John Bayley writes about Graham Greene
Survivor, soldier of fortune, a tough mercenary who would be on hand in any campaign and whose washed-out pale-blue eyes might stare out with equal pugnacity and distaste from under a bowler, a bush hat or a steel helmet – that is the kind of image the old pro projected and presented. A 17th-century poet, writing an epitaph, would have given us a conceit about death being glad to have got him at last. A tender-hearted chap like Siegfried Sassoon might have shaken his head, on the other hand, and regretted that those who were young and hated war should have to die ‘when cruel old campaigners win safe through’.
Vol. 13 No. 9 · 9 May 1991
From Graham Chainey
Of all the valedictions to Graham Greene that I read John Bayley’s (LRB, 25 April) was the dreariest. Why invite someone with a clear distaste for a writer to pour a ton of academic sludge over his grave? Bayley’s piece was grudging (even taking Greene to task for living too long), abstractly opaque, unilluminating – qualities which Greene himself, whatever his faults, never stooped to. Bayley belittles Greene by bracketing him with le Carré (even suggesting that le Carré, that purveyor of cardboard contrivances, ‘extended’ Greene’s ‘method’) and by contrasting him with the incomparable Conrad and Dostoevsky; he wheels in Virginia Woolf, of all people, as a weird witness for the prosecution. Greene’s perverse Catholicism and leftism may finally bore and ring bogus but they were elements in a lifelong spirit of challenging rebelliousness and should be understood as such. There may be greater writers alive – Golding, for one – but at least Greene never played safe. And after all, he was more than the author of those few novels which Bayley slightingly mentions. What about his significant contribution to cinema? What about his essays, plays, polemics? Greene was a rounded man of action and letters on a scale to be cherished rather than belittled in our world of the faculty expert, the single-subject bore, the genre bestseller.
Vol. 13 No. 11 · 13 June 1991
From Bernard McCabe
‘A ton of academic sludge’. Graham Chainey overstates, quantitatively at least (Letters, 9 May), but there was something dreary about John Bayley on Graham Greene. I noted particularly his donnish ploy of raising the question of ‘greatness’ in order smartly to deny Greene that dubious quality: ‘Greene may have been a great man, but hardly a great novelist.’ I noted the ploy because he’d already used it a few pages earlier, in his piece on G.M Hopkins. Is Hopkins ‘great’? he asks, and answers: ‘though a few [Victorian] poets are classifiable by this cliché Hopkins is surely not one of them.’ More spoonfuls of curiously grudging academic sludge are poured: ‘he is very much a young person’s poet’ (the teacher managing to condescend both to his subject and to the young). Large, ‘challenging’ judgments then follow from this mature reader, unaccompanied by any supportive analysis ‘ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is not on continued acquaintance a very interesting poem, and has very little inside to it.’ By now I am imagining a large lecture hall years ago, a don in full flow, bothered undergraduates scribbling: ‘GMH not great. Wreck of D. not v. interesting. All right to like Hop. when young. When older start liking R. Bridges, C. Rossetti.’