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.

Greene got his own back by becoming a connoisseur of bad faith in best-sellers. His Spectator reviews lumped together Walpole, Priestley and Francis Brett Young (‘crude minds representing no more of contemporary life than is to be got in a holiday snapshot’), though he showed a rather touching solidarity with Priestley when the latter gave his famous wartime broadcasts. But he saw that if he was going to be a ‘writer’, a professional category he aspired to belong to as passionately as did Priestley himself, the way to succeed was to devise a new set of conventions, of best-selling formulae – rats copulating instead of pigeons seen cooing on a bough, and so on. Like many novelists of the Thirties, Greene was convinced that a writer must ‘notice’ everything in order to bring it in, and he did this in a much more conscious and cold-blooded way than more instinctive authors. His wife Vivien, from whom he was soon to separate, noted this: ‘He was originally warm and I could make him laugh, that sort of thing – but as he developed into a better novelist the splinter in his heart grew – he became icier. He said writers shouldn’t marry, and I daresay that’s quite true.’

Norman Sherry shrewdly notes that Greene was very deliberate in cutting out displays of self-indulgence, thus strengthening its secret hold over the novel and the reader. Greene was himself ‘the self-conscious young romantic hero of his early novels, Andrews in The Man Within, Oliver Chant in Name of Action, and Michael Crane in Rumour at Nightfall. There is too much self-love, too little self-criticism in these early portraits of pleasant anguished young men built up from Greene’s own notion of himself as a young man romantically caught in the toils of love.’ The splinter of ice in the heart, itself a formidable way of exercising self-indulgence, does nonetheless seem to have been quite genuinely created by Greene’s consuming desire to become a writer. It is a striking, almost Faustian case of a personality change brought about by the deliberate search for a change in authorial technique. Flaubert, we might say, becomes a writer because he is that sort of man anyway: the activity is a natural function of the temperament. A Shakespeare, Pushkin or Mozart, on the other hand, appears to possess a temperament independently of his magical capacity to create – the one does not affect the other; and this equability is found, too, at a much humbler level – that of the best-seller and thriller-writer. Eric Ambler, a craftsman much admired by Greene, would seem not to have needed to make any pact with the Grub Street Mephistopheles: he stays the same whatever he writes. A Greene, though, or an Ian Fleming, may have to become what he writes, exemplify his own formula, with results that affect himself and others. Interestingly, unlike the cases of Shakespeare or Pushkin, the work of Greene or Fleming, and its appeal, comes increasingly to depend on the new literary self it has created. We respond not to Greene the man but to Greene the man-author, a compelling creation who in his own line of business exercises far more fascination than an Ambler could do.

No doubt this kind of writer becomes the kind of person his unconscious wants him to be. But in the case of Greene the process is particularly mechanical, and can seem repellent. Conan Doyle may have identified with Sherlock Holmes and with Watson too, as most of us do, but this is very different from turning oneself into a technique, identifying with a method. Greene’s particular brand of Roman Catholicism becomes a vital part of it, and the part in which the higher self-indulgence is most on view. As Jansenism may have done for Racine, Catholicism came to provide for Greene the perfect literary setup in terms of technique. That he no longer ‘believed’ – remarking in 1974 that he ‘probably was not a Catholic’ – fitted perfectly into the scheme of what his books had made him: the tired, tormented, weary man, the burnt-out case, still intimate with a god of inflexible but compelling possibilities, still a battered vessel of integrity and authenticity, still the devious, equivocal, but indomitably sterling Captain of The Captain and the Enemy.

These are indeed the higher day-dreams, encouraging by cunning precept the reader’s sense of his own ‘bleak honesty’. Bevis Hillier observed that if Greene had not obstinately retained a tacit obedience to some absolute in Catholic doctrine he would have committed suicide long ago. That seems to me questionable. It is, in a sense, just what the books feel like, and what they want the reader to feel. But Greene himself is a survivor, a talent not uncommon in the world of letters, and of Goethean proportions in his case. The tight-lipped expedients related in A Sort of Life – hideous depressions, Russian roulette, psychoanalysis, a facing of the diagnosis of epilepsy – are not only an aspect of a highly questionable self-presentation but seem actually a part of the equipment of survival, like the whisky and the travelling. They belong to the film world, so powerful and seductive in the late Twenties and Thirties that it could constitute reality for a sensitive and romantic young person, however intelligent. The most intense moments in Greene’s work are film-shots transposed into his literary idiom or – still better – in cinematic form, like the shot of Valli walking away from the cemetery in The Third Man. In his first piece on film, done for the Times in 1928, he asserted that ‘words are a clumsy unmalleable medium’ compared to celluloid, and he instanced scenes from his favourite Von Stroheims and from an early Chaplin – the shadow of the Paris Express halting and then moving on, seen across the impassive face of a girl deserted by her lover.

