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I was very struck last year when reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” (1953) that it doesn’t really work. The psychodrama is bold and powerful; the headiness of the damnation mixes with a tense prose, served up straight from the kitchen of the hard-boiled, to produce an effect that could be conceivably mistaken for realism. But you put down the story thinking, “Well, yes… but life just isn’t like that.” And next you think, “What is it with these Catholics? Just how are we meant to read their books?”

There is a brief and very lurid Catholic interlude a little after the heyday of literary modernism that is populated by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, and Flannery O’Connor (and possibly others of whom I am not aware). Nobody wrote novels in which the reader is so conscious of the characters’ souls before, and, of course, nobody writes them now.

Two particular Catholics detain us here, for the specific style and kind of story that O’Connor tells about her wound-down world of Dixie, was first told by the English author, Graham Greene, about the seaside resort of Brighton. To me, O’Connor seems to be always writing with a stick of Brighton rock in her hand. Somewhat problematically though, for what I am about to argue, Brighton Rock (1938) has few fans and neither Greene nor O’Connor appear to have numbered amongst them. O’Connor reported in a 1960 letter to the novelist John Hawkes that between her and Greene there was “a difference of fictions certainly and probably a difference of theological emphasis as well.” Greene himself regretted in his autobiography Ways of Escape (1980) that Brighton Rock was a “simple detective story” that had contracted the cancer of a theological discussion “too obvious and open for a novel.”

Greene’s most wounding critic, George Orwell, agrees in diagnosing a decay of realism. Orwell was a critic who could never let Catholicism be. He was one of the most relentless Catholic baiters in modern criticism and he would have believed a priori that Brighton Rock was damned from its inception:

The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature. How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.

This is from his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale.” Orwell argues that fashionable literary converts to Rome were alienated from “many of the values by which our grandfathers lived.” Catholicism was the “sort of false dawn” which had preceded the ultimate falsity:

Between 1935 and 1939 the Communist Party had an almost irresistible fascination for any writer under forty. It became as normal to hear that So-and-so had ‘joined’ as it had been a few years earlier, when Roman Catholicism was fashionable, to hear that So-and-so had ‘been received’.

Greene had actually joined four years before he was received, but I am not sure that this appreciably disrupts Orwell’s line of argument. For Orwell, it is apparently impossible for Catholics not to share in what he classifies as being basically treachery. It was, after all, the Second World War and Orwell is aiming to discomfort when he potentially sweeps up Catholics within his “patriotism of the deracinated.” How thrilling it must be to impale so many diverse and influential writers – Wilde, Belloc, Chesterton, Waugh, and Greene – on this one small spike. Orwell’s reductionism means that you cannot pray your Catholic prayers without voicing your contempt for the ordinary decency of the English working class. There is thus little in Orwell that Gordon rioters could not agree with.

Orwell, in his 1948 review of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, mentions the “improbability that is present in “Brighton Rock” as well… that is bound to result from foisting theological preoccupations upon simple people anywhere.” He rules that, “trying to clothe theological speculations in flesh and blood… produces psychological absurdities.” The desire to acquit Greene of “bad” novelmaking leads Orwell to comb for the altogether less weighty matter of bad Catholicism. He ventures the “hope that his next book will have a different theme.” He pounces upon some potential insincerity: “when people really believed in Hell, they were not so fond of striking graceful attitudes on its brink.” Yet when he encounters some bona fide dogma, or “the fairly sinister suggestion that ordinary human decency is of no value and that any one sin is no worse than any other sin” he just shakes his head and carries on, albeit into the smart but superficial joke that the non-Catholics in Greene’s fiction are too uneducated about sin to ever go to hell.

Let us deal firstly with the “improbability” of Brighton Rock and, with what I will take the liberty of dragooning by implication, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Secondly, we will consider whether non-Catholics, such as myself and Orwell, can ever switch off and enjoy these works of seductive religious propaganda. Or rather, enjoy them without worrying, since Orwell was so keen a writer that I fancy that there is something faintly bogus to his dismissal of Greene’s aesthetic.

Brighton Rock is about a seventeen-year-old gangster named Pinkie and his efforts to maintain a murderous dominion over the Brighton seafront. His character might seem initially implausible because there appears to be a narrative policy of withdrawing him whenever he gets too hot for us to handle. He is inaccessible to us during the murders of Hale and Spicer. When we are allowed to walk alongside him up to the attempted murders of Spicer and Rose, he is distracted, things go wrong, and we never manage to observe his consciousness on the floor of sin. It could be that providing too realistic an account of Pinkie’s murderous psychology would prevent the reader from identifying with him and internalising the force of his damnation. We are henceforth obliged to construct the murderer for ourselves, out of our own materials, and graft its spectral psychology on to the schoolboy before us.

