Speaking British

Thomas Jones

  • The Third Woman by William Cash
    Little, Brown, 318 pp, £14.99, February 2000, ISBN 0 316 85405 0
  • Greene on Capri: A Memoir by Shirley Hazzard
    Virago, 149 pp, £12.99, January 2000, ISBN 1 86049 799 3

Graham Greene converted to Catholicism in 1926, after coming down from Oxford, allegedly on ‘intellectual’ grounds, though it also conveniently meant he was eligible to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, whom he had met as an undergraduate when she was working in Blackwell’s bookshop. His adoptive faith didn’t begin to manifest itself very strongly in his writings, however, for another dozen years. In 1938, after Brighton Rock was published, Greene went to Mexico as a journalist to report on the religious persecution there, an experience out of which came both The Lawless Roads (1939) and The Power and the Glory (1940). It was also at this time that he began his relationship with Dorothy Glover. Faith and sex are inextricable in Greene’s work – the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory is a father in more sense than one; Scobie in The Heart of the Matter (1948) is driven to suicide by his faith and his unwillingness to repent of his adultery – but the entanglement is knottiest in The End of the Affair (1951).

The novel concerns the aftermath of a relationship between the narrator, Maurice Bendrix, a novelist, and Sarah Miles, the wife of a civil servant, who live on opposite sides of Clapham Common. The framing narrative is set in 1946, when Bendrix and Sarah haven’t seen each other for 18 months. They had met in the summer of 1939, and were lovers until Bendrix nearly died in a bomb-blast in June 1944 and Sarah abruptly and without explanation broke off the affair. Now, many months later, Bendrix bumps into Sarah’s husband on the Common. Henry Miles confides that he has doubts about Sarah’s fidelity, and has considered employing a private detective to follow her; Bendrix is inspired to have her watched himself. Parkis, the diligently incompetent investigator he hires, gets hold of Sarah’s diary: reading it, Bendrix discovers why she abandoned him. The central section of the book is a transcript of the diary.

The novel’s dual perspective – Bendrix’s narrative and Sarah’s diary – is one of its obvious attractions for a filmmaker. There’s plenty of opportunity for showing reverse-angle replays of scenes that are told from both points of view, one of the few aspects of the story that Neil Jordan exploits to full effect in his film.

One of the most famous ‘moments of cinema’ of the last ten years is Dil slipping out of her dressing-gown in Jordan’s The Crying Game to reveal that she is a man. It’s almost as memorable as the appearance of Harry Lime, suddenly lit up in a doorway in The Third Man (not least because most viewers will have spent the previous hour waiting for it). There’s an equivalent moment in Jordan’s adaptation of The End of the Affair. Sarah is kneeling at the bed, praying for Bendrix to be alive, when, through the open door behind her, we see him, out of focus, emerge from the dust of the bomb-blast. The shot is well framed – Roger Pratt deserves his Oscar nomination for cinematography – and the scene is much the most powerful in the film. It almost makes Michael Nyman’s hyperbolic score (the music in Planet of the Apes is subtle by comparison) tolerable. In all such scenes of epiphany (Charlton Heston breaking down at the sight of the half-buried Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes is another) the impact of the revelation, not actually a revelation at all, is fuelled by our anticipation. What is different in The End of the Affair is that Bendrix’s entrance was never meant to be a surprise: we have already witnessed it from his point of view. The surprise is Sarah’s prayer. One tragedy evaporates as another condenses in the pause between Sarah promising the God she doesn’t yet believe in that she will never see Bendrix again, if only he is allowed to live, and the moment his form appears to solidify out of the dust as he comes into focus; everything is suspended in the wordlessness (it would be silence were it not for Nyman’s droning strings) between her prayer and his calling her name.

