Article Published in THE STATESMAN

Second Thoughts

Navtej Sarna

On a hot summer day many years ago, sitting in a Himachal Pradesh Roadways bus that wound its way ponderously across the plain towards the first low hills, I opened the first page of Graham Greene’s The End of an Affair. It was the only book in my bag for a stay that was to last three months and I did not want to hurry. I read it slowly, savouring each twist and turn of the plot with its erotic and moralistic undertones, enjoying the clipped conversation and the moody descriptions. The book still did not last three months but by then I had discovered the forgotten library of Nahan, with its rows and rows of hardbound Greene, James Hilton, Hemingway. Nevertheless The End of an Affair remained in my mind as an unforgettable book and this year, another chance came by to relive its tension and tragedy. Neil Jordan’s remake of the movie with the troubling Ralph Fiennes (of The English Patient fame) and the temptingly beautiful Julianne Moore in the lead, captures all that is best in the book and is quite simply a treat.

The movie was not all that one got of Greene this year. At least three other books are out. The first was Greene on Capri, an affectionate, literary and gentle memoir by Shirley Hazard of her friendship with the remote and enigmatic author. She met him one morning in a café in Capri, as she sat doing a crossword puzzle. Greene walked in with another friend and Hazard could not help overhearing their conversation. Greene was trying to recall the last line of Robert Browning’s poem “The Lost Mistress”. Completing a scene that could have been written by Greene himself, Hazard supplied the missing line to him as she left the café. But she had obviously made her mark because she and her husband, the writer Francis Steegmuller, received a luncheon invitation that was to be the start of a long friendship. Through the years, Hazard watched Greene closely and produced a fascinating account of a man whose obsessions were as intense as that of his characters.

The second book that features Greene sounds almost coincidental to the first. It is the first novel of Gloria Emerson entitled, simply, Loving Graham Greene. The heroine, Molly Benson, like Shirley Hazard, meets the author in a chance encounter in a restaurant. The place is not Capri but that other charming Greene haunt in the south of France, Antibes. He drops a piece of paper, she hands it to him and is invited over for drinks. All this leads to an intermittent correspondence between the author and his admirer until he dies. But she is fascinated by his compassion for the “poor and the tormented and the lonely”. It resonates with her desire to take up third world causes and try to help with her money and energy. A disastrous experience in war torn Algeria divests her of her illusions.

The third book, by William Cash, is entitled, appropriately, The Third Woman: The Secret Passion That Inspired The End of an Affair. That title itself invokes too many ideas for comfort. First, it troubles me that I did not know of Greene’s life long pursuit of the beautiful Lady Catherine Walston when I read, quietly and slowly in Nahan, the novel that she inspired. I completely missed the dedication to C. I also did not know that Walston was not the only woman in his life besides his wife. There were four more mistresses and, of course, the encounters with several prostitutes. Secondly, it brings back memories of The Third Man, the classic Greene movie of post war Vienna. I understand that the movie is still screened twice a week in Vienna and guided tours are conducted to explore the lanes and squares and cafes of the city as shown in the film. The Central Cemetery, the huge ferris wheel in the Prater park, the Theatre in der Josefstadt and the baroque Pallavicini Palace near the famous Spanish Riding School are the unforgettable venues that one recalls from the film. The guided tours include trips into the city’s sewer and their haunting spiral staircases. William Cash’s book focuses on adultery and literature. Certainly, Greene’s literature often had hints of adultery lurking in and out of the plot. Besides the Affair, the other books that spring to mind are A Burnt Out Case and The Honorary Consul.

Graham Greene created a strange world – a world of troubled, elusive characters, of spies in strange places, torn loyalties, strange liaisons, deep commitments and complete detachment. By chance or by design, I have managed to retrace his footsteps in several places. Down at the Mediterranean resort of Antibes, I have watched a lone swimmer reluctantly leaving a darkening beach or children scrambling up a large cannon that is placed in the old town near the Picasso museum. I have been to a reception at the Pallavicini palace on a wistful evening and looked out of the window into the square with the equestrian statue that features in The Third Man. And on a blustery, windswept day, I have scrambled down from the Swiss town of Vevey towards the shifting blue waters of Lake Leman to find Greene’s grave in the village of Corseaux. There rests the man who made an art of exploring the contradictions and ambiguities of the human condition. A powdery snow was beginning to blow into the tiny cemetery and I watched it settle down on the bright blue crocuses that set off the stark simplicity of the gray tombstone.