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.

He wrote and received many letters about current affairs. Philby wrote from Moscow about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: ‘I need hardly tell you that I am very unhappy about it; what may surprise you is that I have met no one here who is happy about it.’ In 1987 Greene wrote to Josef Skvorecky about Gorbachev: ‘I was very impressed by Gorbachev ... in the few moments of meeting him he struck me as an honest man with a certain inner strength and a sense of humour ... I see him too as very close to Dubcek, but I think he has a certain political genius which may enable him to survive and to make his changes however gradually. I am an optimist.’ He wrote to Bernard Diederich, Time’s correspondent in South America, about Noriega in December 1988, saying that he did not like him but ‘if I have to choose between a drug-dealer and United States imperialism I prefer the drug-dealer.’ He described his trip to the United States as part of the official Panamanian delegation to sign the treaty governing the future of the Panama Canal to another journalist friend: ‘Five rows in front of me all in a row were Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller, Ladybird, Ford, Mrs Carter and Mondale. Somehow these political stars all seem to be like dwarfs when you see them in the flesh. However, I had a wonderful suite at the Shoreham and everybody seemed to use Tanqueray in the Dry Martinis.’

He wrote to writers whom he admired. To Shusaku Endo, whose Wonderful Fool was, he wrote, ‘a marvellous book – so much better than my own Power and the Glory’. To Flann O’Brien: ‘At-Swim-Two-Birds has remained to my mind ever since it first appeared one of the best books of our century.’ To Roald Dahl: ‘I have just finished reading Boy with immense pleasure and great horror.’ To Brian Moore: ‘I always remember our evening together at the amusing strip-tease joint which has since been closed down!’ Clearly, he enjoyed his bit of strip-tease: witness this short letter to Gloria Emerson: ‘Thank you so much for your postcard from Los Angeles, that sink of iniquity, where I once had a very good Chinese meal and accompanied that fat actor Robert Morley to the equivalent in those days of strip-tease.’

Time is limited; I could happily spend a month here. But the sense of urgency, of having to move fast has its own pleasures. If a letter is not immediately interesting I go on to something else. They bring me coffee in a heart-shaped mug but I am too absorbed in a file and I forget to drink it and it grows cold. Sometimes, I follow the catalogue, and then I pick up a file at random. I can’t waste time. I must go fast. I skip and skip, and then suddenly come across something which throws light on his career and his personality. In February 1990, soon before his death, he ended a letter to someone who had printed letters without his permission: ‘Don’t do it again.’ He meant business.

He wrote to Anthony Burgess in June 1988: ‘I hear you have been attacking me rather severely on a French television programme ... You have thought it relevant to attack me because of my age (I don’t see the point). You should have checked your facts. I happen to be 83 not 86 and I trust you will safely reach that age too.’ In 1978, Constantine Fitzgibbon wrote to him: ‘What do you get as an advance against an unwritten book from your American publishers? This is not idle curiosity. I need to know so that I can adjust my own advances.’ Greene’s tone in reply was icy: ‘I have never yet got an advance for any unwritten book from any publisher in America or elsewhere so that I’m afraid I can’t help you.’ Fitzgibbon also mentioned that he would be in the South of France in the summer; Greene wrote that he would be away. In many of his letters he made clear that he would not be around should his correspondent call. He mentioned to one correspondent that he often did not answer the telephone. Philby, in a letter to Greene, had a similar view on the telephone: ‘My number is unlisted and I do not encourage the Central Exchange to connect me to international calls. I get enough correspondence from TV tycoons and assorted maniacs by mail.’

In a letter to Paul Theroux about the American edition of The Old Patagonian Express he referred to a scene where Theroux had said ‘every reply broke my heart’: ‘I don’t believe that one’s heart can break more than once without considerable damage to life. After all on page 265 you write: “It was impossible not to look out of the window without thinking of breakfast.” That doesn’t sound like a man who has had his heart broken a few hours before several times.’ In 1979 he wrote to Theroux about Picture Palace: ‘Surely the fact of being photographed in an act of incest would not nowadays drive one to suicide. Forgive these criticisms which come from a friend and an admirer.’ Theroux seems to have indeed forgiven him and wrote to tell him that The Great Railway Bazaar was ‘doing splendidly’ and later that The Family Arsenal was ‘doing marvellously’. In 1975 Greene wrote to him: ‘I have a great liking for railways. My favourite during the Emergency was a train to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur which had the British railway notice in the carriages “In the event of firing by the line passengers are advised to lie on the floor and in no event to leave the train.”’