That the young Greene was unusually romantic is abundantly evident from Norman Sherry’s book, which also brings out how very normal he was, in terms of a young man’s hopes, fears and ambitions. Like most young men (and like the young narrator in The Captain and the Enemy), he was obsessed by romantic love – for his sister’s governess Gwen Howell, for his fiancée, and later for a mistress – while thinking himself incapable of it. A compulsive diary-keeper, he liked to record pleasures and moments very different from the atmosphere of those in his books but used to develop a style and practise a phrase. He looks for Henry James’s Prefaces in a bookshop, draws a blank and tries another shop over Waterloo Bridge; enjoys a salmon sandwich and a cup of coffee, and has the satisfaction of getting to the motor-coach station with ten minutes to spare. A maiden lady’s visit to the metropolis might consist of the same pleasurable little ups and downs, though Greene on return home ‘bought a bottle of cider at the Volunteer Inn to quench my thirst’. Along with this goes falling in love while still an undergraduate at Balliol, a straightforward romantic process, although the object of it was pursued by Greene with unusual persistency. She was Miss Vivien Dayrell-Browning, an entirely suitable young gentlewoman from the same upper-middle class background as Greene, who lived in Oxford with her mother and had published precocious little poems since the age of 13. The only unusual feature was her fervent Catholicism: she and her mother were converts.

Greene begged her to marry him, and when she declined proposed a courtly-love marriage without sex. This too did not appeal, but she seems to have melted before his final expedient, which was himself to become a Catholic ‘Oh G R A H A M !!!’ she wrote. ‘How perfectly marvellous ... Madly excited.’ Significantly perhaps, conversion coincided with the devouring ambition to become a writer. But during his engagement and the early days of their marriage the punctilious ritual of going to Mass seems to have been more of a love routine than something done with growing spiritual conviction.

Sherry quotes copiously from love letters, which have the proper and touching pathos of their kind in that they are only intended for one pair of eyes, but in this aspect of the normality of romance Greene’s are peculiarly embarrassing. During his first job as copy-editor on a Nottingham newspaper he writes every day, and in a style which the reader cannot help suspecting was concocted specially for her, though it imitates the artlessness of all love-letters. ‘Darling, what fun it must be to build a bridge, a great steel bridge, with giant girders, like a God’s meccano outfit.’ Like many biographers, Sherry might be suspected of a spot of schadenfreude at such moments, but perhaps it is Greene who has the last laugh: authorising their publication may have been a kind of hidden joke against his biographer’s greedily omnivorous attention to detail. In the midst of revelling in it all Sherry sometimes seems a little anxious at the thought that a whole cold sardonic world of consciousness may underlie the mass of verified event he is bringing out.

Certainly there is no end to mystification in a writer like Greene. His biographer has nonetheless done an extraordinary job at investigating him when he was still a handsome youth of six foot two, with wavy hair and frank blue eyes, wholly uncertain of his talents, worried like other young men about his future, desperate for job opportunities. As confidence grows, it becomes clear he is an exceptionally able young man, however normal the abilities, who could have (and virtually did) become a publisher, an editor, a colonial administrator, official, explorer, salesman, executive, secret agent ... Like his elder brother who won all the prizes, he could have done everything, even made a successful marriage, but it would all have been eclipsed by the secret passion for writing books. Yet again, that passion was not congenital or compulsive: there is no touch of Céline in the conscientious darkness of Greeneland. An expert on families might be interested in the fact that of his two elder brothers Raymond was a brilliant success, getting fame and publicity from his appointment as medical researcher to the Everest team, and the eldest a total and dishonest failure, a remittance man whose only asset was his charm. Greene wrote of Herbert’s ‘depraved innocence’, and while he himself hoped and worked for success no less fervently than Raymond, there seems no doubt that in dream and imagination he identified with the eldest sibling. Rock-solid and sterling, with a headmaster father who was a pillar of his class, his family were an immense emotional support to Greene while at the same time their ethos never qualified for inclusion in his books. But in 1932 he wrote a poem called ‘Family Portrait’ which he sent to the Spectator, getting a rejection slip.

