the observer Sun 30 November 2008
This selection of letters from Graham Greene to his family, his intimates and the literary stars of his era are all fairly recent history (he died only in April 1991), but they read like documents unearthed from a distant past, a past when famous people replied courteously to letters no matter whom they were from.
In his old age the author, nicknamed Grisjambon Vert by his pal Evelyn Waugh, received around 180 letters a month. From Greene's many responses, some dutiful, some personal, his namesake Richard Greene, a Canadian academic, has put together an entertaining batch. A suspicion that the contents have been strained to take out unpalatable lumps runs through the 400 pages, but the result still gives a satisfying sense of the lost world of sparkling interwar connections between great writers, travellers, spies and socialites.
The emphasis in the collection is definitely on Greene's good works and on his friendships - we learn about his kindness to Muriel Spark and of his insistence that his Russian royalties went to the wives of Soviet dissidents. A graduate communist, in later years Greene caroused with Bohemian aristocracy, with the Sitwells and Diana Cooper, and while one day he dines with New Wave film director François Truffaut, the next he has an audience with the Pope. On friendly terms with Fidel Castro, Greene was under FBI surveillance for 40 years.
There are a few saucy letters to mistresses and they hint at the serpentine meanderings of the writer's lovelife. And there is the odd bit of cross or bitchy correspondence, with Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Burgess and Ralph Richardson all targeted. One furious epistle to Richardson, who was rehearsing Greene's play Carving a Statue, signs off: '... I assure you that if you do not from now on speak the lines which I have written, I will see that the gist of this letter has a wide circulation - and I don't exclude the press. The vanity of an ageing "star" can do far more damage to the living theatre than any censorship exercised by the Lord Chamberlain.'