At no other point does the film come close to reproducing the urgency of the novel, its trajectory of failure. Before and after this pivotal moment, the film is uncertain of what to do with the events of the novel. It chops impatiently through the opening scenes to get the affair up and running. When, in the novel, Bendrix asks whether it’s ‘possible to fall in love over a dish of onions’, you suppose it is: the point is carried by the lean strength of the prose. Also, it’s Bendrix and Sarah’s second date (they kissed on the first). After the onions question, the novel continues:

I put my hand under the cloth and laid it on her knee, and her hand came down and held mine in place. I said: it’s a good steak,’ and heard like poetry her reply, ‘It’s the best I’ve ever eaten.’

There was no pursuit and no seduction. We left half the good steak on our plates and a third of the bottle of claret and came out into Maiden Lane with the same intention in both our minds. At exactly the same spot as before, by the doorway and the grill, we kissed. I said: ‘I’m in love.’

‘Me too.’

The way the beginning of the affair is telescoped in the film makes it risibly implausible. It’s their first date, they haven’t kissed yet and they don’t have the exchange about the meat. Ralph Fiennes, looking bored over their steak and onions, says to Julianne Moore: ‘I’m in love, you know.’ She, equally wooden, tells him that she is, too. (Moore, who can be very good, seems to be concentrating so hard on her accent that she forgets to do any acting – her Oscar nomination for ‘Best American Actress Speaking British’ is sadly unsurprising.)

The injudicious rearrangements continue. Smythe the evangelical atheist and object of Bendrix’s supicions about Sarah’s infidelity is bizarrely elided with Father Crompton: the character gets his name from the atheist but his calling from the priest. As Greene remarked in his preface to The Third Man, many changes are necessary to turn a book into a film or play (The Third Man is peculiar in that ‘it was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture’); but Jordan, having made various cuts and elisions, then recomplicates everything by getting Bendrix and Sarah back together and gratuitously sending them to Brighton for one last fling before she dies. Jordan has said that he can’t finish a story without taking it to the sea, and while you might think he didn’t need to find a way to finish the story, Greene himself having done so, the fact is that Jordan isn’t telling the same story at all.

In his other work, he’s often been exquisitely sensitive to the dramatic potential of desire that is uncertain of its object. ‘Seduction’, one of the stories in Night in Tunisia (1976), is about two boys in early adolescence who only meet once a year, on holiday.

This year I was a little afraid of him, though he was still smaller than me ... I loved his assurance, the nonchalant way he let the vinegar run from the chip-bag onto the breast of his off-white shirt. But I kept all this quiet knowing there were things he envied about me too. I think each of us treasured this envy, longing to know how the other had changed but disdaining to ask.

His friend, Jamie, tells the narrator that he has seen the woman who works in the chip-shop swimming naked in the sea. At night they go down to the beach to watch her. ‘We waited for hours, till Jamie’s face became pinched and pale, till my teeth began to chatter.’ They huddle close to keep warm, tearful at the cold and their failure, for the woman of course never comes. Eventually Jamie runs into the sea himself, and the narrator follows.

I felt myself slipping, being pulled from the legs and I fell in the water again and I felt his arms around my waist, tightening, the way boys wrestle, but more quietly then, and I felt his body not small any longer, pressing against mine. I heard him say ‘this is the way lovers do it’ and felt his mouth on my neck but I didn’t struggle, I knew that in the water he couldn’t see my tears or see my smile.

The final story in the collection, a variation of the Oedipus myth, is about an affair between a 15-year-old boy and the woman who runs a guesthouse where he and his father are staying. One evening his father takes her out. ‘I sat there looking and saw him for the first time not as my father ... but as someone young and agile who had the same yearning for you as I had.’ When they get back, he tries to shoot his father through the lavatory door, but the bullets lodge in the wood. ‘And I ran upstairs knowing something had finished and I gave you the gun and cursed you quietly because it didn’t work.’ The boy never tells us in so many words that his mother is dead, only that his father is a widower; but his desire is more complicated, more uncertain than simple displacement of his longing for a mother: ‘that had always been the difference, all women had been a mother to someone but you had been a lover to me.’ And then of course there’s Dil in The Crying Game.

