Graham Greene: Our Man in Antibes
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… .”’