“His very personal religion of man”: the reception of Graham Greene’s novels in state socialist Romania

This is a draft for a talk that I recently gave in Berkhamsted, where I had the honour of being invited to the 22nd edition of the Graham Greene International Festival (30 September – 3 October 2021). 

Let me start by saying that I’m absolutely thrilled to be here at the Graham Greene International Festival. Thank you for inviting me – I am enormously honoured.

Now a very brief sketch of Romania’s state socialist era, which lasted from 1948 to 1989. In World War II, Romania had been allied with Nazi Germany. At the end of the war it was occupied by the Red Army and fell in the Soviet sphere of influence; however, the Communists only assumed full power in 1948. Communist rule had two big phases. In the first phase, Romania was an obedient Soviet satellite. This lasted till the end of the 1950s, when the Soviet troops left, allowing the local Workers’ Party (which would soon change its name into the Romanian Communist Party) a degree of autonomy in the project of building socialism. The second phase was defined by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who came to power in 1965. The Ceaușescu years can also be split into two periods. The early Ceaușescu era – the late ‘60s – was a time of liberalization, overtures to the West and defiance of the Soviet Union: in 1968, Romania was the only Warsaw Pact state which refused to take part in the Soviet-coordinated invasion of Czechoslovakia. In its second phase, the Ceaușescu regime pursued an increasingly paranoid and regressive dream of Romanian self-sufficiency; the technological updating of the country’s heavy industries stopped, while Ceaușescu’s ambition to pay the country’s debts to Western banks resulted in dramatic shortages of food, electricity, heating and consumer goods. By 1989 – when it was overthrown in a very messy revolution – the Ceaușescu regime had come to be seen as the most rigid in the Soviet bloc.

Twelve Graham Greene novels and one collection of short stories were translated into Romanian between 1945 and 1989. An important thing to keep in mind is that those didn’t include The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair or Brighton Rock. In a recent review of Richard Greene’s wonderful new biography of the British novelist, John Banville very confidently asserts that after the war Graham Greene became “known universally […] as the world’s preeminent ‘Catholic novelist’”. Well, to the degree that Greene became known to Romanian readers in the state socialist era – and he did become fairly well known – it certainly wasn’t primarily in his quality of Catholic cultural totem. I haven’t studied the matter in a lot of depth, but the way his work was perceived in neighboring state socialist countries like Hungary or Poland seems to have differed somewhat from its  reception in Romania: those were also officially atheist states, like Romania, but, unlike Romania, they were Catholic countries. Poland remained, even under Communism, a stronghold of Catholic culture, where a book like The Power and the Glory could be brought out by a Catholic publisher (the Communist authorities rejected it for publication in 1958, but accepted it in 1967). However, Romania’s Eastern Catholic Church – also known as the Greek Catholic Church or the Uniate Catholic Church – was forcibly integrated into the Romanian Orthodox Church, which maintained relatively good relations with the Communist authorities. Before the war, Eastern Rite Catholicism had been the second largest religious grouping in Romania. It would basically remain outlawed until 1990, an object of antipathy not only for the Communist regime, but also, to a certain degree, for the Romanian Orthodox Church – the only church in the communist bloc which refused to send representatives to the Second Vatican Council in 1962. (It is worth keeping in mind that the conflict between the two churches was not only a matter of doctrine and of willingness to accommodate Communism, but also a matter of property – all property belonging to the Greek Catholic Church had been transferred to the Orthodox Church.)

Among the thirteen Graham Greene books that were translated into Romanian during the state socialist era, there are two featuring strong Catholic content: The Heart of the Matter and A Burnt-Out Case. Of those two, A Burnt-Out Case was translated first, in 1968. Of course, in the West A Burnt-Out Case had ben widely read and discussed in relation with the four earlier novels – Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair – which had established Greene’s reputation as a ‘Catholic novelist’. The 1960 novel had been widely thought to be about Greene’s increasing uneasiness with that reputation, about his struggle with it. In 1968, the vast majority of his Romanian readers had had no access to that context. Unlike Western readers, who brought to A Burnt-Out Case their awareness of its author’s status as a celebrity associated with religion – not unlike the world-renowned achitect of cathedrals who is the novel’s protagonist – most Romanian readers could have no inkling of that. So, whatever they got out of the novel, the autobiographical dimension of its spiritual drama, the sense of the author struggling with his public image, must have carried little resonance for them.