Whatever Michael Shelden, the most notorious of Greene’s unauthorised biographers, would have us believe about Greene’s private life, sexuality in the novels is a robust and straightforward business. The drama comes from elsewhere: in The End of the Affair it is provided by his protagonists’ variously tortured relationships with God, something Jordan doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in. The affair comes to an end because Sarah promises God that she’ll never see Bendrix again. (In the movie, she tells Bendrix: ‘I’ve only made two promises in my life, one was to marry Henry, the other is stop seeing you.’ This was presumably introduced with the trailer in mind. Similarly crass is Bendrix’s speech about being jealous of Sarah’s stockings, buttons and shoes – a long way from Greene’s laconic prose.) His subsequent – consequent? – resurrection is the first step on her road to faith: once she’s written in her diary, ‘believe me, God, I don’t believe in you yet,’ it’s only a matter of time. In the novel, she tells Smythe: ‘I believe in God ... You’ve taught me to. You and Maurice ... You’ve always said the priests taught you to disbelieve. Well, it can work the other way too.’ The obstinacy of Greene’s Catholicism vaporises when Smythe is fused with the priest. It is typical of his fiction that Sarah’s conversion should have more to do with Smythe than with Father Crompton, and even more to do with her personal, unmediated relationship to God: there is something peculiarly Protestant about this. In both The Power and Glory and The Heart of the Matter, priests fail as intercessors. In the earlier novel, the whisky priest, having finally been caught by the authorities, goes to Father José to make his last confession. José is the only other priest left in the state, having chosen marriage over exile or death – a wry twist on St Paul’s threadbare adage about it being better to marry than to burn. José, scared, denies the whisky priest confession. In The Heart of the Matter, Scobie goes to confess his adultery, but the priest’s formulaic responses do not help him to repent. Greene himself is supposed on one occasion to have stormed out of the confessional in Westminster Cathedral, demanding an alternative priest.

At Sarah’s funeral, in The End of the Affair, her mother tells Bendrix that she had Sarah secretly baptised as a young child, revealing that her road to faith began long before Bendrix’s accident; because the mother doesn’t appear in the film, Sarah herself has to tell him, and the fact that she knows about it diminishes the mystical force of the sacrament. In the preface to the collected edition of the novel, Greene wrote that the story was one ‘of a man who was to be driven and overwhelmed by the accumulation of natural coincidences, until he feared that, with one more, the excuse of coincidence would break’. That Sarah was baptised without her knowing it is one of the coincidences Bendrix encounters in the wake of her death. The others are occurrences that could be construed as miracles: the disappearance of Smythe’s birthmark; Parkis’s boy recovering from a fever after dreaming that Sarah had healed him; Bendrix silently imploring Sarah at her funeral, when his meaningless seduction of a new acquaintance seems inevitable, ‘get me out of this, get me out of it, for her sake, not mine,’ and Sarah’s mother coming to talk to him so the girl has to leave. At the end of the novel, Bendrix is in the same state as Sarah was in at the end of their affair, poised on the brink of faith, almost ready to change the way he sees the world in order to accommodate his distress and the unbearable weight of excess coincidence.

The best bit of symbolism in the film is a kind of intertextual joke. Fiennes’s performance is inescapably reminiscent of his role in The English Patient – he was the obvious choice for a brooding Second World War adulterer – and although he’s traded in his kaftan for a mac and developed a slight limp, his angst-ridden, rain-soaked pilgrimages over Clapham Common are peculiarly similar to those pain-wracked, sun-scorched treks across the desert. And the desert (there is a point to all this) is a favourite motif of Greene’s, a metaphor for spiritual desolation – so often experienced, strangely enough, by people who have to put up with a lot of extremely wet weather, whether in South London or Sierra Leone. Sarah refers to the desert repeatedly in her diary. Although despair is supposed to be the worst sin of all, in Greene’s theology it’s a necessary antecedent to redemption. The Lieutenant in The Power and the Glory, talking to a group of children in the street, thinks:

it was for these he was fighting. He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth – a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they chose ... He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert.

But in Greene’s universe, his dream is unachievable (at least in the way he thinks) because the only path through the desert is the one that leads to faith.

