Greene and Me . . . by Our Woman on Capri

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 16, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Greene and Me . . . by Our Woman on Capri


Byline: CRAIG BROWN

Greene On Capri: A Memoir by Shirley Hazzard Virago [pounds sterling]12.99 **** This year, the world will be turning Greene. A film of The End Of The Affair, featuring Ralph Fiennes, is to be accompanied by a tie-in documentary on the BBC.

Having already amassed 1,300 pages of official biography, Norman Sherry will be publishing his third and final volume (unless, of course, he stalks Graham Greene into the afterlife, coming up with a fourth volume detailing his subject's on-off relationship with the Almighty).

Meanwhile, William Cash is publishing The Third Woman, a biography of Catherine Walston, the louche temptress at the heart of Greene's life and work.

Traditionally, most writers suffer a dip in popularity after they die. It is almost as if their deaths lead their readers to suspect a similar unreliability at the heart of their work. But somehow, nine years after dying, Greene is still going strong.

Why? I think it has much to do with the energy he put into the cultivation of his own legend. By the time of his death, Greene was world-famous for avoiding celebrity, so that he had become the most public recluse on earth.

Over long and chatty lunches, he would protest his need for privacy to reverential interviewers from far and wide, the 'exclusive' tag on their pieces growing larger with his every fresh recital of his undergraduate penchant for Russian roulette, or his first memory of waking up with a dead dog in his pram.

His contemporary, Anthony Powell, called him 'a master of publicity', wisely noting that playing hard to get was the surest way of gaining coverage.

It is difficult to think of another author who has so readily provided his authorised biographer with love letters, intimate diaries and brand new details about the role of prostitutes in his early married life, harder still to think of one who, having done all this, has still managed to preserve a reputation for secrecy.

The first bit of Greenery out of the bag this year is a slim volume - a very slim volume - called Greene On Capri. It is a memoir by a woman who lived on the island where he had a holiday home, and who bumped into him from time to time, eventually coming to know him reasonably well.

I confess I initially wanted to review this book because I imagined it would be the perfect example of the absurdity of the burgeoning Greene industry.

Whatever next? One Pint Please, Preferably Rancid: Graham Greene's Milkman Looks Back? Brighton Frock: A Biography Of Greene's Tailor? Our Van In Havana: Driving A Ford Transit Through Greene's Cuba?

I came to the book with a smirk, then, but finished it with a purr: it is, in its unassuming way, a little masterpiece of reminiscence, an evocation of what it was like, in the author's characteristically elegant words, 'to be habitually in his company, to walk with him in a street, to exchange opinions, literature, laughter, and something of one's self; to observe his moods and responses, suffer his temper, and witness his attachments; to see him grow old'.

These are all things that the conventional biographer, however dogged his march through his subject's CV, is unable to do. And reading a personal sketch of this quality makes me think that perhaps the conventional biography is just a grandiose dump-bin for all those elements of a life that do not matter; that all one can hope for from a book about any individual is a taste of what it was like to be with them.

Shirley Hazzard first encountered Greene in a cafe in Capri in the late Sixties. She was doing the Times crossword while he chatted with a friend at the next table. Greene's conversation became jammed as he struggled to recall the last line of a poem by Robert Browning. Hazzard finished her coffee and her crossword, paid her bill, fetched her raincoat and umbrella, recited the line as she passed his table and left.

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