ANTIBES, FRANCE -- Even now, Graham Greene will go to bed blocked. He will leave his things arranged in cornered piles upon the table by the living-room window, four flights up from the clatter of the street. He may have a last drink, but it won't help. The character who takes control of the story, and in whose judgment Greene puts his trust, simply will cease to cooperate.

"It's not very pleasant," the old writer says, stretching his long legs out from the chair, "except that now I have absolute confidence that during sleep a solution will come, and it practically always does. The next morning when I start work -- which I do immediately after breakfast, I don't have a bath or anything -- I don't see what the problem was. The unconscious has solved it."

Greene puts stock in such unknowables. They tantalize him, and they throw others off the scent. He is a man who wants to know, but he is not a man who wants to be known. Like "the Greene character" he described in his autobiographical "A Sort of Life," he has an "irrational desire to escape from himself."

Accordingly, there is in Greene's manner, which is never less than cordial, a steady resistance to the pressures of curiosity. Questions about his literary motives, or his religious reflections, or his personal affairs are answered with polite discomfort: He is denying himself the luxury, and the wastefulness, of idle chat.

Yet no one who has read his work can doubt Graham Greene's fundamental introspection. Even his first popular success, "Stamboul Train" (1932), reflected an eye for the brittleness of certainty and the queerness of fate. But ever since the novels that remain the core of his most important work -- "The Power and the Glory" (1940), "The Heart of the Matter" (1948) and "The End of the Affair" (1951) -- the Greene character has been embarked on a continuing quest for meaning amid squalls of faithlessness and deception and temptation. These themes preoccupy Greene still, though of late -- since "The Human Factor," in 1978 -- his novels have been slighter, more experimental in form, more didactic in tone.

That description fits "The Captain and the Enemy," his 25th novel, which appears in the United States next month under the Viking imprint. The book, at 189 pages, is purest fable: A boy is "won" from his widowed father in a game of backgammon. The winner, a mysterious fellow known as "The Captain," leaves the boy to be raised by a woman who lives in a subterranean hovel in London, supporting them with generous checks drawn on vaguely ill-gotten funds. Until its disconcerting conclusion in Panama City, "The Captain and the Enemy" is almost innocent and surely magical in its atmosphere, something that might have come to Greene in a dream.

For many years not long ago, in fact, Greene kept a diary of his dreams. "I used to do it in periods when I'd got no book to do. It would fill up the time ..." he says dismissively, and then he lapses into the third-person impersonal he so favors when discussing himself.

"With training one found that more and more as one did this the more and more one remembered, after noting key points" of the dreams during the night. Evidently so, for under this discipline Greene wrote up 800 "manuscript pages" of dreams.

Then the dreams must have generated useful material for his fiction? "Not really, no. Not at all," Greene says quickly. But then a memory dawns across his face. "Only once," he says. "I was working on a book called 'A Burnt-Out Case' and was having trouble with it and had a very bad block. I was passing through Rome at the time. And I had a dream which was not my dream but was the dream of my character. Directly I woke up I knew it was what he had dreamt, and it fitted in to the book, and the book went on afterwards."

And yet, Greene is reminded, he once wrote that "I've always preferred Freud to Jung" -- and Jung such an outspoken believer in dreams as projections of self-awareness.

"Did I say that once?" Greene inquires, slightly irritated. He shakes his head. "I was psychoanalyzed myself at the age of about 16, but he was a strange psychoanalyst. He didn't belong to any school ..."

He digresses for a moment, then returns to correct the record: "Jung has got a certain metaphysical element which frightened me, but now I think I would probably prefer Jung."

Eluding the Literary Detectives

Greene, who will turn 84 next month, has lived in this unprepossessing flat for more than 20 years, and has been visiting Antibes for nearly twice as long. Just after World War II, his friend the film director Alexander Korda sailed Greene to the snug harbor that today, packed with pleasure craft, serves as the foreground of the author's daily view. The more distant prospect from the narrow balcony looks east across the Baie des Anges, toward a coastline littered with high-rise apartment blocks.

