End Notes: No Second Nocturne

Shirley Hazzard has written a tasteful memoir of times she and her husband spent with Graham Greene, infrequent but over many decades, on the isle of Capri. All Greenekeepers are in her debt, not least because of the focused brevity of her book. Compared with the massive, multivolumed and dogged biography by Patrick Sherry, Greene on Capri may seem slight, but many will feel they get more sense of the author from the latter than from the former.

In the Breviarium Romanum, the second nocturne at Matins was devoted to the life of the saint of the day and was, of course, hagiography. It is by no means Hazard’s purpose to bury Greene, but neither can her book be called unequivocal praise. Her acquaintance with Greene began at an outdoor café where the author was quoting to his companion of the time some lines from Browning’s “The Lost Mistress” and could not remember what came after “I will hold your hand as long as I may….” On leaving, Hazzard stopped at their table and supplied it: “…or so very little longer?’

In subsequent years, that mistress was indeed lost to Greene, but he acquired another, and Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, saw the author and his companion whenever he came to Capri. She gives us a vivid portrait of Greene, of his eyes, his hands, and most especially his literary enthusiasms. It was about books that the two couples mostly spoke. We are given a description of Greene’s house on Capri that puts the place before the eyes. The book has photographs, but they are unnecessary, given Hazzard’s narrative gifts.

Greene disliked the quasi-official tone of “Catholic writer,” described himself as a Catholic agnostic, and, as his two autobiographical works show, had a decidedly flaky notion of the faith he had adopted when he married the wife whom he later abandoned. He confided to his friends that he had not been to confession in 20 years. Duty and loyalty, as most understand them; domesticity; and the normal held no charms for Greene. In his autobiographies, he never mentions the names of his children. He was an inveterate swordsman who regarded sex with revulsion and preferred compliant women. This led to edginess with Hazzard, who comes through as a gracious and tactful woman. Her memoir may be a Virago Book, but she is anything but a feminist. Increasingly, she found Greene rebarbative, but for all that, the friendship continued. She admired Greene, but the reader will have difficulty thinking she liked him.

Hazzard dwells in an aesthetic universe, and while she speaks of Greene’s faith with sympathy—he went to Mass on Capri—she is only inadvertently informative about it. Given his mode of life and his obiter dicta about his Catholicism, his fellow Catholics will always be puzzled by Greene. Of course one cannot judge in such a matter. When he died in Geneva, his mistress and her daughter were at his bedside. A longer memoir by a Spanish priest gives us quite another Greene. He must remain an enigma.

Greene’s anti-Americanism was not occasioned, only fueled, by Vietnam. As The Quiet American reveals, it was the business about a right to the pursuit of happiness that drew Greene’s disgust. He did not believe in happiness. There seems to be almost none of his characters that he loved or permitted his readers to love. He never was a Calvinist, but he had learned about universal depravity on his own. So, too, he resisted love and approval from his friends and readers. He remained in many ways a spoiled child, argumentative, thin-skinned, manipulative of women. Everything one learns makes one prefer the abandoned wife to the flown husband—personally.

But Greene was one of the great novelists of the 20th century. A study of his books is far more helpful to the aspiring writer than any number of courses in creative writing, a phenomenon that he, like most writers—perhaps most those involved in giving them—despised. It was as a writer and as a lover of literature that Hazzard loved him, and no outrageous behavior on the part of Greene ever shook that estimate of him. His career had its high point in what must be called the Catholic novels. The decline was clear in The Honorary Consul, and he ended by writing slight novellas of which he himself was half-ashamed.

Literary biography nowadays tends to demythologize the writer. Greene on Capri is no contribution to this genre. Hazzard has the grace and humanity to take him as he was. Let us hope that God did the same.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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