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Graham Greene: Our Man in Antibes

A sort of visionary, heroic, socialist, nomadic, Catholic, hellish, legendary, romantic life

Graham GreeneGraham Greene

Graham Greene, August 14th, 1954.

Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty

It was odd how often some Americans in Saigon spoke his name, at least fifteen years after he had left Indochina for good, as if the city belonged to him and we had only rented it. There were a few war correspondents who thought that Graham Greene, the great novelist, might even comeback to witness a second war in Vietnam, that one day we would see a tall Englishman with eyes of regret, sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Continental wanting a vermouth cassis. He would be pulled back to a city he had so much loved. Each thing that he had once described — a street, a restaurant, the pewter evening light above the rice paddies — brought him back, made him a persistent presence, a splendid ghost. There was the cafe Givral which he once called, as an Englishman might, a ”milk bar” because it served malteds. The Graham Greene milk bar, the Americans named it. No one could be sure exactly where he had written his famous novel, The Quiet American, in the years 1952 to 1954, so facts were invented. Most people rather liked the idea of his writing it on the Continental terrace, a most unlikely place. There was even a group of American photographers and writers who swore they lived in the same apartment on Tu-Do Street which he had once rented. Believing it made them sure they were charmed. It was all nonsense, of course, but so many of us needed to know him and thought he would find us not bad, a better bunch than the noisy fools of the American press which he had described in The Quiet American and knew when he was reporting on the old French war.

He never came back but in any case there was very little we could have given him, just new details on how the killing was being done. He had always understood what was going to happen there, and in that small and quiet novel, told us nearly everything.

A long time later, after years of being so happily haunted by him, of crossing frontiers as obsessively as he and the characters in his novels do, of always going where Graham Greene had gone — Mexico, Africa, Asia, South America — I did not find him, after all, in a desolate border town or even in an airport. A meeting was arranged in the south of France where he lives part of each year. It is easy to imagine Graham Greene in a villa, with a butler named Baines, wearing a white linen suit that is forty years old. None of that: he lives in a modern apartment house in Antibes, with those long brutal balconies Americans know so well. It annoys him when the French tenants barbecue: he hates the smell of the cooking meat, the racket of voices late at night. The apartment, so plain and so neat, is hardly the home of a rich and famous man who cares for many possessions or the complications they bring. He greets guests at his door, smiling.

I had pictured him as frail, the shoulders and chest certainly not so wide, a man with something secret and sorrowing in his face. Mr. Greene is now seventy-three: there is nothing very old or very sad about him. He does not even have a cough or a tremble. I had not known he has such a wonderful smile; perhaps women always try to make him laugh, and are pleased when they do. But it is hard, even for the brashest or the most respectful, to know what to say at first to the Englishman who has written so often, like no one else, of deceit and love, of divided loyalties, of the sick conscience, of honor and of the havoc it can bring, of pity and the admission of failure that changes people as much as a gas that reaches the lungs.

I gave him my dumb gift: a green bottle of gin, much stronger than he normally drinks. I had intended to bring him American bacon — there is no bacon in France, the English like it as much as we do — but had been talked out of it in New York on the grounds it was an undignified and greasy present. The merits of gin vs. bacon — it was clear he would have liked the bacon — got us going, and led to other things.

”I used to feel a certain homesickness for Vietnam until the American war,” Mr. Greene said. ”It would have been too depressing…it would have been difficult feeling completely against one side. One wants to have a certain sympathy. I used to feel homesick for Africa but now Africa has gotten into such a mess. How many African countries now are not dictatorships? The African dictator has not been a very pleasant man so far.”

He gave the names of some unpleasant men for he is very well informed. There is a television set in the living room, with its two walls of books, the oil painting that Fidel Castro gave him hanging above a couch clearly past any prime. He likes to see the evening news from Paris at 7:45; he waits for foreign reports and there is never much.