Though he is often absent -- in London or Capri or points less likely and more far-flung -- Greene conducts his writerly routine in this place most of the year. When he sits at his work table he faces the bright sun through a gauze of curtains. He writes his 300 words in the morning, and then may see to some correspondence. (Both manuscript and letters he then reads into a mini-cassette recorder, and sends the tapes by mail to England for typing by his sister, Elizabeth Dennys.)

Afterward, "I have friends and I eat and drink." Lunch most days he takes about seven blocks away, at his favorite place, Chez Felix. The afternoon is given over to a siesta, to reading. Dinner, perhaps, with a friend or friends, and revision of the morning's work in the shank of the evening.

Just as Greene's apartment gives no hint of shadowy places like Brighton and Saigon and Port-au-Prince, where the soul is tested in the vise of faith and fallibility, so Greene himself, in his beige leisure wear, doesn't seem a man inclined to the wracked anguish of his characters. His watery blue eyes suggest serenity, and the rest of him a certain frailness: the stooped shoulders on the high narrow frame, the dangling arms ending in arthritic twists. He is gentle and cautious -- but with "the shyness of genially subversive men," as his writer friend and contemporary, V.S. Pritchett, once described him.

Greene is in the shrinking company of writers who say: Don't ask me questions, go read my books (but not his early novels "The Name of Action" or "Rumour at Nightfall," which embarrass Greene now and have thus been suppressed). In "A Sort of Life" (1971), he suggested a reason for his resistance to interrogation: "A writer's knowledge of himself, realistic and unromantic, is like a store of energy on which he must draw for a lifetime: one volt of it properly directed will bring a character alive." By implication, volts cast randomly at interviewers only deplete the store.

As long ago as "Stamboul Train," Greene was mocking literary journalists and book reviewers (he was a fine reviewer himself, and an even better film critic, in the 1930s). In "A Burnt-Out Case" (1961), Greene created a memorable roving correspondent in Montagu Parkinson, who seeks out the reclusive Catholic architect Querry at a remote African leper colony in order to manufacture a tale of sacrifice and sainthood around his reluctant subject. In his fatuous manner and airwhipped prose Parkinson is a subject of high hilarity -- a parody of all the journalists then tracking the reclusive Catholic writer Greene. But Parkinson is also a sinister figure, profoundly wrong and forever missing the point.

"No journalist in my experience is wholly trustworthy," Greene says plainly in "Getting to Know the General," and in person he fulminates against those who have come to his apartment over the years and gone home to write outlandishly false things. "There were 10 errors of fact," he says, beginning to name them one by one, in a piece years ago by "a friend of mine, Auberon Waugh." An American novelist who profiled Greene in the 1970s and got an angry letter of rebuke from the author speculates that Greene simply doesn't like to be pinned down; another student of his work suggests that Greene makes it a kind of sport to plant false clues about his life. Like the spies he sometimes writes about, he prefers to remain elusive and inconspicuous.

There are more particular reasons for his reticence. In conversation about his daily life, Greene cannot help leaving the impression that he is seldom alone. In the dedication to "The Captain and the Enemy," he writes, "For Y, with all the memories we share of nearly 30 years." A snapshot rests on the edge of a bookshelf in the living room: a striking white-haired woman perhaps 20 years Greene's junior. The selfsame Y? Yes, he replies, "but no names, please." For Y, all these years, has been married to someone else.

Greene's discretion is more chivalrous than secretive; in truth, their relationship is an ill-kept secret. They travel together -- yearly to Greene's house on the isle of Capri, and elsewhere -- and when Y is visiting in Antibes, one learns, they play bilingual Scrabble. "She nearly always wins because her English is better than my French," he says, and this is surely true. Greene's throaty yowl bespeaks the British disdain for mastering inferior languages.

Six years ago, Greene himself put this determinedly private attachment in jeopardy of exposure by intervening in the divorce of Y's daughter. Outraged by the estranged husband's child-custody demands, Greene forged into print with a 69-page pamphlet (in French and English) called "J'Accuse," exposing the man's unsavory background, charging the authorities in Nice with corruption and cover-up and calling, successfully, for a French government investigation of the case.

