Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Graham Greene's Letters

Graham Greene is one of the most widely read English authors in Russian-speaking world. The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana have long been best-sellers in the Soviet Union, published both in Russian and in English. I remember we had the Quiet American as our English class reading book in the early seventies.

His critique of American attitudes, his cynicism towards the church and his defense of the Russian spy Kim Philby made him a darling of the Soviet literary censor allowing his books easy access to the otherwise tightly guarded internal book scene.

And, as happened with many other Western 'anti-capitalist' authors, this introduced Russian readers to the wealth of Western ideas, from free sex to challenging and tricking the system. An intelligent reader inside the Soviet Union easily transposed Western 'decadence' on to what was happening around him.

One powerful strain of Greene's writing wasn't much noticed in those days, I think. It is his ridicule of the Catholic Church. Russian Orthodox church hardly mattered in those days. Very few people remembered or recognised religious symbols, traditions or notions. Still fewer could tell the difference between the Catholic and Orthodox ways. I remember how deeply amazed I was when an English lady in the early 80-s pointed out to me that a ruined building in Andrei Tarkovsky's famous film Stalker had a recognisable shape of a Roman Catholic church...

The new collection of Grahame Greene's letters, edited by Richard Greene (no relation to the writer), will no doubt be enjoyed by the huge crowd of his fans in Russia. And I think that, besides revealing many of his other ideas, unrecongisable to a Soveit reader, his strong distrust of the Church will find a new and passionate audience in the countries of Eastern Europe where organised religion (Catholic in Poland, Orthodox in Russia and Serbia) is claiming the ideological and cultural ground left empty after the departure of communism.

If you can't brace yourself to ploughing through letters with obscure references and half-forgotten personalities, I suggest you read one of the funniest short stories of the last centuries, Special Duties, included in the Twenty One Stories collection by Graham Greene (a British Catholic magnate assigns a young woman assistant to collect indulgencies for him from Catholic churches all over Britain.)

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