Much has been chronicled about the life and times and oeuvre of Grahame Greene, author, spy, adulterer and man of letters. About 2000 of the latter annually, apparently. And now comes Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, edited by Richard Greene (no relation).
The tragedy, suggests Michael Dirda, reviewing in the Weekly Standard, is that Greene is not a letter writer, at least not in the league of Evelyn Waugh or George Orwell.
In the novels his prose has always been somewhat drab, befitting his often doleful subject matter, but that plainness can be readily overlooked because of the cinematic vividness of his scene-setting and the lived intensity of his characters, who, whether male or female, are either murderers, traitors, unhappy adulterous lovers, sinners of every stripe–and he doesn’t glamorize their seediness, their misery, or their desperation. Nearly all of them dwell in a shadowy fictive world of hunter and hunted, where love itself leads mainly to anguish and loss. But in correspondence, where Greene can’t rely on such compensations, he often sounds tired or anaemic.
Dirda continues: While Greene’s first novel was published in 1929, he didn’t really begin to make any money from his fiction until 1938 when he brought out Brighton Rock, the story of a punk gang leader named Pinkie. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s he kept busy as a literary roustabout. He was a regular movie reviewer for various publications including the New Yorker-like Night and Day, and it was in its pages that he asserted that certain middle-aged men and clergymen “responded” to Shirley Temple’s “well-shaped and desirable little body.” (An expensive lawsuit followed.)
For many years he also turned out film scripts for producer Alexander Korda and director Carol Reed, most famously The Third Man, later claiming that its success was due to the zither music and acknowledging that Orson Welles came up with the famous “cuckoo-clock” speech. Throughout the 1950s he wrote plays–once slamming his star, Ralph Richardson, for overacting in Carving a Statue–and frequently took on assignments from magazines. But no matter where he traveled or how chaotic his private life, Greene would produce 500 words of fiction a day, or more. He sometimes wondered how people who weren’t writers managed to get through all the storms and sorrows of life.
Yet, as these letters remind us, Greene also found refuge in one other lifelong passion. While he opened his most celebrated essay, “The Lost Childhood,” by claiming that “perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives,” Greene himself never lost his enthusiasm for reading and book collecting. Few modern novelists have been such ardent bookmen.