What there is to tell

David Lodge

  • Ways of Escape by Graham Greene
    Bodley Head, 309 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 370 30356 3

For most of his professional life, Graham Greene might have been described as the Greta Garbo of modern English letters. He preferred to be alone. A wartime Penguin edition of England made me in my possession records on the back cover that ‘he … has always lived a quiet life and shunned literary circles.’ Widely regarded as, in Hugh Walpole’s words (quoted on the same cover), ‘the finest English novelist of his generation’, he avoided the public exposure that usually accompanies such exalted cultural status. He seldom gave interviews to journalists, and was, indeed, seldom to be found by them. He travelled widely and eventually settled in France. On the rare occasions when he agreed to discuss his work on television, he would allow his voice to be heard, but not his face to be seen. His behaviour, in short, manifested an almost fanatical desire to protect his privacy and to preserve his ‘cover’, like one of his own fictitious secret agents, as he moved restlessly about the globe.

In recent years, however, Mr Greene has somewhat relaxed his reserve and allowed his public to see something of the man behind the work. He has given a good many interviews, and in 1971 published a volume of autobiography about his early years, A Sort of Life. Over the last decade or so he has been reissuing his books in a collected edition, each with a short introduction describing the sources, background and circumstances of composition of the text in question. He has now woven these introductions together with some pieces of occasional journalism and personal diaries, to form a sequel to A Sort of Life.

It would be wrong to suppose that Mr Greene has quite abandoned his previous reticence. The many interviews he has given are somewhat repetitive, as though he is keeping to a carefully prepared and memorised script, and one sometimes suspects that he is playing a private game with the media – giving their representatives the illusion of getting new facts, which on sober inspection prove to be already well-known or nugatory. A Sort of Life was a very discreet, selective memoir, and Ways of Escape is still more so. Greene gives his reasons in the Preface to the new book:

When I wrote a fragment of autobiography under the title A Sort of Life I closed the record at the age of about twenty-seven. I felt then that the future years belonged as much to others as to myself. I couldn’t infringe their copyright ... They had a right to privacy, and it was impossible to deal with my private life without involving theirs. All the same I had tasted the pleasure – often enough a sad pleasure – of remembering and so I began a series of introductions to the Collected Edition of my books, looking back on the circumstances in which the books were conceived and written. They too were after all ‘a sort of life’.

The tendency to look back contemplatively on one’s life as one gets nearer the end of it (Greene is 76 this year, though you would never guess it from his appearance or his recent books) is a natural human instinct, and the obligation to protect the privacy of others is an honourable motive for reticence. But it is doubtful whether these are the only factors involved here. Greene’s teasing, almost coquettish play with the public’s intense curiosity about his private life and personal character centres on a profound paradox at the heart of writing itself – or, rather, on a set of interrelated paradoxes. Are books made out of life, or out of other books? Does the writer write his novel, or does the novel ‘write’ the writer? Is the ‘implied author’ of a novel – the creative mind to whom we attribute the text and whom we praise or blame for its successes and failures – the ‘same’ as the ‘real author’, the actual historical individual who produced the text, but has a life outside it? Does a novel convince because it is ‘true to life’, or because it produces a rhetorical ‘reality-effect’? Are novels based upon real people and events, or is that reality itself a human construct, another fiction? Dogmatic formalists or structuralists will give one set of answers to these questions, orthodox literary historians and biographers another, but the honest answers are paradoxical, even contradictory: ‘yes and no’, ‘both are true.’

Graham Greene has never manifested much interest in the abstract questions of literary theory that occupy academic critics, but these paradoxes and contradictions permeate his reflections on his own writing. One might cite his equivocal attitude to the phrase ‘Greeneland’, so often used by critics to characterise his evocation of place:

Some critics have referred to a strange violent ‘seedy’ region of the mind (why did I ever popularise that last adjective?) which they call Greeneland, and I have sometimes wondered whether they go round the world blinkered. ‘This is Indo-China,’ I want to exclaim, ‘this is Mexico, this is Sierra Leone carefully and accurately described. I have been a newspaper correspondent as well as a novelist. I assure you that the dead child lay in the ditch in just that attitude. In the canal of Phat Diem the bodies stuck out of the water ...’ But I know that argument is useless. They won’t believe the world they haven’t noticed is like that.

