The Letters and Life of Graham Greene

Review of Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, edited by Richard Greene, W.W. Norton & Company, 2008

Graham Greene’s life was not half over when he summed it up as “useless and sometimes miserable, but bizarre and on the whole not boring.” As an officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service, he offered that account of himself in a letter to his mother from Sierra Leone. The unrelated Richard Greene in Graham Greene: A Life in Letters compiles such letters – to relatives and mistresses, to friends and politicians (categories that at times overlap) and to fellow writers – and crafts a narrative of that event-filled, peripatetic existence led by a man of irreconcilable contradictions and undeniable verve.

Richard Greene presents the selection as an alternative to the massive, multipart biography by Norman Sherry, whose methods he regards with distaste and whose integrity he doubts. Sherry promised Greene that he would not dwell at length on the writer’s sex life. However, he devoted a large portion of his first installment to Greene’s courtship of Vivienne Dayrell-Browning. Although its subject expressed displeasure with the very personal content in The Life of Graham Greene: Volume I: 1904 – 1939, after the novelist’s death, Sherry “stooped to the keyhole again in volumes two and three,” according to Richard Greene. Of course, he, too, includes a sampling of love letters that the author wrote to his future wife and other women, but then the editor never pledged that he would discretely eschew such intimate material. These sometimes pleading letters reveal a vulnerability not usually put on display with the cocksure, worldly persona Greene assumes in others. They add shading and color to the epistolary portrait. Sherry promised to “focus on Greene’s writings in the context of his travels,” writes Richard Greene, who aims to do precisely that by artfully arranging the writer’s own words.

Though not limited to professional matters, the novelist’s letters do contain a good amount of shoptalk. Greene makes aphorisms about writing. “That is one of the sadnesses of writing isn’t it?” he reflects to a reviewer concerning church services for pets. “One can’t go too far. Life always goes further.” Commenting on Michael Herr’s “excitable” voice in the Vietnam War chronicle Dispatches, he tells an editor, “I think when one is dealing with horrors one should write very coldly.” Such horrors spurred Greene in 1970 to write a chilly, business-like letter of resignation as an honorary foreign member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters because of the organization’s failure “to take any position at all in relation to the undeclared war in Vietnam.”

In letters to and about other writers, Greene offers opinions on his peers. He corresponded frequently with both Evelyn Waugh and his son Auberon Waugh, often complimenting their work. He encourages and lauds the novelists Muriel Spark and R.K. Narayan, both of whom he championed early in their careers. James Joyce’s masterwork Ulysses does not impress him. Of George Orwell, with whom he also exchanged letters, he says, “The only book of his I’ve really liked is Animal Farm.” Greene, whom Richard Greene calls “a hard man simply to agree with,” also finds “deplorable” some of what Orwell wrote in posthumously published letters. To the compiler of a bibliography of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work Greene reports that he can happily return to the Sherlock Holmes and other stories but finds himself “unable to reread Virginia Woolf and Forster” because he simply is “not a literary man.”

While he was in fact very much a literary man, the writer of screenplays and movie reviews as well as novels and autobiographies also remarks on his life in cinema. Greene eventually abandoned his self-applied distinction between lowly “entertainments” and more serious novels, at least in part because of Brighton Rock. He started that novel as a thriller but it became something else in the process of writing. He explains the conflicting moral perspectives he sees pulsating at the core of the novel in a letter to the director of its film incarnation. In a letter to one lover, he name drops not only Orson Welles, Alexander Korda and Carol Reed – the star, producer and director, respectively, of The Third Man, which Greene wrote – but also Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. In another, he describes meeting with the director François Truffaut, who (without knowing Greene’s actual identity at the time) put Greene in one of his films and who recommended an agent for another sexual partner’s daughter, an aspiring actress. He comments on what he sees in movie theaters, telling one friend that he found Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby “repulsive and frightening but excellent” and reporting to another that Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, “beautiful though it was visually,” bored him. To his brother he calls Shirley Temple a “little bitch” after her managers sued a magazine for which he reviewed one of her films. The editor Greene, in the minimally intrusive connective material he supplies between certain letters to provide context or clarity, suggest that the episode could have contributed to creation of “the whisky priest’s sexually precocious daughter” in Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory.