Brighton Rock and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” both become more realistic the more that their realism comes under strain. Brighton Rock is at times incongruously comic for a gangster story: a load of dim, burly, middle-aged men end up being bossed around by a priggish adolescent. O’Connor’s story turns the same coat inside-out. One expects this story about a squabbling holidaying family to remain reliably amusing, until they all drive down the wrong road and end up being executed one after another by bandits.

When we review our own lives, we might often find that they never conform to the assumed template of how a life is supposed to behave. After a while we might begin to imagine that we can detect a conscious mischief behind reality’s deadpan, a playwright sniggering behind the cyclorama. O’Connor has identified this humour as the definitive difference between herself and Greene. She told John Hawkes that, “I think the basis of the way I see is comic regardless of what I do with it; Greene’s is something else.” Seán O’Casey is alive to the misery in Brighton Rock, complaining in Rose and Crown (1952) that, “Everything and everyone seems to be on the road of evil. Talk of James Joyce! Joyce had humour, Greene has none.”

Yet I propose that Greene and O’Connor take not so different a view of human life – the view that it is, even at its bleakest, less than wholly serious. Theirs is a worldview in which life’s surface is regarded as flimsy and frivolous, when compared to the ultimacy of redemption.

Woe betide any character in Greene’s fiction who takes life too seriously:

It’s the least you can do for anyone – ask questions, questions at inquests, questions at séances. Somebody had made Fred unhappy, and somebody was going to be made unhappy in turn… If you believed in God, you might leave vengeance to him, but you couldn’t trust the One, the universal spirit. Vengeance was Ida’s, just as much as reward was Ida’s…

Ida Arnold believes that life is “so important” because it is, for her, all that there is. She enjoys Guinness and “sunlight on brass bedposts” because this is, for her, the only currency in circulation. She fusses over the justice of life, because she is a native of this country rather than merely a traveller through it. Her banal, burbling images of the afterlife – of “little inept voices speaking plaintively of flowers” – are so estranged from genuine reality that she has been left marooned.

Ida is thus both an epicurean and a fusspot, and this is not a contradiction. She lives entirely on the surface of life, rather as Brighton pier, with all of its amusement and heartache, chatters above the water. Ida’s “fun” is as empty as her faith in “Right and Wrong.” Like Friar Tuck she is usually belching, but behind all of the seedy and ruinous (i.e. stereotypically Catholic) imagery there is no amenability to the single, significant factor of God’s mercy. Hale thinks it an “old and vulgarized Grecian name,” but “Ida” is in fact as Protestant as they come, in deriving from the German word for “work” (id). Greene hates her strenuously – Pinkie must surely supply official condemnation when he comments, “she’s just nothing.”

It should be taken as read that all of hell is being dumped on Ida, but Brighton Rock requires us to consider whether Pinkie makes it any further. The story of Pinkie’s salvation, if indeed Pinkie is saved, is conveyed through repeated impressions of falling. William Camden’s “Epitaph for a Man Killed by Falling from His Horse” (1586) enjoys a rare (and somewhat jumbled) outing courtesy of Pinkie: “Between the stirrup and the ground, he something sought and something found.” This model of divine grace is perfectly comic: as if an entire lifetime of sin can be wiped out during the little mental click that can occur in the half-second that it takes to fall off a horse! This is, though, the only grace that is feasibly available to Pinkie.

Spicer, when murdered by Pinkie, plunges down a stairwell. Metaphorically, we are meant to find evil stamped all through Pinkie, as though we were progressing down the diabolical confectionary of the title. When Pinkie is abroad on his final journey, the grace of God dives down and presses on to his car:

An enormous emotion beat on him; it was like something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass… If the glass broke, if the beast – whatever it was – got in, God knows what it would do.

And then, off the cliff. Pinkie probably dies the first authentic Bond villain’s death – there is the same dynamic in play as during the death of Ian Fleming’s Dr No, the same acute “sadism of a schoolboy bully” for which the critic Paul Johnson had denounced Fleming. Viciously, Pinkie is blinded with vitriol as the abyss yawns. Even so, the length of the drop is kinder than that between the stirrup and the ground. Is Pinkie moved to remorse as that taster of ersatz hellfire burns through his eyes?

