How many nipples had Graham Greene?
He received one hundred and eighty letters a month, he told one of his correspondents. Some of them were fan letters; others came from journalists who kept him informed about the places in the world which he cared about; academics wrote with lists of questions; publishers wrote looking for quotes for books they were about to publish. Authors wrote. In 1973 Greene wrote to Josef Skvorecky: ‘Your letters reach the length of a book by this time ... I feel sad that you are wasting such good material on me, but if you ever come to write about these events I can always send you the letters back.’
He did not, in general, waste good material on his correspondents. He was, he wrote to the Hungarian film-maker Robert Lazlo, ‘a bad letter-writer’. His replies were terse, polite and to the point. ‘I wish I could write you as interesting letters as you write to me, but nothing goes on outside my window except blue sea and mountains,’ he wrote to Skvorecky. His letters were dictated and then sent to England and typed on pre-signed notepaper by Greene’s sister Elisabeth Dennys. The carbon copies were kept and are now filed with the original correspondence. He left them to his family. They have been catalogued and are in London waiting to be sold. I am sitting at a small table in an office above the auction rooms facing the files and boxes. I am told that I can spend an afternoon and the following morning going through the files. I am the only outsider who is allowed to see them. I cannot photocopy anything. There is always a discreet presence in the room.
All Graham Greene’s press-cuttings are here and the scripts of hundreds of interviews for newspapers, radio and television. There is a box of unsorted photographs. There are files on countries he visited and on his books, films and plays. There seem to be hundreds of long letters from Father Leopoldo Durán, the inspiration for Monsignor Quixote, and short replies from Greene. In 1983 he mentioned that his dog Sandy was dying: ‘We shall miss him terribly. More than most of my human friends!’ And in 1988 he ends a letter with a similar snarl against life: ‘No, life is certainly not worth living under these pressures but luckily there is not much of it left.’
Some of the correspondence in the files is hilarious. In June 1989 Greene received the following letter from a man called Peters:
Getting on three months ago, I posted my passport to you via your publisher Max Reinhardt, for safe-keeping. As this was from Volos in Greece, and furthermore the envelope did not carry a stamp, there existed the possibility that you know nothing about it, and this is all new to you. It was a British, full ten-year passport. If otherwise should be the case, could you please be so good as to return it to me. My apologies for any inconvenience this may cause to you or to your publishers. Thank you.
‘Dear Mr Peters,’ the reply went, ‘Mr Greene has not received your passport and he can’t imagine for what reason you sent your passport to him for safe-keeping as he is not in the habit of being a bank.’
Sometimes, Greene was looking for information or help with a book. In October 1958, he wrote to Dr Michel Lechet in a leper colony at Youda in the Belgian Congo:
The book that I have in mind has a leper mission purely as a background and I have no intention, I promise you, of producing a roman à clef. Indeed, the reason why I want to visit all three missions if that be possible is to produce some kind of composite picture which will not be a portrait of any one of them. Nor am I looking for dramatic material. The more normal and routine-like that I can make the background the more effective it would be for my purpose.
And then in March 1960: ‘I have another request to make. If I sent you a roneo’d copy of the book in due course with pages turned down whenever there was some reference to leprosy do you think you could glance at those and correct any mistakes?’ Similarly, when working on Monsignor Quixote, he wrote to Father Durán looking for the names of three Spanish banks he could put in a town square.
Vol. 16 No. 13 · 7 July 1994
Reading the private correspondence of any writer, as Colm Tóibín did Graham Greene’s (LRB, 9 June), can be an eye-opening experience but the voyeuristic reader needs to keep a sharp look-out for the wool which is hovering just outside the field of vision. That Greene was a fine novelist is doubted by few but that he was an expert wool merchant is not yet fully acknowledged. I should like to offer Colm Tóibín tweezers and an eye-bath.
