A touch of evil. Reappraisal: Graham Greene

He was Catholic, but his works are morally ambiguous. John Gray rereads Graham Greene

Sinister. That is how Isaiah Berlin described Graham Greene when, in a conversation not long before Berlin's death, I asked what impression Greene had made on him. It is a striking epithet, one I never heard Berlin apply to anyone else. Unfortunately, I didn't follow it up at the time, and I am not sure what he meant by it. Yet I can't help feeling that it points to something important and neglected in Greene's work. Throughout his life, both as a man and a writer, Greene had a fascination with evil and a contempt for ordinary virtues. After his conversion to Catholicism, he defended this attitude on the ground that a close acquaintance with evil was no obstacle to the salvation of the soul. It might even be essential. For a writer to shy away from this possibility was to evade the final truth of human life, which is not moral but religious.

Most of Greene's readers have accepted his claim to be a religious writer. But on the evidence of his life and work, Greene's taste for the forbidden had more mundane sources. He turned to the dark side of life as an escape, toying with the idea of evil as an antidote to depression and boredom. Even his religious conversion may have been a therapeutic device, a frame of mind he played with because of the interesting possibilities it afforded. He used the idea of evil as a stimulant, and he was able to do so because he did not believe in it.

It is true that many of Greene's novels can be read as propaganda for a slightly heterodox Catholic view of things, in which even the worst human traits can have value so long as they lead somehow to salvation. If his books have a common theme, it is a peculiar type of moral ambiguity: behaviour that is suspect or vicious in the terms of conventional morality may embody a higher virtue. The sadistic delight in suffering shown by Pinkie, the ruthless gangster anti-hero of Brighton Rock, is deeply repellent. But it is presented by Greene as arising from an insight into the corruption of the world which decent people inevitably lack. Pinkie is a hero compared to Ida, the cheerful tart whose dogged search for the truth Greene satirises pitilessly. Again, in the terms of ordinary morality, the despairing pity of Scobie for his wife and lover in The Heart of the Matter could be read as no more than weakness of will, but Greene portrays it as proof of great love. In these and other characters, Greene seems intent on showing that cruelty and despair should not simply be condemned. They may express a more genuine striving after virtue than ordinary goodness. Evil is not a mere lack, a result of deficiencies in intelligence or sympathy. It is the mark of a struggle for redemption.

This is how Greene wanted his books to be read, and it has become the accepted interpretation. The trouble with it is that it requires us to take his account of his religious faith at face value. The truth of the matter cannot be known, but it is clear that Greene's faith had very mixed sources, central among which was his struggle against "boredom, aridity". In his teens, in an early campaign in this "war against boredom", Greene began to play Russian roulette. Tellingly, he writes that, when he took up the practice, "I was uncertain myself whether I was play-acting"; and a similar, faintly theatrical air hangs over several of the formative episodes of his life. He tells us that the priest who first instructed him in Catholicism was himself a former actor, one of whose greatest sacrifices was to be unable to see a play; and that, after being baptised in his new faith, he "couldn't help feeling all the way to the newspaper office, past the post office, the Moroccan cafe, the ancient whore, that I had got somewhere new".

Perhaps, in lines such as these, Greene meant to show how incongruous are the ways in which faith can take hold; but what the reader can't help feeling is how like one of his own characters he makes himself sound. By his own account, the effect of his conversion was not to make him a better man. It was to make his life more interesting. Like Wormold, the vacuum-cleaner salesman who became "our man in Havana", Greene found meaning in his life by making a fiction of it.

Greene had a full life. At various points, he was a journalist, film critic, traveller and spy. What is striking is that this unusually eventful existence was not enough to keep boredom at bay. Even in his most turbulent love affair, he seems to have needed the tonic of a sense of sin. As a friend is reported to have put it, during his long relationship with Catherine Walston, he "committed adultery with her behind every high altar in Italy". Greene's flirtation with faith gave his affair with Walston an intensity that it might otherwise have lacked, or soon lost. Famously, when he fictionalised the relationship in The End of the Affair, Greene nominated God as his true rival. Maurice Bendrix, Greene's alter ego in the book, rages against God for holding his lover to a hideously unfair bargain: "I hate you as though you existed." There can be little doubt that Greene was aroused by the sense of sacrilege. It is impossible to resist the suspicion that, for him, faith served partly as an aphrodisiac.

If Greene's novels fail to satisfy, it is because the religious outlook with which he infused them was, at best, a remedy against depression; at worst, a fraud. At bottom, he seems to have believed in nothing, but he lacked the courage of his unbelief. It is often said that he created a distinctive landscape, a world of his own, Greeneland, and it cannot be denied that this is an achievement. But he was at his most effective in his "entertainments", novels such as Stamboul Train and A Gun for Sale, where religious themes are absent or subdued. Greene's fascination with evil rested on an inability to imagine it realistically. There is nothing in Greene's work that matches the psychological insight of Patricia Highsmith or Georges Simenon. Nor is this surprising. In the case of these writers, a post-religious world is taken as a given. In Greene's work, it is evaded, but never convincingly denied. Despite all his efforts, he was never able to capture the human reality of cruelty or betrayal.

If Greene was a sinister character, as Berlin felt, it is not because he was evil. It is because he lacked a sense of evil. Greene was a nihilist, who devoted much of his life and work to flirting with a condition of the soul in which he did not believe.

Other essays in this series, on J G Ballard, Mervyn Peake, Georges Simenon and Patricia Highsmith, can be found on the NS website: www.newstatesman.co.uk