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February 17, 2008

Graham Greene: A Life in Letters by Richard Greene (ed.)

In the last year I’ve grown fanatically fond of collected letters, though I ended up approaching Graham Greene: A Life in Letters quite differently than the other collections I’d read. A variety of factors could account for this: that though I like Greene’s books, I’ve not read many and knew very little about his life (whereas I am Mitford mad and adore Carol Shields, which just might explain why their letters were devoured so). I wonder if letters really are a good way to get to know a writer/ personality. Of course they’re indispensable to established fans, but for those just finding their feet, I wonder if letters might be overwhelming?

Though this feeling could also be due to the structure of this particular collection. For though it’s editor was clearing instrumental in its shaping (“The material available for this selection is vast– one selection alone fills seventeen linear files, and there are others nearly as large”), his impact is not so apparent in the reading. The book begins with a substantial introduction (biography, historiography), but thereafter editorial content is sparse. Though notes do accompany letters, I didn’t always find illumination quite where I wanted it.

Part of this could also have to do with the broad range of these letters (letters to his mother, wife, children, friends, other literary figures, one-off letters in response from those to fans). Though of course a life is narrative enough, this broadness gives a very liminal and limited impression of Greene. More focus, I suppose, wouldn’t have made “a life” so much, but his development would have been clearer. Of course it was fascinating to realize the consideration with which Greene addressed his letters to such a disparate group of figures, but many letters seemed to lack context. Which might be their point, of course. Perhaps this would be a very good point for me to read more of Greene himself, and seek out an actual biography?

I’ve been dipping in and out of this book for awhile now, which might be reason I’m left with this fragmented impression, but then the book itself was ideal for this kind of reading after all. Every time I picked it up, however, I did read something interesting. And perhaps a fragmented impression is more true-to-“life” than any other– particularly for a figure with Greene’s affiliations. And there was a progression, obviously, from boy to man. He was very much a man of his time, of his world, and particularly interesting are his experiences in “hotspots” which would come to underline his novels– Africa, Indochina, Mexico. A complicated man– letters to his wife and mistresses so full of affection, and his Catholicism, and leanings toward Communism.

My conclusion is that letters serve better as appendices than starting points when assembling a life– however important they are. And that a collection this brief (425 pages) is hardly going to constitute a life, particularly that of one so prolific. But that to Greene’s fans– even those to whom biography is incidental– these letters will shed light on the rest of his work, and bring sympathy to such a complicated character. And even to lesser fans such as myself, a taste of his voice leaves me wanting for more.

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