In the aftermath of World War II, author Graham Greene was in personal and professional agony. His marriage was on the rocks, his soul was struggling to find its home, and his restless spirit had taken him into the bedrooms of multiple women. After several tumultuous years (“grotesquely complicated” was how he described his personal life), he sat down to record his feelings about one lover in particular, the wealthy (and married) American heiress, Catherine Walston. The result was one of the most powerful, suspenseful, and moving novels of all time. In this episode, Jacke talks to Laura Marsh about the enduring appeal of The End of the Affair.
Laura Marsh is the literary editor of The New Republic and co-host of the podcast “The Politics of Everything.” She has written for the New York Review of Books, The Nation, Dissent, The Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review. Previously she was an editor at the New York Review of Books.
“In the middle of life’s journey,” wrote Dante Alighieri, “I found myself in a selva oscura.” Host Jacke Wilson and frequent guest Mike Palindrome take stock of their own selva oscura in a particularly literary way: What books have they read? What books have been the most important to them? What do they expect to come next? It’s a celebration of reading – and friendship – on this episode of The History of Literature Podcast.
Authors discussed include: John D. Fitzgerald, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elena Ferrante, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Jay McInerney, Rene Descartes, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, Graham Greene, Patrick O’Brian, Marcel Proust, Javier Marias, Haruki Murakami, Paul Celan, and Leo Tolstoy.
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The most curious book in the Graham Greene canon is probably his book of dreams, A World of My Own, essentially a dream diary. Stop there! I know what you’re thinking! Other peoples’ dreams are boring and tiresome. Well, that’s generally true. But Greene is such a strong writer and such a fascinating creature there’s some merit here. It’s worth a look.
On May 5, 1973, I had an awful experience I am thankful never occurred in the Common World. I had sent a love scene in a new novel to my secretary to make a draft, but her draft was full of gaps — that was only tiresome. What was awful was that as I read aloud to the woman I loved, I realized how false it was, how sentimental, how permissive in the wrong way. She too knew how bad it was and that made me angry. I threw it away. “How can I read it to you,” I demanded, “If you interrupt and criticize? It’s only a draft, after all.”
But I knew that the whole book was hopeless. I said, “If only I could die before the book is published. It’s got to be published to earn money for the family.” The thought of Russian roulette came to me. Had I recently bought a revolver or was that a dream? My mistress tried to comfort me but it only made things worse.
Mike brought up the issue of Russian roulette, which Greene actually played, on the podcast. It’s interesting to see it here in the context of a failed book. Like any good writer, Greene took it hard if things didn’t work out.
(Note the first sentence, though: this never occurred in real life. In real life, the guy churned out 500 words a day and built his novels, brick by brick. There was no hopelessness.)
(And note the last sentence. My mistress tried to comfort me but it only made things worse. One suspects that THAT probably happened oh-too-often.)
Ah, sadness. Why do I take such comfort from you, even as you repel me?
As we discussed on the podcast, Graham Greene’s masterpiece The End of the Affair had a real-life basis: Greene’s affair with Catherine Walston, an American beauty whose “zeal for Catholicism was matched only by her insatiable lust.” (Quite a description!)
And of course, the Hollywood versions of Sarah (the character inspired by Walston) do justice to her beauty. Julianne Moore is perfectly cast: attractive, sure, but also smart and sensitive. Her beauty is a thinking man’s beauty, if that’s the right way to put it. She has depth. Character. Soul. That’s perfect for Sarah, who’s both pure and impure.
What about the real-life Catherine Walston? Can she measure up?
I’ll let you be the judge:
Good lord! She looks improbably beautiful. How was she not herself a movie star?
Here’s a side-by-side of her and Greene:
So beautiful, so doomed, so much heartbreak and sadness.
Look, I know this is superficial…but even so…it’s hard not to be swayed by superficiality sometimes. We unbeautiful, uninteresting people sometimes need to just sit back and marvel at the lives led by others.
