A foreigner sits in a square in a border town, looking at the bright lights, the big hotels of the land across the bridge. He has been watching, as everyone in town has, a famous con man, in flight from his creditors, walking around the square with his dog, which he kicks daily. The foreigner feels a kind of kinship with the fugitive—he too, we sense, is in flight from something—and savors the fact that (this being Mexico) everyone in town knows the man is a criminal, except for the two foreign detectives sent to find him. When finally they do catch up with the stranger, the two quickly become his friends and the crook’s safety seems guaranteed. Then, going across the bridge in search of his dog, the fugitive gets hit, by chance, by a passing car driven by one of the detectives:
The detective swerved—he said later, weakly, at the inquiry, that he couldn’t run over a dog, and down went Mr. Calloway, in a mess of broken glass and gold rims and silver hair, and blood…. The attitude in which he lay looked more like a caress than a blow.
The dog bays pitifully beside his master.
“It was comic and it was pitiable,” the narrator goes on, “but it wasn’t less comic because the man was dead.” Nor, one might add, less pitiable. “It all seemed to me a little too touching to be true,” he confesses, “as the old crook lay there with his arm around the dog’s neck, dead with his million between the money-changers’ huts, but it’s as well to be humble in the face of human nature.” Art, he might be saying, is seldom so neat (or so cynical) as one might wish.
To some, perhaps, such a scene might sound almost like a parody of Graham Greene: when an English magazine ran a competition asking its readers to send in a parody of Greene, by some accounts the author himself sent an entry, and came in second. Yet all that is strong and touching about Greene is caught in the vignette, written before any of the major novels came out: the love of paradox, the surrender to a sense of human frailty that makes all paradox redundant, the position on the wrong side of the border, among the fallen, and the sense of companionship being often no more than a fellowship of thieves, but no less real for that. “The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden,” writes Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian, “lives in mystery and fear.” So, too, Greene might suggest, does the man who knows that the secrets of the world are forever known.
Greene’s ability to weave wistfulness and comedy together, his skill at constructing emotional and political webs so intricate that the lightest touch leaves them shaking, has often meant that his short fiction has been overlooked. The classic masters of short stories (Chekhov, say, or Greene’s friend and contemporary V.S. Pritchett) are masters of a single mood, or of character, or of an air of ironic humanity. Greene’s characteristic domain, by comparison, was doubleness—divided loyalties, conflicted feelings. To play out the full logic of a man reaching out for a man he distrusts, or a swindler doing good things for bad reasons, he seemed to need the measured space of a tightly plotted novel.
Yet the stories collected at three points in his career, written over a course of forty years, catch their elusive maker in silhouette, and sometimes, less distracted by protagonist and plot, show us more of him than do any of the novels.1 With perhaps typical perverseness, Greene structured his first collection of short fiction backward, beginning with the last piece and ending with the earliest (as if to chronicle a passage toward innocence); but even the smallest of them, like the story on the frontier, have titles (“Across the Bridge”) that suggest they were aiming at something more. Sometimes amusements, sometimes parables, sometimes ways for him to try out a mood or idea, sometimes what he called “escapes,” Greene’s stories show us the writer less guarded, in his off hours.
You can draw certain conclusions about his development when you read them in one place, noting, for instance, that he seemed more attractive as an older writer than as a young one, perhaps because the youthful stories are often preoccupied with disenchantment whereas the later ones rejoice in their freedom from illusion. The earliest pieces, frank in their restlessness and anger, end often in murder, where the final ones are haunted by death, the damage no longer done to others but to oneself. Yet what haunts one most, reading them all at once, is how much his concerns were steady from the beginning, even as they became more tolerant and had more use for irony. Nearly all the stories, it seems to me, are about innocence, and turn upon the fact that the innocent, those still inside the Garden, long for adventure, danger, flight; while those on the far side of the fence wish that they could go back again.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Greene was least able to take on this theme of innocence, or to approach it, when he was young. His earliest works are largely set in England, which is to say the familiar and the gray; when wartime comes, with its austerities and precautionary rites, its long bureaucratic corridors and paper shuffling, it seems only to intensify a sense of privation that was there from the beginning. In the first collection of short fiction Greene published, initially entitled Nineteen Stories, and then Twenty-One Stories, the mood is sullen, often violent. The stories with the most everyday titles—“A Drive in the Country” or “A Little Place off the Edgware Road”—are heavy with darkness, a sense of oppression. The mere recitation of English place names—“Maidenhead” is a recurring favorite—carries a kind of salacious charge, and the overall mood can best be caught by the sound of “Fetter Lane” and “Leadenhall Street.”
