GRAHAM GREENE



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Alone in his room on the first floor of the West Wing, Graham Greene was thinking about how he could contribute to the Brideshead Festival. Thinking hard about how he could use it to further his own reputation.

Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh had much in common. One was born in 1903, the son of a publisher, the other in 1904, the son of a headmaster. Both read History at Oxford, though it was Evelyn who had a good time with Alastair Graham, while Graham suffered bouts of near-suicidal depression. Both had first novels published in the late twenties,
The Man Within (dour and romantic) and Decline and Fall (a book that in later life Graham would admit to having read several times). Graham converted to Catholicism in 1926, because his wife-to-be was a Catholic. Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930 after his first wife had deserted him. By the mid 1940s both were famous novelists and practicing Catholics, with success coming in America for Evelyn with Brideshead Revisited and for Graham with The Heart of the Matter.

But it is something else that happened in the mid 1940s which Graham wants to explore. There was a five-year gap between the publishing of
The Ministry of Fear (1943) and The Heart of the Matter (1948). In between these books he'd tried his hand at being a publisher, and had helped transform the fiction list of Eyre and Spottiswoode. One of the books he'd seen into print was a masterpiece, one that stood comparison with Brideshead Revisited. Which was exactly what Graham was going to do. He was going to compare two classic novels.

So let's go through this material slowly. The other book in question is
Titus Groan and its author was Mervyn Peake, he who had produced his own stunning cover art.

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Everything about the book is original, perhaps because Peake had been brought up in China and went to art school. In other words, unlike all the male writers that are presently holed up at Castle Howard, Peake did not have a background of English public school followed by Oxford. Oh, how refreshing that seemed when Graham had begun to read the manuscript back in 1943. Oh, how refreshing it still seems now.

Behold the beginning of
Titus Groan:

'Gormenghast, that is the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls… Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.'

Christ, even in this the published version, Graham had had to cut out half the verbiage in order to prevent its meaning becoming lost. Sometimes even he could not deny his Oxford education, its emphasis on concision, clarity and logical development.

Graham had met Mervyn Peake in 1937 when Mervyn had been commissioned to paint his portrait. They'd got on well, and so when thrown together in 1943 one evening at the Café Royal (that wartime haunt of Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly and the left-wing crowd) they'd taken the opportunity to relax in each other's company. It was on this occasion that Mervyn had described the odd book he was writing compulsively. Graham told him he was a publisher, and that if the book ever got finished he would gladly read it.

Peake sent Graham the finished book in summer 1943, after it had been rejected by Chatto and Windus. Graham read it, and wrote an overtly critical letter to Peake. Graham reported that he wanted to wring the author's neck because a first class book had been spoiled by laziness. The book started brilliantly, then there was patch of really bad writing - redundant adjectives, a kind of facetiousness and a terrible prolixity in the dialogue of certain of the characters. Graham had almost despaired of the book until suddenly, in the last third, things were pulled together and it ended splendidly. As things stood, Graham thought the book unpublishable. At least 10,000 words could come out without any alteration of the story whatsoever. Graham dearly wanted to publish it, but would quite understand if Mervyn preferred to take it elsewhere. The letter ended with the sentence:
'If you want to call me out, call me out - but I suggest we have our duel over whisky glasses in a bar.'

Graham smiles because that reminds him of another letter, this one written to Anthony Powell after Graham had insulted his author's book on John Aubrey. 'It's a bloody boring book,' was what Graham had said to Tony over lunch while justifying the two-year delay in its appearance. So Tony had taken his next project, which happened to be the twelve-volume sequence
A Dance to the Music of Time to another publisher. Heinemann's gain was most certainly Eyre and Spottiswoode's loss, but in any case Graham by then had had enough of being publisher and had returned to writing: result The Heart of the Matter. And a letter to Tony that ended 'Now that we are again in the position of simply friends and not of author and publisher, do look in for a drink!'

Titus Groan was published in 1946. In the meantime, Brideshead Revisited had appeared, and in January 1945 Graham had written to Evelyn to say how immensely he had enjoyed it. He liked it even more than Work in Progress which had been his favourite Waugh hitherto. At what stage had Graham realised just how high in his estimation sat those two very different books Titus Groan and Brideshead Revisited? He couldn't rightly have said. Perhaps only today.