A later reference is not quite so emphatically positivistic:

To cheer ourselves [in West Africa] we used to hunt cockroaches by the light of electric torches, marking in pencil on the walls one point for a certain death, half a point it the roach had been washed down the lavatory bowl. I described this pursuit later in The Heart of Matter. Greeneland perhaps. I can only say it is the land where I have passed much of my life.

In describing Santiago, Cuba, under Batista’s regime, the note of protest returns:

Nobody came to Santiago now, except presumably the spies against whom I had been warned. The night was hot and humid: it was nearly the hour of the unofficial curfew, and the hotel clerk made no pretence of welcoming strangers. The taxis soon packed up and went, the square cleared of people, a squad of soldiers went by, a man in a dirty white drill suit rocked himself backwards and forwards in a chair in the hall, making a small draught in the mosquitoey evening. I was reminded of Villahermosa during the persecution in Tabasco. The smell of a police station lay over the city. I was back in what my critics imagine to be Greeneland.

The writer’s objection to the term ‘Greeneland’ seems to be based on a feeling that it impugns the veracity of his account of the world, yet Greene himself is well aware of how writing modifies the ‘facts’ it sets out to describe. He demonstrates the point himself in a fascinating comparison of three different versions of the same episode (a bad attack of fever which he suffered on his Liberian safari): his own bald diary entry for the day, his later writing up of the incident in Journey Without Maps, and the independently-written account of his cousin Barbara, who accompanied him on the trip. There is much more in common between the two ‘literary’ texts than between either of them and the original diary. As Greene says: ‘“I” the diarist and “I” the writer were distinct persons.’

It is not just a matter of what the writer puts in: it is also a matter of what he leaves out. (Barbara Greene herself was almost entirely left out of Journey Without Maps, which greatly heightened the sense of the narrator’s isolation from Western civilisation, and made his journey appear more of an exploration of his own self.) We may accept that the details of Phat Diem or Santiago were observable by anyone who happened to be there, but venture to think that only one writer would have selected them and not others present in the scene, and described them in those words in that particular order.

In fact, Graham Greene’s impatient dismissal of the Greeneland tag has as much to do with his suspicion of criticism as with his claims to authenticity. And here we encounter another paradox at the heart of writing – not peculiar to Greene, but very keenly felt and expressed by him. On the one hand, the author wishes to be read carefully and sympathetically, to have his intentions understood and his technical choices recognised. Greene is sharp, on occasion, with critics who have offended in these respects – complaining, for instance, of the critic who, failing to understand the nuances of ‘point of view’, supposed that because Anthony and Kate in England made me did not recognise the incestuous nature of their bond, their creator was equally unaware of it. He also corrects the reviewer who read strained religious symbolism into the names Harry Lime and Holly Martins in The Third Man, connecting ‘Lime’ with a passage in The Golden Bough and ‘Holly’ with Christmas.

The truth of the matter is, I wanted for my ‘villain’ a name natural and yet disagreeable, and to me ‘Lime’ represented the quicklime in which murderers were said to be buried. An association of ideas, not, as the reviewer claimed, a symbol. As for Holly, it was because my first choice of name, Rollo, had not met with the approval of Joseph Cotten [the actor who played the role, and thought the original name had homosexual overtones]. So much for symbols.

Yet there is a sense in which the writer fears the perceptive critic even more than he despises the bad one, for the former threatens to rob the creative process of its mystery and excitement, making the literary text seem a determined rather than a free act, a confirmation of the critic’s diagnosis rather than the artist’s hard-won discovery of what it was he wanted to say. There comes a time when the established author ‘is more afraid to read his favourable critics than his unfavourable, for with terrible patience they unroll before his eyes the unchanging pattern of the carpet. If he has depended a great deal on his unconscious, on his ability to forget even his own books when they are once on the public shelves, his critics remind him – this theme originated ten years ago, that simile which came so unthinkingly to his pen a few weeks back was used nearly twenty years ago in a passage where ...’

Several passages in this book make it clear that writing has never come easily to Greene. A Confidential Agent was written in six weeks on benzedrine, but usually the composition of a novel is for him hard and protracted labour over years rather than weeks, subject to deep depressions, blocks, self-doubt and boredom. What makes it all worthwhile is precisely the thrill of the unexpected and unpredictable development in the story: the strokes of luck, or grace, that solve apparently intractable problems or make the work in progress better than one ever dared to hope. Greene attributes these blessings to the operation of the writer’s unconscious, since they often manifest themselves to him after sleep and dream. But this account of the creative process does, of course, to some extent undermine his occasional attempts to control and limit the meanings of his fiction by reference to his conscious intentions. Perhaps the critic who saw an allusion to Frazer in The Third Man was guilty of what I.A. Richards called a mnemonic irrelevance, but the arboreal and social connotations of the pair Holly-Lime cannot simply be brushed aside. Symbolism can use the novelist as much as the novelist uses symbolism.