”France is the most insular country in the world,” he said. A Haitian painting is in the hall but there is nothing from Asia and his Vietnam library is in his Paris apartment. The Quiet American, published in the United States in 1956, was not well received. A.J. Liebling wrote a review for the New Yorker, in the voice of an outraged patriot, for Mr. Greene was considered to have written an unkind portrait of a young American in Vietnam named Pyle who was convinced he could ”save” the country from Communism. For twenty years, the question has kept coming up: who inspired Pyle, an earnest, boring fellow who caused the deaths of some Vietnamese when an explosion planned by him took place in Saigon on the wrong day? Mr. Greene, who first went to Indochina twenty-seven years ago, has written of a trip he took in southern Vietnam with an American of the same intense persuasion: My companion bore no resemblance to Pyle  —he was a man of greater intelligence and of less innocence but he lectured me all the long drive back to Saigon on the necessity of finding a ”third force” in Vietnam. I had never before come so close to the great American dream which is to bedevil affairs in the East….

But that day we spoke he remembered more, and then still more.

”There was a rather nice woman at the American Embassy who was married to the protocol secretary. I used to take her out for meals sometimes. She was very sweet and nice. And she was actually fed up with him. He was a sort of Pyle, now I come to think of it. I don’t think I thought of it at the time I was writing but now that I come to think of it he would have done, he would have done. He was rather ashamed of being protocol secretary. And he was very knowledgeable about fish. And she was bored to death with him because he was really a rather feeble type. And what she disliked so much was when they were being investigated before he could become protocol secretary, he was very Boy Scouty. The man who talked to me was not at all that type. He was blocky, you know, tough, broad shoulders. He had one of those American Germanic names which don’t sound real. He wasn’t at all a Pyle character.”

That Pyle: he kept coming back to Vietnam, long after Mr. Greene had him murdered in The Quiet American, talking of a ”third force,” and what the Vietnamese wanted and needed, so after a while just the name alone stood for a man who was pious and self-righteous, very dangerous indeed.

”Nobody liked it in America at the time. They only began to like it when they became involved. Then I got lots of nice letters from people and correspondents who were there. But before that I don’t think I had any good reviews when it came out in America,” Mr. Greene said of his novel. ”My publisher. Harold Guinzburg, was alive in those days. He wrote mean absurd letter saying, ‘On page so-and-so I think you’ve made a little bit of an error because your character [the English reporter, Fowler]… compares colonialism with the colonialism of America. As I understand colonialism I think what you should have said was dollar diplomacy — because, after all, colonialism in my eyes is taking possession of something on which you haven’t got a land frontier… .’And I wrote back and said, ‘But have you got a land frontier with Hawaii? With the Philippines in the old days? With Puerto Rico today? Don’t you call what the Russians have done with Estonia and Latvia colonialism?’

”He wrote back and said. ‘Oh well, I accept that it’s an English character speaking and they don’t understand… .”’

Boredom — his name for the relentless enemy that has stalked him everywhere — has lessened with age. Mr. Greene said. He has described, in terrible detail, the peculiar torture it once caused him. A young, and more despairing, Graham Greene found his boredom so unbearable that, in 1923, he played Russian roulette, alone, with a loaded revolver ”to make the discovery that it was possible to enjoy again the visible world by risking its total loss.” It was boredom, too, that made Mr. Greene once insist that a dentist extract a healthy tooth because he so wanted the ether that was used. And it has pushed him to witness and write about three foreign wars, to still travel like a man both pursued and in pursuit.

”I get restless if I’m in the same place too long… it may be an effect of the war. One was cooped up in England, except for the period in Africa, one couldn’t travel to Europe at all.” he said. There was no use in asking him if the affliction of his life has not been boredom but rather a constant sense of dread. Mr. Greene — who was psychoanalyzed in London when he was sixteen — is not keen on such conversation. He has, after all, explored and laid out like a map the early zones of his misery and pain in his autobiography, A Sort of Life, which ends when he is twenty-five. He has nothing new to learn about himself and there is very little he wants to hide except when it concerns the privacy of others. He left England January 1st, 1966, to settle in France, his reasons were personal, his wife still lives there, their separation has been a long one and divorce is impossible because both are Catholic. Years ago Mr. Greene wrote: I find myself always torn between two beliefs: the belief that life should be better than it is and the belief that when it appears better it is really worse.

