A review of Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard

A review of Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000), reprinted from Provincetown Arts, Summer 2002

Shirley Hazzard, the novelist (The Transit of Venus, The Bay of Noon), ransacked travel books, histories and memoirs for nuggets on the lure of Capri to ballast her carefully considered sketch of another novelist, the late Graham Greene. She found that Flaubert visited Capri, as did Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and Rilke, who spent a night in 1907 looking at “an earth of moonlight, of moon shadow” from the roof of his rented house. Shortly afterwards, the exiled V. I. Lenin arrived there as a guest of Maxim Gorki. Was Lenin jostled by the intense, detached Rilke as they passed each other on the ferry from Naples? Ivan Bunin was also Gorki’s house guest. His famous novella, “The Gentleman from San Francisco” is set on Capri. Turgenev made three visits and said his feelings for the island’s beauty “will remain with me until I die.” Joseph Addison came in 1701; Norman Douglas, the famous classicist and pedophile, lived there for years, and is buried in the non-Catholic cemetery under a green marble slab on which a line from Horace is incised. The earliest pedophile in residence, of course, was the Emperor Tiberius, who had his lover-victims cast from the pinnacle of Mount Solaro, the massif that dominates the island and where the ruins of his palace still crumble. Hazard’s memoir rustles with this sort of intertextuality, a term she doubtless despises. Relishing wit, clarity and the subtleties of literary influence, and quietly loathing deconstructionism and “the wool of obsessive theory,” Hazzard is a senior acolyte in the Henry James Fellowship, perhaps a dean in the now-dwindling college, one in which Greene was prominent. Her memoir is brisk, gem-like and devoid of langueurs. It is also an important contribution to our understanding of the necessary contradictions of a major writer, an alternately warm and slightly acerbic feminist arrow, but one feathered with forbearance.

Like Provincetown and Key West, Capri (accent on the first syllable) has long been a haven for lovers, eccentrics, exiles, and writers, those seeking a terminal city, a retreat to make a stand with the sea at their backs. Greene started coming in the late 1940s—he owned a house there, Il Rosaio, for forty years. Hazzard and her husband Francis Steegmuller, the Flaubert scholar, hooked up with Greene and his mistress, Yvonne Cloetta, on the island in the late sixties. The foursome enjoyed dinners and walks and much excellent and old-fashioned literary talk (Hazzard and Greene effortlessly quoting poetry) whenever they were in simultaneous residence. She had countless chances to observe the irascible, charming Greene, a tortured grande personaggio, as the Caprese called him, in whom “suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence,” a constant “agitation of the spirit providing some defence against the dreaded accidie,” or boredom. Their first meeting was a Jamesian encounter. Alone with her crossword puzzle and coffee in the Gran Caffe in the piazzetta of Capri on a wet December day, Hazzard observed Greene and a friend lope across the square to the café after attending Mass and then sitting near her table. Greene tries and fails to remember the last line of a poem by Robert Browning, “The Lost Mistress,” Again and again he repeats it:

Tomorrow we meet the same then, dearest?
May I take your hand in mine?
Mere friends are we—well, friends the merest
Keep much that I resign.

And then the concluding verse:

Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may,

Here Greene comes up short. Hazzard, taking her time, retrieves her umbrella, pays her bill, and walks by Greene’s table, slowing down long enough to say, “The line is: ‘Or so very little longer.’”

Greene loved poetry, precision and certain non-pedantic strains of literary insight, and immediately opened the valves of his attention, regard, to those of the same persuasion. Hazzard is saturated in literature, and that night when she and her husband (no slouch in these matters) arrived at the restaurant, Greene stood up to greet them. “And so began,” she said, “our years of seeing Greene on Capri.” Their irregular meetings continued until the late eighties (Greene died in 1991), and along the way Hazzard treasured up a dozen or more anecdotes which coalesce in this volume into a portrait of the artist “unhallowed and unmellowed,” one who “regularly invited you to step on a rug, which he would then pull out from under.” He hated peace and quiet—except when he was writing—and loved singularity and the unexpected. “Agape,” she wrote, “was his idea of hell.”

The memoir form is tremendously flexible, looser and baggier in some ways than the novel. It allow Hazzard the freedom to mix and match the history of Capri, anecdotes about its famous visitors (especially writers), natural description, snippets of poetry, asides on the literary life, and a bundle of sweet-sour remembrances of Greene. Unlike biography, the memoir requires no final, summative or (often) forced character analysis. Just slants of insight, casually dressed. What she is really up to is a presentation of the puzzle of Graham Greene, with evidence (but nary a footnote) to push readers to one or more of the cardinal compass points of interpretation. Take your pick. There is the ascetic Greene, scornful of all possessions, save books; the frugal Greene, leaving dinner early to take the bus avoid paying a taxi fare; Greene, the generous friend providing support to writers such as R. K. Narayan and Elizabeth Bowen—the latter’s checks always accompanied by a few bottles of red wine to “take the edge off cold charity.” We also meet the world-weary Greene, seeking diversion and fomenting trouble, “but only on his terms”; Greene, the pilgrim-adventurer, wandering from continent to continent, war zone to war zone, trying to forget the great love of his life, Lady Catherine Walston, who appears as Sara Miles in one of his three great novels, The End of the Affair (the other two are The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter). There is also Greene the professional, producing 350 words a day and always meeting deadlines, and Greene the “Catholic agnostic,” who attends Mass but has not gone to Confession in 20 years and has a complex, Emily Dickinson-like relationship to God, arguing, remonstrating and negotiating with the Deity. And, finally, there is Greene the sexist, although Hazzard eschews the label. Instead, she says, “In one respect—his attitudes toward women—he remained rooted, as man and writer, in his early decades.” His fictional women—Sara Miles is the great exception—are tough, beautiful, devoted to their men, and “sexually disposable.” Hazzard returns to Greene’s relations with women a few times to skewer him, but gently. She is not one to banish Greene to the outer darkness—as more strident feminists have—for his shortcomings in these relationships.  Living the kind of life that he did, and being temperamentally disposed to travel the globe to gather his material, Greene developed an “incomparable relentless freedom in his heart” (to borrow Norman Mailer’s line about Henry Miller). So while Hazzard is not loathe to reveal Greene at his most unattractive, to show him lashing out at whomever was handy, even friends, especially friends, ready to hurt before he could be hurt, she usually offers a saving grace on the next page, a compensatory account of hard-won self-knowledge or unheralded generosity. Throughout, she refers to his “blue, extraordinary eyes,” the eyes of a demon, as an Italian friend put it. Hazzard wrote:

In the demon rages, the eyes would glare out, accusatory, engorged with fluid resentment. From under frizzy white brows, the eyesockets appeared then to deepen, the eyeballs to protrude with a playground will to hurt, humiliate, ridicule. At those awful moments, Graham looked for all the world like Thomas Mitchell playing Scarlet’s demented father.

As a spindly adolescent, Greene was tormented by a couple of public school contemporaries, clever sadists. It took many adventures and achievements for him to rebuild his self-confidence. World War II and his dangerous intelligence work were factors here, as were his literary successes before and after. But success also made him willful. It is possible that like many a tortured youth, Greene over time re-wired the armature of his personality and developed strident reflexes in reaction to his early humiliations. “More than most people,” she wrote, “he did not care to be thwarted.” Hazzard’s portrait of this “unappeasable, unquiet spirit,” will persist in literary memory for more than a “very little longer” than is usual. She has burnished the memoir form.

 

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