GRAHAM GREENE is almost as famous for his reluctance to speak about himself as he is for his masterly works of fiction, but several years ago he agreed to talk on the record with Marie-Francoise Allain, a young French journalist. The result is The Other Man, a slender volume in which Greene manages to say a good deal about his work and politics while revealing precious little about himself. This, in point of fact, is as it should be; no matter how great the fascination of readers with the private lives of authors, it is--as Greene himself well understands--with their books rather than themselves that we are properly concerned.
So those in search of literary gossip must look elsewhere. There are, if anything, fewer juicy tidbits to be found in The Other Man than there are in the first of Greene's two autobiographical volumes, A Sort of Life. Here, as there, Greene discusses his tormented years at boarding school ("The horror began at thirteen. The school world really was horrible") and the direct effect of those years on his writing. But other personal questions he politely, and firmly, evades; when he remarks at one point about an "escape from certain private worries" and is pressed on the point by Allain, he simply says: "I can't say. There are some things I can't talk about because they also concern other people."
What he really means, I think, is that they do not concern us, and he is right. Our fascination with the secret lives of noted authors certainly is understandable, especially when the amorous connections of those authors are widely rumored to be complex; but the plain fact is that those lives are none of our business. It is true, of course, that in these days of People magazine and Barbara Walters it is a rare author indeed who insists that we honor his privacy; but, if anything, such a position should command even more respect, precisely because of its rarity, because of its refusal to capitulate to an age of publicity and self-display.
Within limits, in point of fact, Greene tells us more about himself in these interviews than we might at first expect. He ruefully acknowledges that "on the human plane there have been plenty of failures, no doubt about it; I've betrayed a great number of things and people in the course of my life, which probably explains this sense of having been cruel, unjust." "Yes," he says, "I'm sure I've been a bad husband and a fickle lover!" and observes that "I suppose one can work very hard to accomplish a certain task--writing--and that as a result one can't be a very diligent husband or lover." More than anything, it is this absolute devotion to his vocation as writer that comes through in these pages:
"I aim to be content with what I produce. It's an aim I never achieve, but I go over my work word by word, time and again, so as to be as little dissatisfied as possible. I write not to be read, but for my own relief. My only readership is me. Novelists who write for a public are, in my opinion, no good: They've discovered who their readers are, and, in submitting to their judgment, they're dishing things up like short-order cooks. But a writer has to be his own judge, for his novels contain faults which he alone can discern. The harshest judgments should be his own."
And many of Greene's judgments of his own work are nothing if not harsh. The Heart of the Matter, for example, "though it was the start of my success," is "a book I dislike." Of The Human Factor he says: "I don't think it's one of my best novels. It's merely adequate." Even when he speaks of books that he likes, it is with qualms: "My favorite book, the one that bothers me the least, is The Honorary Consul, and no doubt the next is The Power and the Glory."
Probably there's a bit of having the reader on here, but Greene's uncertainty about the value of his work and his own motives in writing it is so persistent a theme that it cannot be taken lightly. Though he seems utterly untroubled about such matters as his literary reputation and his standing vis Ma vis other novelists of his generation--the question of his failure to win a Nobel Prize for Literature goes unmentioned in these pages--it is clear that his own sense of self-regard is terribly fragile; he speaks frequently of his (unspecified) private failures, and he can be quite disparaging about his work in general and individual titles in particular. There is no evidence that this is false modesty; rather, Greene appears to be a man who realizes that he has been granted a gift and is grateful for it, but who constantly questions his worthiness to possess it.
His expressions of political opinion, on the other hand, are emphatic and self-confident: "I know that people are supposed to grow reactionary with age, especially those who were the most revolutionary at the outset. This is not true of me: I have always inclined to the Left, ever since my first books, and my sympathies have consolidated with age." He acknowledges an "attraction toward communism," but confesses that he has begun "to despair of communism with a human face." He does not deny his "anti-Americanism," indeed flaunts it: "The temptation to double allegiance tends to disappear before American capitalism and imperialism. I would go to almost any length to put my feeble twig in the spokes of American foreign policy. I admit this may appear simplistic, but that's how it is." Simplistic certainly is the word for it; like many European intellectuals of a leftist bent, Greene loses all sense of moral and political complexity when he gazes westward across the Atlantic..But that matters less than this:
"Certain books have clearly enough exercised a considerable political influence, but mine don't belong in this category. I don't as a rule write to defend an idea. I'm content to tell a story and to create characters. In an article one can try to express a direct point of view but not in a book. I don't want to use literature for political ends, nor for religious ends. Even if my novels happen incidentally to be political books, they're no more written to provoke changes than my so-called 'Catholic' novels are written to convert anyone."
Whatever reservations Greene may have about his work, whatever insecurities may nag at him, he obviously does understand that this work is literature. He respects it too much to twist it for any ends, whether they be political or religious or personal, save its own. As it happens, his literary distinction is beyond argument and his place among the giants of the century is assured; but even if that were not so, he would command honor for the impregnable integrity that is its cornerstone.