Q: What is it about Graham Greene? If you put the Dalai Lama on one end of a continuum, Leonard Cohen would be somewhere nearby and Graham Greene would be way over on the other end.
A: An honest sinner. Many people are very shocked when I say that I see him in the same sense as the Dalai Lama. He’s someone who was straining for belief, failing to find it, but wanting to exercise kindness and conscience as much as possible in the world. Even though he failed you could see the respect he has for those qualities. He was a reluctant victim of his own hedonism. But I think deep down much more than most English writers of his time he was trying to make sense of the world and he was trying and failing to lead a better life.
I suppose his central question is … we’re on the streets in Haiti, a revolution has just broken out, somebody whom we’ve just met is asking for our help. He puts you right in the thick of a moral conundrum.
Huh. Is the Dalai Lama an “honest sinner”? Is he “straining for belief”? “[F]ailing to find it”?
You may have your own answers to those three questions. (Mine are not really, no, and not at all.)
Sorry, Pico! But the consolation prize: I think you nailed Greene, which is probably closer to what you were trying to do in the first place.
(And yes, I deliberately chose the word nailed there. Greene would have approved.)
Part of it isn’t a mystery at all, of course. We know that Greene worked for Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI-6. (He was recruited there by his sister.) And we know that while he was there, he worked for Kim Philby, the real-life Third Man, the notorious double agent – probably the most notorious spy of the twentieth century. And we know that after Philby defected to Moscow, Greene supported him. He wrote an introduction to Philby’s memoirs in which he depicted Philby’s treason with sympathy, suggesting that his devotion to Communism was a higher morality than loyalty to his country.
Those are all facts. We know that those things happened.
But did Greene get it right? Did he have the information he needed to make a solid judgment? Or was Greene being played by Philby?
It seems nearly impossible to imagine now, but there were whispers at the time: Philby wasn’t just a double agent working for the Soviets…he was a triple agent, secretly posing as a traitor in order to penetrate the KGB in Moscow. And this grand theory wasn’t just concocted by a salacious press or some idle screenwriter with time on his hands…the KGB itself thought it might be true.
Imagine Greene’s distress, then, at the possibility that Philby had been not a Soviet double agent but a British triple agent. Greene had gone out on a limb to portray Philby as a passionate pilgrim, a sincere devotee of the Marxist faith — radically innocent rather than radically evil. But if, in fact, his friend had all along been an agent of the Empire, a hireling of Colonel Blimp, it would mean that Philby had been laughing at Greene. Not merely laughing at him, but using him, using him as cover. Graham Greene would turn out to be Kim Philby’s final fool.
“As a matter of urgency,” Cave Brown told me, “Greene summoned up enough energy to send for his papers, for all his literature relating to Kim and certain letters from him.”
Fascinating. Why would Greene want to read those letters? Certain letters? That definitely sounds like a man wanting to know the truth, wondering if he’d been deceived, hoping to find the answer. Rosenbaum again:
Cave Brown believes that Greene spent those last hours playing detective, sifting the literature and his memories of Philby for clues to the hidden truth about the role the ultimate secret agent played in the secret history of our century. And that Greene was preparing to respond to Sherry’s query with his last word on the Philby case. It would have been Greene’s summa, his ultimate espionage thriller. With little time left to live, Graham Greene was in a race against the clock.
Rosenbaum thinks he finds the answer through some marginalia in some manuscripts. As is so often the case with Ron Rosenbaum pieces, he promises a lot that he doesn’t deliver, and he takes thousands and thousands (and thousands and thousands) of words to get there. So I’m not going to send you to the piece and tell you to read the whole thing. I’m going to violate that particular rule of Internet etiquette this time.
Instead, I’ll jump to the end. Rosenbaum’s not sure if Greene ever satisfied himself that his assessment of Philby had been correct, or if he went to his grave wondering if he had been duped. Rosenbaum simply doesn’t know. But he posits an interesting theory, one consistent with Greene’s status as the great chronicler of the human side of espionage.
