If Graham Greene were still alive next month he would be turning 100. Unlike the constant Bloomsday events which celebrate James Joyce, the centenary anniversary of the great writer's birth is likely to pass without fuss or fanfare.
There will, however, be one event to mark the occasion. To honour Greene a Melbourne Catholic arts festival - Carnivale Christi - will be screening the cinematic adaptations of Greene's novels: The Tenth Man, The End of the Affair, Fallen Idol and the Orson Welles classic The Third Man for which Greene wrote the screenplay.
Celebrating an author through the medium of film is not, in Greene's case, as unusual as it might seem. Evelyn Waugh once said of Greene's writing, "The affinity to the film is everywhere apparent. It is the camera's eye which moves from the hotel balcony to the street below. It is the modern way of telling a story."
While Greene is by no means a relic of history - he died in 1991 - he remains a writer who is not easily pinned down or pigeonholed. This is more likely a commendation of the man than anything else. A great writer can never be one thing or an ideologue. Greene can at once be portrayed as a Communist or a Catholic, an angel or a devil, a man of great confidence or a man at sea.
Greene's championing of what we Australians would call "the battler" could be seen as linked to his early conversion to Catholicism. It could equally be linked to his earlier conversion to Communism.
A potted biography of Greene would mention his birth in 1904 and his tutelage at Berkhamsted School where his father was the headmaster. His childhood was an unhappy one. Tormented for being the son of the headmaster the young Greene attempted suicide on several occasions. But if it was his heightened sensitivity that brought Greene sadness in early life it would serve him well as an observer and writer in later life.
His university years studying arts at Balliol College according to his own description were spent drunk and debt-ridden. In his early twenties he joined the Communist Party. He worked a series of jobs with Fleet Street newspapers which he eventually reluctantly left as his career as a novelist took off.
Greene met his future wife Vivien Dayrell-Browning when she wrote to him to correct some errors in his writing concerning Catholicism. Under her urging Greene, who was raised a Protestant, took instructions in the faith and was received into the Church in 1926. The pair would have a daughter and a son before later separating.
Greene was drawn to troublespots and travelled the world to find inspiration for his work. He found novels in Sweden (England Made Me), Liberia (Journey Without Maps) and Sierra Leone (The Heart Of The Matter). And he skirted death and danger in Stalinist Poland, Duvalier's Haiti, Vietnam during the Indochina war and Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.
In 1938 the Church commissioned Greene to visit Mexico to write about the anti-Catholic purges that were taking place there. The trip spawned perhaps Greene's greatest work, and one of the great all time Catholic novels, The Power And The Glory.
Despite this book's deep, intuitive Catholic bend, elements within the Vatican were unhappy that Greene's descriptions of man's wretchedness were harmful to the office of the priesthood.
However, there was not a Roman consensus against the text. One priest said it had helped him hear the confessions of other priests with much more sympathy, and Pope Paul advised Greene in a private interview, "Parts of all your books will always offend some Catholics and you shouldn't pay any attention to that."
Following the publication of The Quiet American, Greene was accused of being anti-American and consequently developed a strong dislike of Americans, particularly the late Ronald Reagan. He became involved in Central American politics, associating with Fidel Castro and Manuel Noriega. All this may have made Greene somewhat of a darling of the left.
But as is now apparent no one group could ever own or have a monopoly on the man. Appropriately, when Greene passed away in 1991 he was in Switzerland - neutral territory.
Perhaps the only element of this multifaceted man of which we can be sure - despite infidelities, despite denouncements from time to time - is his Catholicism. Greene's worldview as expressed in his prodigious body of work, but particularly in his novels, is a distinctly Catholic one.
Greene's compassion is such that many of his "baddies", such as the officers of the persecuting new regime in The Power And The Glory, are not intensely malevolent but human and - as is the true face of evil - banal. The imperfect priest passing life on and the well-meaning revolutionary stifling it in The Power And The Glory are typical of Greene's commitment to honesty and irony.
As well as his globetrotting universalism and championing of the downtrodden, Greene is essentially Catholic in his conception of the world as a "valley of tears." Greeneland is inhabited by poverty, war, corruption, prostitution and betrayal. As George Orwell quipped: "Greene appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class nightclub, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only."
But in Greene's paper cathedrals, as in our stone ones, all the grime, wretchedness and pointlessness is lifted and given meaning by optimism, faith and hope.
- For details about "Shades Of Greene: The Films of Graham Greene" and other Carnivale Christi events see www.carnivalechristi.org