[Marxism] Graham Greene letters

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 11 07:56:12 MST 2008


Some jewels extracted from the review below:

Here is his elegant put-down of Ian Fleming: “He offered to let me have 
it” — a house in Jamaica — “rent free if I would write an Introduction 
to an omnibus volume of his novels for America, and I had rather 
tactfully to explain that I would prefer to pay rent.”

And here, from 1977, is Greene’s cool appraisal of “Dispatches,” Michael 
Herr’s classic of Vietnam reportage: “I was rather put off by the 
opening part which seemed to me too excitable, but Herr calmed down a 
bit later. I think when one is dealing with horrors one should write 
very coldly. Otherwise it reads like hidden boasting — ‘just see what a 
brave chap I am to have voluntarily put myself in the way of such 
experiences.’

---

NY Times, December 10, 2008
Books of The Times
The Heart of the Man, Through His Correspondence
By DWIGHT GARNER

GRAHAM GREENE
A Life in Letters
Edited by Richard Greene
Illustrated. 446 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $35.

“Don’t make your books any shorter, please,” Graham Greene implored his 
friend Muriel Spark in a 1974 letter, “or you’ll disappear like Beckett.”

Greene himself didn’t want to disappear, even briefly, from anyone’s 
radar screen; throughout his long life he was determinedly prolific. He 
published more than 25 novels, among them near-masterpieces like “The 
Power and the Glory” (1940) and “The End of the Affair” (1951). He wrote 
four books of autobiography, three travel books, a book of verse and 
nearly 20 plays and screenplays. Greene also issued, as if he kept a 
Mini-Me in his attaché case, a relentless stream of other material: 
essays, newspaper reportage, short stories, film and book reviews. The 
jobbing writer and the artist in him were sometimes at war with each 
other (Greene wrote a lot of guff), but just as often they effortlessly 
intertwined.

On top of all this, it turns out, Greene (1904-1991) was committed to 
yet another genre: he was among the 20th century’s most obsessive letter 
writers. He dashed off or dictated some 2,000 letters or postcards each 
year, posting them to family, friends, lovers, editors, agents and a 
galaxy of fellow writers, including Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, 
Anthony Powell, John Betjeman, R. K. Narayan, Vaclav Havel, Kurt 
Vonnegut and Shirley Hazzard. The to-and-fro of these letters, a kind of 
intellectual tennis, seemed to keep his color and spirits high.

In “Graham Greene: A Life in Letters,” tens of thousands of his letters 
have been pared down to a tidy 400 or so by Richard Greene (not 
related), an associate professor at the University of Toronto. As good 
as these letters can be — Graham Greene is, by turns, fond, cranky, 
depressive, mischievous — one trusts this book’s editor when he suggests 
that a complete edition of them would be overkill, “valuable for 
scholars but otherwise forbidding and essentially unreadable.”

Like the best books of literary letters, this volume reads like brisk, 
epistolary biography. We follow Greene from when he leaves home (he grew 
up near London, the son of a public-school headmaster) to attend Balliol 
College, Oxford, where he read history. We watch him woo and wed 
Vivienne Dayrell-Browning, and try to settle into family life and a 
writing career.

The family life aspect never took hold. Greene had, in every sense, a 
wandering eye. He needed constant travel (there are letters here from 
Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, the Congo and every place in between) and constant 
sexual companionship, whether from long-term lovers, transient female 
admirers or prostitutes. Many other letters deal with politics — 
Greene’s were leftist but unpredictable — and his tortured Roman 
Catholicism.

This epistolary biography has a not subtle agenda. Richard Greene is no 
admirer of previous biographies of Graham Greene, especially Norman 
Sherry’s three-part, 2,251-page monster, the final volume of which 
appeared in 1994. Many critics felt Sherry dwelled in too much 
queasy-making detail on Greene’s wayward sex life. (I am sympathetic to, 
yet remain agnostic about, this argument, especially given that Greene 
wrote a coded appraisal of 47 prostitutes with whom he’d had sex. The 
real tragedy about Sherry’s book is its numbing length.)

Richard Greene hopes these letters balance the scales. His introduction 
speaks for Greene’s better angels: “Graham Greene was a man of decency 
and courage,” he writes. “He chronicled the suffering of the world’s 
most oppressed people and devoted his life to writing books that 
enriched the lives of millions.”

There is much evidence here of Greene’s big-hearted side. To give just a 
few examples: at his memorial service Muriel Spark recalled how, when 
she was poor, ill and unknown, Greene sent her a check for 20 pounds 
each month, along with a few bottles of red wine, an added gesture, she 
said, “which took the edge off cold charity.” There is another moving 
letter in which Greene begs his French agent (“I’m scared of your 
reaction”) to allow him to buy her a new car for Christmas. And what the 
hey, he seemed to enjoy smoking pot with his adult son.

But it’s Greene’s thornier side that makes this collection sing. His 
literary table talk pricks up your ears. He calls Iris Murdoch and 
Kingsley Amis “two of the worst novelists” of his time. “Ulysses,” he 
writes, is “a big bore” and “really one of the most overrated classics.” 
He calls John Kenneth Galbraith his favorite American writer.

Here is his elegant put-down of Ian Fleming: “He offered to let me have 
it” — a house in Jamaica — “rent free if I would write an Introduction 
to an omnibus volume of his novels for America, and I had rather 
tactfully to explain that I would prefer to pay rent.”

And here, from 1977, is Greene’s cool appraisal of “Dispatches,” Michael 
Herr’s classic of Vietnam reportage: “I was rather put off by the 
opening part which seemed to me too excitable, but Herr calmed down a 
bit later. I think when one is dealing with horrors one should write 
very coldly. Otherwise it reads like hidden boasting — ‘just see what a 
brave chap I am to have voluntarily put myself in the way of such 
experiences.’ ”

In other letters Greene could be effortlessly epigrammatic. “Nature 
doesn’t really interest me — except in so far as it may contain an 
ambush — that is, something human,” he wrote in 1950. When Viking Press 
in 1969 urged him to change the title of his book “Travels With My Aunt” 
to something more saleable, Greene sent the following cable: “Would 
rather change publisher than title.”

As Greene grew increasingly well known, these letters fill with plummy 
celebrity cameos: he spends time on a boat with Laurence Olivier (Greene 
calls him “Larry”) and Vivien Leigh; there are late nights in Havana 
with Fidel Castro in the 1960s; he has his fortune told by Truman 
Capote; he visits with Alfred Hitchcock, Vaclav Havel and Evelyn Waugh.

Fame had its bothers too. From the Congo, Greene wrote: “My siesta 
interrupted yesterday by a schoolmaster who had also written a novel. I 
think if I found myself washed up on a desert island with one inhabitant 
he would have a novel he wanted published.”

In a melancholy letter to his wife, Vivienne, after their divorce, 
Greene confesses that he has been a rotten husband and father. His 
character, he observes, is “profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic 
life.” These letters make it plain: what was painful for the people 
around Greene was vital to his art.

“I’ve had an odd life when I come to think of it,” Greene wrote his 
mother in 1942, in two sentences that just about sum up these letters. 
“Useless and sometimes miserable, but bizarre and on the whole not boring.”




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