The melancholy so often charted by Graham Greene — he has written that he is a manic-depressive — seems eased by his traveling. That week in Antibes, he was still excited by a trip he had made five months earlier to Panama, after wanting to go there for more than forty years, acting on a premonition that Panama was soon to be very important because of the canal. He was trying to make up his mind whether to risk going back there again in the summer.

”I wonder if one will be let down the second time,” he said. ”I mean, it was such fun, it was so amusing the first time.” Brigadier General Omar Torrijos, Panama’s head of state, had provided Mr. Greene with a guide and interpreter known as Sergeant Chu Chu. Mr. Greene was captivated by the sergeant, a former professor of mathematics and the father of nine children by four wives, who said that his name meant ”kiss-kiss.” Mr. Greene told the sergeant that he wanted to put him in a novel as the main character. The Panamanian was so elated — as any of us would be — that he said he felt goose flesh at the very thought of it. ”He got very excited. His flesh was rising in bumps. He was wonderful,” Mr. Greene said.

”He was the most amusing character. He was really a fantastic person.” He speaks in the calm and assured manner of an Englishman of his class and generation. No words are wasted, no sentences drip. Later he worried that I might not have under-stood Chu Chu’s special charm, for Mr. Greene gently said, now be sure you don’t make fun of him. (One promised not once but twice, one had waited half one’s life to meet Graham Greene.)

There is hardly a part of the world that England’s greatest living novelist, as he is called, has not seen and the more septic the situation appears, the more likely Graham Greene will turn up. His reputation for favoring trouble spots is such that once, he said, in Douala, in the United Republic of Cameroun, an official there smiled and said: ”We have our insurgents here too.” Consider his past: 1934-1935, Liberia; 1937-1938, Mexico; 1941-1943, Sierra Leone, West Africa (British Intelligence); 1948, Czechoslovakia and Vienna; 1951, Malaya (for Life magazine) and Indochina; 1952. Indochina again (for Paris-Match magazine); 1953, Kenya; 1954, Indochina again, and Cuba and Haiti; 1955, Indochina again and Poland; 1956, return to Haiti; 1957. Cuba. China and twice to Russia; 1958, Cuba again; 1959, back to Cuba and to the Congo; 1960, Russia again and Brazil; 1961, Tunis; 1962, Rumania; 1963, Cuba again and a return to Haiti, to Goa, Berlin and East Germany; 1965, Santo Domingo; 1966, Cuba again; 1967, Israel and a return, to Sierra Leone, and to Dahomey; 1968, Hamburg and to Istanbul; 1969, Paraguay, Argentina and back to Czechoslovakia; 1970, Argentina again; 1971, Chile and Argentina. And the last six years have been no different, more new places including a first trip to South Africa. Mr. Greene often travels on assignment from newspapers in England, for French publications and sometimes for the BBC. He is a remarkable reporter, and some of his dispatches are little masterpieces.

In 1955, for example, while in Hanoi, he met with Ho Chi Minh (and delivered a letter to him from a Vietnamese who could trust Mr. Greene). In the palace of the former emperor, Ho Chi Minh gave him tea, spoke in easy colloquial English and said: ”Let us speak as though we were at home.” In the story he sent to London, Mr. Greene, who had a great sympathy for the French troops dying so fast in that war, wrote: There was nothing evasive about him: this was a man who gave orders and expected obedience and also love. The kind remorseless face had no fanaticism about it. A man is a fanatic about a mystery — tables of stone, a voice from a burning bush — but this was a man who had patiently solved an equation. So much love had to be given and received, so many sacrifices demanded and suffered.

