Graham Green / 'The Battle of Britain was won on Benzedrine'
Ilustration by T.A.
Graham Greene: 'The Battle of Britain was won on Benzedrine'
11 April 2016
For this 1968 profile from the Telegraph archive, republished to mark the 25th anniversary of Graham Greene's death on April 4, the novelist VS Naipaul spent two days in the south of France with Greene, who said some astonishing things.
Graham Greene has been living in France for two years. The French tax authorities are less harsh on the writer; the franc is free. Travel is easier, and travel is important to Mr Greene who, at 63, still likes to feel, as he says, that he is living on a frontier.
He has always been a political writer, interested in the larger movement of events. Before the war the frontiers were European. Now these lines of anxiety run everywhere. When I met Mr Greene he was off in a few days to Sierra Leone; and he was planning an Easter visit to the West Indies to St Kitts and Anguilla. He is an expatriate, but he feels very English. And though there are moments when he regrets the passing of the Victorian peace, he wishes, like the narrator of The Comedians, his last novel, to remain committed to the whole world.
Mr Greene has a flat in Paris and another in Antibes. The Antibes flat, where I went to see him, is on the fourth floor of a modern block. Sliding glass doors lead from the sitting-room to the balcony and give a view of the harbour: Vauban’s castle, the mole, the masts of idle yachts. To the left, in the far distance, is Cap Ferrat, marked by the white blur of Somerset Maugham’s unsold £360,000 house: a different South-of-France life from that suggested by Mr Greene’s sitting-room, which is compact and plain, with modern furniture in the decorated Scandinavian style. A noticeable feature is the tall cylindrical wastepaper basket, magenta edged with brass bands with a padded black lid. It stands beside the large dining-writing table at which Mr Greene works, only a few mornings a week now, facing the view.
It was just past seven in the evening when I arrived. Mr Greene, in grey flannel trousers and a loose tweed jacket, was having a pre-dinner drink. On the table there was a closed buff folder and nothing else. Mr Greene said he was working on an "entertainment"; it wasn’t going well. He spoke without anxiety. He was thinking more of his trip to West Africa. And he can finish the entertainment at his leisure; he has a new book almost ready. This is an autobiography; it takes him up to the age of 24 and his first novel. "After that, I say my life is in my books."
Mr Greene speaks slowly and makes small gestures. The middle-aged men of some of his recent stories are physical grotesques. But this, as I had suspected, is only a type of protective self-satire. Mr Greene himself still has the loose movements that go with his height and slenderness. His face registers every quick mood. I saw humour and interest more often than melancholy or irritation.
Mr Greene’s pictures are in Paris. In the Antibes sitting-room he has only three paintings, all Cuban. Two, by the same abstract artist, are fine and sombre. The third, a flower-piece, is brighter and more violent; it was a gift from Fidel Castro, who has inscribed it on the back. The effect, of flat, furniture and pictures, is international. Without the books the flat would be anonymous.
Graham Greene by Anthony Palliser, 1981-3
The books occupy two walls. On one wall are the books of younger writers whose work Mr Greene follows. These books are divided into those that have been signed by the authors and those that haven’t. The books on the other wall are in the main more personal. There is the Penguin edition of The Lost Childhood, with notes in Mr Greene’s handwriting on the inside cover and contents page: this collection of essays is being purged and expanded. There are the American editions of two early novels Mr Greene has suppressed – The Name of Action, Rumour at Nightfall – which he now discusses only as titles, liking the first, not liking the second.
And there are the books of Mr Greene’s own "lost childhood", those marking experiences about which he has written: the books of Anthony Hope, Rider Haggard, Stanley Weyman, standing in their bulky old-fashioned bindings below a whole shelf of the World’s Classics series. There is King Solomon’s Mines, which made Mr Greene think, when he was 19, of going into the Nigerian Navy – Mr Greene’s interest in Africa, "the blank unexplored continent the shape of the human heart", is rooted in Victorian romance. There is The Viper of Milan which, read when he was 14, committed him to his vocation as a writer. And there is an earlier experience: Captain Gilson’s The Pirate Aeroplane. "The key book," Mr Greene says, taking it down with his long fingers and showing it, a child’s book, "in a cover stamped dramatically in several colours".
It was the war that strengthened Mr Greene’s wish to travel, "to feel able to go where one wants". And it was after the war that he began to feel that England was too small a place to be in. The politics were becoming parish-pump politics and that depressed him. So did the snobbism, which he thinks the welfare state did not change.
"Then the daily woman who worked for me for 10 years died. And suddenly one felt less protected. I would have found it much more difficult to leave if she hadn’t died. But perhaps now I wouldn’t have been able to leave because of currency restrictions. It was this threat, you see, of being compelled to be more and more in this little island."
