A convergence of cultural vectors has brought Graham Greene back to center stage. A film of "The End of the Affair," starring Ralph Fiennes, has been released, and the BBC broadcast a tie-in titled "The Beginning of the End of the Affair." The third and final volume of Greene's authorized biography by Norman Sherry is due later this year. Amid howling winds of hype, Shirley Hazzard modestly hopes "there is room for the remembrances of someone who knew [Graham Greene]--not wisely, perhaps, but fairly well." An esteemed novelist with a home on Capri, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, now deceased, were among the few inhabitants Greene socialized with during visits to his house on the island. Her memoir "Greene on Capri" is a pointillist masterpiece that manages to evoke a magical setting, remarkable people and vivid events, all in the space of 138 elegantly written pages.
Hazzard and Greene met in an encounter that "seems still, like an incident from a novel: a real novel, a good novel, an old novel." In a cafe, Greene and a friend were discussing Robert Browning's "The Lost Mistress." Greene knew much of the poem by heart but couldn't remember its last line, which Hazzard supplied. There followed a friendship that endured for three decades--a friendship distinguished, as one would expect of literary people (Hazzard's husband was an author of many books, including biographies of Flaubert and Cocteau), by a great deal of spirited conversation, intelligent debate about various Italian writers, pleasant evenings at dinner and desultory strolls.
But as Hazzard quickly intuited, "Graham Greene did not come to Capri as earlier generations of foreign writers and artists had done, accessible to the island's history and beauty, and curious for new experience there. If most of his travels were acknowledged ways of escape, his Capri visits in particular were a means of being 'away'--from routine and interruptions, and from the consequent menace of accidie."
Travel wasn't Greene's only way of coping with boredom and black moods. He frequently picked quarrels; "rows were almost a physical necessity to him" and he "appeared indifferent to harm done, hurt inflicted, trust eroded." Even with friends he showed "a playground will to hurt, humiliate and ridicule." No point was too petty for him to argue, and though he had a famously wicked sense of humor, "Graham's pleasure in such jokes derived exclusively from spoofs practised by himself on others." As Hazzard recounts, Greene baited her husband for being an American, expressing unremitting hostility to what he perceived as our "contemptible national quest for the Grail of happiness."
But then she insightfully acknowledges that as hard as Greene could be on others, he was just as hard on himself and "held that a policy of good cheer was often a repudiation of feeling; a license for indifference or ruthlessness." That he himself could be cruel Hazzard concedes, but taking the man's measure down to his fingers, which were twisted with Dupuytren's contracture, she speculates that he suffered from a similar psychic constriction.
Would that I had known all this before I met Greene. In 1972, I got his address, predictably, from a priest and wrote him. Though he was reputed to be wary of fawning readers and aspiring authors, he invited my wife and me to his place in Antibes for drinks. Summer nights on the Riviera were no longer so tender as during F. Scott Fitzgerald's time. The streets of stark modern flats were clotted with cars and smothered in the smell of fried food and Bain de Soleil. I pressed a buzzer marked Green--was the deleted "e" for disguise?--and entered a building that had the sterile impersonality of an airport. As Hazzard notes, "He was not attached, through habit or memory, or aesthetically, to the rooms and houses and neighborhoods of his life."
Greene was taller than expected and his apartment smaller--just a living-work space, bedroom and kitchen. Then 68, he stooped at the shoulders, as if listening closely and looking on with leaky blue eyes. His terrace door let in a din of cars and voices. Greene hated noise: "The world is a raucous radio held to one's ear," Hazzard quotes him complaining. As he lamented to me, "The traffic goes on until all hours, and everyone in the building has a barbecue on his balcony. They keep me up half the night. Some mornings I'm almost too tired to work."
Displaying no knack for the continuity of conventional conversation, he preferred anecdotes, and as he skipped from topic to topic, I kept up the best I could. "It's gotten so I hate to say who I am or what I believe. I told an interviewer I'm Gnostic. The next day's newspaper announced that I had become an agnostic." Here, I thought, was a man who demanded accuracy and strict attention.