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How Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’ helped me become Catholic

Memories fade, and also betray us. I published a memoir more than 20 years ago now and realized only many years after publication that it was largely untrue. My research was deficient. I had arrogantly assumed I remembered things exactly as they were. And I didn’t do the interior work necessary to separate what was emotionally factual from what I wanted to be true.

On other occasions, I have experienced how memories simply aren’t there and perhaps were never created, as if we go through some moments of our lives unconscious, unable to record feelings or memories of stimuli for future recollection. Is this why there are so many things I cannot remember clearly? Perhaps my lack of memory is because there were no books related to the business. Just as Teresa of Ávila said she often needed a book in hand in order to start the inner machinery of prayer, I probably need a book in hand to start the machinery of, well, just about anything meaningful in my life.

There was no single volume in this case. But there was a stack of Graham Greene novels. I carried an elbow’s length of Penguin paperbacks for years, reading them on trains and subways, tucking them in suitcoat pockets while walking onto airplanes. I obtained my deliciously worn previous-generation Graham Greene Penguins for 50 cents apiece.

For a decade, I was the volunteer organizer, sorter and chief bookseller for the annual St. James Church Fair on the Green in Woodstock, Vt. St. James was my Episcopalian congregation, founded in 1827, housed in a Gothic revival building designed by Ralph Adam Cram with triptych Tiffany glass windows and the original wooden kneelers. During my years at St. James and before my reception into the Roman Catholic Church, the rector often celebrated Mass with her back to the congregation, and we liked it that way.

Every July, at the height of tourist season, we would fill half the village green with books and other things for sale. We’d usually raise $20,000 or more in two days—the bulk of our annual budget for making donations in the community—with 25 percent of that total coming from my well-sorted piles of secondhand books. We began accepting donations three months in advance and I would pore over those bags and boxes of dusty volumes with pleasure. I can’t say I ever found an Edgar Allen Poe Tamarlane or anything of really significant value, but I made many purchases from the piles myself—books that remain on my shelves to this day.

Travels with Graham

One year, a woman in the village who had recently retired from teaching secondary school in Canada donated much of her library, packed in 20 bank boxes, including a Penguin edition paperback of every Graham Greene novel. Most of them were published in Britain and bought by her when she lived up north. I knew this because I knew her personal story, but also because I understood how a Canadian bookseller would price such a book, and those little stickers appeared on most of the back covers.

I was a faithful Anglo-Catholic then, which is how high church Episcopalians refer to themselves, indicating that they are both in practice and, they suggest, in terms of history, more Catholic than the pope. (Wink and forget about Henry VIII and it almost works.)

When considering the Catholic Church, I didn’t have the kind of doctrinal qualms that Simone Weil had when she wrote her famous Letter to a Priest in 1942. She was a more scrupulous thinker than I’ve ever been. I had concerns about papal infallibility and the First Vatican Council. I was worried, but mostly intrigued, about Catholic reverence of the Virgin Mary—until I spent a year writing a book about the Blessed Virgin Mary and Catholic lore of her and easily softened my stance.

It wasn’t about belief for me. Conversion was ultimately more about identity, aspiration and recovering a past. I knew that every tribe and team has its problems. I was a religious pluralist before my conversion to Roman Catholicism and would remain a pluralist afterward. Still, I carry Simone’s words in my wallet:

Faith. To believe that nothing of what we are able to grasp is God. Negative faith. But also, to believe that what we are unable to grasp is more real than what we are able to grasp…. To believe, finally, that what lies beyond our grasp appears nevertheless—hidden.

Graham Greene was unimpressed. “She talks of suffering ‘atrocious pain’ for others, ‘those who are indifferent or unknown to me…including those of the most remote ages of antiquity,’ and it is almost as if a comic character from Dickens were speaking,” he wrote about Simone Weil after her death in 1951, referring to her attempts to champion the cause of the poor during the Second World War, when she essentially did little more than starve herself to death. “We want to say, ‘Don’t go so far so quickly. Suffer first for someone you know and love,’ but love in these pages (of her writings, which he was reviewing) is only a universal love.”

A Burnt-out Case and The Heart of the Matter are two of the Graham Greene novels that I recommend to others most often now, but it is Brighton Rock that remains in my mind most of all as I write all these years later. Perhaps that is because the film adaptation from 2011 became one of my favorite movies. I reviewed it for this magazine upon its release and have seen it a dozen times since then. As is the case with Greene’s younger contemporary, John Le Carre, to know Graham Greene’s work is to know the film adaptations as well as the novels.

Faith on film

Sam Riley and Andrea Riseborough star with Helen Mirren in “Brighton Rock,” produced by IFC Films and directed by Rowan Joffe. From the ominous opening foghorn, it’s dark and foreboding. It is supposed to be. The novel—which I carried in my bag for years after reading it—centers around Pinkie Brown, a rail-thin gangster who doesn’t just happen to be Catholic; being Catholic is central to his understanding of evil. Most of all, Pinkie is Catholic because he knows hell is real. And so is damnation.

An unrepentant murderer, Pinkie is one of Greene’s extreme characters, devised to make the reader ponder. “It’s not what you do,” Pinkie says at one point, “it’s what you think…. Perhaps when they christened me the holy water didn’t take. I never howled the devil out.” A few chapters later he says that despite (or because of) his murderous heart, he used to want to be a priest. No longer religious, Pinkie would never call himself an ex-Catholic even though he was at the opposite end of practicing the faith.