Indeed, those who know that a Catholic writer is behind the pieces may be surprised at how little solace is to be found in them—or will have to adjust, at least, to a provisional believer’s sense that redemption is a never-ending if. Greene was as singular a Catholic as he was everything else, and the faith he took on at the age of twenty-one seems never to have left him with a sense of happy endings. His interest, in fact, is almost never in what is above us, and almost always in what lies beneath, often quite literally. Everything that lies below the conscious mind, or the surface of our formal lives: the Underground and the basement. When writing of the Jubilee of King George V, Greene concentrates, quite typically, on a gigolo (dressed like “a retired Governor from the Colonies”) and a madam, each taking the other for something else, but bound together in a kind of companionship. As the two of them carry on their conversation in a hotel lounge, the most commonplace phrases—“trips to the London underworld,” “I cleaned up the streets”—acquire a happily shaded second meaning. Greene was always interested in the parts of us (often better parts) we don’t acknowledge.
The archetypal early story, in that respect, may well be “When Greek Meets Greek,” in which all four of the characters, as in classic Greene, are con men who are somehow innocent enough to believe that their deceits are cunning—and, more than that, innocent enough to fall for another con man’s devices. As a fraudulent schemer pretending to be the head of an Oxford college hands over a diploma to a would-be lord in some borrowed rooms in London (while the young accomplices of each go off, linked together, just as the older men hoped), one comes upon the perfect Greene tableau, in which lack of virtue is rewarded and errant trust becomes a kind of faith. From here it is not a very long step to the whisky priests of his first great novel, The Power and the Glory, who, for all their shabbiness and impiety, can perform a mass, or administer simple human compassion, as well as any cardinal.
Insofar as Greene was drawn to the shabby or the secret—a charge he always denied—it was because he was always unable to give up on the prospects of even the most moth-eaten. Many of his early stories are inchoate, or mere scenes almost, but in the richest of them you can see the smiling skeptic of Our Man in Havana or Travels with My Aunt. Greene never had an entirely innocent reading of the world—he seems to have been something of an ironist at birth—and yet he never lost his respect for childhood and for all the things we do when we don’t know better. And it is the stubborn, recidivist innocence of even the con men in his stories that makes them so endearing; we laugh at them from a distance and then realize that we’re somehow within them, and on their side.
There is a story in that first collection called “The Innocent” and in it Greene reveals another factor that complicated his abiding sense of loss. A character not dissimilar to his author goes back to his drab boyhood hometown—Bishop’s Hendron—to rummage through the past. On his arm, though, is a woman he’s just picked up, one Lola, who, of course, contradicts with her every movement the search for innocence he’s undertaking. One part of Greene, it seems, was always eager to poke away at what he’d left behind, the root of him, while another was hungry for the worldly and the new. In his finest stories the language of both moods comes together in the sound of a well-bred diffidence trying to tamp down something stronger. “She wasn’t anything in particular,” says the narrator of “Across the Bridge” of another Lola, “but she looked beautiful at a distance.”
Greene’s next set of stories, titled (mischievously, of course) A Sense of Reality and brought out sixteen years after the first, shows him going back to the same boyhood town without a Lola beside him. The pieces are among the most inward and private things he ever wrote, haunted by a mysterious sense of having been written more for himself than for any reader. Greene was the rare writer of his time and class who went to a psychoanalyst (at sixteen); some years later, going to Liberia, he said, more or less explicitly, that in undertaking a journey to the interior, he was going to explore the subconscious.