Anyway, Petre Solomon’s translation of A Burnt-Out Case was issued in more copies than any previous Romanian translation from Greene: more than 90,000 copies in a country which in 1968 numbered less that 20 million inhabitants and in which mass literacy had been achieved only recently. It was included in a collection whose Romanian name translates as “The Library for All” and whose purpose was to make serious literature attractive to a mass audience in the form of inexpensive pocket books which nevertheless often carried very serious critical introductions. If was the translator himself, Petre Solomon, who provided the introduction to A Burnt-Out Case, as well as a chronology of Greene’s life and a filmography, adding up to the most serious critical effort lavished on Greene in Romania during the state socialist era. Solomon had met Greene in 1962, when the British novelist had been in Romania for two weeks; he had later visited Greene in Paris and the two of them would keep corresponding until 1991 – the year of both their deaths – Solomon often asking Greene’s help in translating passages of his work. (Apart from A Burnt-Out Case, Solomon would translate 10 other books by Greene.) Going back to the Romanian reader’s lack of context for A Burnt-Out Case, it has to be said that Solomon’s 1968 introduction does discuss at length Greene’s international reputation as a ‘Catholic writer’, Solomon naturally emphasizing Greene’s distancing himself from it.   

Of course, A Burnt-Out Case is one of those Greene novels which dedicate so much space to the criticism of conventional bourgeois piety (as practiced in that book by the Rykers) that it is not so hard to read it as an anti-religious novel. Writing in 2004, British literary critic James Wood has suggested something similar about The Heart of the Matter: “[t]he novel presents, in effect, two imprisoned communities, the colony-prison and the theology-prison, the city of man and the city of God, and finds them both to be awful places, sites of torture and pain. In both the colony and the Catholic community there is spying […]; snobbery […]; comfortless ritual […]; and imprisonment. It is never clear if the colony offers an ironic shadow-world to the religious world, or if the religious community offers an ironic shadow-world to the secular community.” I think it is significant that, when a translation of The Heart of the Matter finally came out in the Romania of 1978, it appeared without the epigraph – without those words from Charles Péguy stating that “no one is more competent than the sinner in matters of Christianity. No one but the saint”. Of course, the epigraph could have been dropped accidentally, but it is also possible that it was intentionally eliminated. Without the Péguy quote to orient the reader in relation to Christian categories it becomes even easier to read Scobie’s story as a study in pathology, with religion as an aggravating factor – Scobie as a victim of both colonialism and obscurantism. The very terse presentation of the novel on the back cover of the 1978 Romanian edition suggests just such a reading, indicating religion and the closed community of the colonials (where British snobberies are grotesquely hypertrophied) as the twin sources of suffocation which undo the protagonist. Apart from those few lines on the back cover, that Greene novel was published without any critical guidance for readers. The number of copies was generous (50,000), but, unlike the translation of A Burnt-Out Case, the Romanian publication of The Heart of the Matter was clearly not planned as a big editorial event and the book does not seem to have made a big impact on Romanian literary culture.  

So far we have established that Greene’s postwar image as a Catholic dramatizer of  theological dilemmas and paradoxes never strongly registered in socialist Romania. Then what kind of image did he have there? First of all, he was associated with mystery and suspense. The first novel of his to be translated into Romanian was Confidential Agent, in 1945, followed by Stamboul Train in 1946. Romanian literary critic Nicolae Steinhardt warned Romanian readers that Confidential Agent was meant to be more than a standard-issue spy thriller; on the other hand, he berated Greene’s “metaphysical pretention”, which “spoils everything”.

The Cold War was declared in 1947, Stalinists assumed full power in Romania in 1948, and Graham Greene was completely separated from any potential Romanian readership for ten years. (The Third Man was not screened in Romania at the time; in fact, it remained very little known to Romanian film lovers until well into the post-communist era.) When Greene came back to Romanian readers, it was in 1957, with Radu Lupan’s translation of The Quiet American. As American writer Robert Stone would later note, “[s]ympathy for the socialist side of the Cold War was not at that time easily forthcoming from the world of English-speaking fiction.” And here was Greene, “no proletarian but a Catholic moralist by reputation”,  and an acknowledged “master of moral nuance”, writing a “book of depth and complexity that recognized the Communist role in ‘humanity’’s cause and represented America’s anti-Communist effort in Asia as not only naïve but murderous.” Response in the Soviet Union was enthusiastic and The Quiet American was immediately translated all over the Eastern bloc, followed by Our Man in Havana.

