Notes on a Voice: Nicholas Shakespeare on the lean lucidity of Graham Greene
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010
“Tiger, darling,” Graham Greene’s wife used to say whenever she found a florid metaphor—and out it would go. His rival and fellow Catholic, Anthony Burgess, said that Greene sought in his writing “a kind of verbal transparency which refuses to allow language to become a character in its own right”. His voice is the driest of any great writer, drier than bone.
His sentences are lean, lucid, free of the “beastly” adverb, as well as of authorial comment and moral judgment. He is hard to quote, not being epigrammatic like his friend and fellow Catholic Evelyn Waugh; nor easy to parody, like their contemporary Ernest Hemingway. But it rarely takes more than three of those sentences to situate you in Greeneland, a place whose moral temperature would wring sweat out of a fridge. He doesn’t have a style so much as a humidity.
Greene’s prose has the clarity of a pane of glass, yet it creates an air of menace, almost an airlessness, which intensifies the drama. His simplicity makes him appear modern, and two of his novels, “The End of the Affair” and “The Quiet American”, have been re-made for the screen since 2000. Now it’s the turn of “Brighton Rock” (first filmed in 1947, with Richard Attenborough), with the tigerish Helen Mirren down to play one of Greene’s signature waif-like women.
Get on with it. Character comes through dialogue and action. No tiresome philosophy (except about God, generally one of Greene’s least successful characters). He believes in “the importance of a human activity truthfully reported”.
Using Catholic themes for “Brighton Rock” (1938) and his tenth (and best) novel, “The Power and the Glory” (1940). They brought a commercial breakthrough and landed him with the reputation of a Catholic novelist, which resulted in “The Heart of the Matter” (1948)—his most famous book, but one he grew to loathe. (“I hated the hero,” he told me in a BBC interview. When I asked which was his favourite of his own books, he answered without hesitation: “The Honorary Consul”—one of eight novels he set in and around South America.) In an age of diminishing faith, he uses Catholic parables in a way that lend them a power beyond their biblical origins—mining the gospels rather as John Le Carré, his most obvious successor, has mined the cold war.
Page-turning. Greene doesn’t despise the thriller or detective story. Billing his novels as “entertainments”, he is not afraid of suspenseful chapter endings, which Virginia Woolf would never have understood. He allies dramatic and comic storytelling with the economy of the age of cinema, drawing on his experience as a film critic for the Spectator. Whereas the great novels of the 19th century went on and on, the power of Greene lies in his concision; he wrote novels of about 80,000 words, which you can read and digest in a sitting, getting back to the unitary power of drama. When he reached his daily target of 500 words, he would stop—even in mid-sentence. Oh, and he wrote the screenplay for one of the best English films, “The Third Man”.
Learned from Joseph Conrad, the trick of comparing something abstract to something concrete. If we remember any of his phrases it is likely to be one of these images: “silence like a thin rain”, or a brothel madam’s kindness mislaid like a pair of spectacles.
At 12, his favourite character was the detective Dixon Brett, his favourite authors John Buchan, Marjorie Bowen and H. Rider Haggard. But his potency is anticipated most clearly in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, his idol and distant cousin.
“I believe in the evil of God.”—from “The Honorary Consul”.
Illustration: Katherine Rathke
(Nicholas Shakespeare is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph and the author of "Secrets of the Sea". His latest novel "Inheritance", was published by Harvill Secker in July. His last piece for Intelligent Life was about living in Tasmania, outer space on earth.)