France is more convenient and in some ways less depressing. "There is still that snob circle in France, in places like Biarritz. But I find an extreme lack of snobbism in the French middle class. The taxidriver calls you Monsieur; you call him Monsieur. That to me is attractive. But it may be that I left England when a change was taking place."
France has its political uncertainties. But Mr Greene doesn’t mind; it is an aspect of living on a frontier; and French politics are large and dramatic. In 1958 he went to Paris to attend the press conference General de Gaulle gave before he came to power. Mr Greene had no assignment, no pass, he went only for the interest, and no one stopped him.
Mr Greene was in Indo-China before the French left, in Cuba before Castro, in the Congo before the Belgian hand-over. His news sense is legendary. It comes from a close study of newspapers. "I’ve always liked reading newspapers. My enemies might say I get my ideas from theological works and newspapers." In Antibes he reads three London dailies as well as the weeklies; he also reads the local paper, Nice Matin.
VS Naipaul in 1968, the year he visited Graham Greene
He studies the world, but without much hope. He says he is of the left; the definition is personal. He is saddened by Africa, which he thinks ought to have had another hundred years of colonial rule; he blames much on the Belgian withdrawal. "But now I can’t see why we don’t leave Africa completely alone to retribalise itself. No aid, no interference, nothing." (Mr Greene wrote to me recently. He said his visit in January to Sierra Leone had changed his mind considerably. "It opened my mind to what a closed shop colonialism had been. The place is still very poor, but one feels it has opened on the world. There are Italian bakers and constructors, Sicilian fishermen and even Chinese growing rice. This couldn’t have happened however long colonial rule continued.")
His disapproval of United States policy in South-East Asia and Latin America is well known. "The Vietnam war is not only horrible but foolish. It is preventing the fragmentation of the Communist world. There is something menacing about great power combined with great foolishness." He is attracted by action that is positive and idealistic. He finds such action in Cuba and in Israel. "I don’t see it in Heath or Wilson, do you?"
"That was when I began to hate the Mexicans." The sentence comes from a 30-year-old travel book: Mr Greene has never hidden his antipathies. The tone today, even in conversation, is the same. "I went to Morocco in 1948. I hated it. I hate all those Arab countries." He is indifferent to India and the religious East. "I don’t want to go to Kathmandu. The only part of India I would like to go to is Mysore."
This is because of Mr Greene’s admiration for the Indian comic novelist, RK Narayan, who lives in Mysore. Mr Greene placed Narayan’s first novel with a London publisher in 1935; the men met for the first time about 10 years ago. It is an unlikely friendship. Narayan is celibate, vegetarian, teetotal, without politics; in middle age he has turned, in the tradition of Hindu piety, to the study of Sanskrit texts. Mr Greene has no interest in Hinduism.
It was through Narayan that Mr Greene had a horoscope cast some years ago by an Indian astrologer.
"The language was very flowery. He got the date of my mother’s death within two months. But I gave him the date of her birth. He said I would be honoured by my sovereign. It was language like that. He also said that vehicles would always be at my disposal. Such a strange thing to say. He thought I was going to die between 60 and 100. Which is pretty accurate. But the feeling was that I was going to die when I was 72. It would be while returning from a voyage. Which is reasonable. A death by drowning, but not in water. My lungs are somehow going to be drowned. I will take three to four hours to die. I don’t mind that." He added without great seriousness, "It will enable me to make my peace with God."
I first read Graham Greene in bulk when I was beginning to write myself. I was discovering that writing was more than a matter of will, that the process was more like a series of happy accidents which one could sometimes control. At that time the book of Mr Greene’s which seemed to me to be full of this quality of accident and luck was The Confidential Agent. I felt certain it had been written with joy.
I learnt – but now not really with surprise – that the book’s stated hysteria was real; that it overlapped Brighton Rock; that Mr Greene had written it in six weeks, with the help of Benzedrine, to provide some security for his family against the accidents of war; and that it took him two months to recover.
Mr Greene didn’t remember the details of the book. He remembered only the painful circumstances of the writing. This too I might have guessed: he has written, and latterly more and more, of the writer’s vocation as pain.
"One lives on one’s nerves. That is the key phrase. And one so seldom enjoys writing. Perhaps once or twice a month one feels one has done something well. Revision is much more fun. During the war I found it an enormous relief to get back in a job, with an excuse for doing so."
Part of the pain comes from "the long despair of doing nothing well". The quotation occurred in the dedication of A Burnt-Out Case. It occurred again in a recent story, but it had changed: "despair" had become "defeat".