Our Man in Havana reached Romanian readers in 1960, with an introduction by translator Radu Lupan. Given the Cold War context in which it was published, when the staunch affirmation of political commitment was still an obligation for Romanian critics, Lupan’s overview of Greene’s oeuvre is actually quite subtle. Focusing on Greene’s ideological outlook, as manifested not only in The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, but in earlier books as well, Lupan doesn’t try to make it easier to swallow in toto by wishing away everything about it that is complex or contradictory or uncongenial to Communism. What he does is isolate a basic dialectical conflict – at work throughout Greene’s writing life – between a Catholic pessimism about fallen human nature and a more humanistic streak, sensitive to social injustice and eventually compatible with socialism and communism. He cites The Quiet American as proof that the conflict has started to resolve itself in the victory of the humanistic side. Following Soviet critics, he stresses Fowler’s climactic choice to commit politically – to the Viet Cong side – in order to “remain human”. Here Lupan oversimplifies a bit: he acknowledges the fact that, in helping the Communists, Fowler acts out of very mixed motives, but he keeps silent about the fact that, in the end, Fowler is left wracked with remorse. As another Marxist critic, Terry Eagleton, has noted, Fowler’s feelings of guilt seem to ratify, at least in part, “the wisdom of his previous detachment”. Commitment may have kept him human, but it also turned him into an interventionist – a meddler – like the American Pyle. His commitment may be a commitment to the cause of humanity, which differentiates it from Pyle’s, but it is also a kind of fall: after all, he has killed a friend – one whom he considered to be in some ways a better human being that himself. In 1960, Romanian literary culture was still far from having fully emerged from its staunchly Stalinist period, and an introductory essay like Lupan’s couldn’t be realistically expected to follow Greene’s coiled, dilemmatic thinking to the last turn of the screw.

Translated in quick succession in the mid-‘60s, Confidential Agent (1965), The Ministry of Fear (also 1965) and A Gun for Sale (1967) probably had a lot to do with fixing Greene’s image with Romanian readers. All three translations were done by Petre Solomon. (In the case of Confidential Agent it was a new translation – the novel had already been brought before Romanian readers in 1945.) Two of them had the same publisher, whose name translates as the Youth Press, and they appeared in the same – very popular – collection, whose name translates as “The Adventure”, alongside translations from Robert Louis Stevenson, Georges Simenon, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase and Zane Grey. This somewhat mixed company probably indicates an uncertainty about where to place Graham Greene as an author.

The degree of respectability owed to the mystery and suspense genre had been a subject of literary discussion both before and immediately after the war. As we’ve seen, a Romanian critic reviewing Confidential Agent in 1945 was aware of the novel’s pretentions of “metaphysical” reach. The discussion was not dissimilar to the one conducted at the time in the United States by critics like Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, who were also aware – in fact, much more aware than their Romanian counterparts – that Greene’s work represented something of a test case. Writing in 1944 for the highbrow American journal Partisan Review, Mary McCarthy saw Greene’s work as playing a central role in the displacement of the old-fashioned, polite detective story (based on 19th-century belief in the power of reason and the knowability of the world) by the nightmarish man-on-the-run thriller. This was an even more old-fashioned machine than the detective story, but, as McCarthy saw it, Greene had updated it for the era of “the Fifth Column, the Moscow trials, the Gestapo torture chambers, the saboteurs in their rubber boat”. Into this machine he had thrown “the contemporary man, bred out of Dostoievsky, Eliot, and Kafka, out of Freud and the Spanish War, who went to school with Auden, and whose remote ancestors are Hamlet and Orestes.” This protagonist was tracked down “not only by the police, the Gestapo, the Communists, but by the Eumenides conscience, by guilt, by the loss of God, the sense of moral implication in the crime that is the modern world.” For all these reasons Mary McCarthy refers to Greene as “God’s gift” to the kind of intellectual who has always enjoyed reading mystery and suspense stories, but has also felt guilty about indulging this taste: Greene “has silenced forever the embarrassing question: But is it art?”. An intransigent elitist, Mary McCarty has nothing but hostility for this achievement: she denounces Greene’s work as pulp with highbrow trappings and she sneers at her fellow gatekeepers for allowing themselves to be fooled by it. Quoting a critic who had written in the Nation that Greene “stands at the threshold of major fiction”, she comments sarcastically that he may indeed be standing there “with his hat in his hand”, but to let him in would be to “overstep the necessities of hospitality”.

