Greene's letters slowly get to the heart of the matter

By Richard Eder
February 15, 2009
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"Ways of Escape" was the title of a collection of autobiographical fragments by Graham Greene. It served as an escape from many things - among them, from writing a full autobiography, though he did pen, at a safe 30-years' distance, a youthful memoir.

When most of us seek escape, it is from danger, pain, disaster, or wretched discomfort. Greene, even in his later years, sought these things out as a refuge from peace, quiet, a settled comfort.

"Fifteen apparitions have I seen," Yeats wrote, "the worst a coat upon a coat hanger." It was the worst for Greene too: better the extremities of war, deadly choices, moral agony, jungle treks, and jungle rots than peaceable domesticity.

When Greene's London house, dear to his estranged though not yet quite separated wife, Vivien, was destroyed in a bombing raid, he wrote a friend: "It's sad because it was a pretty house, but oddly enough it leaves one very carefree."

For a while the selections in "Graham Greene: A Life in Letters," chosen and lucidly edited by Richard Greene (not a relation), are also an escape, though of a different kind. At college and in the first stages of his literary life, when he struggled with several forgettable potboilers, scraped for newspaper assignments, made a growing stir as a film critic, and finally, at the end of the 1930s, created his first two memorable works - "Brighton Rock" and "The Power and the Glory" - the letters are all glossy surface.

They recount events, roll appropriate logs, and are virtually devoid of intimacy, introspection, or even the unforgettably incised portraits that he achieved in his novels. Even his ardent courtship letters to Vivien strike us as only a performance: a fawning but cold exercise of passionate rhetoric aimed at breaking down her resistance.

(At the same time and during the marriage, ending in formal separation only after 20 years, he broke down many other resistances or nonresistances, what with casual affairs, a frequent use of prostitutes, and eventually two long-term liaisons.)

It is only with the first of the great escapes that Greene's letters - which up to then are virtual concealments and offer us far less than the editor's informative footnotes - begin to come to life.

Greene was sent out to a wartime intelligence posting in Sierra Leone. Suddenly everything takes on color: the monstrous bugs, the servants' quarrels, the futile work routines (Greene's plan to open a brothel in an adjacent bit of French Africa to attract presumably talkative Vichy officers was squelched by his superior).

Some of his escapes thereafter are recounted in detail; others are referred to more sketchily. His stay at a Congo leprosarium - source for "A Burnt-Out Case" - is all the more vivid because he makes clear the effort it took to overcome what he calls his "nervousness."

He rarely discusses his writing. There's an indirect glimpse when he explains to the director of the film of "The Power and the Glory" why he removed some of the script alterations to the book's dialogue: "I felt that in order to make the meaning clear to the audience you had sometimes lost the dramatic mystical flash. A religious idea is often a paradoxical one and I don't feel that one wants to smooth out the paradox too much."

A much deeper and shattering allusion to his work - it is a key to the near-theological extremes of his plots, compassionate and ruthless at the same time - comes in this terrible line in another letter: "Nature doesn't really interest me - except in so far as it may contain an ambush - that is, something human."

His love letters to his longtime mistress Catherine Walston, who was married, Catholic, and had scruples about the relationship, set up a comically casuistical argument against her suggestion that they pray to abstain. No, he argues, she may only pray that someday they will want to abstain. Meanwhile, in effect: sin and confess. (Rather like St. Augustine's "Lord make me chaste, but not yet" in his pre-"Confessions" days.)

From time to time the letters movingly demonstrate the generosity Greene showed to his friends in need. Not only did he continue to pay a commission to a former agent, he paid it to her estate after her death. He gave a monthly stipend to Muriel Spark while she was still struggling for recognition.

Perhaps the deepest relationship portrayed in the letters is the lifelong sympathy between Greene, a leftist, and Evelyn Waugh, the other great Catholic novelist and an eccentric reactionary. Waugh could be irascible; admiring Greene's writing, he angrily denounced the theology of "A Burnt-Out Case" as heretical.

They were comrades, nevertheless, and Greene never forgot it. After Waugh's death, he wrote to his widow: "As a writer I admired him more than any other living novelist, and as a man I loved him. He was a very loyal and patient friend." (That last was a stretch, of course.) "What I loved most in him was that rare quality that he would say only the kind things behind one's back."

Richard Eder reviews books for numerous publications.

GRAHAM GREENE: A Life in Letters

Edited by Richard Greene

Norton, 446 pp., illustrated, $35

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