Many of his most powerful and haunting novels have been set in the Third World: The Power and the Glory (1940) in Mexico, The Heart of the Matter (1948) in Sierra Leone, The Quiet American (1955) in Saigon, Our Man in Havana (1958) in Cuba, A Burnt-Out Case (1961) in a leprosarium in the Congo. The Comedians (1966) in Haiti, and The Honorary Consul (1973) in Argentina, another of his prescient novels, giving us news, drawing the first shape of the tragedy before it is acted out by real men.

”My favorite now,” I said of The Honorary Consul, remembering Father Rivas, the revolutionary priest who leaves the church, ashamed to have to preach the Gospel in the barrio while the diocesan archbishop gorged with the fat army general, and drank French wine. The priest, with other men, plans to kidnap the American ambassador in Buenos Aires and to ask for certain prisoners as ransom. The dilemmas — theological, social, political — hat confront Father Rivas confront real priests throughout Latin America and political kidnappings now are common. He is eerily ahead of the times.

”So is it mine,” he replied, perhaps relieved to be praised for recent work not one of the early novels, although he is hardly displeased that Brighton Rock (1938) has sold more than a million copies in paperback. Mr. Greene said that he had asked his friend, a Spanish priest who teaches English literature, if he had not found the character of Father Rivas ”a little bit off the rails.” 

”But he said. ‘Not a bit of it, not a bit of it — perfectly Catholic, perfectly acceptable,”’ Mr. Greene said. ”You know. Father What’s-His-Name in The Honorary Consul had the idea of a night side of God and a day side of God, you know — God’s evolution and God as evil. God and the Devil are the same person. I invented this for him because he’s got to have his theology, as it were, as he had left the church and married. Well, I thought it would probably not be acceptable to the Catholic Church.”

Greeneland: a fearful place of fog and unnamed fevers, of scrub and swamps, of forlorn lovemaking and the need to pull memories out like thorns so they can be eliminated. A seedy world of relics of happier times, of thin men in frayed shirts, of hungers that cannot be blunted, of bad beds and drinks made of pink gin, doomed departures, tyrants and bullies — and, always, victims. There is no one who writes of the wretched quite like Graham Greene, and in The Honorary Consul there is this passage to remember: It was only in the barrio of the poor that he ever encountered suffering in silence, suffering which had no vocabulary to explain a degree of pain, its position or its nature. In those huts of mud or tin where the patient often lay without covering on the dirt floor he had to make his own interpretation from a shiver of the skin or a nervous shift of the eyes.

What is forgotten about Greeneland — a name he intensely dislikes — is that people in it are often heroic, have humor, make choices even if they are wrong, and are sometimes braver than most. His characters demand our respect and they always have his. It was once said of Mr. Greene that he spent his life looking for hell and always found it again in each new novel. But it is a hell with real prisons, real huts, real diseases and real fear.

He thought the term ”Greeneland” had been first used by a man who used to write rather good novels, who was at Oxford the same years he was there.

“It irritates me,” he said. “I want to say — BUT THESE THINGS HAPPEN. IT’S NOT RURITANIA.”

In Antibes, I envied him, for there is no place now that I long to see, no voyage I want to take, no new country I could love and his pleasure in speaking of Panama reminded me of that. Even now I cannot explain to you the source of his passion, the romantic propulsion, that has never dissolved in a man whose life is almost as long as the century. Mr. Greene was eager to show me his maps of Panama: he had two enormous ones which, put together, made that tiny country seem as huge as Nigeria. It pleased him that Panama offered no small maps of itself. That summer he was planning to drive through the Basque country of Spain with the Spanish priest and scholar, then go to Switzerland to see his daughter and then, perhaps, perhaps, to Panama.

Later, when we were still talking of Panama, I suggested he fly there by the shorter route, which meant stopping in New York, rather than a much longer flight from Europe. ”I have never really been happy there,” he said of that city.