In these stories that same impetus is evident, to peel back the official story of our lives we tell ourselves and find its truth. One of the pieces in the first collection actually draws upon that trip to Africa (noting, with typical mordancy, that the man who flees London to get away from boredom may only find a different kind of boredom in the jungle). But the heart of the second collection—and, really, of much of Greene—seems to me to lie in the long excursion called “Under the Garden.” As its title suggests, it is about everything that hides out from the daylight world, all that the child (and then the dying man, returning to his boyhood home) longs to find hidden beneath the respectable surface of bourgeois life. Always a lover of the renegade—in perpetual flight from the wisdom of headmasters (one of whom was his father)—Greene here offers up a counterexample, in the form of a literally underground savant. A middle-aged man, one William Wilditch, is diagnosed as the story begins with lung cancer. He returns to the country house where he spent his childhood summers, comparing himself to a legendary Civil War leader who, mortally wounded, rides away from the battlefield to revisit the important sites of his youth one final time:
Why then go back now and see [the country house] in other hands? Was it that at the approach of death one must get rid of everything?… Perhaps the man who had ridden the horse around the countryside had not been saying goodbye, as his biographer imagined, to what he valued most: he had been ridding himself of illusions by seeing them again with clear and moribund eyes, so that he might be quite bankrupt when death came. He had the will to possess at that absolute moment nothing but his wound.
At the house, Wilditch remembers a dream he had as a seven-year-old boy that was so vivid that it became something of a turning point. In the dream, he stumbles into a series of caves under the garden, occupied by an old man and woman. The woman communicates only through quacking sounds, and the man sits all day on a toilet, reading a newspaper from 1885. It’s from this perch that, for several days, the old man offers Wilditch the wisdom that will guide him through his adult life. “Be disloyal,” the ragged sage tells the suggestible boy; “be a double agent.”
Wilditch more or less follows the old man’s advice, spending his life traveling, living in China and Africa, becoming estranged from his fervently socialist mother and stuffy older brother, and not returning to the country house until his mortal illness. And, he notes ruefully at the end of the story, he has succeeded in never being loyal to anyone—not even to the woman in Africa with whom he had a daughter.
This is, of course, the path Greene himself chose to follow all his life; the story has the feel of a psychic autobiography whose sequel, perhaps, is the last major book Greene ever published, a record of dreams that came out after his death.2 When publishing two books of official memoir, he characteristically chose to raise more questions than he answered; here, however, rooting about at the dark edges of the garden, and enshrining everything that would draw him on (the sexual and the forbidden), he shows himself uncensored. Much more than most writers he always kept up a keen sense of how the child’s intimations and fears lie at the core of us—Robert Louis Stevenson, he seldom forgot, was his mother’s first cousin—and there is an echo here of William Golding, even of Stephen King, in the sudden shock of a child coming upon a dead body for the first time. The names themselves enforce the air of allegory—characters are called “Miss Ramsgate” or “Mr. Strangeways”—and the boy who descends under the garden has all his creator’s restlessness and longing for rebellion in his name. The story’s setting is its theme, really: “the Dark Walk.”
These pieces do not always work as stories, or as works of fiction; but they do show that Greene, at some level, was always writing fairy tales for grown-ups (or for children who know more than they should); the form appealed to him as less reductive, more open to mystery, than any theory. In “Under the Garden,” Wilditch looks over his late mother’s old Fabian Society pamphlets and considers the off chance that there is life after death:
Perhaps because his own life was coming to an end, he thought how little of this, in the almost impossible event of a future, she would have carried with her. A fairy-story in such an event would be a more valuable asset than a Fabian graph.
Yet for all this sense of foreboding, the stories never lose their hold on comedy. Greene habitually called upon poignancy as a way to save his farces from becoming cartoonish, and on satire to rescue his sense of poignancy from the maudlin. At times, in this surreal world that feels more dreamed than plotted, it’s almost as if P.G. Wodehouse is bumping into Gregor Samsa:
“The tenth is difficult for the clinic, but the fifteenth—Sir Nigel doesn’t think we should delay longer than the fifteenth.”
“Is he a great fisherman?”
“Fisherman? Sir Nigel? I have no idea.”
The humor, the pathos, and much of the terror of Greene, one recalls, come from his simple ability to describe a typical specimen of the English middle classes in a setting of real urgency and suffering. So, too, he evokes, as if from within, the aching sense of vulnerability that makes such a person long, at times, for anything to believe in, if only it can make the pain go away. As Greene moved toward the rounded stories of his last real collection—excepting again The Last Word and Other Stories—he moved toward a blend of shrewdness and forgiveness that, at its best, has some of the ripened mellowness of Shakespeare’s final plays: realism and hope in balance.