Despite Greene's best efforts to keep his life from public view, he has cooperated in arrangements for the sale and disposition of his papers. Most of those from the 1940s, '50s and '60s are housed at the University of Texas at Austin, under the same roof as the papers of his great literary friend Evelyn Waugh. The collection includes the original typescripts of most of the major novels of the time and, certainly through no help from Greene, a package of 800 letters written to his first and only wife Vivian, the mother of his grown son and daughter. (Separated more than four decades, Greene and his wife have never divorced.) Georgetown University, more lately, has acquired a selection of Greene papers as well, and hosted the author at a Washington gathering when Greene last visited the United States, in 1985.

Norman Sherry, a Conrad scholar who is now professor of English at Trinity University in San Antonio, has been working on a multivolume biography of which Greene approves. The first volume will cover Greene's upbringing in Hertfordshire and education at Berkhamsted School, where his father was headmaster; his years at Balliol College, Oxford University; his conversion to Catholicism in 1926 and marriage the year after; and his early career as a journalist, critic and struggling novelist.

"He's been 11 years at it and he's just reached 1939," Greene remarks of the work in progress. "But I've lived much more of a life since 1939." Astonishingly, Greene asserts that he and Sherry "have never had any time together at all, except one lunch right at the beginning. He's kept me at peace, and I respect him for that." According to Sherry, they've met for interviews "a couple of dozen times."

Though he hasn't seen Sherry's manuscript in progress -- 1,500 pages at this juncture -- Greene says "from what I've heard it sounds quite interesting. As far as the childhood and early years are concerned he tries to see where I've used that, even if unconsciously, in later work. It won't be a gossip piece. He's keeping away from really private private life. He won't deal with my marriage in depth or anything, and he won't deal with other relationships that have followed. He's not that kind of biographer."

Sherry responds gingerly to what he calls Greene's "first public comment" on his work-in-progress: "It may not gossip, but it does probe." And he marvels that a man who takes his privacy so seriously would willingly put a self-described "literary detective" on his trail. Sherry says he has tried to follow in Greene's footsteps around the world, as he did in his books on Conrad, and as a result has suffered from "gangrene of the intestine" in Paraguay and other life-threatening diseases in other countries Greene has frequented. He hopes to be done soon.

If Greene seems confident that Sherry is "not a gossip biographer," he says "there is a man who is threatening to write that kind, and I'm warning everybody not to speak to him." That man is Anthony Mockler. "He wrote the only book I know of on St. Francis of Assisi," Greene says. "But he's the one who is after gossip -- and other people's private lives. I don't see why because someone has been a great friend their private life should be exposed."

Mockler, who does most of his writing in Normandy, sounds stoic about Greene's posture. "I can't expect him to approve of it, so if necessary -- even though I hope it won't be so -- one must just live with his disapproval." Part of the writer's reticence, Mockler observes, "is a way of provoking those who read about him ... His privacy is part of his public persona, and why shouldn't it be?"

The General and the Enemy

Danger, Greene has said many times, is the cure for boredom. He delights in the novelistic anecdote from his youth -- that for a time, with his brother's pistol, he would play solitary games of Russian roulette, until that too came to bore him. As an adult, he has sought out dangerous and God-forsaken zones, and located most of his mature novels in their evocative midst: Vietnam, the Congo, Haiti, Paraguay ... "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things," goes the line from Robert Browning that Greene once suggested as an epigraph to all his novels. "The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist ..."

Even at 83, Greene does not shrink from the dangerous edge, and "Getting to Know the General," his last nonfiction book, is a personal reflection on its latest locus: Central America. It recounts Greene's unlikely relationship with Omar Torrijos, which began with a letter from the Panamanian military leader in 1976 and ended with the "rather suspicious" airplane crash that killed Torrijos in 1981.

"I was very fond of him. We'd become very great friends," Greene says. To honor the friendship, and out of a sentimental attraction to an underdog nation, Greene tries to return to Panama as often as possible. "They expect me to go every year."

Through Torrijos, Greene met the Sandinista leaders well before they took power in Nicaragua. "I found myself therefore directly opposed to the White House/Pentagon attitude to Central America, who were supporting the death squads in Salvador, who had disposed of Allende in Chile. I found myself in full sympathy with the Sandinistas and against Somoza, who had been supported by the United States." Now Managua is a customary stop on the Central American tour as well. "Daniel Ortega I like very much," Greene says. Ortega "certainly isn't a communist," he adds a moment later. "He would call himself, I imagine, what has become a bad word now -- a social democrat -- which I consider myself."

