In the last weeks of his life, a visitor urged the British novelist, playwright, screenwriter and poet to look back over his storied career and take pride.
“A few, yes, are good books,” the author of “The End of the Affair,” “The Quiet American” and “Our Man in Havana” allowed. “Perhaps people will think of me from time to time as they think of Flaubert.”
That might very well be true on this side of the Atlantic, with America’s eagerness for all things “new.” But in Britain and much of the world, English-speaking or otherwise, Graham Greene remains a fascinating figure, a Catholic contrarian, a hard-drinking, womanizing ex-spy, the greatest novelist never to win the Nobel and someone whose reputation was such that he was called on to literally intervene — through journalism, fiction and passing on “messages” from government to government — in the 20th century crisis zones where so much of his work as centered.
Canadian Biographer Richard Greene (No relation apparently, although he leaves that out along with Greene’s actual birthday. And Haiti is NOT on the “east side” of Hispanola. And Hemingway’s Sloppy Joes is in Key West, not Havana ) takes a solid stab at boiling this extraordinary life into 500 pages, when Greene “completists” have taken as many as three volumes to try and get it all in.
There are also volumes of his correspondence, memoirs by friends, colleagues, ex-lovers or the offspring of ex-lovers out there as well. What Richard Greene seeks to do is recover all that ground in summary form, turn out fresh or at least the best anecdotes and dive into the reasons we still think of Greene as “a Catholic writer” and the ways he turned his research treks to Sierra Leone, Kenya, Russia, Vietnam, Panama, Haiti, Mexico, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Paraguay and elsewhere into fiction.
We read of how he sought out danger, suffered manic depression and suicidal tendencies and put himself in harm’s way in conflict zones of Central America, how he eviscerated dictators, from Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti to Stroessner in Paraguay, and lauded others — Castro of Cuba, Trujillo of Panama.
He loathed American meddling, British heavy-handedness and in Vietnam — French stupidity — in the “post colonial world.” He seems to have been a lifelong America-hater, despising the consumerism, dictator-coddling and arms-exporting that spiked after WWII (where he served in MI-6) and peaked with “that fool Reagan” in the ’80s.
Greene the biographer isn’t the first to see Greene the journalist/novelist as “prophetic.” “Our Man in Havana” arrived minutes before the final act of the Cuban Revolution, coups and interventions followed his fiction hither and yon. He toured the upheaval of Central America brought on by Reagan Era policies of arming and (mis) training reactionary government or insurgent forces, and called attention to it at every turn.
Had he lived longer than 1990, he’d be the perfect guest in our glib TV “talk-news” era, pointing out how any “crisis at the border” was created by Reagan and his minions in the ’80s.
But movie lovers remember the many works of his that made it to the screen. There are 89 versions of his stories, books and plays, as well as his original scripts, currently listed on IMDb.
“Ministry of Fear,” “The Fallen Idol,” “Travels with My Aunt,” “Our Man in Havana,” “The Comedians” and perhaps his best-known adaptation in this country, his Vietnam bungling “Quiet American” leap quickly to any cinephile’s mind.
He wrote “The Third Man” for Carol Reed, one of the cinema’s acknowledged masterpieces, a script that Reed and on-set, Orson Welles, added to in making it the classic it remains to this day. Greene roughed out the novel for the script, then polished it for publication. It’s also been turned into a radio and later TV series over the years.
He didn’t dabble in comedy much, but “Our Man in Havana” is one of the triumphs of his, Reed’s and Alec Guinness’s careers. He wrote the novel and with Reed, turned the script into a textbook in droll, dark satiric screenwriting.
His focus on the world’s trouble spots, the geopolitics and religious persecution and differing victims in such places, earned those locales their own name — “Greeneland.” Leper colonies and new forms of slavery, oppressed Africans, South Americans and Asians, persecuted Catholics, homosexuals and others, all found something of a champion in a writer whose “heroes” were flawed, guilt-ridden or oppressed themselves.
“Happy endings” were not his thing.
His love life — he was married, and simply moved on from that family early on, supporting them in growing comfort even as he carried on affair after affair with married women, adding homes on the Italian isle of Capri, Paris and Antibes — is easier to understand (perhaps) when you notice that he cut a dashing figure to the end, resembling “Downton Abbey/Legion” star Dan Stevens in his younger days. (Above left).
He was a “voyeur of violence” who courted controversy — “What fun is there in working if one doesn’t go too far?”
And unlike any author anyone can name, he pursued a form of social justice via the high regard the Russians, Cubans and Catholic countries of the world held him in. Want me to speak there? Release X, Y or Z imprisoned writers. He observed, listened, won over and often after a visit (to Castro, for instance), would challenge this or that dictator or state to address this, stop that or free political prisoners.
“A reputation is like a death mask,” he joked. But Greene used his, on many occasions, to good purpose.
It’s a remarkable life, even if you’re not a lifelong resident of Greeneland, even if you’re not sure how well his distinctly 20th century privilege, values, politics (a leftist) and prose will age.
The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene, by Richard Greene. W.W. Norton & Co., 507 pages plus indexes. $40.