A little thought suggested the novels, though coming from opposite traditions, had key things in common. Both books were about castles. Brideshead and Gormenghast. One owned by Lord Marchmain, who lived in exile because of sexual improprietries. One ruled by Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Lord of Gormenghast, slave to hundreds of years of ritual. One could say that actual power (of a sort) lay with Nannie Slagg and Nanny Hawkins. Moreover, stuttering Prunesquallor could have been the family doctor at Brideshead, just as Anthony Blanche would have been in his element, tippling and teasing round the upper echelons of Gormenghast society.

Sebastian was the golden boy of Brideshead Castle, and he was driven far from his home by his inability to settle down with the value system fed to him by his mother. Titus, son of Sepulchrave, would face similar struggles in book two of the trilogy, called simply
Gormenghast. But in Titus Groan the focus was on the progress of Steerpike from humble kitchen origins up the spine of Gormenghast until he stood within touching distance of the levers of power. A burning here and a drowning there and Steerpike would be even closer to ultimate control.

Sebastian's charm versus Steerpike's cleverness, that was the battle of the books. Sebastian and his teddy bear, Aloysius, could make us laugh; Steerpike and his control over the sisters of Sepulchrave, could make us cringe. Sebastian and his disgust with power and his retreat from it; Steerpike and his lust for power and his long climb up the establishment ladder. How did these deeply flawed characters gain the reader's sympathy in the astonishing way they did? Somehow there was so much more life in Sebastian and Steerpike than anyone else. Charles Ryder and Titus Groan were the ostensible heroes, but they were not the beating heart of their respective books.

Graham thinks hard. The artist's sense of adventure, that's what had been unique about Mervyn Peake and had been embodied (along with evil) in Steerpike. Perhaps that's why Graham had sought out Mervyn's company back then. He had spent time with the Peake family (Mervyn, his wife Maeve, and their children, Sebastian, Fabian and Clare) in an effort to be part of their rollicking, free-thinking aesthetic adventure. While at Castle Howard, Graham has been catching up with the Peake literature as well as reminding himself of his own achievements.

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In Malcolm Yorke's book:
Mervyn Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, can be found this paragraph. 'Once they played Graham Greene's malicious game of randomly telephoning people from the phone book and spinning them some unlikely yarn. Greene's efforts reduced them to terror, while Mervyn announced he was a chimney sweep coming to clean the chimney; when the telephone denied having a chimney he said not to worry he'd bring his own.'

Then there was this from Clare Peake's account published in 2011:
'The time he [Graham Greene] and Mervyn held a party for everyone they could find with a name associated with bottoms. Giggling over the telephone directory, Mr and Mrs Bott, Botts, Bottomley and Bottolph were invited to a Mystery evening at some unknown venue where Graham and Mervyn mingled with the guests, observing the gasps of excitement at the coincidences of the names around them.'

Surely that was only discussed, a joke worthy of ten minutes telling, rather than an actual happening. Besides, how many people called Bum were there in the world? Surely 'Arse' was a rarely found surname.

And this is taken from the same page in Mervyn's daughter's memoir:
'Graham Greene brought a loaded pistol to the studio and suggested a game of Russian roulette after enjoying an opium-filled pipe.'

Had Graham really done that? Was the story not apocryphal? In the depression of his school days in Berkhamsted, he had once played Russian roulette, God forgive him. But surely not thereafter. And never with a family of growing children who had the world at their feet.

What does Steerpike do in the pages of
Titus Groan again? He tricks his way into Doctor Prunesquallor's good books so that he has access to drugs and to the individuals at the heart of the House of Groan. He persuades Cora and Clarice to burn their brother's library. He becomes assistant to the Castle lawyer, Barquentine, so that he is in a position to learn the rituals that govern the place. He tricks Titus's older sister into first trusting and then loving him. In due course, he finds that every room, every nook and cranny of the castle, is at his disposal.

Greenpike. Is that who Graham aspires to be? Perhaps so. And perhaps that was driving him to do what he intended to do this evening when all the other guests would be at a reception in the principle public room of the Castle. He had drawn a diagram of his intentions, though whether he sticks rigidly to plan does not matter in the slightest. What mattered was to be in the moment.