I pressed: perhaps then, a day or two in New York and then his first visit to Mississippi or Georgia. There was a remarkable priest in Atlanta whom he would like, I said, a priest who lived and worked among the blacks, a priest quite famous for his courage, the roses he grows, his martinis, his oyster stew. Mr. Greene looked a little weary. His eyebrows moved.

”I don’t require a priest, y’know,” he said. People are always telling him that they know a priest he must meet or treating him as if he were one. It probably started when The Power and the Glory was published thirty-nine years ago, although the novel was not a success for another decade. Mr. Greene had gone to southern Mexico in the winter of 1937-38 to write a study on the persecution of the church and to escape a libel suit brought against him in England by 20th Century Fox on behalf of their famous nine-year-old star. Miss Shirley Temple, of the fat curls and fat little face. It was charged that Mr. Greene, who was then a film critic, had accused 20th Century Fox of ”procuring” Miss Temple for ”immoral purposes” in his review of Wee Willie Winkie. It was this exile in Mexico — the secret masses and the devout loyal peasants — which led to his historic portrait of a tormented and hunted whiskey priest and a noble police lieutenant. I had to invent him as a counter to the failed priest: the idealistic police officer who stifled life from the best possible motives, the drunken priest who continued to pass life on.

He did go back to Panama last summer after all and he did come to the United States although no one here knew it. Perhaps it is what he wanted. In September a letter from Antibes explained: ”I did enter America as the general [Torrijos] wanted me to go to the signing of the treaty and I went to Washington with a Panamanian passport and returned by Concorde — a terrible disappointment. The food was worse than the average tourist class and the only advantage I could see in it was speed and who wants to be as speedy as that.”

The treaty between Panama and the United States, transferring the canal to the Panamanians by the year 2000, was signed with immense fanfare during three days last June of meetings, parties and grinning. Some 2000 people — including a foreign fascist or two, a group of the most powerful U.S. senators and the Joint Chiefs of Staff no less — were unaware that in their midst at the ceremony in Washington was the celebrated novelist, the radical Catholic, whose political views remain the same as those he expressed in a letter to the Times of London ten years ago: If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States I would certainly choose the Soviet Union just as I would choose life in Cuba to life in those southern American republics, like Bolivia, dominated by their northern neighbor….

It probably delighted him to go unnoticed — he prefers it. That day in Washington, he was not awed by the company he kept. ”It was curious seeing the all-star cast at the signing,” he wrote. ”The only star who seemed to be missing was Elizabeth Taylor. Two rows in front of me was Andy Young and five rows in front 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.”

Betrayal — of love, of country, of God, of faith, of self — is a recurring theme with Graham Greene who once wrote: In the lost boyhood of Judas/Christ was betrayed. But it is never simple treachery, or clear-cut. Most Greene heroes, however doomed or disloyal, however their allegiances conflict, seem to have a faithfulness to someone or something. They lack belief in themselves most of all.

Now there is a new Graham Greene novel, his twentieth, called The Human Factor. Set in England, it is the story of a man named Castle who works for British intelligence — as Mr. Greene did during World War II — and deeply loves his wife, a black whom he used as an agent in South Africa and later helped to escape. It was a Communist who made it possible for Castle’s wife to flee. In London, Castle leaks to the Russians, Castle is found out, Castle has no choice but to defect to Moscow where his wife cannot join him. None of these details about The Human Factor was forthcoming from Mr. Greene, who was shyly silent about the plot last summer and only said of his new novel that it was ”rather sad and piano.”

”It’s bad luck to talk about a work that’s not yet come out,” he explained. ”Actually I started it a good many years ago and then let it die and went back to it. I’ve done it in the last two or three years.”

One reason for the postponement was Mr. Greene’s concern that people would think he had drawn entirely on the infamous case history of Kim Philby, a very high ranking British agent in the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI 6, so highly regarded by London that he was sent to Washington D.C. in 1949 to be the liaison man with the fledgling CIA. Mr. Philby, however, happened to be an important Soviet agent and in 1963 he defected to Moscow. It does not occur to Mr. Greene to either deny, or downplay, the friendship between them. That is not his way.