Perhaps the single most telling instance of Philby’s last great disinformation operation can be found in correspondence between him and Graham Greene over Greene’s novel “The Human Factor.” It was a book Greene wrote in the 60’s but didn’t publish until the late 70’s because it came so close to the Philby affair.
Many found resemblances to Philby and his predicament in Greene’s protagonist, a mid-level mole named Castle. Apparently, Philby did too. Greene had sent him a copy of the manuscript before publication, and Philby had made particular objection to one passage, at the very close of the book, when Castle, like Philby, has escaped to Moscow and is trying to adjust to his ambiguous position there.
The passage Philby objected to depicts Castle in a tiny, depressing apartment, amid stained, secondhand furniture, insisting over his malfunctioning telephone to his wife in London, that he’s quite content: “Oh, everyone is very kind. They have given me a sort of job. They are grateful to me. . . . ”
Philby wrote to Greene urging him to change this impression. It was misleading, melancholy. And, by implication, not at all like his circumstances in Moscow. Greene wrote back thanking Philby for the helpful suggestion, but he would not change the bleak mood.
Greene must have had the novelist’s sixth sense from this exchange that the melancholy portrait of the lonely mole in his Moscow apartment, vainly boasting how “grateful” everyone was, had struck home with Philby. That there was a truth to it Philby recognized, a truth about himself that all the tacky ribbons and trophies he gathered from his “grateful” fraternal K.G.B. comrades could not obscure.
Shortly after Graham Greene’s funeral, his biographer, Norman Sherry, visited the room where Greene had died. On a table next to the empty bed, he found the letter he’d written to Greene, the one asking for his final thoughts on Philby. Members of Greene’s family said that they had found no reply.
If Greene took a Philby secret to his grave, it might have had nothing to do with whether Kim was a double or triple agent. It might have had everything to do with the lonely man in the Moscow apartment.
Perhaps Greene saw through Philby’s last great lie, but — unlike Kim — he wouldn’t blow a friend’s cover.
Unlike Kim…and unlike Holly Martens, perhaps.
I’m referring, of course, to the great Joseph Cotten character in the film The Third Man. The one who faces a similar dilemma. A friend’s duplicity is exposed. Where do our loyalties lie? What action do we take?
Anyone who’s seen The Third Man knows how hard Greene thought about this. On the great ladder of morality, what rung does friendship occupy? Where does this good, decent quality – personal loyalty – blur into something negative…even something corrupt or evil?
Somewhere Harry Lime is back in the shadows, grinning at his friend’s discovery…and the richness of his dilemma.
Oh, I should have mentioned it on the podcast. Just a delicious detail. He kept parallel journals to HIDE HIS ADULTERY FROM HIS WIFE, one journal that he ‘allowed’ his wife to find, and another that he kept very hidden.
Aware that he led a hidden life, Greene developed a habit of evasion, an almost pathological inability to come clean. His secretiveness led him at times to keep a parallel diary, in which he might chronicle two versions of his day, one rather sober and preoccupied, the other perhaps detailing a frolic with a prostitute.
We talked for an hour, and yet we still barely scratched the surface of Graham Greene’s incredible life. Here’s one we didn’t get to: his role in bringing Lolita to the literary world’s attention – and inadvertently triggering the ban (which probably helped sales in the long run). Maria Popova has more:
When Lolita was first published in Europe in September of 1955, its first printing of 5,000 copies flew off the shelves, but the book remained largely under the radar of the literary establishment. It wasn’t until December of that year that Graham Greene catapulted it into public attention by declaring it one of the year’s three best books in a piece for London’s Sunday Times. And because rivaling publications thrive on provocation and at the heart of all cultural controversy is a powerfully charged battery of approval and disapproval, the editor of London’s Sunday Express went vocally against Greene, calling the novel “sheer unrestrained pornography” and “the filthiest book I have ever read.” The controversy stirred frantic alarm at the UK Home Office, which instructed customs agents to begin confiscating all copies of the book entering the United Kingdom.