On 12 October 1975 Theroux wrote to him: ‘Do you remember that section of the pavement in Piccadilly where we paused; you told a story about Ward’s, I said I was working on a novel about bombers in London. It, and a thousand windows above it, have just been blown to kingdom come.’

In another letter to Theroux, Greene referred to Gabriel García Márquez as ‘quite a nice man’. In 1983 García Márquez sent him a photograph of himself receiving the Nobel Prize, a curious and double-edged gift, with a note at the bottom of the photograph: ‘To the great old maestro – Gabriel.’ There is nothing on file to suggest that Greene replied. But in January 1990 he wrote him an urgent letter to say that a friend had been detained ‘by the US occupation troops in Panama’ and if García Márquez had any information Greene would be very grateful to receive it. There is no evidence in the archive that Márquez replied.

On 7 November 1989, after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Greene wrote to R.K. Narayan about Salman Rushdie: ‘He has just done a very charming review of my book of letters and I have met him briefly at a lunch party, but I have never read any of his books, so I wouldn’t be able to say whether he had gone out of his way to provoke ill-will.’

The box of photographs has marvellous black-and-white portraits of Greene. I rummage and come across folders of ordinary colour snaps from various trips. Greene in Africa. Greene standing with Daniel Ortega. He sent a message to Ortega through a friend in 1988: ‘Do give him my very warm regards.’ He followed events in Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti with interest. In February 1986 Roald Dahl wrote to him: ‘What a joyous week it must have been for you. To lose Duvalier and win an OM all in one go must have been something to rejoice about. Many congratulations on both.’ Dahl’s daughter had spent time in Haiti, and Greene was fascinated by her account of her stay.

His attention shifted easily from Ortega and Philby to his English admirers. In November 1985 he wrote to Alexander Chancellor: ‘I am afraid I don’t find the Spectator now as readable as it was in your day. I was rather shocked by the appearance of a long review by Barbara Cartland.’ In April 1979 Auberon Waugh wrote to him: ‘My friend Ferdie Mount has not drawn a sober breath since hearing of some kind word you sent about him to Alexander Chancellor.’ Greene had written to Skvorecky about Evelyn Waugh: ‘He was a great friend and I admired his work very much indeed.’ He admired Auberon’s work less, it seems. In 1982 Waugh fils wrote to him. ‘You are quite right. I am writing far too much these days and my wretched anxiety to keep up with school bills and heating expenses shows itself in a horrible thoughtless glibness.’

On 17 February 1981 Greene wrote to Auberon Waugh: ‘Dear Bron, I was painfully reminded by your Diary in the 500th issue of Private Eye of the fact that I have four nipples.’ Waugh replied: ‘Your peculiarity is much less rare than you think. I am deluged by letters from people with more than two nipples ... Your secret is safe. Private Eye shall never know.’

I laugh out loud and wonder if I can show these two letters to the man who is quietly working across the room. I never know how to behave with English people. I gather up courage and show them to him. He reads them and laughs and insists that one of his colleagues who isn’t in today, has three nipples too. He points to a spot below one nipple, and says that if his colleague was here he would show me. I have never heard of this before. I thought everyone in the world had only two nipples – maybe it’s a joke. Greene enjoyed jokes. When an American, who may or may not have been real, announced that he was writing a book ‘Evelyn Waugh: The Gay Years’, Greene wrote to Auberon Waugh: ‘What about drowning him with imaginary anecdotes, coming from different addresses and different names, and all wildly unlikely.’ Maybe the nipples were also wildly unlikely.