“Absolute reality belongs to dreams and not to life.” That, I think, is the central line of the middle collection. And it begins to explain to us that the title of the collection, A Sense of Reality, which first might have seemed just a prank, is, in fact, a way to nudge us toward the mystic’s (the believer’s) sense that what we call real is only a charade, and what is truly real is everything we can’t see or even guess at. In that sense, it serves to show us how this most guarded and contrarian of souls would hold himself to a faith, so long as he could find no reason for it.
This element of dream, leavened and made more interesting by a light serving of the human comedy, comes to its intricate climax in the last real set of stories Greene ever wrote, which might have taken their cue from his beloved master, James (who wrote that short stories are situated “at that exquisite point where poetry ends and reality begins”). The beauty of Greene’s best work is that it was located on precisely that cusp, as if on the wall of Eden, as the door begins to open to let its subjects out (or to let its former inhabitants look in). “What is cowardice in the young is wisdom in the old,” he writes, “but all the same one can be ashamed of wisdom.”
In his recent book How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom declares, with an authority as unqualified as his title, that “short stories are not parables or wise sayings, and so cannot be fragments; we ask them for the pleasures of closure.” Yet Greene’s work, it seems to me, asks for precisely the opposite: open-endedness, a humbled sense that life is always wiser than our notions of it, a refusal to settle down into one category or the other. Asked, near the end of his life, what he traveled for, he said, simply, “Ambiguity.”
The very title of Greene’s final story collection, May We Borrow Your Husband?, catches this mingledness, the sense that we’re hovering somewhere between comedy and something much more sinister, but can no longer tell one from the other. When as a teenager I first saw this book on my parents’ bookshelf, it seemed to me as everyday and banal a reference to adultery as could be imagined (and, in fact, sat on the shelf next to Updike’s Couples); with each passing year, though, the title troubles me more, with its sense of manipulative cunning hidden behind a polite inquiry. Greene’s stories are tales of guile and innocence, except that Iago is helplessly in love with Desdemona; and the awful import of that is made more unsettling by the fact that the drollery is handled so lightly.
On the surface, the stories Greene wrote in his later years are all urbane amusements, worldly fables of corruption and death graced with such a light touch and such wise humanity that they might almost have come from Somerset Maugham, his neighbor on the Riviera (whose work Greene claimed to dislike). Up at the Neighboring Villa, perhaps. These pieces are written in the first person, mostly, and their author goes out of his way to suggest, unusually, that the observing narrator is himself. He mentions restaurants he was known to haunt—Félix au Port in Antibes, Bentley’s in London—and tells his little parables as if they were just scenes he chanced to overhear while sitting in a corner.
The settings and ostensible concerns are nearly all domestic; such politics as exists here is mostly sexual. The stories turn often around a man and a woman whose relations are strained; and many of the characters, all of whom sound alike (Greene was never a master of voices), are in mourning at some level for an innocence lost. The central moments of his novels, often, come with two men talking in the dark; in this collection, more unsettlingly, they center around a male and a female more divided than they know (those who complain about the treatment of women in Greene’s novels tend to glide over the fact that friendship, however qualified or temporary, is his thing; between the sexes there is always a rueful consciousness of distance). These are, you could say, love stories about people who shouldn’t be in love.
Their theme, always, is innocence observed from afar, innocence threatened or already spoiled. Like the worldly Frenchmen that he loved, Greene was a connoisseur of those grown-up truths that make honesty, often, the worst policy, and kindness a form of cruelty wearing a smiling face. In a particular favorite of mine, “Mortmain” (the name becomes more unnerving because it never actually appears in the story), a small chapter of marital bliss becomes a wry story of the Fall. A middle-aged writer, Phillip Carter, has recently ended a ten-year romance with one Josephine Heckstall-Jones, a fashion designer of “extravagant jealousy” and “well-timed hysterics,” and now savors a honeymoon with his new young wife. “How wonderfully secure and peaceful a genuine marriage seemed to Carter…. He had no secrets from Julia.”
Soon, however, the two of them begin receiving letters from Miss Heckstall-Jones, cheerful and full of innocence, wishing them joy—and offering Julia tips about her new husband’s habits, while describing the final touches the well-wisher has added to Carter’s apartment to make it cozy for the newlyweds. As the letters pile up, Julia remains impervious to Josephine’s machinations; it is Carter, of course, who comes undone, and brings his new marriage down with him. The moments of greatest innocence or hope, these stories suggest, are precisely the ones that portend the greatest doom. Innocence is a liability because it can’t see beyond its own expectations.
