themes appears to have been as much a question of financial contingency. His third novel, Rumour at Nightfall (1931), had sold poorly; Greene found himself in debt and had to borrow money to pay his income tax. Engaging with socio-political themes seemed a sensible way to achieve a wider readership for his books. From the mid-thirties onwards, Greene’s books became increasingly political: 1934’s It’s a Battlefield featured a prison and a match factory run on similar lines, an implicit comment on the the industrial system; his Liberian travelogue, Journey Without Maps (1936) questioned the ethical basis of empire by suggesting that European and American imperialists were no less savage than the Africans they were purporting to civilise; the novel A Gun For Sale (also published in 1936) took aim at the armaments business and high finance, whose self-interest and greed were emblematic of the moral turpitude of the 1930s; Greene’s depiction of Brighton in Brighton Rock (1938) emphasised urban degradation and squalor, an implicit indictment of a nation blighted by social inequality; and The End of the Affair (1951) rendered, with quintessentially modernist narrative techniques – filmic snaphots, fragmented time-frames, and shifting perspectives – the devastation wrought by the Luftwaffe’s bombing of London.

The early postwar years found Greene listless and depressed, missing the visceral thrill of wartime. He overcame this slump in November 1950 by decamping to Malaya, then in the grip of a Communist insurgency. The latter half of this book surveys Greene’s engagement with the geopolitics of the Cold War, and his struggle to reconcile his own politics – a blend of liberalism, Christianity, socialism, and anti-imperialism – with the oppressive climate of the McCarthy era and beyond. Greene established himself as an outspoken critic of American involvement in Latin-American politics, pointedly highlighting US support for the dictatorship of Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier in Haiti in 1966’s The Comedians, and taking every opportunity to denounce US foreign policy in his journalism.

Brennan explores how Greene’s sympathy with Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution grew in parallel with his interest in Catholic liberation theology. Greene made six visits to Cuba between 1957 and 1966, agreeing, on one pre-revolutionary occasion, to smuggle warm clothes to Castro’s rebels who were hiding in the mountains. This, lest we forget, was the same Graham Greene who had pronounced (of the Mexican Revolution) that ‘All successful revolutions, however idealistic, probably betray themselves in time.’ He characterised his admiration for Castro in terms of a shared penchant for heresy: ‘A doubting Catholic can work easily with a doubting Communist.’ In the 1980s Greene advocated fervently on behalf of Nicaragua’s beleaguered Sandinistas, who were under attack from American-funded Contra terrorism. His anti-Yankee zeal on Latin-American matters even extended to expressing admiration for the Panamanian military dictator Manuel Noriega, which he explained in unequivocal terms: ‘An enemy of my enemy is my friend. And my enemy is Reagan.’

And yet for all his interventions he remained steeped in the British establishment. Brennan notes a confidential remark from the novelist Evelyn Waugh to Ian Fleming’s wife, Anne, reassuring her that Greene was a ‘secret agent on our side and all his buttering up of the Russians is “cover.”’ Reading Graham Greene: Political Writer one is inevitably reminded of that other political novelist and doubting leftist conscience, George Orwell. Orwell was more of a dabbler when it came to informing – shortly before his death he got into the McCarthyite spirit by supplying the Foreign Office with a list of alleged crypto-Communists in British public life – but his political thought was shaped by his experience as a functionary of the British empire in Burma, and he remained to the end of his days an English patriot. Perhaps only the singular historical conjuncture of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s could sustain the apparent contradiction of the dissident patriot: the radicalising effects of the Depression, the rise and fall of fascism and, above all in Greene’s case, the spectre of decolonisation and the loss of Britain’s world power status, which afforded him – and others like him – the intellectual breathing space to interrogate the US-led realpolitik of the latter half of the century. If our sense of his ‘true’ self remains necessarily elusive, that is perhaps the point: the heterogeneity of his thought was both a product of his time and, in another sense, ahead of it.

Houman Barekat is a literary critic. He has reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator, the Irish Times, the Tablet and the New Internationalist, amongst others. He lives in West London.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.