The Magazine

The Man Within

Graham Greene and his correspondence.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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Graham Greene

A Life in Letters

Edited by Richard Greene

Norton, 480 pp., $35

Nobody, as the literary scholar Samuel Hynes once observed, has ever wanted to be a Graham Greene character.

His men and women are murderers, traitors, unhappy adulterous lovers, sinners of every stripe--and he doesn't glamorize their seediness, their misery, or their desperation. Evelyn Waugh bluntly called them "charmless." Nearly all of them dwell in a shadowy fictive world of hunter and hunted, where love itself leads mainly to anguish and loss. Nonetheless, even Greene's "entertainments," such as This Gun for Hire and The Third Man, are more than just tautly written thrillers of revenge or pursuit: In the distance one can usually make out the baying of Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven: I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind .  .  .  .

After the death of Henry James, according to Greene, "the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the sense of the importance of the human act." Consequently, Greene's own work--especially the major books of what one might call his middle period: Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair--sought to reinvest contemporary fiction with moral seriousness, to depict solid and real people trapped in life-or-death ethical dilemmas and racked by guilt and despair.

Anyone needing a quick summary of the Greenean view of the world need only look to the first and last sentences of The Third Man. It opens: "One never knows when the blow will fall," and closes: "Poor Crabbin. Poor all of us, when you come to think of it." To this gloomy assessment of our fragile human condition the only possible counterweight lies in what the priest of Brighton Rock calls "the awful strangeness of the mercy of God."

For more than half a century Graham Greene (1904-1991) supplied disquieting reports and updates from this bleakly desolate "Greeneland," wherever it might be temporarily located on the map: Mexico (The Power and the Glory), Africa (The Heart of the Matter), Southeast Asia (The Quiet American), Cuba (Our Man in Havana), South America (The Honorary Consul). Yet while the troubled locales might vary, the quality of Greene's artistry remained uniformly high. Even a relatively late novel, The Human Factor (1978), has been ranked by a standard study of the espionage thriller as the greatest spy story of modern times; Travels with My Aunt revealed its author as a master of black humor.

Over the years Graham Greene's many books have sold more than 20 million copies, and movies, often very fine movies, have been made from virtually all of them. One can even point to a latter-day "school of Greene," whose members have included such distinguished writers as Anthony Burgess, V. S. Naipaul, John le Carré, and Paul Theroux, all of them having worked variations on the Master's signature theme: the intersection of erotic, spiritual, and political treachery.

The Master? Greene, I suspect, would be honestly pleased by the comparison to Henry James, whose work he revered. After all, both writers repeatedly depicted innocence deceived and burnt-out cases and the high cost of illusions. Yet there's still another likeness between them. In one of his later essays Cyril Connolly--that moody epicurean of letters--confessed that he had attained a stage in life when he would rather read about Henry James than actually read or reread any of Henry James's fiction. Something similar seems to be happening to Greene: We've grown obsessed with the man himself.

Norman Sherry's massive three- volume biography--not a slice but a slab of life, almost a marble slab--piles on the details, going so far as to include the title of the child care book that Greene's mother consulted during the writer's infancy. Michael Shelden's The Enemy Within notoriously accuses, or at least suspects, Greene of every sort of perfidy, from sacrilege (sex in churches) to murder. William Cash's The Third Woman offers a detailed account of Greene's long-sustained passion for the married Catherine Walston, a pantherine beauty hungry for much more than what Sarah, in The End of the Affair, calls "ordinary corrupt human love." There have been other biographical accounts, too (by Anthony Mockler, for instance) and memoirs by friends, including one by Greene's confessor, Fr. Leopoldo Duran.

The publication of such personalia actually started even before Greene's death. Besides his three volumes of reminiscence (A Sort of Life, Ways of Escape, and Reflections) Greene himself brought out--it was his last book--a descriptive "diary" of his dreams called A World of My Own. Just a few years previous, Yours, Etc. offered the best of Greene's many letters to the press (invaluably annotated by editor Christopher Hawtree). Along with serious statements about human rights and censorship, that selection included Greene's several prize-winning entries to various New Statesman competitions asking for parodies of--Graham Greene. Consider just one priceless line: "The nursery maid of the day (our mother changed them with the frequency of young girls in a Grand Bassa brothel) crunched by on the gravel, her thighs sleek as a cat's."

