When Anthony Burgess interviewed Graham Greene….
Melville House Books had the inspired idea of publishing a series of titles called The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Some twenty titles, they feature notable authors and artists from the twentieth century including Christopher Hitchens, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Gárcia Márques. David Bowie, Hunter S. Thompson, Martin Luther King, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Lou Reed and Ray Bradbury amongst others.
In Graham Greene: The Last Interview and Other Conversations we have four fascinating interviews conducted in the final decade of his life beginning with God, Literature and So Forth with Anthony Burgess for The Observer newspaper in 1980 followed by Graham Greene at Eighty with Martin Amis, again for The Observer in 1984, I’m an Angry Old Man. You See for an interview with John Mortimer in 1986 for The Spectator magazine and finally, The Last Interview with John R. MacArthur in 1990.
By 1980 both Anthony Burgess and Graham Greene were living and writing in France, Greene lived in a modest apartment overlooking the harbour in Antibes, Burgess, suffering from a bad leg took the train from his home in Monaco to visit his old friend and conduct the interview. There is something an interview between friends and peers manages to expose that the standard formulaic questionnaire seldom finds; honesty. Reading this conversation between two literary greats I found myself totally immersed, a fly on the balcony wall as they talk frankly about Greene’s writing style, film scripts, drinking, other authors and the Nobel Prize:
Burgess: Both Bellow and White got the Nobel Prize. When are you going to get it?
Greene: I was asked that question by a Swedish journalist. How would you like to get it, he wanted to know. I said I looked forward to getting a bigger prize than that.
Burgess: Which one?
Greene: Death. Let’s go and eat lunch.
Lunch did indeed follow along with a diatribe on the merits of English sausages and their nickname ‘bangers’. Burgess touches on Greene’s Catholicism in regard to his own as a self-confessed ‘cradle Catholic’ whilst Greene talks of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘theological rigour’ when he criticised Greene’s earlier novels. Burgess even manages to correct a grammatical error in Greene’s novel Doctor Fischer of Geneva: “Oh, by the way, there’s a small error in the book-the adjective from Gibraltar isn’t Gibraltan, it’s Gibraltarian-I know, I lived on the Rock for three years”
As their lunch draws to an end Burgess ponders getting back to the train station with his leg in increasing discomfort. He relies on his stick: Greene: “That stick makes you look venerable, Anthony (with glee) Look at the respect you’re getting from the Patron” Burgess (in pain): “And you still have something of the look of the juvenile delinquent!” Rather poignantly, I felt, Greene tells Burgess to return to his flat should he miss his train so that they can “talk more about God and literature and so forth” Burgess: “The horror, the horror” Greene replied: “The juvenile delinquent, yes”
For more information and a bibliography of Graham Greene please click here
Categories: Graham Greene, The Reading Room
And people keep on saying that Greene was so snobbish and arrogant towards Burgess. Burgess was never a great and consistently skillful writer as Greene was and let’s admit it – without Greene establishing the trademark genre of third-world literature, none of the writers influenced by him would have found their footing, including Burgess himself. I find Burgess extremely overrated as a writer – A Clockwork Orange was the only great thing he wrote and the rest – at least of what I have read – comes across as attractive and well-written but also pretentious – Waugh was a far better chronicler of British life in the twentieth century than him.
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