“Graham Greene: A Life in Letters” Edited by Richard Greene Norton ($35)
Graham Greene aficionados will love this latest journey into Greeneland, because the British novelist himself is the tour guide.
Greene estimated that he wrote about 2,000 letters every year, and this collection represents seven decades’ worth of his personal correspondence to friends, family and fans.
With the full cooperation of the writer’s estate, editor Richard Greene (no relation) has assembled several hundred letters that range from a 16-year-old Greene’s detailed descriptions of fellow passengers on a sea voyage to Portugal in 1921 to a one-sentence statement, signed two days before his death in April 1991, that granted his biographer permission to quote from all copyrighted material, published or otherwise.
In typical Greene spy-thriller, whiskey-priest fashion, however, all is not what it seems. Take this “deathbed letter,” for instance. With the skillful insertion of a comma, he gave his authorized biographer, Norman Sherry, the rights to material that would help him finish his biography first but not the exclusive rights to that material.
Greene’s earlier letters read like a Who’s Who of 20th-century literature. He was an early champion of R.K. Narayan and Muriel Spark. He didn’t think much of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and named Nabokov’s “Lolita” one of three books of the year in 1955. He considered Salman Rushdie guilty of “shocking bad taste” for “Satanic Verses” but condemned the fatwa issued against him.
As for his own life’s work, he acknowledged that he’d written a few “good books. Perhaps people will think of me from time to time as they think of Flaubert.”
His deep respect for Evelyn Waugh, whom he admired “more than any living novelist,” is on full display. So is his friendship with the Soviet spy Kim Philby and literary feuds with Anthony Powell and Anthony Burgess. (Powell’s sin was to write “a bloody boring book” when Greene was his editor; Burgess’ was to appear on television frequently, which Greene viewed as undignified. Both outlived Greene and had the last laugh—or swipe of the pen, as the case may be.)
In lamenting his lack of affinity for domesticity to his long-suffering wife, Vivien, Greene admitted having a disease, later diagnosed as manic depression.
“Unfortunately the disease is also one’s material,” he wrote. “Cure the disease and I doubt whether a writer would remain.”
“A Life in Letters” is Graham Greene in his own words: tormented and bemused, petty yet saintly, “Catholic agnostic” and world traveler, film critic and fan, the scriptwriter and playwright, the outsider and agitator, louche yet disciplined, self-aware and “always on the side of the victim.”
Although a few missives cry out for more details, Richard Greene does a good job as an editor. Present yet unobtrusive, he provides a context to each letter in his concise prefaces and summaries and helps guide the reader through every stage of Greene’s life.
As a whole, these letters make Greene the artist more accessible. They also remind us what an enigma he remains as a man.