Madly Excited

John Bayley

  • The Life of Graham Greene. Vol. I: 1904-1939 by Norman Sherry
    Cape, 783 pp, £16.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 224 02654 2

A best-seller is a classic that can only be read once. All best-selling novelists create their own version of romance, which must have the authority of seeming to be the real thing. In the cleverest ones the real thing usually does come in somewhere: a phrase describing a street, a scrap of dialogue, a character’s sudden gesture. The scrap of authenticity validates the whole. Male novelists are more disingenuous about their romance than women, dividing and dramatising it, pretending to discredit by exaggeration. Ever since Jane Eyre, the female best-seller has usually been honest enough to be Little Me. There is, nonetheless, a remarkable similarity in technique between, say, Margaret Drabble and Graham Greene. Both create an entirely coherent romance world, powered by variations on self-satisfaction, in Greene’s case masquerading as self-disgust. In both cases this is highly transmissible to the reader.

Every decade has its own style of romance, discernible as such in retrospect while seeming like real life at the time. The novel is its usual vehicle, inherently disingenuous in best-selling form. Good poetry, on the other hand, is always authentic, and Auden’s battlefield poetry of the Thirties, creating a mythology of the doomed class and the coming struggle, is alive still in a way that Greene’s battlefield prose is not. But life in this sense was never what Greene aimed for. His prose manages to make a virtue of doing without vitality. Vitality for him is bogus, a symptom of the inauthentic, inappropriate to the truths of damnation, to a world deprived of grace, and Greene’s originality was to show how to make romance out of its absence, a thriller out of non-thriller material, artifice out of the grey negative of contingency.

Out of contingency it even created melodrama, and the trick worked beautifully. The cinema and Racine, with whose plays he had been obsessed in his teens, were the tools of the technique. In retrospect, all the novels present a simple artificial grouping of a spare Racinian kind: whisky priest and puritan policeman present, as it were, love and honour; Scobie, his wife Louise and his girlfriend Helen afford a ready-made tableau like Orestes and Hermione and Andromaque. The complete arbitrariness available to the Classical stage is so cunningly naturalised that we hardly notice at first reading how the parts have been taken from the contrivance of stage dilemmas, with the categories and imperatives of Roman Catholic doctrine acting as the indispensable prison of artifice. Sheer implausibility is turned into realism, as in the cinema, another early Greene obsession. His latest romance, The Captain and the Enemy, has an ending strikingly reminiscent of the film Casablanca, with the Captain taking the part of Humphrey Bogart, and the lean heroics turned wrong way round.

And the end soured, of course. But the souring is so ritualised that it becomes the satisfyingly unhappy ending beloved by best-seller readers. Norman Sherry’s highly readable biography brings out – possibly without intending to – the dense pattern of equivocation runing through Greene’s life and work and imparting the characteristic flavour. At its simplest, it is the paradox found in many novelists today, particularly younger ones, who recognise the current literary value of a black world view but themselves possess cheerful, even sunny temperaments. They turn out The Good Companions in reverse, well aware that their escapist world will seem as convincing to today’s readers as Priestley’s did to subscribers in the Thirties. The comfort of escape takes paradoxical forms, which the professional writer keeps instinctively abreast of, always a jump ahead of what his readers have learnt to identify as bogus and facile formulae. This can involve sharp practice as between competing authors: a good way of seeming authentic yourself is to lampoon the inauthenticity of your rival, as Somerset Maugham did to Hugh Walpole in the character of Alroy Kear in Cakes and Ale, and as Greene did to Priestley as Mr Savory in Stamboul Train.

Greene was soon in trouble over this. Poor Walpole wrote of Alroy Kear, ‘Read on with increasing horror. Unmistakable portrait of myself. Never slept’ – and in the morning he rang his friend Priestley to ask his advice. Priestley sensibly extracted from Maugham a denial amounting to an apology, and honour was satisfied, Walpole having no stomach for a libel action: but the Yorkshireman himself was an altogether tougher proposition. Priestley’s own firm, Heinemann, were publishing Stamboul Train, and in the then state of Greene’s finances, with him praying for the novel to be a best-seller, its suppression would have been catastrophic. Fortunately Priestley was content to compel Greene to remove references to blunt fingers, pipes, Dickens, and novels with two hundred characters which sold a hundred thousand copies.

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