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First stop, after a walk down an unlit, stone-floored passage, the bedroom of Nancy Mitford. Such a sweet woman and by no means to be underestimated when it came to her use of language and her analysis of her fellow writers. Hopelessly shy though.

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Seems like Nancy has been enjoying a glass of champagne with someone before going off to this evening's function. One wonders if her companion in bubbles was Evelyn. In any case, the coast is clear, Graham has a mind to peruse the volume to hand. Beginning and ending with his own name in the index.

Here we go. First, from Evelyn to Nancy (in Paris) in October, 1948:
'Darling Nancy, So my friend Graham Greene whose books you won't read was sitting in a New York hotel feeling quite well when he felt very wet and sticky in the lap and hurried to the lavatory and found that his penis was pouring with blood…'

Evelyn always was master of the arresting phrase.

'…So he fainted and was taken to hospital and the doctors said: 'It may be caused by five diseases two of which are not immediately fatal, the others are' Then they chloroformed him and he woke up two days later and they said: "Well we can't find anything wrong at all. What have you been up to? Too much womanising?" "No, not for weeks since I left my home in England." "Ah," they said, "That's it." What a terrible warning. No wonder his books are sad.'

A masturbation anecdote? Come on, Evelyn, you can do better than that!

Next from Nancy to Evelyn (at Piers Court).
'I saw Mr Graham Greene and his mistress and I was surprised, having pictured her scruffy Bloomsbury, to see a Ritz vision in dark mink.' Then from Nancy to Evelyn in September 1951, the very month that Catherine and Graham stayed with him at Piers Court for a week. 'I read Mr Greene all yesterday. It is wonderful. I don't at all agree with the critics who say that Bendrix was a horrible character. The only thing I couldn't swallow was that she could give up her lover like that, so brutally, without having something to put in his place… What a sexy man he must be, Mr. Greene.'

Graham takes this as an invitation to lie on Nancy's bed. What a sexy man he must indeed be. But where next for Mr Sex, as he had only so much time before the Castle Howard function finished?

To the lion's den, next door to Nancy's room. On the bedspread lies a photograph of Evelyn's bedroom at Piers Court.

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Looking round him, it seems to Graham that Castle Howard has tried to reproduce that Gloucestershire bedroom. Four-poster bed: check. Sofa at the end of the bed for sitting in while undressing: check. Wall mounted crucifix at which to pray last thing at night: check.

Certainly, the room smelt like Evelyn's bedroom at home. First, the scent of various forms of alcohol… Second, the stink of the paraldehyde that Evelyn perennially used to put himself out for the count…. And third…now what was that smell? Graham sniffed the pillow: lavender hair oil. Evelyn was known to smother his head in it.

Putting the photograph of the Piers Court bedroom carefully to one side, Graham throws the duvet from the bed. The bottom sheet follows, as well as an additional mattress cover. Having spied a three-quarters full bottle of champagne, he now swallows a glug of fizz straight from the bottle, then pours the rest of it into the middle of Evelyn's bed. As expected, the mattress absorbs all the fluid without difficulty. Evelyn would not notice any damp patch and should sleep that much more soundly on a bed of champagne.

But what was this splashing putting Graham in mind of? Evelyn's death in 1966. Graham had begun the rumour that Evelyn was found collapsed in the downstairs toilet of Combe Florey (which was true) with water from the lavatory in his lungs. This last 'fact' was denied by Father Caraman, who had performed last rights on the dead Evelyn. But then it was at the autopsy when the coroner had found water on Evelyn's lungs. Or at least that's what Graham had said to those who would listen. Why had he created this rumour? Because suicide is an unforgivable sin if you're Catholic. He'd known as much since
The Heart of the Matter, when his protagonist, Scobie, had killed himself. Graham had come in for some stick then, and Evelyn had got involved, arguing on Graham's behalf. Well, no, Evelyn had not approved of Scobie's ending, which is perhaps why Graham had behaved as he had done at Evelyn's demise.