Graham Greene was approached by Sean Donlon of Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) in December 1988 to see if he would agree to function as the final adjudicator for the 1989 GPA Book Award. Greene was happy to so do but on terms which were unusual and which GPA did not fully comprehend. Greene insisted that he could go beyond the shortlisted titles in his nomination of the book which would receive the Award. The company was pleased to have secured the services of ‘the greatest living man of letters in the English language’ (Tony Ryan, chairman of GPA) and felt obliged to indulge him.
Early in 1989 GPA approached me and asked me to become the administrator of the Book Award and to recruit the panel of international assessors whose task it would be to draw up the shortlist. By mid-spring the books were flowing in, intensive reading was underway – the show was on the road. It was early June before I finally made it to Antibes to brief Greene on the shape and pattern of the Award. When I entered his living room there was a single volume in the middle of his table: it was Vincent McDonnell’s novel The Broken Commandment. Over drinks Greene told me that this was the book to which he had decided to give the Award. It look a lengthy and convivial evening to convince him to defer a final decision in this matter until after he had seen the shortlist which would be compiled in September, after the qualifying period for books had expired. Of the many small services I have rendered to Irish letters, getting drunk with Graham Greene was not the least pleasurable.
Greene’s patronage of McDonnell’s novel was extensive and the subject of common knowledge in the book trade. He had ‘encouraged’ Max Reinhardt (his own publisher) to publish it in 1988, he had written an endorsement for the jacket and he had tried, unsuccessfully, to have the novel considered for the Sunday Express fiction prize. Greene must have regarded the GPA Book Award as a ‘godsend’.
In September I brought copies of the five titles on the shortlist to Antibes. For the record, these were: Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland, Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern, John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, Aidan Mathew’s Adventures in a Bathyscope and Shane Connaughton’s A Border Station. The four-member panel of assessors had considered McDonnell’s novel but unanimously decided not to shortlist it. After more conviviality Greene agreed to read the books and we arranged another meeting in October. That meeting took place on Sunday 1 October in Antibes while the wavelets lapped the hulls in the marina and the vodka lapped the hulks indoors.
Greene was in a fix: he had (foolishly) intimated in writing to McDonnell (on 4 April 1989, as Tóibín reveals) that he ‘would be getting some good news in the autumn’ but he now realised that McDonnell’s novel was not the best of the total submission for the Book Award. The claims made by Banville’s novel were more than insistent and Greene was susceptible to them, despite his foolishness. The interim solution we jointly worked out that evening was that I would put pressure on GPA to come up with an additional £10,000 and recommend a 40/20 split of the augmented Book Award. I felt that GPA would buy the proposal: the difficulty I anticipated was selling the proposal to the writers. No one bought it, so the fix was now mine.
It was obvious to me that the ideal solution was to give the full Book Award to Banville and install another award for McDonnell to satisfy Greene’s magnanimity or his vanity or both. With Greene’s collusion, therefore, I exerted more pressure on GPA and the company came up with yet another £10,000. Greene was astounded by such largesse: munificence did not feature in his gloomy world. The story has been put about – Greene himself initiated it – that GPA put intolerable pressure on him to come up with the company’s desired solution. This, and the parallel one that the pressure ‘hastened his end’, like many another story chez Greene, is a mischievous nonsense. The only pressure GPA exerted on Greene was the upward pressure on his buttocks from the passenger seats of limousines, a helicopter and an executive jet during his trip to Dublin for the Award.
On his way out of the hotel on the morning following the Award, Greene was ‘door-stepped’ by a journalist who was told that the Award should have gone to McDonnell, not Banville. It would appear that integrity, too, was in short supply in Greene’s world. It is touching to learn from Tóibín that McDonnell’s wife wrote to Greene saying that he was one of the ‘36 good people on this earth’. I fervently hope the glorious powers will prevent her meeting a villain.