I once wanted to be a priest too. I finished college early and started seminary at the age of 21 in order to become one. Until all of that fell apart. “That” being the sense of surety and safety I once felt with God. Within a few years of leaving the seminary, I came to understand how Graham Greene might describe himself as an “agnostic Catholic,” even an “atheist Catholic” later in life. The religious Jewish writer Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that each word of prayer should be like a rose picked from a bush, creating a beautiful bouquet of praise. It seemed to me then that prayer, still one of my regular occupations, is more like picking roses from rose bushes that have dangerous thorns: You try to pray without getting pricked.

Pinkie is a menacing thug who has lost his father figure, the leader of his gang, murdered by a member of a rival gang. Pinkie is coping with this but also with the ramifications of his own revenge murder of the killer. In the film adaptation, his facial expressions are a mix of sneer and the vacancy one associates with sociopaths. Once the revenge murder is done, the three other gang members insist that Pinkie obtain the only evidence that could link them all to the crime: a photograph taken on the boardwalk by an innocent vendor, given to an innocent girl. So Pinkie befriends the girl—her name is Rose—and obtains the photo, only to realize she already knows too much. So he woos her and courts her. It is plainly and painfully clear to us that Pinkie despises her, and is only using her, but Rose, innocent as she is, believes in his good intentions.

“I love you” and “I’ll never let you down,” Rose tells Pinkie, and he responds with a mixture of quiet shame and contempt. Rose is Catholic too, and sincerely so.

“I’m one,” Pinkie tells her on their first date. “Why, I was in a choir once.” Then he asks her, “Do you go to Mass?”

“Sometimes,” Rose says, then offering some excuses of when she finds it difficult to attend because of work and other commitments.

“I don’t care what you do,” Pinkie responds, adding, “I don’t go to Mass.”

“But you believe, don’t you?” she asks him, with concern.

He responds in a way that shows he is sincerely Catholic, as well: “It’s the only thing that fits…. Of course there’s Hell, Flames and damnation…torments.”

She interjects, “And Heaven too.” And Pinkie responds, “Oh, maybe, maybe.” He shakes his head.

“But you believe?” she asks.

“Course I do,” he says. “It’s the only thing that makes any sense.” He says that hell and damnation are what make the most sense of all. His willingness to face damnation is a sign of his sincerity of faith.

The other pivotal character is Ida, who wants to warn Rose away from Pinkie. Ida is irreligious but good, in contrast to Pinkie’s religious desire for damnation. Ida is a waitress in the novel but a manager of waitresses in the film, and dedicates herself to punishing Pinkie for the murder, especially because the man was a friend of hers. Ida is far more promiscuous in the novel than in the film; Joffe made her secularly respectable whereas Greene made her only morally so. The narrator of the novel tells us that Ida and Pinkie have different views of death and life: “Death shocked her, life was so important. She wasn’t religious. She didn’t believe in heaven or hell…. Let Papists treat death with flippancy: life wasn’t so important perhaps to them as what came after; but to her death was the end of everything.” Pinkie, the killer, was just such a papist. He committed a mortal sin and knew it. Ida knows it, too, but there seems to be nothing she can do about it.

In his efforts to keep Rose quiet, Pinkie is soon negotiating with her father, a despicable man, to marry her. He ends up paying the old man a dowry. Pinkie and Rose marry, but not sacramentally. No priest, no Mass. On their wedding day, she is late arriving. “I went to church,” she tells him as she rushes into the courthouse. “I thought I’d go to confession,” she tells him, but then she remembers there is no purpose in it because by not marrying in the church they are sinning anyway.

In the film, we watch Pinkie take Rose aside at this moment, with kindness or menace or both, saying, “You’ve got to understand: This isn’t a real ceremony. This is sin, Rose…. There’ll be no good going to a church ever again.” A moment later, as they wed, Rose stands before a window with a ray of light upon her; Pinkie is all in the shadows.

The strangeness of God’s mercy

If you’ve ever read Brighton Rock, you may remember the most quotable line from the novel, spoken by the priest who hears Rose’s confession (although she claims that she didn’t come to confess anything). She claims not to be worried about damnation or the future. He nevertheless offers her hope: “You can’t conceive, my child—nor can I or anyone—the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” There is good in all of us, perhaps more than we can imagine inside those who refuse the comforts of spirituality and sacraments, opting instead to remain outsiders, even to the extent of remaining outside the hope of what religious people call salvation. Forgiveness is especially possible for those who seem most willing to be damned.

It was not just Pinkie, but that old Canadian-bought, beautiful pale paperback of Brighton Rock that pointed me toward joining the Roman Catholic Church. If it could hold and wrestle with a character like Pinkie, and the rebellious Graham Greene, the church could surely hold me.

But I’m also sure I wouldn’t have gotten there had I been offered the hardback of the novel instead. Have you seen it, in the original pink dust jacket? It is the oddest thing, looking like a box of something from the grocery store. I wouldn’t have given it a second look.

Instead, this comfort, of God in the shadows, is what made me feel ready to become a Catholic after so many years of deliberately not being one. I, too, frequently felt lost and agnostic. The story of Rose and Pinkie—so similar, so different, both human—was like a piece I found that had been missing from my puzzle.

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