John Mortimer recently interviewed the British writer Graham Greene, who had come from his home in Antibes to the English Midlands to supervise the production of his plays. It is from that interview that this article is adapted.
"Tell me about spies," I asked.
We were waiting for toast for the shrimp appetizer. "We usually have toast with this," said Graham Greene. His remark caused consternation and a long delay. So we settled down to a bottle of dry Graves and another of Cotes du Rhone. At the next table, a young man with frizzy hair sat alone, listening to our conversation.
"Kim Philby wrote to me and said I had greatly exaggerated the bleakness of the Russia Castle found when he defected in "The Human Factor,'" Green said, referring to his recent novel of espionage in the African section of the Foreign Office. Greene's protagonist is Maurice Castle, a middle-level Secret Service official, caught between the moral choice that his profession presents.
"Philby said that when he arrived in Russia, they presented him with two shoehorns. He'd never had two shoehorns in his life before.
"I think they're keeping Kim pretty busy now," he added. "The last postcard I had from him came from Havana."
During World War II, Green found himself, as result of a mysterious process of selection, a secret agent in Freetown, Sierra Leon, in West Africa. His Job was to spy on the colonies of Vichy France.
"Did you achieve much?" I asked. "Absolutely nothing! I had a perfectly good scheme to have a black communist rescued from prison by pretended communists. He'd be allowed to escape to French Guinea and give harmless information to the Russians. Then we'd say we'd denounce him to the French as a spy unless he gave us real information about them.
"The whole business was vetoed by Whitehall," he concludes.
"Perhaps they couldn't follow the plot?"
"I also planned to have a brothel opened in Portuguese Bissau. I thought that would be a wonderful source of information. But Whitehall vetoed that also."
"Do you think spies ever pass any important information?"
"I suppose Philby gave them the details of counteresponiage. Spies talking about other spies. [Donald] MacLean had the atomic stuff," he responds.
"Did you say you'd rather die in Russia than America?"
"That was misunderstood," he said. "I thought I'd die quicker in Russia.
At least they'd pay me the compliment of putting me in a labor camp. I admired Hugh Gaitskell, but I couldn't stand Wilson and Callaghan. I'm very fond of old communists, particularly at the moment when they're losing their faith."
The young man at the next table got up to leave. As he walked past our table he said to Greene: "It was an honor to sit next to you."
"Who was he?" Greene speculated. "Probably an American. Certainly a spy!"
When he was a boy in his father's school in Berkhamsted, Graham Greene read nothing but adventure stories such as "King Solomon's Mines," and "Prester John."
As he grew up, he announced he would be a businessman in China in defiance of his family who had decided he would be an author.
The passion for strange countries and difficult beliefs seems to come from the boyhood terror of boredom, which led him to play Russian roulette with an old service revolver. At 75 Greene still sounds like a boy, speaking of the risks he had enjoyed.
"I loved the Blitz. It was wonderful to wake up and know you were still alive and hear glass being swept up in the street. It was marvelous to walk down Oxford Street in the blackout and see the stars. I enjoyed the V1s because you could hear them coming. I didn't like the V2s so much.
"When was I most afraid? I suppose in Indochina when I was separated from a platoon of French paratroopers and found myself surrounded by Viet Minh. Or in the East End when the police charged at us after the [oswald] Mosley march. But that's just panic. It doesn't last very long."
In his hotel room, one of the beds is rumpled. There is a silent television set and a tray for making your own instant coffee.
Greene comes out of the bathroom. He is very tall and stoops a little. His eyes are grayish and curiously transparent. He is wearing a brown sweater, fawn trousers and no tie.
"Do you mind having whiskey out of tooth glasses?" he inquires. "I've washed mine."
I pour whisky and nerve myself to mention a topic that I think he might dislike discussing. Not that I wanted to discuss the existence of God, I assure him. After all, as Greene has said, none of us would have to wait very long to find out.
"Antonia White told me that she asked an old and devout priest to remind her of the proofs of God's existence. He said that he knew there were some but had forgotten them long ago," he said.
"Do you think a belief in God is a great advantage to a writer?" I look at him trying to keep the envy out of my voice.
"Oh, I think so. I've always felt it was having no belief that makes the characters in Virginia Woolf so paper-thin."
"Someone said of Auden that he didn't love God, he just fancied him. Something like that," I recalled.
"They might make the same charge against me," Greene responds. "They say that I use religion to help my books. I think religion uses me.
"In 'The Human Factor,' there's a scene when Castle goes to see a horrible priest. He goes away uncomforted . . . Then, he sees someone else waiting to see the priest: 'Another lonely man.' I never meant to put that last bit in," Greene explains. "My religion made me."
"I think this pope's hopeless about contraception, but I can understand him wanting to keep the doctrine clear. Catholicism's about hard facts.
"You know the story in St. John's Gospel -- when he ran to the tomb at the time of the resurrection? The beloved disciple was running behind [another] but he caught . . . up and passed him and got there first, and found the sheets piled on the lefthand side of the cave and so on. It's because it describes one disciple [catching up with the other] and passing him that I know it must be true."
Either that or St. John wrote fiction as fine as Graham Greene's.
We talk about the process of writing.
"I don't really know anything about my characters until they get their names," Greene said. "In West Africa every boy has three names. One for his employer, one for his tribe, and a secret name that only his parents know. I have to find the secret name first."
"I just write in the morning," I tell him. "Before I've washed or anything . . . Only about 300 words. I have to see everything they [my characters] do, even if I don't write it down . . . My eyes get tired. You must find that, writing plays?"
"I do the correcting at night, after I've had a drink or two. I find drink sharpens the ear," Greene replies. "When I was young, correcting always meant cutting down. Now it means adding bits in.
"What's writing? A way of escape, like traveling to a war or to see the Mau Mau. Escaping what? Boredom. Death."
In the summer, Greene leaves his small flat in Antibes and goes to Panama, where he is driven around by a part-time sergeant who quotes Rilke. Or he is in Spain with a great friend, a priest who is also an English professor at Madrid University.
"We fill the car with Castilian wine and my friend talks endlessly. I suppose, as you grow old, life becomes easier. Less unhappiness, less despair, fervor and manic mood. Only the problems of living become more difficult."
Some of the problems seem to have resolved themselves. He has had a steady relationship for the last 20 years. "I suppose such things are easier if you are heterosexual," Greene speculates as he freshens his drink.
"When I got to Oxford, homosexuality was in fashion. But I was aggressively heterosexual, which was all right, as long as you didn't do it . . . . I only fell in love with girls at dances. And I am no dancer."
Greene seems to have found some of the peace in France where he now feels more at home than in England. In the evenings, he can be seen eating in a quiet corner of Felix au Port at Antibes reading his small, 12-volume edition of Chekhov's short stories.
"The only thing I really miss," he said, "are English beer and sausages."