The Magazine

The Man Within

Graham Greene and his correspondence.

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