"No, no. 'Defeat' is a misquotation. It comes from Dauber by John Masefield. I’ve always liked that poem." And Mr Greene thinks the words fit. "Are you satisfied with what you’ve written?"
Of his first five novels only one survives, The Man Within. "Some time ago I tried rewriting it, but I found that in the process it was losing what virtues it had." The novel with which he is best the moral issues in Brighton Rock were too openly stated and he has his own reservations about The Comedians. "The political situation is accurate. But I feel that my knowledge of Haitian life and manners was surface." The book was written with difficulty and he thinks that also shows. After A Burnt Out Case he didn’t think he could manage another novel. When he began The Comedians he set himself a target of 200 words a morning. He was soon writing 500; but in the beginning he needed the lower target to give himself the courage to go on.
In the later work, which is more personal, a recurring figure is the artist – writer, architect, jeweller – who has come to the end of his vocation, the end of sex and passion, and has "chosen nothing except to go on living". The mood is not one of sadness but of release. Exegi monumentum, I have raised a monument: the Latin tag occurs in both the last novels.
"It means nothing at all. It’s just schoolboy Latin. I like the sound. I like the ex. It makes me think of brick." With his finger Mr Greene cut the air. "It makes me think of something carved in brick."
But such scraps of poetry are often a shorthand for a mood, and Mr Greene’s mood is plain; his work has been done, his books have been written. He has, of course, written 30. "Today, when one thinks of vitality, one forgets that one wrote a book every nine months when one was young."
A writer has no secrets from himself; and Mr Greene’s calm judgements on his work are separate from his continuing success and the reassurances of critics. "The same things are said over and over again. One gets so bored." He made a slow, distancing gesture with his right hand. "One doesn’t like reading about oneself in that way, do you? It always makes one feel like a comedian."
Certain things, though, he remembers with pleasure. One was William Faulkner’s high praise for The End of the Affair. "Somehow Faulkner wasn’t a man you imagined reading. Hemingway you could imagine reading a lot and hating a lot." And there was Bonamy Dobrée’s review of England Made Me in 1935. "He was the first reviewer to say I was a funny writer. This pleased me enormously."
Antibes is the setting of some of the recent stories, and it was familiar to me as we walked to the restaurant for dinner. The ramparts were deserted, "the emaciated statues of the Chateau Grimaldi" – the Picasso Museum – were floodlit. But there had been a surprise. "In that house," Mr Greene had said, stopping before a tall, stylish house, indistinct in the dark, "lives Mr Paul Gallico. A perfectly nice Canadian."
The restaurant was empty except for the patron and patronne, who were expecting us. Half an orange tart was waiting on the counter; it is one of Mr Greene’s favourites. The restaurant is one of the two he uses in Antibes; I got the impression that little cooking was done in his flat. We went to the inner room. The patron brought the fish on a wooden slab and showed it; after the Niçoise salad and a glass of wine, the fish reappeared, cooked.t
Mr Greene considered, and did not reject, the idea that there was a note of celebration in his recent work. He thought there might be personal reasons. "Between 40 and 50 I was depressive. Before that I was manic. Now in middle age the depression has grown gentler."
We talked about success. It is a subject about which Mr Greene has written much: success not simply as money, but success that crowns and corrupts a literary vocation. He has written of Henry James’s popular failure as part of James’s good fortune. The attitude is to some extent one of fear and goes back to his boyhood discovery, from The Viper of Milan, of "the sense of doom that lies over success – the feeling that the pendulum is about to swing." A special doom awaits the writer.
In an early novel, Stamboul Train, written when he was 27, there is a caricature of a successful writer, QC Savory, a former draper’s assistant who in six years has achieved sales of 100,000, and is travelling on the Orient Express to gather material for his next book, a humorous account of the foreign adventures of a London tobacconist. A woman journalist enters his compartment and asks for an interview. The request is fraudulent, but Savory goes into his successful-writer’s act. He doesn’t know that the journalist hates him for his success, for being "the interviewed", and wishes to humiliate him; she doesn’t know that he is overworked and on the edge of breakdown, "harassed by a personality which was not his own".
Mr Greene did not remember QC Savory, but he liked being reminded. And the caricature explains a good deal. He himself has tried to withdraw, as a person, from his success as a writer. He has never invited personal publicity; he gives few interviews. If his fear of success can no longer be the fear of the luck not holding, it remains the fear of being set apart and isolated.
