“Later we would go up and see him in Santa Monica. We had to go up in the evening and see him and he’d keep us up until one o’clock in the morning. On the last occasion, Carol Reed played very skillfully and would say, ‘Well, David, Graham and I will discuss it,’ but we didn’t take up a single one of his ideas. Finally Selznick, looking very tired, said, ‘Graham, I don’t see why at some point Orson Welles does so-and-so.’ I said, ‘But he doesn’t. What do you mean?’ Selznick said, ‘Oh, Christ, boys, that’s another film!’ And then he popped another Benzedrine and went on until one in the morning.”
Could that sort of conversation, I asked, take place in the US State Department?—“Oh, I’m sorry, that’s a different country.”
“Certainly with Reagan,” Greene laughed. “But he wouldn’t buy my theory of American policy as Hollywood plot.”
“I don’t think one’s novels should be too political,” Greene said when I asked if his weren’t. “But, I mean, politics do come into them. Politics come into our lives. I think to exclude politics from a novel is excluding a whole aspect of life. It’s keeping a lot of people out of one’s life. Virginia Woolf, I mean, certainly wouldn’t have introduced politics. I began to get a little tired of Virginia Woolf, you know. Mrs. Dalloway going shopping up Regent Street and the thoughts which went through her head. I reacted rather against her by being a storyteller. You see, my mother was a cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, and I’d like to think that I’ve followed in his tradition. I’ve reacted against the Bloomsbury circle.”
Richard Ingrams, former editor of “Private Eye,” has called Greene a “journalist manqué,” and I asked him to talk about his career as a correspondent, in fiction and nonfiction. A collection of his journalism, Reflections, was published last year in England. And Greene made Fowler, a cynical British journalist, and the narrator of The Quiet American. I’ve always suspected that Greene himself was the model for Fowler, but he insisted, “Fowler was a complete invention.”
Greene dismissed the idea that he was ever really a reporter. His early training came when, as a young man, he worked as a sub-editor on the Times of London, “which is much better training for a novelist because you cut words, alter headlines, and change words,” he said.
I asked if he had ever been recruited by the British government to spy while on assignment. “No,” he said, “but there was one occasion when I was asked to give a gold watch to somebody in Prague after the Russians had come in, because they thought it would help him buy his way out. And I met Vaclav Havel at that time, but not as an agent.”
Greene was in Czechoslovakia at the invitation of the government, but he took advantage of the situation to embarrass his hosts.
“I went down to Bratislava to give a talk,” he said, “because I’d accidentally been in Prague in 1948 on the night the Communists took over. I talked about the French Revolution and quoted Wordsworth writing of its beginning, ‘blissful was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!’ And I said. ‘I was there on the first day of your revolution, but one changes one’s mind. Wordsworth changed his mind.’”