Dream on

C.K. Stead

  • A World of My Own: A Dream Diary by Graham Greene
    Reinhardt, 116 pp, £12.99, October 1992, ISBN 1 871061 36 9

In my experience the dreams that are recovered (most are lost) fall into two categories – the majority, which are pedestrian and seldom interesting, and the few which are so different from the many as to belong almost to a distinct category of experience. Vivid, full of atmosphere, these latter are insistently ‘significant’ beyond their literal import while at the same time resisting any simple symbolic interpretation; and if they can be retained through the levels of waking, they often seem worth recording. There is for me, in other words, a poetry and a prose of dreams.

Graham Greene once wrote that for the novelist identification with a character sometimes ‘goes so far that one may dream his dream and not ones’s own’. In my most recently published novel I decided one or other of the central characters should experience or remember a significant dream in each of seven chapters. When I tried to invent these they seemed in some indefinable way fake; so I hunted through old notebooks and found dreams I had recorded which could be used with a minimum of alteration. When it came to the last chapter I had no suitable dream to include, so the writing proceeded without. While it was continuing, however, I had a dream which, reduced to its essentials, went as follows: a person who was not myself and who was not in Washington DC dreamed that he was asleep and dreaming in Washington DC. In his dream he was threatened and pursued through various states and across the border into Mexico, where his enemies were closing on him. As they were about to break down his door he remembered he had a weapon – the knowledge that this was only a dream. He called on it, and at once woke – not, however, where he was in fact sleeping and dreaming but back in Washington DC where the bad dream had begun. So it all lay before him, the fear and the pursuit, all to be repeated.

This was a case of ‘dreaming one’s character’s dream’ and it became the opening of my final chapter. In its hotel room, its atmosphere of menace, its pursuit across a border, it is very Graham Greeneish. In its meta-fictional complexity it is not. For Greene, in dreaming as in writing, the rules of the game were relatively simple: the unreal became real; dream became fact – the suspension of disbelief required of the reader was beyond question. In that sense he was always a storyteller for boys, in the tradition (a very good one) of R.L. Stevenson and John Buchan.

In A Sort of Life, which was as near to an autobiography as he was ever prepared to go (and itself the result of psychotherapy for a period of writer’ block), Greene tells how he first came to keep a record of his dreams. Though it’ not at all clear what he suffered from at school apart from a great distaste for his schoolmates’ farting, he decided after ‘eight terms – 104 weeks of monotony, humiliation and mental pain’ that he had had enough. Unable to find the right method, and courage, for suicide, he left a note telling his parents he would not be returning, and went and hid on the heath. The school was Berkhamsted, and his father, its headmaster, was sufficiently astonished by this action to put the young Graham into the hands of a psychotherapist, who required him to make regular notes of his dreams so they could be discussed during daily sessions. While this took place Greene was removed from the hated school. Psychotherapy proved to be a wonderful holiday; and though the early dream books were lost, the recording of dreams was something which had pleasant association, and which he returned to during his late fifties, cotinuing almost until his death at the age of 82.

It is also clear from what he told Marie-Françoise Allain in their conversation-book, The Other Man, that Greene came to depend on dreaming, or on the mental region in which dreams are generated, to help him through some of the difficulties of fictional composition. He liked to begin writing early in the morning before the day had crowded out all connection with his dream life, and then to ‘come back to it in the evening, after an aperitif and a half-bottle of wine’. He went on: ‘Then I set about corrections, relying on sleep to enable me to complete the work in the morning. I re-read my morning’s work just before bedtime, to stimulate my unconscious – or my subconscious if you prefer – in the hope that it will sort out the problems.’ This does not mean a particular dream would solve a particular problem; but Greene did believe that it was in the same subconscious area, and not in conscious willed imagining, that narratives convincingly untangled themselves and roadblocks were cleared. And his companion of many years, Yvonne Cloetta, who writes a foreword to A World of My Own, explains that there were times when dreams did provide quite specific material for a chapter, or for a new short story, or even, in at least one case, the idea for a whole novel.