The birthmark that afflicts Smythe in the novel is transferred, in the film, to Parkis’s boy. This may have seemed an economical way to deal with two of Sarah’s ‘miracles’ at once, but it causes some irksome problems. It’s no big deal for Sarah to kiss the child: as the priest remarks in The Power and the Glory, ‘it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilisation – it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt’ (kissing’s not quite the same as dying, but the principle holds). In the novel, Sarah records in her diary how Smythe ‘turned his crinkled scarlet cheek towards me’ – young Parkis’s cheek in the movie may be scarlet but it’s as smooth as butter – ‘“You believe in God,” he said. “That’s easy. You are beautiful. You have no complaint, but why should I love a God who gives a child this?” ’ In the film, Sarah looks at the boy and asks: ‘What kind of God would give a child that?’ – a different question altogether. One of the ironies of Smythe’s complaint in the novel is the implication that in some ways he is still a child – there is a recurring connection in much of Greene’s work between faith and maturity, the idea that growing up involves recognising that life is full of irresolvable paradox and unavoidable suffering, and striking an attitude that can fully accommodate both. It’s a sturdy enough armature for fiction, particularly when it’s supporting prose as spare and arresting as Greene’s. (Querry’s minimalist cathedrals in A Burnt-out Case are an obvious analogy for Greene’s novels: the architect can’t stand the clutter of cheap plaster saints and stained glass.) Brighton Rock, for example, can be read in terms of the association of faith and maturity, as a twisted kind of anti-bildungsroman, the story of Pinkie refusing to grow up and acknowledge a world explicable only in terms of the faith he was born into and has come to hate. His every attempt to make things simple results in further complication and disaster, fuelling his obstinacy and hatred and driving him to destruction. What might be called his latent Catholic sensibility is a prerequisite for all this: the kind of person who naively believes in simple solutions but doesn’t have this sensibility – Wilson in The Heart of the Matter, Pyle in The Quiet American, Rycker in A Burnt-out Case – is an ideal antagonist, but doesn’t have enough dramatic mass ever to be the gravitational centre of one of Greene’s novels.

Greene was always uncomfortable about being labelled a ‘Catholic novelist’, and justifiably: one of the reasons the ‘Catholic’ novels are so successful is that they don’t demand that the reader believes (all that is required is an easily-summoned suspension of disbelief). Yet if faith isn’t necessary for the reader of The End of the Affair, it is essential for the novel itself: weaken it, as Jordan does, and the edifice collapses.

In order to coincide with the opening of the movie, one suspects, William Cash’s The Third Woman appears to have been rushed into print. He was burrowing around in the archives at Georgetown University only last summer, and the idea for a book about Greene’s relationship with Catherine Walston occurred to him as recently as January 1999.

Catherine Crompton was born in the small town of Rye in upstate New York in 1916, and married Henry Walston, a wealthy Englishman and future Labour peer, when she was 19. She converted to Catholicism in 1946, having written to Greene to ask him to be her godfather. They first met a few months later, in December 1946, and their affair continued, on and off, and by no means faithfully, until 1961. Walston was Greene’s ‘third woman’ inasmuch as his wife Vivien was the first, and his mistress Dorothy Glover the second.

The haste with which The Third Woman was put together is evident in the finished product: no index, no bibliography and no footnotes. There are elementary factual errors: Greene’s 96th birthday would, apparently, have fallen on 2 October 1999, even though he was born in 1904; the Power and the Glory was, according to Cash, published in 1945; he refers to the writings of someone called ‘Nicholas Pevesner’. He ruminates on ‘Greene’s very deliberate use of “I” – the first person possessive – ... a narrative device that is itself a bid for possession of Catherine, an act of literary ownership’: this would have been quite clever, if only he’d been discussing Greene’s very deliberate use of ‘my’. And then every last scrap of information has been included, as if there wasn’t time for even the crudest sieving: we learn the telephone number of an air-base and the extension for ‘the controller’s ground-floor operations room’; we are informed of the brands of Greene’s pens, raincoats, notebooks. There are so many of Cash’s personal anecdotes that it’s impossible not to take a morbid, even malicious interest in them. ‘Scientists’, we are told, have discovered that sexual desire doesn’t last more than three years in a relationship; the book’s dedicated ‘to Louise King, with three years’ love’, and you do have to wonder – but only because we’re treated to fascinating stories about the time William and Louise went to see Amadeus at the Old Vic last January, and ended up quite by chance having dinner at Rules afterwards, where Graham and Catherine (and Maurice and Sarah) used to eat; and how William gave Louise a copy of The End of the Affair soon after they started going out, and she used a bit from Sarah’s diary for her (successful) audition for drama school, and so on and on and on.

