What follows – drawn from my journal of September 24, 2015 – is, I think, one of the more inspired pieces of literary criticism that have appeared in its voluminous pages. I offer it now as soothing balm for our sorely troubled historical moment, in the truly catholic (universal) spirit of Graham Greene’s novel.
Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. 1938/1977. New York: Penguin Books paperback. 248 pages.
This is a Catholic book in the same sense that Don Quixote and Greene’s Monsignor Quixote are great Catholic books in the very best way – because of the enlightened, humanistic faith of the authors (Greene a convert, as a quite young man). In the same way, and for the same reasons, this is also a wonderfully Quixotic novel – in the same manner, I say, but of course differently. At first glance one might think its content considerably harsher (Nabokov would argue that the cruelty of the suffering that Cervantes’s hero endured is quite harsh enough!), but from early on it is leavened by a good sprinkling of humor and a great respect for human life and possibility.
The action is set in motion in the first chapter of Part One by the cold pursuit and murder of a man who himself is only incidental to what follows. The killers are a small contingent of petty gangsters, representative of the harsh underbelly of urban life in pre-WWII England, led (after the violent death of the older man who plucked him from obscurity and impoverishment) by a maniacal-diabolical seventeen-year-old referred to narratively as the Boy, but going by the name of Pinkie. He proves to be, in fact, essentially conscienceless and sociopathic, capable of acts that make all his dwindling crew of associates profoundly uneasy. More than that, given that very youth and inexperience, living in the shadow of the bigger gangster / businessman / potential political figure who really rules the roost, given all that, and the resultant insecurity which he expends so much energy denying (who, me? afraid?), he is a figure all the more dangerous because he is wholly out of control. And being, by birth,, a nominal “Roman,” as Roman Catholics were evidently called (and called by themselves) in that place and time, he has absorbed just enough theology or doctrine to be convinced that he has irredeemably chosen the Dark Side: that he is, to all intents and purposes, one of the damned.
Aside from him, the essential characters are a buxom, sensual bar singer / gentlemen’s escort (high-range prostitute) named Ida Arnold, who thinks of herself as a “sticker” (if she starts something, she sticks to it) who knows the difference between Right and Wrong and isn’t afraid to do something about it; and the sixteen-year-old girl Rose, a waitress and product of the same poverty as Pinkie’s and is also a Roman, but good-hearted and easily manipulated, who is swept into that Boy’s paranoid control and what she is willing to believe (and he, not too convincingly, to pretend) is love. In truth, by an unfortunate fact of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is in the gravest danger. But blustery, confident, determined Ida Arnold will spare no effort – despite Rose’s refusal to cooperate in her own salvation – to save her. Why? Because at the outset her path has crossed with that cipher of a man who by Pinkie’s order is killed for something he unfortunately knew. And when she figures out that he was the victim of foul play, because she had felt some instinctual sympathy for him, she determines to avenge his death – by her own initiative, if the police won’t help.
Beyond that I will reveal no more significant detail of plot than that poor mixed-up adolescent Rose does survive. While Pinkie, primarily by his own accidental contrivance, does not fare so well. In the final chapter of Part Seven, the final section, we find Rose in a confessional unleashing her convoluted story to a good priest who isn’t shocked by her insistence on being herself of the damned, that she does not want absolution but wishes she had kept her trust with the damaged man-boy who she thinks loved her. In true adolescent fashion, and with all the complications of her troubled upbringing and her basically useless parents, she is sure that she has discovered all to be known about love and that neither Ida (the bothersome busybody) nor the presumably celibate priest know anything about.
Rather than doctrinal lecture or contradicting what she feels with such passion and, there is no reason to doubt, genuine love, the good priest tells an exemplary story. “‘There was a man,’” he said, “‘a Frenchman, you wouldn’t know about him, my child, who had the same idea as you. He was a good man, a holy man, and he lived in sin all through his life, because he couldn’t bear the idea that any soul should suffer damnation.’” (“She listened with astonishment,” the narrator interrupts at this moment.) “‘This man decided that if any soul was going to be damned, he would be damned too. He never took the sacraments, he never married his wife in church. I don’t know, my child, but some people think he was a saint. I think he died in what we are told is mortal sin – I’m not sure: it was in the war: perhaps […] You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.’”
He adds this, which must all have been great medicine to her soul: “‘It was a case of greater love hath no man than this that he laid down his soul for his friend.’” And further, among other things, he repeated this refrain: “‘We must hope and pray, hope and pray.’” Then to her question that what if, due to the mortal sin that she had already committed with this Boy, there should be a baby, he uttered this perfectly wonderful and transcendent counsel: “‘With your simplicity and his force … Make him a saint – to pray for his father.’”
I have to confess that, by the time he got to that phrase “‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,’” I was flat-out weeping. And even now, copying the line about making a saint of their hypothetical child, I was tearing up all over again. It is a powerful piece of literary mastery that provokes such a response. Even from an aging agnostic like me, who is so deeply moved by humanity’s spiritual instinct and longing for transcendence, without having to go out now and convert to the Roman (or Mormon) faith [I am myself a lapsed Mormon]. But at this point I could deeply appreciate whatever instinct it was that made the author a Catholic. Blessed are we his readers by the richly tolerant interpretation that he has lent to his faith. For all our benefit who read his words.
If only all our religious leaders (so-called) would counsel as generously and as wisely! We could dispense with the hateful counterfeit religiosity that gleefully assigns to hellfire all Muslims and homosexuals or liberal socialists, while celebrating that they themselves are “forgiven” – even those who, slipping down from their high horse, are caught in mortal sinning of their own. God save us, if I may use that rhetorical device, from the false religionists who haven’t even given a second thought to the souls of their enemies who are consigned to damnation. The true “saints” – saved, despite everything, by the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God” – are the ones who aren’t out there just for themselves. They are the true representatives of a Judeo-Christian or Islamist or any other genuinely merciful God.
As for my own nation’s “political leaders (so-called)” – taking advantage of the shock of the pandemic to further shower the wealth of the country’s laborers on the corporate masters (the only ones whose fortunes are increasing at the moment) – I guess we should be raising up little saints to pray for their souls. I confess that I am not that saint; I should rather damn them. But instead let me raise this prayer on behalf of all our future little saints: may they inherit a more humane economy (social and political) – and an inhabitable planet on which to love and pray and work. Amen.