The writer tends to feel just as equivocal about lay readers as about professional critics. Naturally he wants to have readers, but he is generally reluctant to meet them, since the gap between the ‘real’ and the ‘implied’ author tends to become an embarrassment in such encounters. Graham Greene has suffered particularly from his Catholic admirers in this respect. The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair were novels of very powerful religious sentiment of a distinctively Catholic kind – much concerned with casuistry, eschatology, the miraculous and the mystical – and they were also the novels which established Greene internationally as a novelist of the first rank. In consequence, he came to be regarded as a kind of lay theologian and potential confessor by troubled and eccentric Catholic readers all over the world – like the French priest who ‘popped up unannounced and inopportunely one evening in Anacapri, as I was catching the bus to Capri with my mistress, trailing a smoke of dust from his long black soutane’.

Twenty or thirty years ago, that casual allusion to a mistress would have sent shock waves of scandal rippling through the Catholic world. The Church Greene joined in 1928 liked to have distinguished authors in its flock – they were good for the Church’s image among the intelligentsia – but only if they toed the orthodox line on matters of faith and morals. The Holy Office condemned The Power and the Glory as heretical, and after reading The End of the Affair Pope Pius XII told Cardinal Heenan: ‘I think this man is in trouble. If he ever comes to you, you must help him.’ Greene, a convert in adulthood, had never acquired that automatic deference to clerical authority or the acceptance of sexual repression that were characteristic of British ‘ghetto’ Catholicism. No wonder he resisted and resented the label ‘Catholic novelist’ so often pinned upon him, and preached the writer’s duty to be ‘disloyal’ to institutions. His style of Catholicism has become increasingly agnostic as the years have passed, but in the pluralist climate of the post-conciliar Church it does not excite as much comment as formerly. His friend Evelyn Waugh, a much more orthodox and ‘loyal’ Catholic, was dismayed by A Burnt-Out Case when it appeared in 1961. ‘I don’t think you can blame people who read the book as a recantation of faith.’ Waugh wrote to Greene at the time, and alluded sadly to Browning’s ‘The Lost Leader’.

I felt the discussion was becoming too serious. Evelyn’s reference to the Lost Leader had surprised me and even shocked me a little, for had I not always regarded him as my leader? To bring the correspondence to a close I sent him a flippant postcard – I think one of Brighton pier – ‘My love to Milton, Burns, Shelley and warn them that Spender and Day Lewis are on the way. I shall be grateful for all your coppers. A voice from the Rear and the Slaves’ to which he replied in kind, ‘Mud in your mild and magnificent eye. Hoping for a glad and confident morning.’ The cloud had passed. Browning had served us both well.

(Readers who did not grow up with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury will need to look up the text to get the full flavour of this correspondence.)

Graham Greene’s books usually have a thematic keyword which keeps recurring – ‘pity’ in The Heart of the Matter, ‘trust’ in A Confidential Agent, ‘love and hate’ in The End of the Affair, ‘failure’ in A Sort of Life. There is no difficulty about identifying it in the new book. ‘Escape again. I suspect that the word will chime from the title page on throughout this book,’ he writes, on page 13, recalling the plot of an early, unpublished novel. The suffocating embrace of Mother Church was only one of the things Graham Greene found it necessary to escape from; others included bourgeois respectability, boredom, depression, the mass media, the literary world, his fans. In one sense, Ways of Escape belongs with his travel books, since much of it is a record of journeys to distant places in Africa, Central and South America, South-East Asia, the Middle East. He must surely have logged more flying hours than any writer of his stature in the world. He has been often in situations of extreme danger and extreme discomfort – in Vietnam, in the Malayan jungle, in Duvalier’s nightmare Haiti, in the London Blitz – and he writes vividly yet unpretentiously about these experiences. Even a reader unacquainted with Graham Greene’s fiction would enjoy this book thoroughly. To anyone who knows the novels well it is utterly fascinating. And part of the fascination is our awareness that the author has not told all that there is to tell, or anything like it.