”I was very fond of him,” Mr. Greene said. ”He was amusing. One felt that his sympathies were with the left, as it were, even though he had been a correspondent on Franco’s side in the Spanish war. He’d been sent to the Franco side, you see, by the Telegraph. But his sympathies were obviously to the left, as mine were. He was a good drinking companion and he was a very nice and agreeable boss. And at the time he was fighting the same war as I was.”

The one letter he has received from Kim Philby in Moscow came after a protest by Mr. Greene in 1967 when he wrote to the Times in London deploring the imprisonment of the Russian writers, Sinyavsky and Daniel, and requesting that the blocked royalties awaiting him in the Soviet Union be turned over to the wives of those two men. Mr. Philby then wrote Mr. Greene: ”I saw some recent correspondence in the Times that you have decided not to revisit the Soviet Union until certain conditions have been met. That is your very good right. May I join you in hoping that these conditions will soon be met, not only because it was a just, proper and decorous thing to do but also because it might yield an unexpected bonus in the shape of those long very long lunches.”

The Human Factor is not a novel with his usual fine touches of wit (even The Quiet American had a funny scene, there was humor in The Comedians) but he thinks perhaps the critics will not grieve. For two earlier books, a collection of stories called May We Borrow Your Husband (1967) and a hilarious novel, Travels with My Aunt (1969), were comedies that went largely unappreciated. He thinks he knows why.

”The critics — well, they certainly don’t like me to be funny,” he said. ”They want one to stick to Greeneland. And of course they are apt to complain of the Catholic element in my books. Now the Catholic element is very small. It was large in about four books but then it hadn’t been large before and it hasn’t been large after. But then they rather resent that, I think. I can’t help reading the notices[reviews]. Bad ones don’t awfully depress me because they’re written by people I don’t have any opinion of. The good ones sometimes cheer me up.”

”There’s no such thing as success for a writer and priest,” I said, quoting Graham Greene to Mr. Greene.

”There isn’t a success that one can settle on.”

There was a time when Mr. Greene liked danger, felt cheerful facing it, thrived on the threats of ambushes on roads, and said so. But fear is one thing, he said, it can have sexual overtones, but terror and panic are something else: hateful and sickening. You lose all reason. He still remembers a night on patrol with French paratroopers in the north of Vietnam, in Phat Diem, finding himself separated, lost, uncertain of who was closer, the Viet Minh or the French. But much worse than that, he said, was seeing a bat with a broken wing fluttering on the ground in the passage of a temple in Angkor Wat: there was no exhilaration of danger to that, just terror and sickness. The bat caused him more anxiety than war, as bats did in the Congo, when he was on a small steamer and saw a cloud of them trailing the boat.

”And birds — yes, birds, too. If a bird was in this room I’d freeze. When I was very young and being patronized by a rather bad writer —who invited me down to stay with her in the country — at the first lunch a bird flew in at the window and I got under the table. It didn’t do much for my ego.

”But one can deal with fear, can’t one? Fear is something that can go on and on several hours — and then one gets bored with it. One gets bored with it and then one loses it. Because it becomes just boring.”

He is still pushed to see if danger is different, in the meanest and saddest of places. It was Graham Greene, of course, obsessed with espionage, who first noted that the novelist and the spy have something in common: both are always watching, overhearing, seeking motives, analyzing character. He is, in some ways, the best sort of spy, a man forever investigating the weather of the soul.

”I went to Belfast last year for five days only. But I must say I was more frightened than I’ve ever been in Indochina or during the blitz or any thing. Because I felt in a very ambiguous position, you see. I came purely out of curiosity. The government let me have a car and a driver. All the numbers of government cars are known, of course. And I was a Catholic and therefore a traitor from the IRA point of view….And my past, I felt, was against me, I mean being in MI 6. It was terribly depressing. I went on down to Dublin and it was like heaven. I mean. seeing the girls sitting on the grass with their boyfriends… .”