From these letters one can also learn the histories of the tongue-in-cheek Anglo-Texan Society and the even more outrageous John Gordon Society, ostensibly dedicated to combating pornography in English literature and culture. Greene, for all his dourness and melancholy, had a taste for practical jokes.

And now comes Graham Greene:
A Life in Letters. The novelist once estimated that he wrote 2,000 letters every year. Out of such plenty editor Richard Greene (no relation to his subject) has picked several hundred of the best and added commentary and footnotes to create a kind of potted biography. The result is an enjoyable book that any admirer of Greene's work will want to read. And yet it's not a wholly satisfactory volume: As a biography it simply skims over too much to be more than a précis of a life.

More seriously, Greene simply isn't all that good a letter-writer. In the novels his prose has always been somewhat drab, befitting his often doleful subject matter, but that plainness can be readily overlooked because of the cinematic vividness of his scene-setting and the lived intensity of his characters. In correspondence, where Greene can't rely on such compensations, he often sounds tired or anemic. He's certainly not in the class of the witty Evelyn Waugh or the provocative George Orwell.

That doesn't mean these pages lack interest. For instance, even a subtle analyst of eros and agape can write soppy nonsense in his love letters. Here's the opening of one from 1934 to his wife Vivien: "Darling best dearest most adored Puss Willow. I do hope you are having a nice time & seeing plenty of people & things. Your Wuffle misses you." Despite (or perhaps because of) such Pooh-like affection, Greene generally preferred his sex outside the home: He not only frequented brothels on his travels but also entered into long-term liaisons with a half-dozen women. Life was kept strictly compartmentalized until the day that Vivien accidentally intercepted a letter intended for Catherine Walston. Greene tried to explain himself with this honest, if also self-serving, apologia:

The fact that has to be faced, dear, is that by my nature, my selfishness, even in some degree by my profession, I should always, & with anyone, have been a bad husband. I think, you see, my restlessness, moods, melancholia, even my outside relationships, are symptoms of a disease & not the disease itself, & the disease, which has been going on ever since my childhood & was only temporarily alleviated by psycho-analysis, lies in a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life. Unfortunately the disease is also one's material. Cure the disease & I doubt whether a writer would remain. .  .  . So you see I really feel the hopelessness of sharing a life with anyone without causing them unhappiness & disillusion--if they have any illusions.

Little wonder that Greene repeatedly extolled "the virtue of disloyalty." A writer, he believed, should be everywhere and always a naysayer and a gadfly, the devil's advocate, proffering allegiance only to truth and art. Greene himself almost relished pointing out the shortcomings in his own work, remarking of The End of the Affair: "I know what's wrong, but the book's finished & I can't bring myself to write new scenes." His first two novels, he insists, were "of a badness beyond the power of criticism properly to evoke." Even what is widely viewed as his masterpiece was liable to disparagement. Speaking of Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo's Silence, Greene wrote: "A marvelous book--so much better than my own Power and the Glory."

While Greene's first novel was published in 1929, he didn't really begin to make any money from his fiction until 1938 when he brought out Brighton Rock, the story of a punk gang leader named Pinkie. Throughout the 1930s and '40s he kept busy as a literary roustabout. He was a regular movie reviewer for various publications including the New Yorker-like Night and Day, and it was in its pages that he asserted that certain middle-aged men and clergymen "responded" to Shirley Temple's "well-shaped and desirable little body." (An expensive lawsuit followed.)

For many years he also turned out film scripts for producer Alexander Korda and director Carol Reed, most famously The Third Man, later claiming that its success was due to the zither music and acknowledging that Orson Welles came up with the famous "cuckoo-clock" speech. Throughout the 1950s he wrote plays--once slamming his star, Ralph Richardson, for overacting in Carving a Statue--and frequently took on assignments from magazines. But no matter where he traveled or how chaotic his private life, Greene would produce 500 words of fiction a day, or more. He sometimes wondered how people who weren't writers managed to get through all the storms and sorrows of life.