It was after the war that the breakthrough came for Mr Greene. His first novel had sold 8,000 copies; but the later books didn’t do as well, and the first printing of The Power and the Glory, published 10 years after his first novel, was only 3,500. The Comedians, published in 1966, sold 60,000; May We Borrow Your Husband?, a collection of stories published last year, sold 25,000. In the United States his average sale is 14,000; a Book Club selection can boost this to 40,000.
Mr Greene smiles as he gives these figures. But he is in earnest when he speaks of the "alleviations". "To take a taxi and not the bus or the Underground: that is an alleviation. To travel, to be able to experiment: that is an alleviation. The ideal is as George Eliot said. 'I want to be able to earn enough money not to be influenced by it.' Or words to that effect."
The orange tart came. Presently, after coffee, the patronne hung our overcoats on chairs; it was time to let them close. We walked for a little in the narrow lanes of the old town. Washing hung below windows; there were many cars. The Place de Gaulle was bright but empty. I couldn’t find a taxi to take me back to Nice. We walked to the railway station. Mr Greene waited with me until the Mistral express came.
He said, "Some Haitian revolutionaries came to see me the other day. They told me their train was leaving at 9.50. So we had dinner and came here. The train had left at 8.50. I thought, 'If you can’t organise a train, how are you going to organise a revolution?' "
Graham Greene was going down to get his letters when I called the next morning, at about 11. He was dressed as on the previous evening He had taken a sleeping pill; he said he still felt a little heavy. On the large table the folder was open. He had been working on his entertainment.
He writes closely, on unlined foolscap sheets. Halfway down the page the lines begin to slope. The letters are tiny, with those "long tails to them" that gave away the hero of The Man Within. Mr Greene said he had been told that the tails indicated sensuousness. Each tiny letter is separate and each letter is made up of separate and sometimes unconnected strokes; the i is reduced to two dots. The writing is hard to read. Mr Greene speaks his original draft into a dictaphone; he does the same with his corrected transcript.
The Graham Greene novel is of formal structure, divided into books, parts, chapters and sections. It interested me to see that these divisions were fully stated even as the book was being worked out. The Greene novel is stylised. It begins at the moment of maturing crisis and moves, through interconnecting scenes, to a resolution not far off in time. Everything is relevant; everything has to be presented. With such a method the beginning is important. Mr Greene has written that he has had to abandon three novels because the beginning was badly chosen.
He told me about The Heart of the Matter. This is the story of a police officer in a West African colony who is destroyed by his own compassion. It was written after the war. Mr Greene has a poor visual memory and he had taken no notes during his wartime service in West Africa.
"One began with a figure sitting on a balcony watching another figure in the street below."
Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.
"I was stuck on that balcony for months, with this figure watching the Police Commissioner walking in the street below." Mr Greene slowly drew his hands across the front of him: the Commissioner walking. "In that picture there were two ideas fighting. There was a novel. And there was a detective story I wanted to write, where you would know who the murderer was but you wouldn’t know who the detective was. So there was the Police Commissioner in the street and the man from MI5 on the balcony watching him."
A vulture flapped and shifted on the iron roof and Wilson looked at Scobie. He looked without interest in obedience to a stranger’s direction, and it seemed to him that no particular interest attached to the squat grey-haired man walking alone up Bond Street.
"I decided to write the novel. But the detective element remained. The figure on the balcony watching the other figure in the street: that seemed to me vital."
He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined – the taste of gin at midday, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.
All but one of the post-war novels have had a foreign setting. Mr Greene says this was just something that happened. It wasn’t deliberate, and he isn’t finished with the English scene. "I am hoping, when the present spy vogue is over, to write a book in which the villain is MI5, not the Russians or the Chinese. It will be set in England right until the end. A sympathetic study of treachery." But he thinks that in a world which has grown more international there can be no more writers like Thomas Hardy who will settle in one place and write only about that place. "I suppose the aeroplane has a lot to do with it."
15 years ago he wrote about the effect of the "social vacancies" of England on writers like Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett. The observation links with the observation he makes today about the number of good English novels that haven’t been followed up. He feels that the novel will take a new direction. "Some of the best writing being done nowadays is in science fiction. It may become almost the mainstream in the future. And one can see why. A writer like JG Ballard in The Disaster Area is writing of a horror that could be at our doors." The idea for It’s a Battlefield came to Mr Greene in a dream, and it was a dream that helped him in A Burnt-Out Case. At lunch – in the second restaurant Mr Greene uses, more crowded – the talk turned to luck.
"I went to Israel the other day. Nothing happened and I had nothing to write about. I wasn’t going to write about the holy places. Then this shelling occurred. There was my story. It was like the time Alexander Korda sent me to Vienna for three weeks. Nothing happened, and I thought, Korda is going to lose this money. Two days before I left someone told me about the diluted-penicillin racket. And the very next day someone from the British Legation took me down to the sewers. The two ideas came together and I had The Third Man."