Greene always wrote of innocence with the knowing poignancy of one who knew better, but sometimes wished he didn’t; with the earnestness, even, of one who longs for a kind of justice, while knowing that infallible justice seldom comes to mortals. He pledged himself to a faith that would always leave him disappointed: lodged in a careworn hope somewhere between the complacency of the solid believer and the nonchalance of the skeptic. In the title story, a biographer of Rochester, like our author, falls in love with a young woman, again in that state of dangerous anticipation known as a honeymoon. She confides in him that she is more or less a virgin, the marriage still not consummated for the husband’s lack of interest. The narrator knows—as she does not—that her husband is otherwise inclined. “There’s always work,” he tells her, “and wine and a good cheese.”
If I had been twenty years older, perhaps, I could have explained that…at the end of what is called “the sexual life” the only love which has lasted is the love that has accepted everything, every disappointment, every failure and every betrayal, which has accepted even the sad fact that in the end there is no desire so deep as the simple desire for companionship.
When “Je ne regrette rien” sounds in his head, it elicits more sadness than relief in someone approaching death who feels he has almost everything to regret.
All the compression of the novels is alive and rich in these pages (Henry Hickslaughter, an ungainly would-be seducer in a holiday resort, “trod heavily” toward “the shallow end” of the pool), and even the smallest sentences, sometimes, can set off an almost silent detonation. “Suddenly,” Greene writes of a couple returning from their honeymoon, “it was autumn when they arrived back in London.” Autumn haunts everything in these final sunlit tales, whether the boarded-up striptease parlor on the beach or a nickname (“Poopy”) that at first seems funny and quickly becomes sad. The sense of amusement is everywhere, too—you can hear the private hell and horses’ confinement hiding out in the name “Heckstall-Jones”—but the humor is always spiked and deepened by the sadness. The name of a “little grey man” is Henry Cooper (in life, that name belonged to England’s most prized heavyweight boxer).
“‘That’s wonderful,’ he said sadly, ‘wonderful,'” we read in another story, and are reminded of how Greene could violate the writer’s rule never to use adverbs, simply by putting such English on them.
Comedy and human frailty together: that is the particular blend of Greene at his strongest, sitting in the shadows with his “splinter of ice” and quietly mocking the character who suddenly becomes too vulnerable for the author’s liking, or for ours. In perhaps the strongest of all the tales he wrote, “Cheap in August,” Greene introduces us to a scene that seems to offer all the easy satire and simple delight of a jeu d’esprit. A woman is on holiday in Jamaica, and, like many a Greene character, she’s looking for danger and adventure during her rare freedom from a good, clean, all-American husband. “After ten years of being happily married, she thought, one undervalues security and tranquility.”
A Jamesian story in reverse, one thinks: an Englishwoman longing to be educated in some form in the New World. Stories about women alone on holiday in the tropics, and not getting any younger, tend to follow a familiar itinerary. Her search for romance or “ambiguity” will meet with a sticky end, we assume, and our expectations of gentle irony are more than met when the only redeemer she encounters is the overweight aging American, Henry Hickslaughter, who might be a compound of what Greene, like his characters, regards as laughable. Even his shoes are of the kind “known as co-respondent.”
We read along, toward the expected comic, no doubt comforting, climax—maybe they’ll find a surprising kind of love together—when the door swings open, and there is exactly what we didn’t expect to see: a figure of fun found on his bed in tears, lonely, fragile, and terrified of the dark. Coming from a writer who is writing more and more about death as he nears his seventies, it takes on an extra poignancy and strength. There’s no great concentration on the exotic setting, there’s no particular complication of plot. There is simply the sudden exposure of human frailty and the longing to be held and loved. Embarking on the story with the wish to be amused, we suddenly find that we’re involved. And the person who commands our sympathy is precisely the one we felt we knew was there only as a comic prop. We’re on the border again, we see, but this time we know that it separates something much more universal than just Mexico and America.
Copyright © 2005 by Pico Iyer
January 13, 2005
The three collections later appeared as Twenty-One Stories, A Sense of Reality, and May We Borrow Your Husband? This essay will be published in a somewhat different form as an introduction to a Penguin edition of Greene’s Complete Short Stories to be published in February 2005. I’m omitting for the present purposes the almost posthumous leftovers collected in The Last Word and Other Stories. ↩
A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (Viking, 1994). ↩