He was soon, however, to become its literary editor. In those days his wedding (to which he had invited a great number of people, though he forgot his cousin Christopher Isherwood) and his career as critic and embryo publisher seemed more promising than his future as author. Early novels flopped. There was no sudden success like that of his fellow adventurer Evelyn Waugh. One suspects that before the formula was perfected the public just didn’t believe a word of what he wrote: certainly not in the case of The Man Within and Rumour at Nightfall. His admiration for Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford didn’t help; later, in his pieces for weeklies he would praise Conrad’s ‘consuming passion’ for treating his life as the material for fiction, and the way Aldous Huxley had ‘borrowed’ the agonising death of Naomi Mitchison’s son from meningitis for Point Counter Point. He lacked Waugh’s genuine passion for snobbery and religion, and took time to develop his own disagreeable substitute for humour, exemplified by the moment in Brighton Rock when the nice girl Ida, foolish enough to enjoy the simple sentimentalities of life, weeps in the crematorium as ‘Fred became part of the smoke nuisance over London’. It seems surprising today that anyone could ever have been moved by these slick effects, or felt, as Marghanita Laski did, that the end of Brighton Rock was ‘the most terrible in any novel’.

It ensured the formula’s success. Greene’s carefully crafted predictability, and the best-selling authority it brought, is most like that of Somerset Maugham. The atmosphere in both writers is absolutely reliable and satisfyingly disillusioned – two key assets of the higher best-sellerdom – and at the same time comfortingly lacking in what Henry James called ‘the flexuous surprises of high intelligence’. Greene can seem to exemplify what Conrad’s freer imagination always evades: the dogged simplemindedness of the unillusioned man. We know where we are with him. Quoting from a thriller by George Birmingham, for an epigraph to his latest novel, he demurely enquires whether we can ever be sure of ‘knowing the Captain from the Enemy’. Nonsense! In all his books we can tell them a mile apart. And note the way in which myopic and destructive simplemindedness is allotted ritually to establishment English and Americans; to failures, criminals, Communists and double agents, the corrupted wisdom of salvation. The true and impartial discernment in The Secret Agent is never found in Greene, probably because Conrad’s background made him a genuinely detached man, while Greene’s in the English class system turned him into a loyal adherent of the wrong side: a Drummond, Hannay or Bond in reverse.

It would be wrong, all the same, to underestimate the political scope and know-how in such novels as The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana (why weren’t there more Greenes in the Foreign Office?), just as it is ungracious not to give its due to Greene’s queer hunger for righteousness. Cyril Connolly once remarked of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge that all his fellow intellectuals enjoyed it and were then superior about it, and it would be easy to be like that about Greene, or about the high-class best-seller in general. Norman Sherry certainly does not make that mistake. His relish for documentation is enchanting: he provides a plan of Brighton for Brighton Rock and facsimiles of Greene’s earliest publications in school magazines – he is the perfect Dr Watson to this sardonically evasive Holmes. He can be wonderfully arch about the separate bedrooms in which the Greenes apparently slept on their honeymoon, and respectfully portentous about his hero’s glooms (‘a man of strong contrasting moods and when his depressions were upon him he might well have succeeded in taking his life’), but the figure who finally emerges from all this mass of excited enquiry is unexpectedly banal. A complexity of interpretation breeds its opposite, and seems disconcertingly to reveal the sheer ordinariness of the man who stands behind the work: his appetite for the simple rewards and pleasures of life; and the fact that his marriage, like so many others, came to grief for no deeper reason than sexual incompatibility and the husband’s preference for living on his own. It may have been innocent of Sherry to set aside the studied laconic elegance of A Sort of Life in favour of copious quotation from the Diary, or it may have been astute policy. Was it really Greene who was taken for a ride by the biographer he clearly patronised? When the two consorted together which was the captain and which the enemy?