Greene's affinity for these leaders, and his deep antipathy for the "dishonest" Ronald Reagan, is both source and sign of his vigorous solidarity with the community of beleaguered nations. His views may be more openly stated than before, but they are not sudden infatuations of Greene's twilight years. He volunteers proudly a comment once made to him that "The Power and the Glory" was the first book of liberation theology. He was friendly with Chile's Salvador Allende, had a private audience once with Ho Chi Minh and visited Fidel Castro when he was still holed up in the mountains. In the mid-1960s, his novel "The Comedians" so angered Papa Doc Duvalier that the Haitian dictator ordered up a hysterical book-length denunciation of its author, a copy of which is one of Greene's treasured possessions.

The good riddance from Haiti two years ago of Baby Doc Duvalier scarcely brings joy to Greene; it merely gives him another bone to pick. The Americans, he says, have burdened "poor France" with Baby Doc and his entourage -- not far from Antibes, in fact, in Mougin. The French, he goes on, "should have put him quietly on the Concorde and landed him in New York and left him there. It's the United States that supported Papa Doc through his bad times."

Even as his feelings for the United States have hardened over the years, his mistrustful attitude toward the Soviet Union has softened. His return to Moscow two years ago was his first visit since 1961, he says, and he's been back three times since. "It was like going to a new country," he says. "It was astonishing."

During a recent visit he spoke at an official cultural conference attended by Mikhail Gorbachev and declaimed upon a favorite topic these days, the spiritual connections between Catholicism and communism, the historical antecedents of their joint devotion to the poor ("Marx had supported the Catholic Church," he says, "and condemned Henry VIII"). At the end of his peroration, Greene recounts, he looked up at Gorbachev and said, "The dream before I die is that there'll be an ambassador of the U.S.S.R. at the Vatican giving good advice." Gorbachev, he reports, "smiled like anything ... so it went down all right."

This year, the world is remembering the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia 20 years ago. "I was shocked, like everybody," Greene says, then yields to the familiar impulse -- "though I couldn't help feeling that America had done the dress rehearsal of that two years before, when they invaded the Dominican Republic and got rid of {Juan} Bosch.

"But the invasion of Afghanistan did not shock me," he goes on. "What people were apt to forget was that {Hafizullah} Amin there" -- the leader the Soviets deposed in the initial invasion nine years ago -- "was the worst kind of Stalinist on their borders. He was a disgrace to communism. He put his enemies in boiling oil and his predecessor had murdered the American ambassador -- Americans never seem to remember that. I think {the invasion} was the wrong thing to do. I think an undercover murder {of Amin} was what should have been done, rather than a military intervention ..."

Oddly, he finds himself in firm agreement with a couple of Margaret Thatcher's views. "I agree with her that economic sanctions are not the answer in South Africa because they're unenforceable," he says, and "I approve of her suspicions of 1992" -- the year when the 12-nation European Community is scheduled to become an ambitious kind of federation. Greene ticks off the constitutional failings and criminal connections of the various southern European governments, and declares: "Altogether it's a very curious form of Europe for which we sacrifice certain of our rights."

Speaking of criminal connections: Now that power in Panama rests in the hands of Manuel Antonio Noriega (who appears briefly in "Getting to Know the General" as an aide to Torrijos), does the new general's notoriety as a narcotics overlord put Greene's loyalty to the test?

Greene begins haltingly. "I never knew him well ... I've never had a close relation to him like Omar Torrijos ... I shall certainly see him if I go because they expect it."

Then Greene moves to close the subject.

"As I shall be going to Panama {in November} I don't want to go into any details. All I will say is that I'm afraid an enemy of my enemy is my friend. And my enemy is Reagan."

Earthly Pleasures

Chez Felix is a modest bistro just inside the ramparts of the old port city, and like every other corner of Antibes it reverberates with the sounds of whining motorbikes and impatient klaxons.

When he is alone, Greene says, he dines inside the restaurant with a book. "A lot of my stories have come out of sitting alone in restaurants, imagining human motives ..." When he has company, he sits outside, under the broad awning on the public place, at the table that's "always reserved for us." He orders a bowl of sweet yellow mussels in broth, a bottle of wine. The talk is of his pleasures.

