Monsignor Quixote

by Graham Greene


So this is “light Graham Greene” huh? Quite a change of pace from the others I’ve read, (The Power and the Glory, The Quiet American and The Heart of the Matter), but I liked it a lot, maybe even because of the tonal and stylistic change-up. It was breezy and nostalgic, with a great touch of tender affection between the two protagonists.

It’s actually just as Catholic a work as what I consider his most Catholic so far, Heart of the Matter, but here Greene doesn’t deal with his religion in a mystifying, perseverating and in my opinion tedious way, one that is largely inaccessible to non-religious readers like me. Here, rather, he examines Catholicism holistically and much less personally. We don’t see one man struggling with a specific dilemma of absolution, but rather a similar man struggling in general with his faith. (Quixote is much like Scobie, really, with similar doubt and despair — I imagine that both of them are probably autobiographical in this respect.) This is, frankly, much more comprehensible and engaging for a non-Catholic.

I love the references to Don Quixote and Miguel de Unamuno’s Quixote essay, both of which I read over the summer (see my reviews here and here). I would say a working knowledge of Quixote’s original adventures is vital to fully appreciating this one, though you can probably skip the Unamuno which is depressingly esoteric. The climax of Greene’s book is absolutely rousing within the larger context of these works, and the last pages similarly heartbreaking.

The entire tone of the book is perfect, both whimsical and unexpectedly weighty at times. The criticism of Catholicism (and to a lesser extent Stalinism) never feels mean-spirited. At its strongest it is more gentle mockery than scathing derision, of the type that only someone who really loves it after all can convey. One of my favorite lines is: “Father Quixote reproached himself for having spoken too freely. . . Bishops, just like the very poor and the uneducated, should be treated with a special prudence.”

To be sure, there is more than glib wisecracks going on here with respect to Greene’s challenges to Catholicism, but all of the questioning feels sincere, more a result of concern than bitterness. There is the openly-addressed problem of faith and doubt, and Quixote’s question of how valuable his purity can be when he has never known real temptation. There’s an earnest struggle against the rigid, hypocritical hierarchy that constitutes the structure of the Catholic Church. But none of it feels like potshots, which endears both Greene and the book to me even more.

All in all it’s a beautiful little book, perhaps not an Important Work by a man who is increasingly rising in my esteem with each passing book, yet perfectly executed nonetheless. It captures the jovial whimsy of the original Quixote while including more theological questioning and still avoiding my major complaint of the original by being told in a brisk 200-or-so pages. Highly recommended for fans of both Greene and Quixote (and Unamuno, if any of you are out there. . . to become a fan check this out).


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