The errors and haste and self-regarding irrelevancies would be forgivable if there were some real muscle under all the cellulite, but Cash never decides what his book’s actually about. It’s a ‘detective investigation into fact and fiction’ in Greene’s work (and how we tire of Cash’s I’m-a-detective fantasy) that doesn’t get beyond the elementary point of asserting that ‘it is a naive over-simplification of Greene’s art to assume that Sarah is Catherine and Bendrix is Greene.’ The Third Woman is also ‘an inquiry into the creative debt that literature owes to adultery’, but all his ideas on this subject owe a large (acknowledged) ‘creative debt’ to Tony Tanner (who was Cash’s supervisor at Cambridge). He reveals himself as a pretty poor close-reader in an anecdote about meeting Greene. He subsequently sent the novelist a short story he’d written (‘about an adulterous summer holiday affair that leads to a violent murder’ – at least we don’t have to read that) and Greene wrote back: ‘You will find no difficulty in publishing a collection of these if your novel is a success.’ Despite that enormous ‘if’, Cash remains delighted with the letter.

Cash failed to get permission to quote from Catherine’s letters, partly because her son, Oliver Walston, was at the same time making a documentary about her relationship with Greene, broadcast a month before The Third Woman was published. To make up for that shortcoming, we have plenty of Greene’s leaden poetry:

In a plane your hair was blown
And in an island the old car
Lingered from inn to inn,
Like a fly on a map.

Like The Third Woman, Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri contains much that isn’t actually about Greene, but they have little else in common. Hazzard’s memoir is elegant and affectionate, if occasionally dull, and its amiable charm is evocative of what expatriate life on Capri must once have been like. She can be irritating at times: ‘thinking people’ is not to her mind tautologous, but appears to refer exclusively to the languid literati; she seems to think it’s a terrible shame that the residents of Capri are no longer peasants with ten children who never leave the island, but spoil themselves by going to university on the mainland. Yet her casual intimacy with Greene has allowed her to unearth facts that do Cash’s eager excavations few favours. He makes much of his discovery that Greene’s relationship with Walston went on for 15 years – longer, supposedly, than anyone had thought – but the same figure is mentioned by Hazzard in passing. Cash tells the story of how Greene and Walston smoked opium given to Greene by ‘Dottoressa’ Elisabeth Moor – a model for Aunt Augusta in Travels with My Aunt – who had it from the legendary Capri hedonist, Count Fersen. Hazzard reveals that Greene knew perfectly well that Moor could never in fact have met Fersen.

Bendrix is late for Sarah’s funeral in The End of the Affair because he is detained by an interview with a tedious literary hack called Waterbury, who ‘wore black corduroy trousers and smoked cheap cigarettes’. Bendrix tells him he can’t stay long.

‘A funeral in Golders Green,’ Waterbury exclaimed. ‘How like one of your own characters. It would have to be Golders Green, wouldn’t it?’

‘I didn’t choose the spot.’

‘Life imitating art.’

The character, an obvious warning from Greene, is not the only teaser in the novel (one of Bendrix’s books is called The Grave on the Waterfront – Brighton Rock?) but the point of such games must be that the biographical critic can’t win. When Greene played Scrabble, his opponent might win more often, but Greene would let it be known that he had amassed more points overall. It’s easy to dismiss Waterbury – Cash is scathing about him; Jordan excises him – but anyone who tries to take on Greene risks finding himself in the hapless critic’s trousers.