Graham GreeneA Life in Letters Edited by Richard GreeneW. W. Norton, $35, 480 pp.
The popular view of Graham Greene (1904-91) holds that he was, as a person, enigmatic, elusive, or, as editor Richard Greene (no relation) writes, “a fugitive from our inquiries.” Therefore, the editor says, he has selected these letters from thousands “to clear the stage and to give the life back to its subject.”
The person or persona that emerges from the letters is not markedly different, however, from that implied in various biographical sources or for that matter from the authorial voice in the novels and nonfiction. Greene consistently demonstrates sporadic anhedonia, expressed in phrases like “the rather degraded love of success,” the desire to escape “the complacency, ignorance, and well-being” of wartime Sierra Leone “to get back to decent austerity again and at least the possibility of air raids.”
From an early age, Graham Greene needed danger and conflict to stimulate him, as when he said in his twenties, “There’s nothing like a fight to cure depression.” Writing the same year to a friend in France, he promised that “if the riots come on, I’ll be over. I want a few days holiday badly.” This desire to take risks persisted for most of his life.
Richard Greene traces much of his subject’s less attractive behavior to the bipolar disorder that “can lead to suicidal depression, drinking, risk-taking, thrill-seeking, promiscuity, and a desire to seduce and be seduced.” Many of these characteristics are amply demonstrated in these letters.
The editor’s selections also show another side of Greene, “responsible, loving, and ethical.” He supported writers and literary associates, morally and financially; he was a supportive father, if often at great distances; he responded generously to at least some of the many letters he received (by the late 1980s, as many as 180 a month), regretfully declining to offer advice about moral—mostly sexual—dilemmas posed by his readers, but often answering questions about thematic and structural issues in the novels.
As this group of letters shows, Greene had for the most part a clear sense of what he had done in the novels, notably A Burnt-Out Case, The Quiet American, and The Heart of the Matter. He modified his own interpretation of the motives for Scobie’s suicide—from theological to psychological—in The Heart of the Matter, partly as a result of Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 review in Commonweal. He also wrote to a number of authors about their work; for the most part these letters reveal the warmth of various friendships but contribute little to the understanding of the works themselves.
Greene’s relationship with the church was no easier than his relationships with women, though perhaps less various. By the time of his affair with Catherine Walston—model for the heroine in The End of the Affair—he had a very narrow definition of sin, trying to convince her that he was fully Catholic only when he was with her, and his view of intermittent confession would have confirmed Protestant views of the sacrament. He chafed at being called a Catholic novelist, late in life termed himself a Catholic agnostic, and received the last sacraments from his friend Fr. Leopoldo Duran. In dealings with the Vatican he evaded, with the help of the future Paul VI, condemnation by the Holy Office of The Power and the Glory; learned that Pius XII had read and enjoyed four of his novels; compared John Paul II to Ronald Reagan (not a compliment); and despite favoring the reforms of Vatican II, disliked liturgical innovations.
Greene lived by his pen and traveled widely, because he was restless and also because, as the editor says, travel was “necessary to the work of imagining human reality.” Many of the letters deal with not terribly interesting details of publishing and arranging trips. Although he denied that he was a political writer, most of the trips involved political issues, and while he once maintained that no artist should accept any favors from a government, by the time he was being given VIP treatment in Cuba, Panama, and Paraguay, he seemed to have overcome those scruples. (This last term the editor, in another context, defines as “an affliction of the devout, now thought to have been eradicated like polio.”)
Except in a few cases, where Greene is obviously putting down impressions to use in his books—as in letters to his mother from Sierra Leone and to Catherine Walston from Haiti and the Congo, which he sometimes instructed the recipient to keep for his future reference—the letters are situational, matter-of-fact, even prosaic. Still, they give ample evidence of his talent for describing setting and atmosphere—ironic in someone who professed no interest in nature.
Those interested in Greene as man and writer will find this compilation consistently useful and often fascinating. But though a good writer of letters, he is not one of the great exemplars of the genre. There are two reasons for this. First, as Waugh said in his Commonweal review of The Heart of the Matter, Greene’s is “not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry and of independent life. Literary stylists regard language as intrinsically precious and its proper use as a worthy and pleasant task.” In this sense, Greene was quite right in saying “I am not a literary man.”
The second reason is that, as Greene’s correspondence swelled in volume, he dictated more and more letters for transcription and immediate dispatch without review. The editor regards this practice as making “the prose...conversational, at times near to table-talk.” But it is functional talk for the purpose of conveying information, not, as often in the case of Waugh, for entertaining his audience, humdrum veracity be damned.
Richard Greene’s annotations are thorough and tactful; every time I had a question about a person or event, it was answered immediately. Given the nature of what we know about Greene’s life (not everything, but enough to go on) and his novels (perhaps never enough), this collection is as informative and useful as one can expect.
More on Greene: Paul Baumann, "Remembering Graham Greene"
Ralph McInerny, "The Greene-ing of America"
Bernard Bergonzi, "Graham Greene at 100"
Richard A. Rosengarten, "Two Periods, One Faith"
Bernard Bergonzi, "The Catholic Novel"