Graham bursts into laughter. Water from the lavatory in the lungs! He doubted if that was even possible. Was his idea that Evelyn had put his head down the lavatory and flushed the toilet? Maybe what Graham had suggested was that Evelyn had filled up the sink and tried to drown himself in that. But again, who would have taken that seriously? The fact is that if you say something with a straight face, people will believe it. Graham had discovered that once he'd become famous as a writer. It had helped him become a lot more famous.

Up a staircase, along a corridor and his hand wraps itself around a door knob. Gently he pushes the door pen and slides into the room of Robert Byron. Graham had only been vaguely aware of Robert before his untimely death at sea in 1941. So why was he here now? There was an unpublished letter to Evelyn Waugh that Graham had become aware of. It had been written by Lord Wicklow in July 1964, though his name had been Billy Clonmore when Evelyn and Graham had been at Oxford back in the 1920s. Billy had been a close friend of Robert's with an antiquated habit of speech and a Christian piety that had been unique at the time. Moreover, Billy had been a reckless roof climber and quick in quarrel. Perhaps he had matured somewhat since those days, for this is what he'd written to old Evelyn on the death of their mutual friend, Alfred Duggan:

'Very sad about Alfred, I liked him very much and had a number of amusing adventures with him at Oxford, with Robert Byron snarling and growling round us like some angry dog. Do you remember when you met Robert at a dinner party (I think in Paris) just before you became a Catholic, and you suddenly found yourself being savagely abused by him across the table?! '

Graham knew that Evelyn did indeed remember the savaging he'd received from the furious tongue of Robert Byron that evening. It partly accounted for the very negative views Evelyn retained of Robert even after his death.

'I remember staying with the Byrons in Wiltshire, and Robert sticking a fork in his father's back and threatening him with the asylum, merely because he was rather fussy about blowing the candles out after dinner.'


Graham wonders why this letter has stuck in his memory, word for word. Perhaps it reminded him of Steerpike sweeping a candle under the chin of ancient Barquentine, setting fire to the lawyer's beard, leading to a horrible death for the old man. There was a charm and a ghastliness about Robert Byron that Evelyn had been aware of during the latter's short life.

Talking of horrible deaths, this photograph lying in the middle of Robert's table might be of his one-time lovers scouring the ocean for their lost man.

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Or perhaps the photograph represents a treasured memory. Five pale boys on a day trip to the seaside from Eton. That would be Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton, Anthony Powell, Henry Yorke, and Robert himself. Or perhaps a day trip to the seaside from Oxford. That might be Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Balfour, Peter Quennell, Graham and Robert. Or of course it could be Cyril, Harold, Tony, Henry and Robert a couple of years older than they'd been at Eton. Or even another set of five Eton boys, so many of them had gone on to be writers.

Graham lingers in the room. Fascinated both by time and the ageing process. To which he was not immune.

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Then he glances at his wrist watch which causes him to directly exit the room and make his way towards another. While walking he is thinking again of Steerpike on the prowl. That time in Gormenghast he went to check up on Cora and Clarice after having left them locked in their room for months that had turned into years (just to be on the safe side). Steerpike had been very cautious on entering the room. With good cause, as his entry had triggered the falling of an axe from on high, which thudded into the wooden floor not far in front of him. Even more cautiously entering the apartment, which stank, he'd come across the skeletons of the royal twins still dressed in their purple robes. Steerpike had been exhilarated by the sight of the corpses, and had crowed like a cockerel in primeval celebration of this evidence of his power over life and death, prancing and dancing around the room. Steerpike's own life went on, very much so.

Is this it? Anthony Powell's bedroom? Graham moves about it, finds what he is looking for and tosses the volumes onto the bed.

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Lying amongst the books, Graham opens the first volume. Then he does exactly what he did in Nancy Mitford's room: he looks up his own name in the index. He is ready to be amused. "OK Tony, give me your best shot".

18 October 1983:
'I think Graham’s books absurdly overrated. He is prolific, writes good descriptive passages, a capable journalist, usually an interesting literary critic, his novels unlike people one has ever come across, filled with self-pity, and a kind of pretentious emptiness when trying to be ‘serious’, so it seems to me, and enormously unfunny when intended to be funny. Graham himself being an odd, unhappy, restless man.'