The outlook is discouraging. Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic novelist who Greene’s biographer Jeremy Lewis has wittily described as being “more Catholic than the Pope,” does not hold out any hope for Pinkie at all. He regards Pinkie as “the ideal examinee for entry to Hell. He gets a pure alpha on every paper.” Indeed, Waugh worries that Greene has made evil too remote with Pinkie’s character: “We leave our seats edified but smug. However vile we are, we are better than Pinkie.”

At the root of Pinkie’s faith is a characteristically Protestant heresy: antinomianism, or the belief that one does not need to live by the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Pinkie is earnestly “a Roman.” He does not dance and he hates drinking; the inattentive reader, if they were suddenly commanded to guess, would surely guess Puritan. The Catholicism in operation here is so stripped down to its basics that any practical differences between itself and radical Protestantism are rendered meaningless. The wickedest of men can be redeemed without frequenting a church or even conferring with a priest. The belated middleman at the end of Brighton Rock shrugs: “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.” Catholicism is equally a detail that escapes the family in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”; the grandson is named John Wesley, so the whole pack of them might be Methodists.

Pinkie will no doubt remind readers most of the ultra-Calvinist Robert Wringhim from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). Greene would have doubtlessly left behind evidence of his enthusiasm had he ever read this book, but Brighton Rock and ‘Justified Sinner are otherwise as naturally counterbalanced as bookends. Wringhim commits wanton evil because he assumes that he is part of the elect; Pinkie does so because he is holding out for divine forgiveness. Wringhim’s character is inflicted upon Calvinism like an egregious wound, but with Pinkie the satire cuts Catholicism down to the bone.

Rose, who is left behind to pray for Pinkie’s soul, is yet to encounter “the worst horror of all” – the hellish abuse from beyond the grave that he has had “graven on vulcanite” for her. Surely this severs Pinkie from the very last thread of human sympathy? You might be repulsed by the selfishness of a between-the-stirrup-and-the-ground salvation; it is like the idea that one can be saved by psychoanalysis. Alternatively, you might rebel against Ida’s own heretical belief (a Calvinist one) in predestination: “I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.”

The “theological discussion” that Greene had feared spoils Brighton Rock is actually far more enthralling than any detective puzzle. Yes, Pinkie has been created for an instrumental rather than an aesthetic purpose, but he allows us to delve around and into a fat moral knot. Orwell’s joke that the non-Catholics in Greeneland are “too ignorant to be held guilty” loses its purchase at this point. Although Pinkie can conceive only of hellfire, his evil is built upon an active faith in God’s grace. Ida’s innocent life of goodness correspondingly expresses complacency and even a dangerous self-reliance. Is evil therefore more good than goodness? Having posed this question, Greene can hardly answer in the affirmative, and so ambiguity becomes the great friend of his book. We cannot imagine Pinkie’s salvation in any event because it would necessitate an obliteration of his personhood which is tantamount, from our perspective, to what happens to him anyway. He is dissolved in acid and taken by the sea, “whipped away into zero – nothing.”

With this fumbling at an answer, I doubt that Brighton Rock can have converted many people to Catholicism. But both Brighton Rock and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” operate as works of religious propaganda because their stories are bleakly meaningless until the concept of God’s grace is added. For the atheist, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a story in which a delightful family are murdered, with an interlude of aimless theological speculation beforehand. The story has since malfunctioned due to the sheer volume of consequent commentary upon whether the grandmother is authentically saved. The atheist might be bemused. If somebody in such favourable circumstances as the grandmother is unable to receive God’s mercy, the concept can be hardly very practical. Or rather, it is so elitist that there is a crucial sense of fair play missing from Catholic doctrine. Cynicism about the grandmother’s motivations became so great that O’Connor had to intervene publicly in 1963, to insist upon the “triumph” of the grandmother (“she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.”)

There is still some juicy satire in the blow that is dealt to The Misfit’s evil. He is evil because he is a materialist: if he had proof that Jesus had “raised the dead” then he would readily “throw away everything and follow Him.” It is accordingly ironic that he is not only present at the moment of the grandmother’s deliverance, but placed at the very centre of it. The Misfit cannot “see” this mercy but he understands enough of it to have his sense of reality disconcerted.

