The careless heart of the matter

Graham Greene, author of <em>The End of the Affair</em> and <em>The Quiet American</em>, died 20 yea

When Graham Greene was asked by his friend and fellow writer V S Pritchett how he felt about failing to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Greene replied that he was looking forward to a much greater prize: "Death." This month marks the 20th anniversary of Greene's demise in Switzerland on 3 April 1991.

By the time he died, Greene, who lived for much of the later years of his life in Antibes, in the south of France, had sold over 20 million copies of his books and many of his novels and stories had been made into films. (For a period, he also reviewed books for the New Statesman.) Despite living abroad since the 1960s, he had been regarded by many as England's greatest living novelist. There was standing room only at his memorial service, held at Westminster Cathedral on 6 June 1991.

More than 1,000 people crammed into the cathedral, many queuing for hours. How many living novelists today could dare hope for such a thing? Even the New York Times, a paper he had mocked in The Quiet American (through the character Pyle) for its missionary-style belief in liberal democracy, gave Greene a long and fawning obituary that declined to mention that he had loudly loathed nearly all things American ever since he was banned from entering the US after once admitting that he had briefly joined the Communist Party in his youth.

In 2004, on the centenary of the writer's birth, David Lodge wondered how long the power of Greene's imagination could continue to hold its "spell" on a new generation of readers "in an increasingly secular cultural climate".

Yet, today, there are few signs that interest in Greene is waning. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case. With the exception of John le Carré and Ian McEwan, few of today's major novelists pull off the difficult trick of being both popular and serious. The more godless and meaningless the universe becomes, the more readers are fascinated by characters whose actions have moral consequences. If we in the west have largely moved beyond religion, there remains something curiously reassuring about a fictional world that displays some design or purpose, even if its heroes are alienated and self-damned sinners.

The best of Greene's novels are those that grapple with big questions of faith and with the idea of hate as a springboard for love, sin as the seed of salvation; or, as Kenneth Tynan put it in a Harper's Bazaar profile of Greene from 1953, "sin the pleasure-giver, sin the pain-inflictor". Greene's faith shifted many times and he would describe himself in a 1978 interview as a "Catholic atheist". This peculiar brand of self-doubting faith seemed only to increase his popular appeal. He created lonely and paradoxical characters whose personal struggles arti­culated the grey and shifting moral anxieties of the 20th century: Scobie, the pity-riddled, adulterous policeman in The Heart of the Matter, set in pre-independence Sierra Leone; Bendrix, the God-hating lover and novelist in The End of the Affair. He subscribed to the view that the world was never black and white; it was black and grey and much of his grim cynicism came from his own sense of disappointment.

Greene was always quite hard on himself. He liked to say, "No man is a success to himself." Asked by a journalist over lunch in 1971 what he thought he had achieved, Greene replied: "I've written two or three good books. I've accomplished a little bit and I've failed a good deal. One fails in all sorts of ways in life, which are much more important than writing books. In human relations and that sort of thing."

Greene felt this sense of failure most acutely in the early 1950s, at the height of his success. He had left his wife, Vivien, in 1948 to try to win Catherine Walston, an American beauty who had first met Greene after she wrote to ask him to become her godfather when she was received into the Catholic Church. Soon, they were sleeping together.

The End of the Affair, published in 1951, is dedicated to Catherine but it would be a mistake to assume that Sarah in the novel is Catherine or that Bendrix is Greene. Sarah is a composite of many female influences on Greene and the most intense, private moments he and Catherine enjoyed - in particular, time spent at Catherine's simple rural cottage in Achill, western Ireland (where she also took other lovers), and Greene's villa in Capri - do not feature in the novel, which is set during the London Blitz. When a bomb destroyed Greene's fine Queen Anne house on Clapham Common - Vivien had been evacuated to Sussex - Greene was living with his stocky and masculine mistress Dorothy Glover.

Greene's description in his autobiography Ways of Escape of the emotional background to writing the The End of the Affair is unreliable. "I had described a lover so afraid that love would end that he tried to hasten the end and get the pain over," he wrote. "Yet there was no unhappy love affair to escape this time; I was happy in love."

This isn't close to being accurate. I have read the letter Greene wrote to Walston from his cabin, early in the morning of 18 June 1951, just after she had left him alone on board Alexander Korda's yacht, Elsewhere, which was cruising in the Aegean. They had been together as Korda's guests for a few days. Greene had been unable to sleep: "I've dreamed of you all night, dear heart. Vague, sad dreams. The cabin began being very big and homeless and I wish the typewriter wasn't there - it looks like a returned ring must look on a desk."

By referring to a returned ring, Greene was doubtless elliptically referring to Catherine's refusal to marry him. As he wrote to her again and again, at the time, there was nothing - not even writing a good book - that he wanted more than to make Catherine his wife. As his letters and her diaries show, when he was in the middle of writing The End of the Affair at a fierce creative pace (Greene wrote 10,000 words of the novel in ten days between the end of March and early April 1950) they were also tearing at each other and fighting viciously on a daily basis. These fights were largely over Greene's jealousy of her other lovers (they had adjoining flats on St James's Street and, one evening, Greene had seen Catherine kissing a rival on the pavement below).

If Greene was hardly happily in love at the time, why did he state that he was in his autobiography? The answer has to do with his acute sense of privacy and loyalty to others. Here, again, is another paradox - because, when it suited him, he would make a literary virtue of betrayal. This obsession with privacy and protecting others' "copyright", as he put it, defined his work.

He was not always proud of his behaviour - especially towards those he loved or had loved. While Greene could be generous to writers such as the young Muriel Spark, whom he supported while she was writing her first novel in the mid-1950s, and in donations to left-wing political groups, he could be heartless and uncharitable.

Vivien Greene once told me the harrowing story of how, after reading a passionate love letter to Catherine that had been returned to sender and confronting Greene with it, he had just said, "You know how one writes." He then took the train to Oxford, where they were living, packed a suitcase of books and suits and told her that their marriage was over. That Sunday, she placed her wedding ring in the collection bowl at Blackfriars church. Shortly afterwards, she was summoned to a meeting at a London hotel. Greene showed up late and said simply: "I will always send you copies of my proofs."

Does any of this matter, all these years later? Although Greene teased Cyril Connolly in The End of the Affair, by having Bendrix write a novel with a title close to The Unquiet Grave, one suspects that Greene would have agreed with Connolly's maxim that the "true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence".

William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spears magazine. His book about Graham Greene, "The Third Woman: the Secret Passion that Inspired 'The End of the Affair'" (£14.99), was published by Little, Brown in 2000