Vol. 16 No. 18 · 22 September 1994
I recently came across the funny article by Colm Tóibín entitled ‘How many nipples had Graham Greene?’ (LRB, 9 June), but I was much less amused by the subsequent letter by Gerry Dukes (Letters, 7 July) on the role of Graham Greene as adjudicator of the GPA Literary Award. Gerry Dukes had only just been appointed as literary administrator of the prize, with no responsibilities whatsoever for its financial aspects, nor any involvement with Graham Greene’s preconditions as adjudicator. Having given the false impression that he had some say in these matters, he goes overboard to the point of misrepresentation.
My friend Sean Donlon, who was then managing director of Irish Aerospace, a division of GPA, rang me towards the end of 1988 to ask me if Graham Greene, who he knew had been a good friend of mine since the early Seventies, would agree to be the adjudicator of a literary prize which his company was setting up. I spoke to Graham who accepted on the condition that he might be allowed to award the prize to Vincent McDonnell, the young Irish author of a novel entitled The Broken Commandment which he had read in manuscript and which had moved him so much that he had convinced his friend Max Reinhardt to publish it. Sean Donlon accepted this condition without discussion and flew down to Nice shortly afterwards. In my house in the Cap d’Antibes, details were finalised between Graham Greene, Sean Donlon and myself. It was agreed that two lists of books would be established: a long list in which the name of Vincent McDonnell would appear, and a short list selected by a panel of literary assessors. Graham would be free to choose the winner out of one or the other list. Sean Donlon didn’t seem to find these terms ‘unusual’ and there was nothing he ‘did not fully comprehend’. On the contrary he found them to be totally acceptable and indeed confirmed them in writing with the briefest of delays.
However, after having received the books shortlisted by the panel of assessors, Graham rang me to say that he was extremely embarrassed. While he still thought that Vincent McDonnell’s talents deserved recognition, he also praised The Book of Evidence by John Banville. Wouldn’t it be possible, he asked, to split the £50,000 prize in two in order to award two prizes instead of one? I got in touch with Sean Donlon who spontaneously made the offer to create a ‘First Fiction Prize’ of £20,000 to be awarded to Vincent McDonnell, while the main GPA Literary Award would be given to John Banville. Graham heartily welcomed this generous move which assuaged his scruples. The matter was thus solved right from the outset to everybody’s satisfaction without the help of Gerry Dukes, who was never in the position at any stage to have ‘to sell’ anything to GPA. In pretending that he was the ‘fixer’ in this matter, he commits the sin of vanity of which he accuses Graham. Indeed, if Gerry Dukes found the proceedings so distasteful, why did he not dissociate himself from the entire affair and return GPA’s cheque?
Despite ill-informed rumours spread by people who knew nothing of the straightforward nature of this accord, there was never at any time the slightest hint of disagreement between GPA and Graham. No pressure was ever exerted by one on the other. It is true, however, that Graham was extremely tired prior to his departure and in spite of the comfort of his travel arrangements, he returned to Antibes in a state of near exhaustion. Having escorted him on this visit to Co. Tipperary and Dublin, where he received an exceptionally warm welcome from Dr Tony Ryan, chairman of GPA, and his team, may I say that it was only too obvious that Graham was putting a brave face on it despite his considerable discomfort and pain. If Gerry Dukes failed to notice Graham’s state of health, I am sorry for his lack of sensitivity.
Far from receiving the cold-shoulder treatment that one would have normally expected in the circumstances described so inaccurately by your correspondent, Graham was given a standing ovation by all the people gathered for the awards ceremony in the House of Lords of the old 18th-century Irish Parliament on College Green. Now, Gerry Dukes may have resented this ovation. He may even have remained seated in protest at what he describes rather bluntly as the ‘vanity’, ‘foolishness’, ‘mischievousness’, ‘absence of integrity’ of the grand old man of English letters. If he did so, I must say that his dissent was so discreet that it went unnoticed. His acrimonious letter, of the kind that we call in France le coup de pied de l’âne, only confirms what Jonathan Swift once said: ‘When a true Genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the Dunces are all in confederacy against him.’