"I always say I eat to drink," he says, enjoying even his most tattered mot. "I drank the most, I suppose, when I was 19 at Oxford, when I was drunk for a whole term, from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night. I went to no lectures or anything else, because I was in love with my sister's governess, who was engaged to be married to a man in the Azores, and she was obviously not quite happy about it. She hadn't seen him in a long time. She was four years older than I was. And I knew there was nothing in it."

Greene sucks a plump saffron bud from its shell.

"And after that I drank more normally. I've had no trouble -- touch wood -- with my liver, and I've treated it rough."

There have been other vices in this lifetime. Fowler's attachment to opium in Greene's Vietnam novel, "The Quiet American," seems to any reader born of experience.

"When I smoked opium I used to go and practice with a cigarette to inhale. I was never any good at inhaling. I found that 10 pipes was my limit," he says. "But for a person who inhaled properly, my 10 pipes would probably be the equivalent of about two. I was never addicted, but I loved it. It's very soothing."

His friends know Greene as a constant reader. Back in his apartment, a paperback Trollope lies open, face down, on the coffee table. Of the books of more contemporaneous colleagues, what he has said in interviews before he says again: "I don't read novels, as it were, but I read certain novelists."

As he names a few of the living, he associates each one with a place: "Brian Moore, who lives in America; William Trevor, who's Irish but lives in England; Muriel Spark, who lives in Italy; and a woman who I like very much, though I've never met her, called Beryl Bainbridge."

American novelists? "I was a great admirer of {Saul Bellow's} 'Henderson the Rain King.' It was magnificent. He had never been to Africa, I believe, and I couldn't fault him anywhere, for atmosphere or anything." John Updike "doesn't like me very much, and I find him rather precious." Gabriel Garcia Marquez? "I admire 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' rather than like it. I thought it was an achievement, rather as 'Ulysses' is an achievement, but I can't reread 'Ulysses,' and I don't think I could reread 'One Hundred Years of Solitude.' "

As for the recognition given his own work, Greene is pleased by the various medals that have come his way in recent years -- France's Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, the Ruben Dario Prize from Nicaragua, and in England the Order of Merit, the highest honor a writer can achieve there. The Nobel Prize for Literature, however, has eluded him -- even as it has gone to an English writer of more modest standing, William Golding, and even though the Swedish Royal Academy has shown a marked preference for writers of similarly leftist bent.

"It's a gamble, it's a lottery," he says. "There are a lot of other people who deserve it too, and never got it, like Borges. I don't feel slighted at all."

But bad luck is not the whole story, as Greene immediately suggests. "I have one enemy" in the Swedish Academy, Arthur Lundquist. "He said himself in an interview that it would be over his dead body that I would get it." Greene chuckles. "I was looking through some ancient files, and my first play, which was called 'The Living Room,' came on first in Swedish at the Royal Theater. And there was a review by Arthur Lundquist saying that 'the plague flag ought to be hung outside the Royal Theater during this piece.' So I think there's an even deeper reason for his dislike."

As Greene is served a platter of sugary cre~pes flambe'es, he is asked about the curious turn his work has taken in the last decade. They're all "short books," he interjects with a smile. But that's not all there is to it.

In his recent fiction, he seems to have sloughed off the coiled plotting and tense understatement of his earlier novels, and taken to experimenting with forms that approach parable. In "Monsignor Quixote," the most accomplished of these, an aging priest and his communist friend tour the Spanish countryside, arguing good-naturedly about the relationships of Catholicism and communism.

"I think that's fair enough," he says, admitting that "Monsignor Quixote" is "more parabolic" than his earlier books. He returns to his cre~pes.

Yet "Monsignor Quixote" is not just the work of an agile polemicist. It is also a testament to human affection: a book about companionship and love. So too, on a more worldly level, is "Getting to Know the General," about another human connection from which Greene drew strength and wisdom. So too, motivated as it was by loyalty to a loved one, was "J'Accuse."

A literary detective might infer a pattern: Is Graham Greene getting tenderhearted in his old age?

"Not that I know of," he replies, shrugging, guarded. "My friends think I'm getting more savage."