Yet, as these letters remind us, Greene also found refuge in one other lifelong passion. While he opened his most celebrated essay, "The Lost Childhood," by claiming that "perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives," Greene himself never lost his enthusiasm for reading and book collecting. Few modern novelists have been such ardent bookmen.

In 1936 he writes to his brother Hugh: "A thousand thanks for the Book Token. I collected a shelf-ful of books this Christmas. A very nice old collection of Gibbon in 12 volumes and the new Boswell from Vivien--oh, and Bryant's anthology of Restoration letters, Frost's poems and Dylan Thomas's, and Rare Poems of the 17th century, and the Letters of Byron." While working as an intelligence officer in Sierra Leone in 1942 he notes, "I'm leaving The Eustace Diamonds till my railway journey. I ration myself to one Trollope a month which will take me through November."

When, in 1950, Waugh presents him with a deluxe edition of his novel
Helena, Greene writes back: "I shall now have to buy a reading copy though because one can't mark a limited edition," noting that he uses vertical lines in the margin to indicate approval and wavy lines for disapproval. That same year he sends a fan letter to Sir Osbert Sitwell about Sitwell's five-volume autobiography, Right Hand, Left Hand!--"Thank you so much for completing a set which I value more, I think, than any other book of my time--Proust is before my time!"--and in 1964 he writes to Kurt Vonnegut: "I first read Cat's Cradle when it was published over here by Gollancz and then searched second-hand booksellers' catalogues to find two other of your books, Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan. I've enjoyed them all immensely."

In 1979 he informs Muriel Spark that Territorial Rights is "your best, your very best. I thought you'd never top Memento Mori, but you have," and in 1985 he compliments Roald Dahl on his memoir Boy, adding how much he looks forward to the sequel.

As is well known, Greene championed the fiction of the Indian writer R. K. Narayan and the Irish novelist Brian Moore. But he also enjoyed Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason mysteries; in one letter to Waugh it is clear that the two friends have been speculating about Perry Mason's sex life. Greene always loved shockers and mysteries, eventually gathering a notable collection of Victorian detective fiction (with the help of fellow fan, and longtime mistress, Dorothy Glover). Characteristically, after agreeing to introduce a mammoth bibliography describing everything that Arthur Conan Doyle ever published, Greene declares, "One point I would like to make is how good a writer he was apart from the Sherlock Holmes works. I can reread him as I find myself unable to reread Virginia Woolf and Forster, but then I am not a literary man."

Really? Do unliterary men produce Lord Rochester's Monkey, a life of the scandalous 17th-century poet, the Earl of Rochester? And do they reread as much as Greene? He tells us that he's enjoyed Waugh's Decline and Fall a half-dozen times, and continually returns to Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. He mentions being "under the influence of Moby Dick, which I never thought to read twice." In 1959 he writes to Catherine Walston that he's "started rereading David Copperfield. My goodness, the first two chapters are perfect. I don't believe there's been anything better in the novel--& that includes Proust & Tolstoy. One dreads the moment of failure, for Dickens always sooner or later fails."

That last sentence indicates real critical acumen. When working as an editor of Eyre and Spottiswoode, Greene scrupulously hammers Mervyn Peake for the facetiousness, prolixity, and overwriting in the original manuscript of Titus Groan. Peake, after reeling from the shock, reworked his book, now regarded as one of the summits of modern fantasy.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to capture the truth about any man, let alone so elusive and multifaceted a one as Graham Greene. Still, I suspect that Greene would identify, at least partially, with his own summing-up of a writer he deeply admired, Ford Madox Ford:

I don't suppose failure disturbed him much: he had never really believed in human happiness, his middle life had been made miserable by passion, and he had come through--with his humour intact, his stock of unreliable anecdotes, the kind of enemies a man ought to have, and a half-belief in a posterity which would care for good writing.

Michael Dirda is the author, most recently, of Classics for Pleasure.