The novel also bears traces of time Greene spent in Mexico, as Greene’s imagination required him to move. The letters simultaneously document his many travels and demonstrate their contribution to his writing. They supply plenty of the biographical background material, both trivial and substantive, that informed Greene’s work. For instance, he tells a reader of the real-life models for the multiple dentists appearing in his stories. More significantly, the collection includes letters relating to the novelist’s several excursions to Panama, where he became close with its military leader, Omar Torrijos, and his bodyguard, both of whom he wrote about in the memoir Getting to Know the General. Greene’s time as an intelligence agent in Africa, where he composed The Ministry of Fear, contributed to novels such as The Heart of the Matter. When he returned to London, Greene worked with double agent Kim Philby, with whom he remained friends and corresponded even after Philby defected to the Soviet Union. In a letter to a journalist he wrote near the end of his life describing his lengthy relationship with Philby and visits he made to Russia soon before the spy’s death in Moscow, Greene offers his personal credo: “I never believed in the prime importance of loyalty to one’s country. Loyalty to individuals seems to me to be far more important.” Such a political outlook gives him a certain flexibility, permitting him have friendly meetings with Fidel Castro, whom Greene admired, even as he complained to the dictator, by mail, about Cuba’s treatment of detained writers.

Greene also allowed himself some wiggle room within the moral strictures of Catholicism. He converted while wooing the devout Catholic he married and he “kept one foot in” the church throughout his many extramarital affairs. He judged one of the other women in his life a better Catholic than himself, and explored his thinking about such issues in The End of the Affair. Late in life he described himself as “at the worst a Catholic agnostic.” While he could not convince himself of the infallibility of the pope, he did enjoy recounting having met Pope Paul, who praised The Power and the Glory. When Greene mentioned that the Holy Office had previously condemned the novel, the pontiff replied, “Part of your books will always offend some Catholics and you shouldn’t pay any attention to that.”

In his correspondence with his unlikely friend Evelyn Waugh, many of Greene’s interests and concerns intersect. Orwell called Greene mildly leftist with Communist tendencies, which Richard Greene deems an accurate description of a political position that contrasts starkly with Waugh’s reactionary views. However, Greene respected Waugh almost to the point of feeling intimidated by him, and he hungrily sought Waugh’s approval. Indeed, with their earnest professions of affection, Greene’s letters to Waugh at times resemble his letters to his female companions. “The sweetest form of praise comes from those one admires,” Greene confesses to Waugh in one letter. In another, Greene describes his reluctance to open a new Waugh book “sitting there in mint condition waiting to give pleasure – like a love affair when one was young which hadn’t begun yet.” Greene wrote to Waugh about (ultimately unrealized) plans to adapt Brideshead Revisited, which Greene judged Waugh’s best novel, for the screen. The fellow Catholic Waugh was one critic whose views Greene did closely attend to, and Greene was aggrieved when Waugh chided him for the religious doubt he gave expression to in some novels. Even with his uncertainties, or perhaps because of them, Greene continued to pray throughout his life.

With his elastic principles Greene managed both to object to the fatwa issued calling for the death of Salman Rushdie and to write a letter of encouragement to a man who organized a public burning of The Satanic Verses, a novel Greene says he never bothered to read. This missive, along with many others chosen by Richard Greene, confirms Graham Greene’s mid-life self-assessment. He was an odd man, but never a dull one.


John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s writing has appeared in publications such as The Mailer Review, Open Letters, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Slow Trains, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, the Humanist and the International Labor Office’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. A former correspondent for Fight News, he also contributed to the Ringside and Training Principles website. He has lived in Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; and Detroit, Michigan, where he was a Thomas C. Rumble fellow at Wayne State University.



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