An Edwardian On The ConcordeMonday, December 11, 2006
April 21, 1991
An Edwardian on the Concorde: Graham Greene as I Knew Him
By PAUL THEROUX
I'm afraid that at the moment my health is pretty lousy," Graham Greene wrote to me not long ago from his hospital bed in Vevey, Switzerland. "I am not supposed to drink at all which is painful and my days seem taken up with blood transfusions, vitamin injections and four different kinds of pill. I suppose one could expect worse at my age."
True -- he was 86 years old when he died on April 3. But even reading that dire description I felt Greene was still indestructible, and I did not seriously fear for his life. He was unlike any other writer I have known in his being physically fit without effort. When anyone asked him how he managed to stay in such good health, he said that he ate and drank whatever he liked, and he boasted (to Fidel Castro, among others) that he never exercised. In fact, he was an energetic walker his whole life, but he loathed fresh-air fiends and he was rather stuck on the idea of being dissolute. "I'm in the mood for a pipe," he sometimes said after a good lunch; he meant opium.
Meeting him, you had the idea that Greene was someone who had had everything he had ever desired, and that it was perhaps this abundance that made him romanticize loss and failure. The idea of noble ruin appealed greatly to him, I think, because it implied struggle. He often spoke of his writer's block, and yet he was immensely productive. And nearly all his 54 books are now in print. But he did not want anyone to think his achievement had been easy for him. I am quite sure he did not care about not winning the Nobel Prize. He was much more famous for not having won it. It was a magnificent annual failure, as the committee overlooked him year after year. But since the prize is awarded on what the English call the theory of Buggin's Turn ("Isn't it time for an Albanian?"), what is it actually worth?
The first impression you had of Greene was almost heroic, a man overwhelmingly tall, staring with a kind of imperious boredom straight over your head. But who had actually laid eyes on him? He was a conspicuous absentee, like Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa ("My cousin," he said, and it was true; Christopher Isherwood was another cousin). He liked to be in Nicaragua or India when any of his books appeared. He hated television, loathed guest appearances and never promoted his books. He disliked celebrity but I think he rather fancied being outrageous, even notorious. Any literary interview with him was done on his terms -- and he deliberately made himself a bit mysterious.
"He's very, um," and then John le Carre searched for a suitable word -- we were preparing a program to discuss the great man's work -- " slippery , isn't he?" Bruce Chatwin, who had been eager to meet him, confessed to being frankly disappointed, and implied that Greene at a lecture a few years ago (he hated public speaking) had been vacant and teasing.
He was larger than life in a specific sense: 6 foot 3, the handsome, even dashing young adventurer having become distinguished and statesmanly. As for his eyes -- they were in a class with those of the celebrated theosophist Madame Blavatsky -- there is no paler or more penetrating gaze in literature. They were almost unbelievably intimidating, and it is hard to imagine anyone lying at those eyes. His brothers Raymond and Hugh were also tall and equally robust (Hugh was a bureaucrat, Raymond an endocrinologist and a mountaineer who had known Aleister Crowley, the diabolist), but they did not have the eyes.
Photographs of Greene show a severe face, befitting a Companion of Honor, but those who could call him a friend knew his solemnity was a mask. He laughed often, and his laugh was deep and appreciative. He was an unusually good raconteur and had a fund of stories, mostly traveler's tales, that had never found their way into print. One great one, about multiple murders, had as its refrain, "And I was told, nothing happens in Cordoba."
He had a comic side that was so profound it verged on sadness (comedy is very near to tragedy, he often said) and touched mania. In his autobiography, he was frank about the mania; he went further and described how he was a manic-depressive, his bipolar nature having been responsible for novels as diverse as "Travels With My Aunt" and "The Heart of the Matter," giddiness on the one hand, gloom on the other. I think his comic vein deepened as he grew older.
His biographer Norman Sherry made much of the fact that Greene sought psychoanalysis, as though he feared for his sanity. I am sure he was as much an observer on that couch as he was a patient. He was a man who seldom wasted an experience (although he went to Samoa and Tahiti and never wrote about it). He did not regard madness as a weakness or a moral fault; it was another way of seeing the world, another form of inspiration. "Much madness is divinest sense" -- that sort of thing. He was also a tremendous quoter of poetry stanzas -- Browning, Kipling and his favorite, the Earl of Rochester.
I think his conversion to Roman Catholicism was an act of rebellion -- against a family (and a country) that saw Catholics as exotic and suspect and sinister. It also gave him a sense of sin, so his villains are not simply wrong -- they are wicked and evil. This theological side of his work I find the least interesting, the most schematic. As a convert he wears his theology heavily -- I think it is often a millstone in his novels -- yet there is no question that in the English novel of his time it set him apart.
He liked thinking that he lived (to use one of his favorite lines from Browning) "on the dangerous edge of things" -- politically, morally, emotionally. But did he? It always seemed to me that Greene was rather safe, and that all this business of his being furtive, the tedious spy side of his personality, opium-eater and ponderer of damnation, was rather a pose. Perhaps he really did play Russian roulette as a young man (he gave several different versions of the story), but if so, he got a hell of a lot of mileage out of it. Dicing with death -- I do believe it was as corny as that -- is much more romantic, and it gives a biographer something to puzzle over, but isn't playing shoot-yourself-in-the-head games also very silly?
In his outlook and in his manners, in the way he ran his literary life, in his lingo and in his pleasures (he seems to have had quite an active libido), Greene was an Edwardian. He was an impressionable 10-year-old when World War I began. Most of his literary heroes were still alive when he began to read them -- Conrad, Saki, Ford Madox Ford; he was precocious enough to have ventured upon Henry James before the master died in 1916. But this man-of-letters sensibility was combined with an extraordinary zest for life -- he was an Edwardian who was perfectly happy flying to Paris or New York on the Concorde (which he did several times).
I avoided reading him for some years, because in our early married life my wife had a great fondness for his work and knew it well. She urged me to read him. I resisted. I was envious. I irrationally demanded her attention; what about my writing? This was in Africa. Eventually I read him. I began to inhabit his world, and I saw hope for myself. In that way he inspired me and gave me heart.
I was asked to interview him once in the 1970's. We met at the Ritz in London and drank. I saw him several more times. Then I realized that it was an impossible task, and that to write about him in the way of an assignment I would be taking advantage of his generosity, invading his privacy and letting the world in. And in doing so, I would lose his trust. I wanted to go on being his friend, so I turned him into a fictional character and put him in my novel "Picture Palace." He laughed about it and we remained friends.
But I think he liked putting on his mask and being a fictional character. Just the other day I read "The End of the Affair," and (his sense of place is so precise, he is so appreciative) I began to miss South London and to wonder, in a premonition of his death, what the world would be like without his gaze upon it. Temperamentally, he was much like the central character, Bendrix -- a lonely man, capable of great sympathy but with a sliver of ice in his heart. I feel lucky to have been his friend, but I doubt that I knew him -- I don't think anyone really did.