Writers & Company

Travels with Graham Greene — the remarkable life and times of a master storyteller

Canadian poet and editor Richard Greene spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about covering the life of one of the most popular and admired English writers of the 20th century. 
Richard Greene is a Canadian academic, poet and editor. (WW Norton, Linda Kooluris Dobbs)

Graham Greene was one of the most popular and admired English writers of the 20th century. Best known for Brighton Rock, The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter and his film The Third Man, he was the author of both literary novels and thrillers, as well as nonfiction, memoirs and screenplays. Pope Paul VI was a fan of his work. He made the cover of Time magazine with his controversial 1951 novel The End of the Affair.

Greene's restless spirit and political engagement frequently took him to the world's hotspots — in Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia and beyond. Up to his death at 86, in 1991, he witnessed, and wrote about, the key events of modern history. From his early psychoanalysis, to his conversion to Catholicism, his work with British Intelligence and his tormented love affairs, his life was as complicated and eventful as his fiction.

Graham Greene is the subject of a new biography, The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene, by Canadian poet and editor Richard Greene. Greene previously edited Graham Greene: A Life in Letters and is also the author of a biography of Edith Sitwell.

Richard Greene spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Toronto.

Graham Greene was a British writer and journalist regarded by many as one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

The world around him

"In December 1951, at the age of 47, Graham Greene landed on the shore of Phat Diem, south of Hanoi, to investigate what he understood was a slaughter occurring in a very Catholic part of Vietnam. And, of course, being a Catholic, he was particularly concerned about this. 

"In those years, he was in Vietnam to study the French war, which was ongoing. He was covering it as a journalist — to a lesser degree, he was covering it as an MI6 agent. 

He was very unhappy in love, he had a very complicated private life, and he kept on the move as a means of distraction from the pains of that.

"His other reasons for being there were very personal — he had a mood disorder and was a very restless character. He was very unhappy in love, he had a very complicated private life, and he kept on the move as a means of distraction from the pains of that. 

"Going to Phat Diem opened his eyes to the fact that the French were going to lose this war and that Vietnam was not going to continue to be a colony — that new things were happening, and the failure of the West to recognize that was a disaster in the making."

Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism

"His observation of people in troubled places, often places coming out of colonial status, was, in a sense, to open up European eyes to what was happening in these places.

"It became kind of a tough issue in the writing of this book: Do you use the visits to these places as a backdrop to the life of the most interesting novelist you could think of? Or is that in itself a kind of a colonial act? How do you see these places? And that, for him, was a problem. 

"I think he grew in his approach to visits to the hotspots. More and more, it was not a search for material for novels or for copy. It was to observe the growth of new political possibilities in these countries, to document repression and to promote human rights. 

I think he grew in his approach to visits to the hotspots.

"Very often, that took the form of being a thorn in the side of the United States, which was the sort of thing he did for many years."

A restless soul

"A lot of his companions said that Greene was able to listen, and that made him very attractive. His last companion, Yvonne Cloetta, compared his manner to that of a priest. He was good looking, told great stories, and he was charming and very funny.

"But his life was very, very troubled. He was never able to settle down and it did some considerable damage. It harmed his wife.

"He was a generous but negligent parent, negligent in the sense of he was never there. He always paid the bills, but his children hardly knew him until they were adults.

He was good looking, told great stories, he was charming and very funny. But his life was very, very troubled.

"It was a very messy business. There were times when there were several women in his life simultaneously. He had his life and lots of women passed in and out of that."

A destabilizing act

"The Quiet American is a book about betrayal. It's a book about a love triangle, which seems an odd way to create a political allegory. In some ways, one of the weaknesses of the story is that there's an American, a European and a Vietnamese, two men and a woman. The Vietnamese woman is the object of competition between the two foreign males, both with something of an urge to dominate.

"One of the main criticisms of the book is that she doesn't speak as freely as we would wish her to. In the background is this extraordinary act of observation of a war which was being very widely misunderstood. The French had been in control of the three territories, which became Vietnam at the end of the Second World War, for a long time. 

The Quiet American is a book about betrayal. It's a book about a love triangle, which seems an odd way to create a political allegory.

"And yet, during the war, control shifted for a time to the Japanese, and there was a terrible famine there. The attempt to recreate a country was very vexed. Ho Chi Minh declared independence, and in due course a war broke out.

"The normally anti-colonial Americans were backing the French because the French threatened to throw in their lot with the Russians if the Americans didn't cooperate. It was a global hotspot, a place of assumed confrontation between communism and capitalism.

"Greene actually could see the beginnings of covert American involvement in Vietnam. In the background of the story, we have an American CIA operative essentially arranging a terrorist bombing as a destabilizing act — and the rest of the plot proceeds from there.

"The idea that the Americans were getting ever more deeply involved, as the French were about to withdraw, horrified Greene. And it is in that sense, we think of the book as prophetic — that he saw what was going to happen next. 

"And he was right." 

Richard Greene's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

British writer Graham Greene at his home in Nice in 1982. (AFP/AFP via Getty Images)

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