Graham Greene’s Catholic Imagination
American Academy of Religion, Academy Series
Reviewed by Alain Blayac
Beautifully designed—elegant dust-jacket, luxury paper, impeccable typography—Mark Bosco’s book includes a set of enlightening Notes, a carefully selective Bibliography (in which Greene’s major critics are entered), and a useful Index. It is an ambitious, highly documented study on the nature of Greene’s religious stance, of his catholicism and its use in, or integration into, the writings of a man whose career spanned some sixty years and marked both British and Catholic literatures of the twentieth century.
At this point a word must be said about the phrase "Catholic imagination." In order to avoid a misunderstanding one must state that, for Bosco, "imagination" is not the faculty to create images but rather the capability to "rework theological themes and blend them into the literary substance of the novels : mystical substitution, doubt, the nature of belief, God’s pursuit of erring souls, etc."
Prior to the study of the novels proper, the introduction, focusing on the theme of "Religion in Literature" and the "Catholic Novel as a Literary Genre," is followed by an account of Greene’s life (Greene, i.e. "the novelist who happens to be a Catholic") and an attempt at defining "a late Twentieth-Century Catholic Imagination."
In fact, Bosco’s analysis concerns the entire literary production of the writer, in the perspective opened by the theological evolution of Catholicism before and after Vatican II. The study is progressive, loosely chronological; it develops according to the different stages of the author’s spiritual evolution from adolescence, when he was initiated into the principles of the Catholic literary revival in the early twentieth century, illustrated by The Power and the Glory (1940) and The End of the Affair (1951). Bosco also clearly underlines the influence of the French Catholic writers (Bloy, Péguy, and later Mauriac) together with that of the "liberal" theologians (Teilhard de chardin, Küng, Schillebeekx).
Later, Bosco shows how, after the changes initiated by Vatican II, Greene adhered to the principles of a liberalisation of the religious practices in South America and transposed them in such novels as The Honorary Consul (1973) and The Human Factor (1978). He even considers—but we may not follow him there—that Dr Fischer of Geneva, or the Bomb Party (1980) and Monsignor Quixote (1982) are the summits of the Greenian imagination.
The epilogue of Bosco’s study, "Coloring Catholicism Greene" shows how involved Greene was in the political and religious events of his century. It replaces him within the context of the interwar period on a par with the writers who fought the contemporary rampant atheism, Chesterton, Eliot, Waugh, Auden among others. Unlike most of these, with the exception of Waugh, Greene lived and wrote in the second half of the century and could thus appropriate the after Vatican II discourse.
‘In his theological reading of contemporary Catholic thinkers, Greene creates an imaginative world in which theology and politics are in constant dialogue, hence his fascination with exiles and priests who by far transcend the political and social reductions of ideology.