Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Greene on Capri: A Memoir by Shirley Hazzard

There’s meeting cute, and then there’s meeting writerly cute.

When Shirley Hazzard first crossed paths with Graham Greene on the island of Capri, she makes a decidedly literary impression on the great man. Wisely, she makes a fast exit, one that leaves him wanting more of the young Aussie writer, the wife of his passing acquaintance, Francis Steegmuller. Hazzard later notes that their meeting was characterized by what Graham valued most, the unexpected.

She paints a picture of her new famous friend, describing his presence as, “immediate and interesting, with its emanation of expectancy and experience. His face was charged with feelings unhallowed and unmellowed, and lit by the blue extraordinary eyes… they were part of his magnetism and he knew it.”

There’s much in this memoir of his opinions on other writers, including Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, and Muriel Spark – whom he privately supported with money through her early lean years as a writer. Greene was quick and eager to tout books he liked, but intolerant of anyone who dared defend a book he found lacking.

Most interesting were Greene’s youthful influences. He lists Henty, Haggard, Hornung, Kipling, Stephenson and Conan Doyle. One book in particular stood out for the budding author: “When – perhaps I was fourteen by that time – I took Miss Marjorie Bowen’s The Viper of Milan from the library shelf, the future for better or worse really stuck. From that moment I began to write… one could not read her without believing that to write was to live and enjoy.”

Much later on his death bed, he’d make a cryptic reference to Flaubert.

Included in this slim memoir are descriptions of Greene’s Capri writing space along with a
chronicling of his writing habits: in the mornings, before doing anything, before going anywhere, he met his daily word quota. On Greene’s early writing career Hazzard relates that his first “literary successes were short-circuited by misfortunes, some of them self-inflicted.” With a family to support he climbed onto the journalist’s treadmill of article writing. He was over forty before he could afford “to write on his own terms.” Hazzard notes that after his death critics rebuked his commercial success, his mass appeal (the implication no doubt being: how great a writer could he have been since he sold millions of books).

Without judgment Hazzard portrays aspects of Greene’s mercurial personality, offering an intimate portrait of the man’s prickly, complex nature. She notes that Graham “often appeared indifferent to harm done, hurt inflicted, trust eroded. Trust itself was an unwanted claim on him, another infringement. Chaos relieved the monotony of outward order.” Michael Shelden, in his review of this book in the Daily Telegraph, describes Greene as “a manic, obsessed character who had escaped from the pages of a Patricia Highsmith t
hriller.” Hazzard describes many such character revealing details, particularly Greene’s lack of remorse, and, in my opinion, these are more indicative of psychopathy than mental illness. It comes as no surprise that forensic psychology textbooks cite Harry Lime, the villain of Greene’s The Third Man, as the greatest example of psychopathy in all literature.

In the latter third of this memoir, Hazzard spends too much time on Capri’s history and people, visitor or native. Still, Greene on Capri offers a nice intimate portrait of these writers as they enjoy the pleasures of this picturesque island.