This is part of Global Geneva’s focus on culture relating to International Geneva themes.
A dinner with Graham Greene in Antibes could start, so to speak, at lunch. As neither of us ever cooked, and there was only a small number of restaurants to be frequented in the Riviera resort, I often found myself lunching at the same restaurant as the writer. Almost invariably he would be reading a fat biography.
“May I sit down or would you prefer to go on reading?” I would ask respectfully.
“I should like to continue reading,” he usually said, “but we could have dinner this evening.”
Years earlier we had reached a modus vivaldi, whoops, vivendi, about our relationship. “We can be friends if you promise me not to take notes on what I say during a meal or afterwards. Then I shall be at ease with you. And no articles about me unless I agree to them.” I willingly accepted these ground rules, and as neither of us had many friends in Antibes, we saw a lot of each other.
The dinner scenario hardly varied. It was always whisky, to start with. Only the brand changed. I’d drive to his city apartment overlooking the Antibes sea front. The streets were full of uncollected trash. “It’s not the Côte d’Azur,” he remarked once, “it’s the côte d’ordure.” It was the only pun I ever heard him make. He disliked puns, especially mine.
“Would you like a whisky?” he always began. “Will Grouse do?” Once he pointed to a bottle of whisky with a Japanese name, Santory, on it. It came with a letter, he explained. “They’re offering me a free life-time supply of their whisky if I will have a character in one of my novels ask for that Japanese brand of scotch. What do you think I should do?”
I suggested mildly that he knew very well what to do. Anyway, I added, you’ve not tasted it yet. It was only several pre-dinner drinks later that the bottle was opened. It tasted pretty authentic to my uneducated palate. I didn’t have the impression that he was overwhelmed. In any case, I was never offered a Japanese whisky again.
It was impossible to go out for dinner without two whiskies neat. Normally we debated where to go for dinner. But one night he said we’d go to a new place. “There’s one problem with it, though,” he admitted. “The chairs are dreadfully uncomfortable. Seventeenth century chairs, I suspect. They were given to the owner by his father-in-law and mother-in-law, so he can’t get rid of them. We shall have to go there with pillows.”
We always walked from Greene’s centrally located flat to any of our half dozen restaurants. I felt a bit silly walking through the city carrying a largish pillow. He didn’t. When we got to his new restaurant, horribile dictu, we found it closed. What to do with the pillows?
“Shouldn’t we take them back to your apartment?” I suggested timidly.
“No,” he said, “we’ll just go across the street to the Venise” (one of his favorite restaurants).
It was summertime and of course there was no cloakroom attendant.
“Bonsoir, Monsieur Greene,” said the owner, pleased to see his most famous customer.
Greene handed him his pillow and I did likewise. The restaurateur looked puzzled but said nothing.
“One of the reasons I like this place,” Greene explained, “is that they don’t object if I choose a pasta as the main course.” He did just that, but compensated with a bottle of wine, which we shared.
We also shared the bill. Early on in the relationship, we took turns paying. But he didn’t like this arrangement because he felt we never remembered whose turn it was. So, it was a Dutch treat.
As we were leaving, the restaurateur handed us the pillows, but could not resist inquiring, “Do you mind if I ask you why you came to my restaurant with pillows?”
Ha ha, I thought, now Graham will have to come up with an innovative explanation.
“We intended to eat in the restaurant across the street,” said Greene bluntly, “but it was closed.”
When we arrived in front of his apartment, Graham always proposed “a drink for the road.” I never declined his invitation. I drove home extremely carefully. Even if I had wanted to make notes about our conversation, even if I had promised never to write about our encounters, I couldn’t have recalled a tenth of what was said and what happened during the long alcoholic evenings.
Greene hated being recognized in a public setting. Every so often as he walked briskly through the streets of Antibes, a stranger would accost him and say, “Aren’t you Graham Greene?”
“I glaze,” he said, “or I reply, ‘you must be thinking of my brother.’ I stay away from television so that people won’t recognize me. I agreed to appear on Budapest TV because I thought that was pretty safe.
“Actually there is another Graham Greene. I mean that’s his name. We’ve never met but some day I’d like to do a story about us. Our paths keep crossing. The other Graham Greene was thrown into jail in Assam and wired the Picture Post to send him a hundred pounds. The magazine contacted me and I offered to go to India and to write about our confrontation, but the plan didn’t work out.”
The writer visibly enjoyed chatting about his namesake. “One day I was in a hotel in Rome and a woman named Veronica called up. ‘We met in Arabia,’ she reminded me. Obviously she knew the other Greene because I had never been in Arabia. I suggested a drink in the bar. I didn’t turn up, though, after a friend I sent ahead to the bar phoned me to say she was awful.
“On another occasion in London I bought a plane ticket to New York. The airline employee said, ‘You’re not staying very long in the States, are you? You’re flying over on September 2 and returning the next day.’ I told her I hadn’t even thought of booking my return flight. Of course, the other G.G. was returning to London on September 3.”
Contrary to what one might expect of an Englishman who had chosen to live in France, Greene much preferred English cooking to French cuisine. “Yes, French gigot [leg of lamb] is good,” he conceded, “but British roast saddle of mutton is better. Our lamb cutlets are superior to the French. English sausages and beer are also much better. I’d choose English apple pie over French tarte aux pommes. And then I am very proud of Welsh rarebit, herring roes on toast and treacle tart.”
Greene also had a weakness for Irish coffee. “I sleep comfortably after drinking one, but one night in a Paris restaurant the proprietor poured out Scotch whisky for want of Irish and the result was deplorable.”
