I picked up an unread copy of a novel from the community library box last week: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Some critics have called it his greatest work and he, too, once admitted he favored it. The book was written in 1938 after he fled to Mexico, escaping extradition to the United States during a legal dispute with the child star, Shirley Temple. As a film critic he had accused her of acting so coquettishly in Wee Willie Winkie that she aroused unhealthy responses in the minds of lascivious men.
Much of Greene’s exile was spent in Tobasco where he admits he was moved by the peasants’ stubborn devotion to the Catholic Church. At the time, the government was attempting to dismantle the institution and the feudal system that supported it. They did so by killing the priests or forcing them to marry and renounce their vocations. The Power and the Glory is about the pursuit of the last priest in the area, a drunken prelate, known only as the “whisky priest.”
Greene underwent a conversion to Catholicism after his time in Mexico and his transformation seems to have begun with his devotion to the central character of his novel. The whisky priest is a man, who like his creator, stews in self doubt but who finds salvation in his suffering. A similar theme appears in another of Greene’s novels, Burnt-out Case which I was required to read in college. I hadn’t liked the book back then and gave no further thought to Graham Greene until my chance encounter with him at the community library box. Why I picked him out, I don’t know. Reading him again after 50-plus years hadn’t improved my appreciation. Sitting at home in my easy chair, I turned the pages of my new book with the same leaden reluctance I’d done in my youth, dragging my eyes down each page as if it were a medical report I’d no wish to read. And yet I did read all the way to the end.
Greene’s world is not mine. I find it alien. And yet I know The Power and the Glory is a classic, not because some academic tells me so. I know it in another sense. When a writer takes me to places I would rather not go, when he opens my eyes though I would prefer to keep them shut, when the power of his words clang against my heart as if my heart was an anvil, then I know I am in the presence of a classic.
(Courtesy of www.hrc.utexas.edu)