Greene entertained himself during the last months of his life making the present small selection from eight hundred pages of dream diaries begun in 1965 and ended in 1989. Both the arrangement, and the deadpan language in which the dreams are recounted, add an element not in the dreams themselves: a wry, comic quality. Through the writing there is conveyed, like a subtle smile or a sidelong glance over the head of the dream’schildlike literalness, a faint sense of the absurd. So while many of these dreams have typical elements of a Greene novel – spies, borders, criminals, priests, writers; whores and mistresses (never wives); war, fear, danger, foreign places – there is also playing over them a sense of comedy found only in a very few of his books, most notably, I suppose, in a novel he told Mlle Allain he considered one of his best despite its poor reception in England, Travels with my Aunt.

It was the Duke of Marlborough who introduced me to D.H. Lawrence. I found him younger and better groomed than I had expected. He was quite friendly towards my work.

Or again:

I was working one day for a poetry competition and had written one line – ‘Beauty makes crime noble’ – when I was interrupted by a criticism flung at me from behind by T.S. Eliot. ‘What does that mean? How can crime be noble?’ He had, I noticed, grown a moustache.

Each of the above is a complete dream. Others, of course, are much longer, and the more they contain the more they require precisely the same narrative management that any other recounting calls for. So these dreams are part of what has been called ‘Greeneland’, not only because of the elements of which they are made, but also because of the characteristic dryness and economy of the sentences:

At the entrance to the station there was a control but we passed safely through. Then again at the exit to the station yard there was another control, and a small queue had formed. The guard was on the telephone, probably being warned about the murder. I managed to push my way through, but my companion was held up.

   I walked rapidly down the street and took the first turning that came. It led to another station and here I was joined by my companion. She had struggled successfully with the guard. I told her that the best thing for us was to take the first available train anywhere. One was just beginning to move and we scrambled on without a ticket. But we bought tickets from a collector, and found the train was bound for somewhere on the Marne.

   ‘It’s a grim grey region,’ my friend said.

Yeats, I seem to recall, dreamed that G.B. Shaw was ‘a sewing-machine that clicked and smiled’. Greene sticks a kitchen knife into W.H. Auden and this makes no impression at all, so they settle down to chat. Auden says he holds a position on the science faculty of a university, and Greene tells him: ‘It would be fun if you could discover one small scientific principle so that we could speak of “The Auden Digit”.’

Appropriately Greene has dream-meetings not only with notable writers (he meets Henry James on a ‘most disagreeable river trip to Bogota’) but with world statesmen, popes and royalty. Several times he is offered, or given, important appointments. In one dream Edward Heath asks him to serve as Ambassador to Scotland; in another he reads in the paper that he has been appointed Archbishop of Westminster. His reaction on both occasions is equivocal. He declines the Scottish appointment, then accepts and goes swimming with Heath in a brown muddy river. The wearing of an Archbishop’s robes he finds an attractive prospect, but gives up the idea when Cardinal Heenan has a dossier drawn up on his past, including something about a Mrs Burton whom Greene suspects may have been his mistress. His meetings with Khrushchev seem curiously intertwined with Catholic themes, as if the view – fashionable in the Thirties – of Catholicism and Communism as alternative forms of authority, with strong and parallel intellectual appeal, was something deeply laid down in his mind. In one dream, when Khrushchev points out that Greene has not eaten all his chicken, he answers: ‘So much the better for the workers in the kitchen. Surely a Marxist believes in charity.’ ‘Not in Vatican charity,’ Khrushchev replies. But at his last appearance Khrushchev has ‘a beautiful face, the face of a saint’.

‘In dreams begins responsibility,’ Yeats wrote. It is, I suppose, a thought intended to ensure that value is determined from within, not dictated from without. To the unfettered imagination, which is what the dream-world represents, nothing is conferred special status or authority except by the dream itself. And if the dream is to be converted into words, the quality of each element is determined by the writing more than by anything it inherently possesses. Greene’s dream-world is recognisably a version of the world of his novels; or to put it another way, this book might be seen as his last exercise, slight but graceful and fetching, in the art of fiction – which is not to suggest that as a record it is in the least untruthful.