Advancing years didn’t much alter Greene’s fairly rigid work routine. Between breakfast (tea, dry biscuits and marmalade) at 8:30 and lunch at 12:15 he wrote “a minimum of 300 words a morning, if possible 400, six days a week. That’s my quota. I can really write for an hour or an hour and a half at most. I like to stop in the middle of a scene because that makes it easier to start the next day. Writing a novel does not become easier with age and experience. Ever since I wrote A Burnt-Out Case in 1959, I’ve thought that each novel was the last I’d be capable of writing.” One day he complained that he was “down to only 250 words a morning. Deplorable.”
When he wasn’t writing—and he never did afternoons or evenings in Antibes—he was generally reading. Although he claimed to be a slow reader, he said he averaged 13 books a month. He liked Thomas Hardy’s poetry, Browning and Evelyn Waugh. “I can read a Joseph Conrad novel three or four times, but pornography only once and then only in small doses. I find the present permissiveness rather boring. By the way, the French translation of my first published book, The Man Within, was censored by Jacques Maritain on the grounds it was pornographic!”
That first novel sold 8,000 copies, an impressive number for 1929. “But I wasn’t a commercially successful writer until after the war,” he pointed out. “My first best seller, The Heart of the Matter, was published in 1948. I was in debt to my publishers and wrote book reviews to make ends meet.”
Greene thought so poorly of his second and third novels, which sold, respectively, only 2,000 and 1,200 copies, that he simply suppressed them from the list of his works. They have never been republished. “For a lot of money you could find them in a second-hand book shop. Their titles? Why should I help you?”
Did he think that The Man Within was satisfactory? “No,” he admitted, “but you can’t suppress them all. You have to have a first novel, don’t you? Actually, The Man Within was the third book I had written, but the first two were turned down by publishers. If The Man Within had not been published, I would have stopped writing.”
Greene objected to being called a Roman Catholic writer. “I don’t believe I have ever gone so far as to describe myself as a novelist who writes about Catholic themes. I am a writer who happens to be a Catholic. No one knew I was a Catholic until Brighton Rock and I had been writing then for 10 years.”
Another legend about Graham Greene had him entering and winning all the literary contests of the New Statesman wherein readers were invited to write “in the style of Graham Greene.”
“I’ve entered quite a few competitions of this sort,” he acknowledged, “but I have rarely won. Once I did win a second prize for the first paragraph of a Greene novel, under an assumed name, naturally. I wrote a plot on another slip of paper and Mario Soldati made a film out of it in Venice with Trevor Howard. It was called The Stranger’s Hand and my hand appeared on a gondola.”
Greene strongly disliked just about every film version of his novels or “entertainments,” the exception being The Third Man, which most people didn’t realize he had written. What Greene liked best was “when a director, like Otto Preminger, acquired an option, for example, for A Burnt-Out Case, let it lapse once, re-acquired it, allowed the option to lapse a second time, and then never made the movie.”
Greene admitted that “the money was a temptation, but the cinema versions of my novels always turned out so awful.”
Four or five of Greene’s novels were situated in Latin America and the Caribbean, and he was keenly interested in the region’s politics. The overthrow and murder of Salvador Allende, whom Greene knew and admired, and the persecution of his supporters filled him, as he put it to me, “with grief and horror.”
“If I had to classify myself politically, I suppose I would say I was a humanist and a socialist. Rather like [the ‘Czechoslavak Spring’ leader] Dubcek. I am certainly on the left. The destruction of the courageous Chilean effort to build socialism with a human face leaves one terribly, terribly sad. It was the way I felt when I learned of Che Guevara’s death.”
Greene used to feel that The Power and the Glory, one of his early books, was his best novel. “I no longer think that,” he said. “Now I believe that The Honorary Consul is my best book of fiction.”
But didn’t all creative artists think that their most recent work was their finest, I suggested? Didn’t Charlie Chaplin unhesitatingly describe Limelight, as soon as he had shot it, as the best film he had ever made?
“I have seldom thought that the last thing I did was the best,” he replied. “This time, with The Honorary Consul, I do. It has certainly given me more trouble than previous novels. There were moments when I realized perfectly why Hemingway shot himself one day. I was nearly halfway through it before I was sure I’d finish it. I wrote the novel seven times, eight times in fact, since in addition to the seven typescripts there was the original manuscript. I always write books longhand. My two fingers on the typewriter don’t connect with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ballpoint pens are good only for filling in forms on planes.”
Long before publication of the book-that-was-almost-not-written, the Book-of-the-Month Club selected it. It was Greene’s third Book Club choice, after A Burnt-Out Case and Travels with My Aunt. Le Monde, France’s most prestigious newspaper, and a German daily asked Greene for permission to serialize the novel in toto.
“I refused,” said Greene, “because the rhythm of a novel is destroyed by daily excerpts.”
Well, if Greene was not always convinced that his most recent book was his best, was he, like so many artists, bored with the work he had just finished?
“Oh, I’m not bored with it,” he exclaimed unconvincingly, “but with life.”
Restlessly peripatetic, Graham Greene spent the last part of his life near his daughter in Vevey, Switzerland. He died on 3 April 1991 at the age of 86 and is buried in Corseaux cemetery. (See book chapter on Graham Greene in Switzerland in Call Me Edward publication)
Paul Ress, who lives in Switzerland, was persuaded by his friends to gather some of his stories and notorious puns into a short book entitled Shaggy Dog Tales: 58 ½ Years of Reportage, published by Xlibris at $9.99 for the e-book version, $20.99 as paperback, and $30.99 for the hardback edition. The renowned British biographer Caroline Moorehead, who also worked with Paul, describes his book as a “collection of charming and funny pieces, many about a lost and vanishing world”. One bonus in the book, which makes it worth the price for any information officer, is Paul’s thoughts on how to be successful with journalists. His message is very popular with hardened reporters and suspicious correspondents. Typically, for this uncontrollable punster, Paul’s guide is entitled Flackery will get you nowhere.