Again I am brought to my knees by Graham Greene. Again I find myself fumbling for words that deserve to be used in a review. Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is an incredibly audacious book; perhaps one day I’ll write an equally bold one about Graham Greene – because in my life so far (narrow-horizoned as it admittedly has been), I have not read a writer who can equal his understanding of what it is to be human.
Now of course not all great writers even set out to display that in the first place, and I certainly don’t demand that all the books I read have to reflect the reality of humanity in all its grittiness. Sometimes I want books where all the characters have superfreak IQs and 24/7 wit, or books where the whimsical tumultuous history of a family is written one hundred years before it happens by an immortal gypsy.
But every now and then, I do actually want to read someone who thinks about the core of things, who acknowledges the relevance of faith but never stops engaging with it intelligently, who confronts me with characters as weak-willed, cowardly and sinful as I am but treats them with infinite compassion. And call me lazy, but I would also prefer to read about all that in elegant masterful prose which is less than 900 pages long. For me that writer is Graham Greene, and The Power And The Glory is the epitome of all these things.
The excerpts I’m about to post don’t prove any of my bold claims at all, because they can’t. The book is stunning both in its richness and in its total lack of artifice, but neither of these aspects works well out of context. In fact, if you’re uninterested in religion, whether it be the specifics of Christianity or amorphous ideas of a higher power, I guess these excerpts will probably leave you cold. Personally though, I find them rather beautiful.
* * *
It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization – it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.
* * *
It was, of course, the end, but at the same time you had to be prepared for everything, even escape. If God intended him to escape He could snatch him away from in front of a firing-squad. But God was merciful. There was only one reason, surely, which would make Him refuse his peace – if there was any peace – that he could still be of use in saving a soul, his own or another’s. But what good could he do now? They had him on the run; he dared not enter a village in case somebody else should pay with his life – perhaps a man who was in mortal sin and unrepentant. It was impossible to say what souls might not be lost simply because he was obstinate and proud and wouldn’t admit defeat. He couldn’t even say Mass any longer – he had no wine. It had gone down the dry gullet of the Chief of Police. It was appallingly complicated. He was still afraid of death, he would be more afraid of death yet when the morning came, but it was beginning to attract him by its simplicity.
* * *
When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity – that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.
* * *
“Loving God isn’t any different from loving a man – or a child. It’s wanting to be with Him, to be near Him.” He made a hopeless gesture with his hands. “It’s wanting to protect Him from yourself.”