From the power and the glory to the end of the affair and beyond
GRAHAM Greene thought the reference to Greeneland’’ a lazy critical cliche. It was certainly much used, perhaps because it neatly caught the world of this restless, much- travelled, tortured man, celebrated for his troubled protagonists: a whisky priest in Mexico, a policeman in Africa, a diplomat in Argentina, a journalist in Vietnam. With The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The Honorary Consul and The Quiet American he entered the canon of 20th- century literature; on Greene’s death in 1991, Kingsley Amis described him as until today our greatest living novelist’’. Since then, Greeneland has been much traversed by biographers. Now Richard Greene ( no relation), a professor of English at the University of Toronto, has edited a collection of Graham Greene’s letters. The novelist once estimated that he wrote 2000 letters a year, and he lived to be 86: publishing all those letters would have taken decades. The editor has sifted through Greene’s correspondence and come up with a fascinating selection ranging across seven decades; they have been arranged chronologically and divided into chapters.
Greene’s childhood as the son of the headmaster of Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire was an unhappy one. He found life on both sides of the green baize door that separated the family from the school distinctly uncomfortable, so much so that he had a breakdown and his parents, in an enlightened move for the time, sent him to live with a psychoanalyst for six months.
His first letters are written from there to his mother and reveal a respectful, affectionate son and, for a 16- year- old, a perceptive one. Yet there is, as Paul Theroux observed in a review in The New York Times , something of the little boy lost in his correspondence, a trait he never quite lost.
While at Oxford he fell in love with Vivienne Dayrell- Browning and this produced some extraordinary letters. Such was his love for her that he said he was prepared to commit to a marriage blanc. He also joined her as a convert to Catholicism, which was to have an abiding but rarely calming effect on his life and work.
He and Vivien ( as she began to spell her name) had a son and daughter, but his antagonism towards ordinary domesticity led him to travel and, eventually, to live abroad. His promiscuity, which his editor suggests was often made utterly unmanageable by bipolar illness’’, added to that restlessness and led inevitably to the end of his relationship with Vivien ( although they never divorced). Greene as sex addict does not figure strongly in these letters. But in his exhaustive ( and, at 2251 pages, exhausting) authorised biography of Greene, Norman Sherry annexes a list of 47 favourite prostitutes scribbled down by
Greene in 1948 when his mistress Catherine Walston challenged him about rumours that he paid women for sex.
Of his three long- term loves — Dorothy Glover, Walston, then Yvonne Cloetta — his 10 years with Walston seem to have been the most passionate and intense, and inspired The End of the Affair.
The American wife of a very rich Englishman and about to convert to Catholicism, she had asked Greene, whom she had never met, to be her godfather. They soon became lovers but she would not leave her husband to marry Greene, fearing she would lose her children. The sinfulness of their affair in the eyes of their church also tortured her.
In a remarkable letter, he advises Catherine to confess and take communion between their adulterous encounters. In another he recounts a dream in which Vivien dies.
There are no letters to his mistresses before and after Walston. Those to Glover seem not to have survived, while Cloetta, with whom he spent, quite equably, the last 30 years of his life, forbade publication during the lifetime of her husband, Jacques.
By the 1960s Greene’s fame had grown, as had his correspondence. He responded kindly to readers, generously to young writers such as R. K. Narayan and Muriel Spark, and affectionately to friends. He said that individual loyalty was more important than loyalty to one’s country, remaining close to his old MI6 colleague Kim Philby, even visiting him in the Soviet Union.
His fascination for Latin America inevitably provoked an interest in its politics; he formed an unlikely friendship with Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. He liked Jimmy Carter but hated Ronald Reagan. He liked pope Paul VI, an admirer of his novels, but he embraced liberation theology and despised John Paul II.
His relationship with the church was always ambivalent. After an encounter in 1949 with the stigmatic Padre Pio, Greene was moved to say that the padre had introduced a doubt in my disbelief’’. He claimed to be just inside the church door’’.
For all his doubts, he chose to die inside. In one of his final interviews, when asked whether he regretted not winning the Nobel prize, he replied that he was now interested only in one prize. His favourite priest was with him when he died and gave him the last rites.
Greene’s letters do not sting like Evelyn Waugh’s or sparkle like John Betjeman’s; nor do they reveal as much about himself as Ted Hughes’s letters do. But they expose aspects of him as son, brother, husband, lover, father and friend, as well as the more familiar author, traveller, exile and Catholic.
As a sometime spy he was secretive — he kept two diaries — so Greene, despite his biographers, remains something of a riddle. But these letters show him to be, despite his flaws, honest, modest, likable, passionate and fearless.