Greene seems to have replied to every letter. An American who fought in Vietnam wrote to him in 1984: ‘I finally read your book The Quiet American. I only wish that I had read this before I was sent to Vietnam in 1967.’ Greene wrote back: ‘I was there I think four winters and I had sympathy in a way with both sides. I am afraid with the American war I felt little sympathy for what I considered an intrusion of the West.’ He gave advice to a young Australian who wrote saying that he could not get down to work: ‘Directly after breakfast you sit down at the table with a blank sheet of paper and a pen and a glass of whiskey. You drink the glass of whiskey and you begin to write anything that comes into your head.’

In the second half of the Eighties Greene began to correspond with Vincent McDonnell, a writer living in the West of Ireland whose first novel he admired, and his wife Joan who had sent Greene the novel. On 4 April 1989 Greene wrote two letters. One was to Vincent McDonnell, whose novel had been published: ‘I have a strong feeling that you will be getting some good news in the autumn’; the other was to Sean Donlon, who worked for a rich Irish airline leasing company GPA and wanted to sponsor a £50,000 literary prize for an Irish writer. Greene was to be the adjudicator and a number of distinguished critics were to select a short-list: ‘I am very happy to agree to your proposals for the Irish Prize,’ he wrote to GPA. ‘It is understood isn’t it that Vincent McDonnell’s novel is among the five from which I will choose. Or at any rate it will be among the full list of books submitted.’ It was agreed that Greene could choose from either list.

He chose McDonnell’s novel The Broken Commandment for the prize, but GPA was unhappy with his choice. On 13 November 1989 he wrote to Vincent McDonnell: ‘I would have liked to have given you the main prize but was overwhelmed by arguments with the result that they increased the prize to sixty [in fact, they increased it to seventy] thousand and I allowed the one novelist on their list to take the major share of forty thousand pounds as long as you received twenty thousand. Unless this is satisfactorily arranged I shall simply refuse to turn up to the prize-giving.’

While Vincent McDonnell’s letters to Greene were formal and polite in tone, Joan McDonnell’s letters, hand-written on lined notepaper, were warm and simple. In December 1990 when he was ill she wrote: ‘Please God whatever it is will go away and you will be well.’ After the prize-giving she wrote: ‘We both know what you wanted to do Graham. We both feel that had Vincent received the main prize there would be a lot of hostility towards him. But as it is I’m sure certain people are aware that the main prize was intended for him and there is therefore a better feeling for him.’ She wrote in another letter: ‘You know Vincent read somewhere that at any one time there are just 36 good people on this earth. To me you are one of them Graham.’

I have spent too long reading this correspondence. I saw Greene in Dublin twice on the day of the award in 1989 – once in a restaurant, where he seemed uncomfortable, and later, at a press reception. When someone sought to ask him a question about the award, he turned and fixed his eyes on them, his gaze was full of fierce authority and determination. He would answer no questions, say nothing. He was the sort of man you would not cross swords with.

Now I don’t know what I should do. I haven’t got much time. The file on his visit to Ireland in 1976 shows as usual that he made very careful arrangements before his trips abroad about who he would see and where he would visit. I go quickly to the family file. There’s nothing. I start to flick and skip and then I find a tender correspondence between himself and his son Francis. There is always a sense of weakness, of having fallen from grace, of being open to guilt, in the characters he created but not in his own persona. Another side of him starts to come out in these letters to his son at school. He sent money, presents, letters, but he did not have much time for visits. ‘I am sorry but as I feared I shan’t be able to get up to you in March this term.’ Or: ‘Alas, I am afraid it is going to be impossible for me to come this term as Life has asked me to do an article on the Indo-China War.’

My time is up now. If I want to see any of this correspondence again I will have to read it in the library of an American university, or wait until it is published. In those two days in London I did not feel that I was trespassing on the privacy of Greene’s great old ghost as I read his letters or looked through his photographs. He explored his private self in his fiction rather than his letters. He was careful how he used his time. The files and Greene’s library will be sold by private treaty, and the money will go to help Elisabeth Dennys, Greene’s sister, who dealt with his correspondence for so many years and is now totally handicapped after a severe stroke. If Greene is watching us, I have a feeling that, as long as the price is reasonable, he won’t complain.