How many nipples had Graham Greene?

Colm Tóibín

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.

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