Let us consider the story’s most lyrical line: “She would have been a good woman… if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life” (I marvel that no fan of O’Connor’s has ever had this inscribed on their tombstone, a use for which it would be perfect.) It might sound as if The Misfit is dismissing the grandmother’s goodness, but he has actually just discovered it right in the middle of his own world of violence and evil. And his discovery derives from interpretation rather than proof.

We might wonder why it is only until now that The Misfit, a supposed veteran of violent conflict, has been touched by God’s grace. Or perhaps he has encountered it in previous killings and forgotten about it – the concept refuses to stick! A greater problem occurs when authorial contrivance appears to be synonymous with divine intervention. In their practice of allegory, Greene and O’Connor generally share the attitude that, “the dose makes the poison.” Neither Pinkie nor the grandmother is depicted being welcomed at the Celestial City. In a letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey, O’Connor criticises a teacher for reading too much into “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”:

Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.

I can nevertheless understand how a teacher might have reacted to the story in this way, to its mounting cathedral dread, to that ominous significance which comes to be conveyed by every detail, as if gargoyles are gesticulating from every corner. The family are lured down the fateful road by the grandmother’s equally misremembered and made-up story about the “family silver” hidden behind a house’s “secret panel.” With allegorical aplomb, the “treasure” will turn out to be God’s grace, which is secretly hidden behind the surface reality of the final roadside scene. When facing her soon-to-be killer, the grandmother “had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew” and she finally blurts out “You’re The Misfit!… I recognized you at once!” This recognition will determine her own destruction, and those of her family, since the fugitive will not allow them to live from then on. But this self-obliterating recognition also symbolically prefigures the later, greater act of identifying and receiving divine mercy.

If the reader has the feeling that “life just isn’t like this,” then the entire story is effectively bust. Divine intervention spares the grandmother from being killed in the earlier car accident, since this would not allow her the proper time for her audition to heaven. Outside of this field of symbols, however, it would be far more likely for her to die in a car accident than it would for her to be executed by the roadside by a fancy-dress medieval allegory of death. In Brighton Rock, Pinkie is not assassinated at the Races, where he confesses that, “he hadn’t time, scrambling down the chalk down, to feel the least remorse.” He too is spared and given more time. The spray of vitriol that either heralds the flames or provides a prompt to mercy might also seem like too gratuitous a contrivance. There is an irritating wink from Ida’s Ouija board as well, with its allusion to “KILLEYE.”

If these tales cannot be told without resort to a flagrant artificiality, then it is tacitly conceded that their model of grace cannot be reconciled with our everyday feeling for “what life is really like.” It is here that the difference between these otherwise close-knit writers becomes apparent. O’Connor had condemned Greene for creating a reality that is “sour through and through” and trying, hopelessly, to avoid a contrivance that is inescapable within their fiction: “What he does, I think, is try to make religion respectable to the modern unbeliever by making it seedy. He succeeds so well in making it seedy that then he has to save it by the miracle.” Far better, for her, that the sour old lady bounces back up screaming “Jesus loves me!” Far better, in fact, that ambiguity is replaced with a comic plainness, even if it skirts open didacticism.

Can one still read these stories if they do not have the faith that provides the missing third dimension? Unexpectedly, I find the best answer to this to be contained within Orwell’s “Inside the Whale.” He is trying to refute Catholic critics who “tend to claim that books are only ‘good’ when they are of Catholic tendency.” Verily, it cuts both ways:

…there exist ‘good’ writers whose world-view would in any age be recognized false and silly. Edgar Allan Poe is an example. Poe’s outlook is at best a wild romanticism and at worst is not far from being insane in the literal clinical sense. Why is it, then that stories like The Black Cat, The Tell-tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher and so forth, which might very nearly have been written by a lunatic, do not convey a feeling of falsity? Because they are true within a certain framework, they keep the rules of their own peculiar world, like a Japanese picture. But it appears that to write successfully about such a world you have got to believe in it.

So we are all Catholics when we read these books. It is not so much faith as the suspension of disbelief.

The period when these books were written has since ended. I struggle to perceive a qualitative difference between Greeneland and, say, the extraordinary psycho-mysticism of Algernon Blackwood or the prophesies of Aleister Crowley. They are all largely self-invented religions and startling creative feats. Brighton Rock may have influenced many thriller-writers with its violent atmosphere, but nobody has subsequently regained the exact mindset that is needed to write anything like Brighton Rock. Even the author who now resembles Greene’s only conscientious disciple had shown a grouchy disinterest in his influence. The singularity of Brighton Rock today looks awfully like loneliness.