From the power and the glory to the end of the af­fair and be­yond

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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.

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