The Reading Room

In Defense of John Le Carré

Graham Greene sticks up for his ‘friend’..

Yours-etc For admirers of Graham Greene who have not yet read ‘Yours Etc.’ I would humbly suggest you do so. For it provides an insight into the mind of a man whose impact on twentieth century literature lies curiously under the radar. I say this not based on his ‘genius’ as a writer, he wasn’t one but rather the success he gained from it. Every writer wishes to be published multiple times in multiple countries and so it is perhaps, a little disingenuous for those who are not to wave the literary elite card.

Much of Green’s work contains flaws which many have ignored and a select few have criticised but he was a bankable asset for his publishers and film producers. Greene led a remarkable life which his considerable book sales helped to fund. He comes from a long since gone stock of celebrity authors and journalists whose fame equalled and often surpassed those whom they wrote about. Greene had a weakness for wine and women and for anyone sufficiently interested then one should look no further than Norman Sherry’s authorised biography, a three volume epic of fan-like proportions which also acts as a critique for much of his work.

If three books on one man’s life seems an indulgence too far then ‘Yours Etc.’ is a worthy alternative. Selected and introduced by Christopher Hawtree it is a collection of letters written by Greene to newspaper editors beginning in 1947 and ending in 1989 it is a wonderful assortment of corrections, rebuttals and complaints. Greene did not suffer fools and would seize the opportunity to denigrate any journalism based on assumption rather than fact.

There are numerous cases to be read, the Vietnam War is a case in point where he lambasts Bernard Levin and General Lord Bourne in equal measure for unsubstantiated anti-communist rhetoric. Greene was a ‘veteran’ of the country and the situation and one cannot help but wonder if he did not seek to remind the reader of that fact wherever possible. His letter to The New Statesman in April 1975 where he takes umbrage with their leading article on the French withdrawal from North Vietnam allows him to remind us of his presence at Haiphong in 1955 and later in Saigon when the refugees (near a million who fled south) disembarked to a friendly reception.

Moving on a decade or two to a letter in The Times (London) in 1982 and Greene sets out to clarify a point or three on his relationship with fellow, and at the time, more successful spy writer, John Le Carré. In sadly typical Times fashion they allowed their reporter to tell the readers that Green had taken Le Carré ‘under his wing’ and that they ‘spent hours drinking and swapping stories’ before Greene ‘dumped him’.

To Green’s credit he could have let the story run, it favoured him more than Le Carré but we see him set the record straight in quite delicious prose; “I think Mr Le Carré and I have only met twice-once over drinks with our German publishers in Vienna, and once by chance when we sat together at a musical in Paris in which our French publishers had an interest.” Greene finishes the letter thus; “I feel sorry for Mr Le Carré as I often feel for myself when I have been unwise enough to give an interview to a journalist”

Published by Penguin 1991

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