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RICHARD EDER

Nocturnal Awakenings : A collection of dreams Grahame Greene selected and jotted down over a 20-year period : A WORLD OF MY OWN: A Dream Diary, By Graham Greene (Viking: $21.95; 144 pp.)

October 23, 1994|RICHARD EDER

Graham Greene enters a poetry competition and manages one line: "Beauty makes crime noble." Suddenly: "I was interrupted by a criticism flung at me from behind bS. Eliot. 'What does that mean? How can crime be noble?' He had, I noticed, grown a mustache."

Graham Greene is dividing a wartime ration of bread, and offers General de Gaulle a share. " 'Crust or crumb, mon general?' I asked him, but looking at the bread I saw how little was left of either. 'Better both,' I told him, and gave him all that was left."

It is a faintly ghostly circumstance that the first of Greene's books to appear after his death--and perhaps the only one--should be a collection of his dreams. It is not a posthumous collection, however. He worked carefully to select and order them from the dreams he had jotted down over 20 years. And, as Yvonne Cloetta, his longtime companion, writes in her foreword, "One of the pleasures of this book is the obvious pleasure he took in his selection." That gets to the heart of it; and it is one key to why an unpromising venture holds an unpredictable allure.

I would not want Graham Greene to tell me his dreams; any more than I would want a friend to, or the grocer or, for that matter, Sigmund Freud. But for Greene to write his dreams is another matter. He was, you see, a writer. If his books varied in quality and flagged toward the end, his writing did not. Its voice, in its style and angled way of reacting to the public and private world, comes close to irresistible for anyone hooked on it. Not everyone is, of course.

It is a long way between telling ones dreams and what Greene did. He kept notebook and pencil beside his bed, woke to scrawl key words and used them in the morning to construct a tiny polished narrative. It is the difference between the work of dreaming and the work of the imagination; between a steam geyser and a steam engine. The latter takes you to real places. Not the dreams themselves, but the stories he tells about them, are the real--odd, admittedly--places that Greene takes us to.

"A World of My Own" is the title he gives his book; it is the closest he could come to an autobiography after "A Sort of Life," which got him through his early years. (The assorted pieces in "Ways of Escape" are autobiographical feints and glances.) By writing about dreams he can insert real people into a world entirely his own, he tells us in his introduction. "There are no witnesses. No libel actions." (Still, he withholds his erotic dreams.)

Some of the dreams seem purely absurd; yet something more, as well. Greene finds himself "on an agreeable river trip to Bogota in the company of Henry James." It is crowded and uncomfortable and he suggests debarking, "But no, James wouldn't hear of it. We must go on to the bitter end. 'For scientific reasons,' he told me." It is the comically premonitory shadow in an Edward Gorey drawing, or in such Lewis Carroll verses as:

He thought he saw a banker's clerk

Descending from a bus.

He looked again and saw it was

A hippopotamus.

If it should stay to dine, he thought,

There won't be much for us.

Sometimes the absurd is more pointed; sometimes more suggestive. He stays at the country house of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the patrician Tory prime minister whose politics and thin smile no doubt represented everything Greene couldn't stand about his country. Visiting the host's bedroom, he is irritated by his silk pajamas, "although they were almost indistinguishable from my own." A manservant is sweeping up. "The chandelier had fallen and shattered. 'Lucky it didn't fall on your head,' I remarked. 'That goes without saying,' Sir Alec replied with a kind of cold satisfaction."

A son of the upper-middle class, Greene in his dreams is not unsusceptible to a title. (Those identical pajamas.) He sits beside the Queen at church and the sermon has them both in barely controlled stitches. She charitably covers his face with a program; later, when Prince Philip turns up in scoutmaster uniform she confides to Greene: "I can't bear the way he smiles."

Get to popes and things become more serious, though not with John XXIII whom Greene loved. While John is blessing the sea, three Englishmen persist in splashing him. Greene takes them aside to scold them; they are the writer Raymond Mortimer, the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark and the Earl of Southampton. With John Paul II, whose leadership he deplores, the dreams are stiffer except for one, curiously mixed. Hearing that the Pope is about to commit the presumption of canonizing Christ, Greene goes to look for him on the seawall at Antibes. John Paul passes him, walking slowly toward town.

"He was dressed in an old pair of dirty white trousers and a green pullover. There was something pathetic in his disarray, and for the first time I felt a little sorry for him." John Paul is walking into "Greene-land," where the Church wears rags and where, who knows, Greene may pardon even a Pope.

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