Born in 1904 in what Virginia Woolf called “the leaning tower generation”, Graham Greene came from a world of inherited privilege which made him feel uneasy in the face of poverty and injustice, and lead him to flirt with the left in his youth only to become disillusioned with all forms of government and suspicious of any state intervention later. He felt that the old liberal myths had been debunked by reality in a politically unstable and hostile world. This aspects of his background inform his novels, in which romantic and paradoxical protagonists -reflecting the author’s nature- are usually faced with moral dilemmas or depart from convention to a certain extent. This situation leads them to an uncertain moral quicksand they strive to make sense of. This atmosphere as well as his protagonists’ character traits gave rise to the term ‘Greenland’ to refer to this peculiar yet familiar world.
Called by some a ‘Catholic writer’, he rejected this label saying that he just was ‘a writer who happened to be a Catholic’. He converted to Catholicism just before marrying a Catholic and used to hold theological discussions with the priest in charge of conducting his instruction, during which he defended atheism and agnosticism. He later said that he considered himself to be a ‘Catholic agnostic’. Four of his novels stem to a certain extent from Catholicism and are even called by some ‘his Catholic novels’; Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair. Both in The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, the protagonist faces the moral implications of infidelity and in The Heart of the Matter those of suicide.
Greene experienced both during his life and that makes the novels very realistic, authentic and heartfelt. Suffering from depression, Greene used to say that he had ‘a character profoundly antagonistic with domestic life’. In the first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life, he mentions that his grandfather was bipolar and that he would have diagnosed as such at the time he was writing it. He attempted suicide on several occasions before coming of age, one of them by playing Russian roulette and resorted to psychoanalysis for some months when he was 17.
His experience in the Secret Service during World War II provided him with material for several of his espionage novels or ‘entertainments’, as he somewhat derogatorily called them –The Ministry of Fear, The Confidential Agent, The Human Factor, The Quiet American-. However, we can also find a certain philosophical taste to them.
Greenland is a very special environment where anyone who has experienced failure, moral dilemmas, has felt the burden of boredom, has faced injustice or is aware of what underlies the façade of convention -which really equals saying anybody who is human and has a brain- will feel at home.