The famous anti-Americanism of Graham Greene — which now seems very mild compared to the real thing — has been exaggerated, although he has had good reason, aside from Shirley Temple, to find us a peculiar and menacing people. Until John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, Mr. Greene was a prohibited immigrant to the United States under the famous McCarran Act, which set down all sorts of demented rules on who could come to this country and under what conditions. At nineteen, for a lark as he puts it, Mr. Greene joined the Communist party for four weeks while at Oxford which caused him great trouble only with the U.S. government so many years later. Nearly all of Mr. Greene’s novels have been made by Americans into movies, sometimes to his horror. He was particularly offended by what American directors did with The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American. For five of his own novels, Mr. Greene wrote the screenplays; his most famous ones are The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949), which was later published in a book. Mr. Greene’s experiences in Hollywood, although taxing at the time, now seem to amuse him. He is fond of telling visitors how David Selznick, the producer, tried to persuade him and the British director Carol Reed that The Third Man was a bad title. A better one, Mr. Selznick said, was A Night in Vienna, ”a title which will bring them in.” But he remembers Mr. Selznick with affection and even the memory of a lunch in London with Sam Zimbalist makes him laugh. Mr. Greene was invited to revise the last part of a script for a remake of Ben Hur. Mr. Zimbalist said: ”You see, we find a sort of anticlimax after the Crucifixion.”

Mr. Greene politely bowed out. Many of his admirers in this country think Graham Greene remained silent during the American war in Vietnam, sensing there was nothing he could do after having sent out the first great warning in his novel. Not quite: he resigned from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters — those prestigious institutions in New York — and also tried to persuade other foreign members to join a mass resignation. And some did although a number considered that the war was not an affair with which a cultural body need concern itself. In his own letter of resignation, Mr. Greene wrote”…I disagree profoundly with the idea that the Academy is not concerned. I have tried to put myself in the position of a foreign honorary member of a German Academy of Arts and Letters at the time when Hitler was democratically elected chancellor. Could I have continued to consider as an honor a membership conferred in happier days?”

During a visit to Chile, when the late Salvador Allende was president, he received a telephone call on his first night in Santiago. We’re waiting for you, said an American voice.

At intervals, when he has not been able to work, Mr. Greene keeps a diary of his dreams, so as ”to keep my hand in.” He indexes them very carefully.

”I passed through a period of nightmares about Haiti….I dreamed I was back there and they didn’t know but would I get out again before they discovered I was there? But since Duvalier died [April 1971] I’ve just had one up-to-date dream but it was always rather nervy and nasty. Is it better there now? Not much. I mean, what’s better for the ruling class is that American money has come back again.” In a new introduction to The Comedians he wrote: Poor Haiti itself and the character of Doctor Duvalier are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect. Impossible to deepen that night. He rather proudly showed me the reaction of the late Francois ”Papa Doc” Duvalier to The Comedians: some scurrilous leaflets printed in Port-au-Prince, in French and English, with catchy titles: ”Graham Greene Finally Exposed” and ”Graham Greene’s Swindle.” It distresses him that Richard Burton, who starred in The Comedians with Elizabeth Taylor, which was made in Dahomey, vacationed in Haiti during the brutal ”Papa Doc” regime.

”They asked Alec Guiness but, of course, he refused,” said Mr. Greene.

Haiti didn’t provide all the stuff of his nightmares. He used to have atomic war dreams, and thinks perhaps it might have been a way of sublimating memories of the blitz in London.

”There was one dream where I saw the whole of London, except St. Paul’s — flat and obliterated. There was another one where seas of mud were going over the city. Another when I was walking down Fifth Avenue and planes were dropping radio-active water into the streets.’