Though his name comes up five times in the first volume, that is the only juicy entry. Graham celebrates it in style.

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Digging into volume two now.

7 August 1988:
'Some weeks ago Anthony Burgess was reported as saying Graham Greene was a third-rate imitator of Conrad, complaining of the emptiness of his serious novels etc. I remember one night after supper in the Waugh parents house, Evelyn Waugh laughing with me about the publication of Graham’s first novel on account of being (if it was) about smugglers. Anyway there never seems to have been any reason for saying publicly that I don’t like Graham’s books, any more than he has said he doesn’t like mine, which I should suspect.'

Tony is quite right to suspect Graham doesn't like his books, not having read them. The Life of John Aubrey was a bloody boring book. 'A Dance to the Music of Time' promised to be twelve bloody boring books. Graham did not read them all.

14 September 1988:
'I reread Graham Greene’s 'The Power and the Glory' (not opened for years). I tried to analyse why I find Greene’s novels so distasteful, while being perfectly prepared to meet Graham as a man, which I should indeed find amusing after so long. Graham’s heroes are soaked in self-pity. His characters puppets constructed to appeal to his particular public, are shown in their processes of thought, every cheap novelistic trick used in narration, to appeal to sentimentality. Graham is not in the least interested in what people are really ‘like’. Graham possesses an enormous vitality, allied to infinitely low spirits, a state quite different from melancholy. He is determined to impose this condition on the reader, which obviously some people find sympathetic. Also, always present, is Graham’s chronic love of conflict.'

Graham reckons that this is what Tony Powell became famous for through his Dance to the Music of Time. Character dissection. In his own case, presumably the enormous vitality, combined with infinitely low spirits, leads to the chronic love of conflict. That would seem to make sense. Could the same not be said for Widmerpool? Could the same not be said for Evelyn? In which case was Tony really saying anything?

6 May 1989:
'The Balliol Record asked for a review of Vol. 1 of Norman Sherry’s biography of Graham Greene. I should have avoided this for a newspaper, as not liking Graham’s novels, being only moderately interested in his life, while existing on moderately good terms with Graham himself. Sherry is industrious, naive, nowhere up to analysing Graham’s devious character and personality. Indeed, what it boils down to, not sufficiently shrewd. Sherry never grasps that Graham is a master of publicity. Refusing interviews and acquiring the reputation of a hermit was all part of his publicity equipment. It is shrinking into the limelight as someone said of T.E Lawrence. Sherry never takes this in, in spite of exhibitionistic accounts of having whores, on Graham’s part.'

Graham lies on the bed with his hands clasped behind his head. Would he like the services of a whore right now? Was there still time to write the definitive action adventure involving whores, smugglers and priests? Was he done with the second volume of Tony's Journals? Almost.

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Graham makes his way through the third volume. And comes upon news of his own death.

3 April 1991:
'Graham Greene obit. This was rather a surprise. Thought Graham would live for ever like Somerset Maugham, even though I knew he had been in Switzerland unwell for several months. From the word go I had found his books wholly unreadable, long before there could have been any question of jealousy, fears of the imputation of which always prevented me from criticising them in print later. There was always an element of deviousness, indeed humbug, about all Graham’s public utterances and behaviour. I think he was completely cynical, really only liking sex and money and his own particular form of publicity. One supposes he was extraordinarily good at assessing people, tho’ in my opinion quite incapable of describing individuals with conviction. I used to write to him when he received a new decoration etc, but we neither of us liked each other’s books. I took this to be Graham’s feeling, as he never mentioned mine, and once reviewing Evelyn Waugh he spoke of him coming under my influence ‘with all the Ivos and Ivors'. All the same, Graham’s death rather unsettling for some reason.’

Graham knows he can't afford to linger for much longer. But he does linger long enough for this image to take root in his mind.

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Lying on Tony's bed. Blood pouring out of his penis. Nancy on hand to wipe up the blood and to whisper: "What a sexy man he must be, Mr Greene."


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Three chapters to go. Starting with
this.




Note

For an analysis of
The End of the Affair and the time that Graham Greene spent with Evelyn Waugh at Piers Court in 1951, see here.