The Magazine

The Man Within

Graham Greene and his correspondence.

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