Sunday, January 23, 2011

Brighton Rock: appalling strangeness

The story behind Graham Greene’s seedy classic.

Fame: Graham Greene's 'Brighton Rock' was his first Catholic novel
By Jeremy Lewis, in The Telegraph, 21 Jan 2011

'Brighton Rock has done well critically, but it’s by no means a bestseller,” Graham Greene wrote to a friend in October 1938, after publication of what was to become one of his best-known novels. Greene was, at the time, a freelance writer: his novels were well reviewed but sold in modest quantities; with a wife and two children, he kept afloat by reviewing books and films for the Spectator, and had just lost his job as co-editor of the brilliant but short-lived Night and Day, a London equivalent of The New Yorker.

Despite its modest initial sales, Brighton Rock – and its successors, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair – made Greene a household name, and one of those rare novelists – such as Ian McEwan in more recent times – who combine bestsellerdom with critical acclaim. “A new shade for knickers and nightdresses has been named Brighton Rock by Peter Jones,” Greene told his brother Hugh. “Is this fame?”

Fame was around the corner – but so too was a less welcome accolade. In his last year at Oxford, Greene had fallen in love with a devout and beautiful girl called Vivien Dayrell-Browning. She was a Catholic convert, and although Greene had never shown any interest in religion, he followed her example, and took instruction while working as a journalist on a newspaper in Nottingham.

Whereas his friend and fellow-convert, Evelyn Waugh, was more Catholic than the Pope, Greene was half in and half out, and more prone to doubt than to belief.

Greene’s first novel was published in 1929 and he rashly chucked in his job as a sub-editor with The Times on the strength of the reviews. His Catholicism had not loomed large in his earlier novels, but all that changed with Brighton Rock. He had been commissioned to write a book about the persecution of Catholics in Mexico – which prompted a marvellous travel book, The Lawless Roads, as well as The Power and the Glory – and his obsession with the Church was reflected in Brighton Rock, shot through as it is with images of hell and damnation.

Rest at The Telegraph.

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