”Then, curiously enough, when Khrushchev came to power [1958] I stopped dreaming atom bomb dreams and dreamed of Khrushchev as a kind of father figure. Very nice and friendly dreams. I sat next to him at dinner once and he joked to me at dinner because I was eating meat. And he became a kind of father figure in my dreams. I had a great feeling of affection for Khrushchev, especially when he slapped his shoe, you know [at the U.N. 1961]. No. I never met him. I was having dinner once with the Rumanian Ambassador, and I talked of my affection and my dreams of Khrushchev. He said: ‘If you were Rumanian you wouldn’t have such dreams, such feelings. The Rumanians hated him.”’

He thought he had only voted once in his life for a ”half-Socialism.” which didn’t seem to work and now he is not sure he would vote Communist. We were talking about the Stalinist years in the Soviet Union, when he said: ”In a curious way, it may be easier for a Catholic to mentally survive that because we went through our Stalinist periods, thousands of them — Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. But it didn’t alter the fundamental idea, as it were. And so” — he gave his small smile — ”one still has the hopeless hope of a human face of Communism.”

There is only one of his book, The Heart of the Matter, which seems to irritate, and after it came out, he received disturbing mail, some from people inviting him to shed his blood for Christ which he did not feel like doing. The source of irritation is Scobie, a very decent colonial policeman in West Africa, who is unfaithful to his wife with a young girl, a child really, rescued in a shipwreck and, in the end, Scobie betrays them all and God as well by killing himself.

”There’s something wrong with it. that’s why I don’t like it,” Mr. Greene said. ”It carries a kind of Protestant exaggeration, which makes people say that he’s saintly. That was not the intention at all, he’s meant to be a man suffering from pride. I’d done another book, The Ministry of Fear, which is where one talks about pity —pity bombing cities, pity killing. And Scobie was an extension of that idea. And pity is a sense of superiority, isn’t it? Unlike compassion. You have compassion for an equal but you have pity for somebody you consider to be inferior, don’t you think?”

In Antibes I had a room at the little Hotel Royal, where Graham Greene had once stayed, which is only a short walk to his apartment. I made fun of the room to him: there was no space at all because of a huge spongy bed which felt like a mountain of damp American bread. He was very fond of the hotel, however, and said he had been quite happy there. Then, suddenly, he told a very small sad story, as a person might suddenly hand you a snapshot or an old letter for no discernible reason. It happened years ago: Mr. Greene was checking out of the Hotel Royal to make a plane. The bill was not ready. He began to fuss. Mademoiselle Koepel, a beguiling French woman who still runs the front desk and manages to conceal the fact she is overworked, was too slow for him that day. Mr. Greene lost his temper and spoke so sharply to her that at the airport he called to tell her how sorry he was. He remembers it all. It is not just the small cruelties of other people that cause him pain.

At night he goes out to dinner in either of the two restaurants he favors. I had already eaten up so much of his time with my questions and my tape recorder, taking three mornings away from him. when that is the time every day that he works, but still I did not want to let him go. So he invited me to dinner several times. We walked a good deal in those evenings, his pace as fast as my own. One night he showed me the old ramparts of the port — I had paid attention to nothing there — and we went to the Place du Safranier, in a district which is old, working class, and considers itself distinct — and rather superior — from the city, he said. There was a dance there and he thought I might enjoy seeing the fun. We walked there and he led the way down a long stone staircase.

People were doing a polka rather fast and laughing about it. No one paid any attention to us. He liked watching the pretty girls who were dancing and admired a blond woman in a red sweater who was having a fine time. At one point I needed cigarettes — he does not smoke — and wandered off into the little bar packed with the men of Safranier clearly pleased with the uproar they were making. It took so long to buy cigarettes he must have wondered where I had gone. Pushing my way out, I suddenly saw him, in the doorway, looking for the lost American. I cannot exactly tell you why that moment touched me so. or even what I called out to him. Even now, so much later, when I think of him it is always in the little bar in Safranier: Graham Greene, standing alone, so much taller than anyone else, a calm man who remained still, only his eyes moving across the room to find the face he knew.

In This Article: Coverwall, Vietnam


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