The place of genre fiction in Communist literary culture was somewhat different, but it was not uncomplicated either. It is true that, after the war, the Romanian Communist regime gave a new respectability to the mystery and suspense genre (it did the same with science-fiction); the new regime also built a market for it. The critic who reviewed Confidential Agent in 1945, Nicolae Steinhardt, has another article from the same year, called “In Defence of the Detective Novel”, in which he argues for the genre’s usefulness as a pedagogical tool for youth: the trick would be to blend seduction with ideological guidance, instilling in the reader values like anti-racism, pacifism, sympathy with the world’s downtrodden, hatred of fascism, of big capitalist trusts, etc. As Mihai Iovănel has noted in his recently published history of contemporary Romanian literature, these were to remain the parameters of the genre’s official acceptability throughout the state socialist era. Needless to say, they are puritanical (disapproving of the pursuit of excitement for its own sake) and condescending. Although Communist regimes rejected the idea of art as aristocratic pursuit, as rarefied realm accessible only to the ‘happy few’, they also distrusted mass culture, with its capitalist associations of serialized work, kitsch, and the exploitation of lower appetites. It is a problem that they never really solved in their official aestethics. What happened was that the distinction – and the strict hierarchy – between high and low, between those forms and genres that were noble and those that were not, was basically maintained. So someone like Greene, who clearly operated on the boundary with the thriller genre and whose books were sometimes translated into Romanian by the Youth Press, was not easily acceptable as a truly major literary figure. It didn’t help that a lot of his major work remained untranslated during the state socialist era – not only the ‘Catholic’ novels, but also The Honorary Consul or The Human Factor, although both of those express a degree of sympathy for left-wing causes. Two early novels, It’s a Battlefield and England Made Me – both of them sympathetic to socialism in a 1930s European context – also remained untranslated.  (It’s a Battlefield is still untranslated today.) So I think it is fair to conclude that Greene was essentially perceived as a literary celebrity – associated with worldliness, wit, political topicality and a high degree of readability – but not as a true literary heavyweight: he wasn’t widely considered to be in the same league as Hemingway, Faulkner or Gabriel García Márquez. The information that Márquez considered himself artistically indebted to Greene would have come as a surprise to Romanian literary culture. In a doctoral thesis from 2012, which is about Graham Greene and partly about the Romanian reception of his work in the state socialist era, Romanian scholar Gianina Daniela Popovici-Sabău notes that the 1982 translation of Travels with My Aunt was particularly well reviewed. My sense is that a work like Travels with My Aunt perfectly satisfied local expectations of Graham Greene.  


As I suggested earlier, the most serious attempt to explain Greene’s greater literary importance was Petre Solomon’s introductory essay to his 1968 translation of A Burnt-Out Case. (Solomon contributed shorter introductions to three other translations of his: Ministry of Fear, Confidential Agent and Travels with My Aunt.) Solomon essentialy follows Radu Lupan’s 1960 introduction to Our Man in Havana in tracing Greene’s ideological development as a journey that has been taking him ever farther from his earlier engagement with Catholicism, and ever closer to an idiosyncratic left-leaning humanism – what Solomon calls “his very personal religion of man”. He notes approvingly that, in a recent novel like A Burnt-Out Case, suffering is no longer presented as a metaphysical fatality: the figure of the heroic doctor selflessly fighting leprosy is drawn admiringly by Greene. Solomon sees this development culminating with the character of Doctor Magiot from The Comedians – a Haitian Communist and a thoroughly noble figure. Throughout the state socialist era, Romanian presentations of Greene tended to stress his credentials as a political progressive. Upon Greene’s death – which occurred after the bloody fall of Ceaușescu, when the local atmosphere had turned vindictively anticommunist – a news item on national television would identify him as a Communist writer.

What had changed between 1960 – when Lupan had introduced Our Man in Havana to Romanian readers – and 1968 – when Solomon introduced A Burnt-Out Case – was that Romanian literary culture had definitely turned its back on the dogmas of socialist realism, on the black-and-white polarities of the early Cold War era, and felt free to express its renewed enthusiasm for what Solomon, in his essay on Greene, calls “the often inextricable complexity of life”. Solomon is telling Romanians readers that this renewed appetite for nuance and ambiguity and paradox will find a lot to feast on in the work of Graham Greene. And, if Radu Lupan had written about Greene at a time when all hint of religion in a writer’s work had to be excoriated as a form of intellectual error or blindness, Solomon is free to write in 1968 about Greene’s pursuit of a “true Christian spirit” and to defend Greene’s conversion to Catholicism by comparing his supposedly altruistic reasons with G. K. Chesterton’s reactionary ones. Solomon also discusses Greene’s literary technique in some depth, highlighting its debts to Conrad and James, and also to the cinema. He also quotes from Greene’s 1945 essay on François Mauriac, recognizing it as Greene’s ars poetica, saluting his stand against the literary modernist cult of subjectivity (Joyce, Virginia Woolf) and applying to the British novelist the latter’s own words of praise for Mauriac – “a writer for whom the visible world has not ceased to exist”. Summarized thus, Greene’s position can superficially appear to comply with the classical Marxist literary theory of Georg Lukács, who also damned the modern novel’s retreat into subjectivity and lamented what it lost – the sense of a solid world – compared to the 19thcentury realist novel. Of course, Greene’s position has ultimately little in common with that of the great Hungarian literary theorist: as Solomon acknowledges, what the British novelist means by “the visible world” is not just a world that exists outside our own heads, independently of subjectivity, but – crucially – a world existing in the eyes of a God; in another words, a world in which human action carries religious importance – souls are at stake. As Solomon correctly notes, Greene’s argument in defence of the traditional novel – in defence of its continuation – has an idealist foundation; on the contrary, Lukács’s argument is thoroughly materialist.

Solomon’s essay, meant to introduce Greene to a popular Romanian readership, engages with complex issues and deploys a wide range of references in a way that is characteristic for the Romanian literary culture of the time.