Brighton Rock is considered by many to be one of Graham Greene's finest novels. It is certainly considered one of his best 'Catholic novels'. I wish that I could heartily disagree; that I could pronounce it a failure. That, I think, would make Greene far happier. In this and other novels, his heroes are failures - Czinner in Stamboul Train, the whisky-priest in The Power and the Glory and Pinkie in Brighton Rock - but they are granted by Greene a dignified glory in their failure. Czinner, the whisky-priest and Pinkie are all martyrs to their different causes. In the worldly sense they have failed but they seem to have achieved a success, a glory of a higher and more honourable kind.
Greene was not a failure. Born in 1904, he grew up the in Berkhamstead, the son of a public school headmaster. He went to Balliol College at Oxford University where he got a scholarship, published a book of verse and edited a student paper. On leaving Oxford, he worked for a newspaper in Nottingham before getting a job as a sub-editor with The Times. His third novel, The Man Within was a considerable success and he was commissioned to write three more novels. He went on to work as a film critic for The Spectator and in 1936 produced his first travel book, Journey Without Maps, based on a trek through Liberia. His trip to Mexico in 1938 spawned another, The Lawless Roads, and the novel, The Power and the Glory (1940). Brighton Rock was published in 1938 and was his eighth novel. When he died in 1991, he had produced more than fifty works. Among them were novels, travel books, plays, film scripts, critical essays and three autobiographical works. As the introduction to any recent Penguin edition of his work will tell you, Kingsley Amis said in tribute, '[Greene] will be missed all over the world. Until today he was our greatest living novelist'. Alec Guinness continues the eulogy, 'He was a great writer who spoke brilliantly to a whole generation', and William Golding concludes, 'Graham Greene was in a class by himself'.
Greene was a Catholic. He converted and was received into the Church in 1926. He is regarded as a 'Catholic writer'. It is an accolade that some writers might revel in but one that Greene detests. In Ways of Escape, he rebukes his critics saying that it is 'the last title to which I have ever aspired' (p.58, Penguin 1982 edition). Greene prefers to celebrate the condemnation of his book, The Power and the Glory by the Holy Office. He recounts his meeting with Cardinal Griffin with the playful disrespect for the 'Establishment' that we see in many of his novels (see A Sort of Life, p.58). He rejoiced also in the reaction of Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, the President of Haiti, to his novel, The Comedians which portrays him as a tyrant. In his introduction to later editions of the novel, he gleefully quotes Graham Greene Demasqué Finally Exposed, a treatise published in 1968 by the Haiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and annotates it with the same subversive sense of humour:
'A liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon... unbalanced, sadistic, perverted... a perfect ignoramus... lying to his heart's content... the shame of proud and noble England... a spy... a drug addict... a torturer. (The last epithet has always a little puzzled me.)'
His humour characterises his attitude towards the 'Establishment'. He inhabited a middle ground. His popularity placed him in the 'Establishment' but he liked to present the image of an anti-Establishment figure. 'Anti-Establishment' is not quite the right word. He was, after all, a member of the Catholic Church. He wished to be free rather than to be radical.
Critics often talk of Greene's love of paradox. His hatred of the term 'Catholic writer' suggests, perhaps, an autobiographical side to his short story, "A Visit to Morin" (part of the Sense of Reality collection). In this story, he depicts a 'Catholic writer' driven away from the Church but, seeing in his demise, the proof that the Church is right. I do not suggest that Greene's hatred of his Catholic readership drove him from practising his faith. I find it hard to understand exactly what his faith was or how he practised it but I suspect that there was something of Morin's paradoxical approach in it. Again, 'paradox' might be too strong a word. Perhaps 'tension' would better describe the man who was a Catholic but delighted in the disapproval of bishops; the man who tried to distance himself from the Establishment of which he was a part; of the man who admitted to have 'failed at failure' (Collected Essays, p.343). It is not surprising that such a man, torn between what John Spurling calls 'apartness and collusion' (Graham Greene by John Spurling, p.74), should not necessarily be happy. Brighton Rock is perhaps indicative of Greene's particular brand of misery.