Clips from Burgess’ interview with Graham Greene

Ed is reading But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?, a collection of Anthony Burgess‘ journalism and nonfiction that includes an entertaining interview with Graham Greene at age 75 (circa 1979-80). Ed, knowing of my Greene obsession, scanned it in and sent it to me.

[Update: The proprietor of Some Men Are Brothers writes, “According to You’ve Had Your Time, Greene disowned that interview. His response was something along the lines of: ‘Burgess put words in my mouth that I had to look up.’ Burgess insisted it was verbatim, though.” He kindly provided the full text of the interview, and I’ve posted it below.]

Some highlights:

A.B. We make literature out of our own traditions as well as our own language. Which brings me to the Graham Greene style, which is wholly a matter of words. What is it that’s peculiarly Greeneish in the way you use words?

G.G. I started off with the desire to use language experimentally. Then I saw that the right way was the way of simplicity. Straight sentences, no involutions, no ambiguities. Not much description, description isn’t my line. Get on with the story. Present the outside world economically and exactly….

A.B. I see you have a volume of Borges here, the man who kindly calls himself the Argentine Burgess. He seems to think a fiction writer ought to be able to make the external world out of his head and then, if he wishes, just make it collapse into nothing.

G.G. Yet Borges is devoted to the very writers I admire so much. Chesterton, for instance, and Stevenson. I was walking on a crowded street with him in Buenos Aires. Totally blind, he was clinging to my arm. I mentioned Stevenson’s best poem and he stopped, in all that roar of the traffic, and recited it from beginning to end….

A.B. What do you think of the present state of the novel in English?

G.G. Beryl Bainbridge is very good. Muriel Spark too, of course. I used to be able to read Frank Tuohy. And William Golding. R.K. Narayan I still love.

A.B. Don’t you find the British novel parochial?

G.G. There was a time, in the nineteenth century of course, when it could be both parochial and universal. Now now perhaps. I don’t read much American fiction. Bellow? I liked Henderson the Rain King — a remarkable picture of Africa for a man who’d never been there. John Updike, no. The Southerners, no. Faulkner is very convoluted. Patrick White? I liked Voss.

A.B. Both Bellow and White got the Nobel Prize. When are you going to get it?

G.G. Yes, I was asked that question in Stockholm. How would you like the Nobel Prize? I said I look forward to getting a bigger prize than that.

A.B. Which one?

G.G. Death. Let’s go and eat lunch….


And here, courtesy of Some Men Are Brothers, is a quote from an interview that appears “towards the end of the fourth section of You’ve Had Your Time, Burgess’s disappointing second volume to Little Wilson and Big God…. You need to know that he’s limping in sympathetic pain after his wife broke her leg”:

I went to Antibes to interview Graham Greene for the Observer. I limped up the hill to Monte Carlo station, caught the stopping train – Cap d’Ail, Eze, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Nice, St Laurent-du-var, Cros-de-Cagnes, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Villeneuve-Loubet, Biot. Greene’s apartment was only a hundred yards up the hill from Antibes station, but I had to take a taxi. Greene, in his middle seventies, living with a chic French bourgoise whose leg was not broken, was fitter than I at sixty-three. We talked and I bought him lunch. He seemed pleased at what he termed my suffering venerability and, when I sent him the typescript of our colloquy, accepted that this was a true account. I did not, of course, use a tape recorder. Later he contributed to ‘Sayings of the Week’ in the Observer the following remark: ‘Burgess put words in my mouth which I had to look up in the dictionary.’ This turned me against him. He had long, it seemed, had something against me: back in 1966 I wrote an article on him in which I suggested that he had been touched
by the Jansenist heresy. In 1980 he had abandoned hell and sin and was on the way to dispensing with God, but the imputation of Jansenism still rankled. He was like a murderer annoyed at being called a shoplifter.

There was in him, I thought, a little of the smugness of the achieved writer, though, to give him his due, there was not more of it than when I had met him first in 1957. I do not think he liked my novels. I was pretty sure he would not care for Earthly Powers. I had elected the Joycean way in the sense of deliberate hard words (to check the easy passage of the reader, in the manner of potholes on a road) and occasional ambiguity, Greene had made the popular novel of adventure his model. But I feel that the real barrier between us was that between the cradle Catholic and the convert. Greene has said that cradle Catholics are weak on theology (does he include St Thomas Aquinas?). One who has become a Catholic by choice is bound to feel himself superior to one who, crying at the douche and then licking the salt, is merely unwittingly baptised into it. Evelyn Waugh, despite the legend, had more charity. He was certainly the better Catholic.

Ed has more. (Scroll down.)


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.