It was Korda who put Mr Greene on to gambling at the tables. "It was before the war. He gave me some money to gamble with. I doubled it, and gave him back what he had given me. Not long ago I made £300 in 45 minutes. I usually set aside a fixed sum. I put winnings in one pocket and stop when the other pocket is empty. I like gambling on the stock exchange too. Never take the advice of the bank. As soon as you buy what they say it goes down. And never listen to brokers. Do it yourself. My mind works like a computer, I imagine. I don’t study the financial pages, but a name will gradually begin to interest me."
We had another half-bottle of wine and spoke about stimulants. I said I enjoyed tobacco less and less but didn’t know what to replace it with. Mr Greene said,"I think you are ready for opium." He added, "The fuss about opium and marijuana is absurd. The Battle of Britain was won on Benzedrine."
He spoke about his opium experiments in London, Tahiti and Indo-China. "You go to sleep and wake up feeling you’ve had a whole night’s rest. But only half-an-hour has passed. Then you sleep again, for 15 minutes, and again you wake up feeling you’ve rested for a night." He thinks opium should be available to everyone over 50; there need be no bureaucratic complications; there can be properly supervised fumeries. He had decided to drive with me to Nice. We went back to the flat and he collected his letters. "Christmas cards. I never send them, do you?" As the letters were opened the envelopes were dropped into the wastepaper-basket.
"And there are those with little notes on the back. That means you have to reply. And here is something from the French intellectual establishment. About prisoners in Greece."
I studied the printed appeal while Mr Greene read a personal letter. It was later, minutes after he had read his letter, that his face became full of distress. The letter was about his son: he had contracted malaria in Indo-China.
"It is something you never lose, this anxiety about your children. You would think that when they were mature and on their own you would worry less. But you don’t."
His spirits lifted only when we were on the road, going past the holiday-maker’s shanty town of hotels and motels between Antibes and Nice.
"This is a dreadful stretch. But on those hills" – he pointed to the left – "are the medieval towns. Today full of antique shops and lesbians."
I was living in my house in Stockwell, south London, and working hard on The Loss of El Dorado. I didn’t want to do this interview: I didn’t care for Greene’s postwar work, and didn’t see how I could avoid that difficulty. I told John Anstey, the tricky editor of the magazine, I didn’t want to do the piece. He said, 'You’ve put us on the spot. Greene has agreed to being interviewed because we told him you would be doing it.’
So I went. I was very nervous. I did a dry run from Nice to Antibes, so that there wouldn’t be any trouble about finding the place on the day itself. The interview lasted two days. I remember the many whores of Nice when I went back in the evening; they stank from 10 feet of recent sex.
Greene tried to 'fix’ some parts of the interview. He raised louche topics in the hope, I felt, of adding to, or creating, a louche reputation. It was how, at this stage in his career (he was 63), he wished to present himself. He talked, for instance, about the whores of Hong Kong harbour, who would come out to customers on little boats of their own. I didn’t use that; it seemed to me too humiliating for everyone. He also talked about Philby, the Third Man (in the Burgess-Maclean affair), and his own spying activities. I didn’t use that either; it didn’t interest me.
I didn’t mention the middle-aged French woman who appeared in the Antibes flat. He said he didn’t want it mentioned. (Violet Powell, Anthony Powell’s wife, told me later she could none the less feel the presence of the woman from what I had written.) There was some trouble with the woman’s daughter. She was keeping unsuitable company in Nice or Antibes. Greene told the French woman, very angrily, that the man concerned was to be told that the police would be called if certain things didn’t stop. No louche character there.
I grew to like Greene over the two days, and wished to treat him well in what I wrote. I wished indeed to honour him. I thought I would do this by passing no judgement at all on his books. (I was to do something similar with the piece I did in the early 1970s about the young David Hockney: writing about the man, and leaving art criticism to the Telegraph critics.)
Greene was sent what I had written. He objected to my description of the furniture in the flat. I had said it was in the decorated Scandinavian style. He wrote back 'undecorated surely’. But I meant decorated, and that is how it came out in the magazine.
He spotted my reservations about his work, in spite of my great care not to show my hand. He saved his bile for two years, and then in 1969 (when for various reasons I was desperate and exceedingly vulnerable, and could have done with a hand up) he wrote less than well about the The Loss of El Dorado and The Mimic Men for the Observer.
Forty years on, the vanities and needs of both writers seem not at all important. Books go into the world like orphans. They live or die according to their destinies.