Not Easy Being Greene: Graham Greene's Letters | The Nation


Not Easy Being Greene: Graham Greene's Letters

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That is not to say that A Life in Letters does not manage a steady, inviting flicker, punctuated by the occasional psychic bonfire. It could not be otherwise in a work where Greene's dichotomous persona, prone to self-effacement and self-dramatization in maddeningly equal measures, holds the floor. Part of the appeal of any such collection, but particularly one involving a writer as prismatic as Greene, is the readerly detective work--the hard nerd labor--so much raw material impels. Despite RG's occasionally intrusive opinions and biased contextualizing, his savvy arrangement of the material facilitates some solid independent study; a reader who undertakes an investigation of the letters' tone, address, frequency and signature style will find that, even in the most mundane of these missives, that work becomes its own obsessive reward. I'm still not sure what it means that there were several authors with whom Greene was on a strict last-name basis--"Dear Orwell"--but I certainly enjoyed mulling it over.

About the Author

Michelle Orange
Michelle Orange is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F....

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Beginning with his earliest letters, Greene demonstrates a crack novelist's gift for narrative and a keen sense of address; his voice alters with his intended audience and effect, and within those alterations a pattern of strategic self-fashioning emerges. Greene conceived of himself as a writer from a startlingly young age, as evidenced not just by his teenage literary networking and angling toward publication but the personal storytelling that was his natural, and perhaps restorative, milieu. As a 16-year-old on a Mediterranean cruise with his aunt, Greene writes to his "Mumma" in Berkhamsted, England, dispatching quickly with news of himself to move on to a sharp tableau of the ship's most memorable passengers. The cruise was preceded by what RG refers to as an "emotional collapse," which prompted the first in a series of suicide attempts and a six-month course of psychoanalysis. The wry, cheering letters home suggest that even as a boy travel made Greene happy, not least because it provided him with a tale to tell and, in turn, the solder for his rapidly cohering identity.

As a lover Greene is no less compelled by the narrative impulse, and a new persona emerges. At Oxford his nascent literary ambition took root, as did the mania that would charge many of his romances, in particular his pursuit of Vivienne Dayrell-Browning (later Vivien Greene). By the third letter and the second month of their relationship, Greene is in what will become a familiar agony, anticipating her too reserved responses and then responding to his own anticipation, single-handedly creating a dialogue of courtship in which he is the aggrieved but unyielding, ardent lover, pleading perfectly rational solutions for his unreasonable predicament. At 22 he feels entrenched in not just the writing life but the perilous self-examination it entails. While hospitalized following an appendectomy, he witnesses the death of a small child and writes to Dayrell-Browning: "Are people who write entirely & absolutely selfish, darling? Even though in a way I hated it yesterday evening--one half of me was saying how lucky it was--added experience--& I kept on catching myself trying to memorise details--Sister's face, the faces of the other men in the ward. And I felt quite excited aesthetically. It made one rather disgusted with oneself."

It took Greene fourteen books to arrive at a first-person novel, a project that even then he undertook with considerable trepidation. Having grown so comfortable in the third person that he came to regard it as a velvet prison, the chronic escape artist in Greene soon grew equally wary of inhabiting a single character--a self-loathing writer of "entertainments" at that--so fully. "Many a time I regretted pursuing 'I' along his dismal road," Greene wrote, "and contemplated beginning The End of the Affair all over again with Bendrix...seen from outside in the third person." Indeed, if Greene was endlessly cagey about being mistaken for his protagonists (in a letter to Evelyn Waugh, he relents: "With a writer of your genius and insight I certainly would not attempt to hide behind the time-old gag that an author can never be identified with his characters"), in these letters he also appears tactically aware of being mistaken for himself. Greene's deployment of the third-person generic is legion and is in most cases simply a product of a different era and upbringing. Occasionally, however, he tends to dissolve behind the impersonal "one" when uncomfortable, lest an errant "I" pin him too firmly, or revealingly, to the wall. In 1943, deep into a wartime affair with a woman named Dorothy Glover, Greene writes emotionally, drunkenly and somewhat manipulatively to his wife: "My darling, in vino veritas. You are the best, the most dear person I've ever known. Life is sometimes so beastly that one wishes one were dead." As RG notes, in this case Greene originally ended the last sentence with "I wish I were dead," before opening his favorite syntactical booby hatch and slipping away, leaving a sort of holographically hedged version of himself--as it seems he did in the actuality of his marriage as well--in the place where a husband should be.

Greene's letters to Catherine Walston--the American wife of a British politician, itinerant socialite and fellow convert who in 1946 finagled an introduction to Greene by asking him to be her godfather--cannot really be oversold. Though already heavily quoted elsewhere, here they suggest her pivotal role in a decade of productivity but also the feelings of "great happiness and great torment" she elicited in Greene (Walston provided at least partial inspiration for The End of the Affair's Sarah). Greene could be a bossy, petulant, melodramatic lover, raising the specter of suicide more often than a Spanish courtesan, and the romantic pattern of demanding, almost delusional idealization followed by disappointment and retreat set forth in his letters to Dayrell-Browning is, largely and somewhat depressingly, repeated here. But in these letters to Walston, whom he often used as a kind of literary cheat sheet, Greene is also incited to compose his most full-bodied and finely crafted epistolary narratives. "Will you keep this letter in case I need it to refresh my mind?" he writes at the top of a long, gorgeously observed letter from Haiti in 1954. The letters' ruminative, searching cast and almost dizzingly heightened language are the highlight of a collection that is padded with some dry, cursory correspondence; particularly after fame elbows in, the letters are almost always dutiful responses to fans, colleagues and intimates alike. ("I only write letters when I receive letters," he wrote to author Etienne Leroux in 1972. "I imagine that's a common fault with a writer who feels he's done enough when he's put his five hundred words on paper.")

The postmarks that precede each letter are perhaps the most vivid indication of the manic-depression that gripped Greene for most of his life; his whereabouts vary almost from letter to letter. From his first major trip, to Estonia in 1934 (where he conceived what was originally Our Man in Tallinn, a novel he later relocated to Havana), through countless African, Latin American, Asian and European sojourns, Greene whipsawed around the world like a man pursued. His early trips were aimless, though he was increasingly drawn to regions of conflict and suffering for narrative material as well as a kind of existential succor; Greene sought what his detractors have described as a morbid, almost decadent form of serenity, a sort he thought could be achieved only amid actual circumstantial horrors that matched or surpassed--and thereby stayed--those of an unquiet mind. In a 1940 letter to Anthony Powell he describes blitzed London as "extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new open spaces."

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