Greene on Capri

Autumn is upon us now and I have the good fortune and the time to reread some of my favorite books. A few are about writers who have been to some of the places in Italy where I have visited in summer’s past. Shirley Hazzard spent many years in Italy, wrote several books about her time there, including Greene on Capri (where Greene refers to Graham Greene).

She writes about the meals she and her husband shared with Greene, the books and writers they discussed, some of whom (Henry James, Rilke, Norman Douglas, etc.) were also part-time residents of Capri. And, as always, it is a pleasure reading the pages of Shirley Hazzard’s books. From the Archives, here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote about Greene on Capri.

One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand.
Graham Greene

For anyone who values humanistic traditions, reading the works of Shirley Hazzard is intellectually refreshing. As Geordie Williamson wrote (The Australian, 3/25/16) in a review of her essays, (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think), an “antiquated world view comes roaring back into view.”

I have found this to be true in all of Hazzard’s books that I’ve read including most recently Greene on Capri. In this short memoir, she recalls the friendship she and her husband, the Flaubert scholar, Francis Steegmuller had with Greene when they were visiting the island of Capri. Greene owned a house there and together they met frequently for lunch and dinner at a restaurant Greene liked.

For the most part, they talked about literature, the books and authors they had read. These conversational rambles during their long meals and walks constitute the heart of the book and bring alive their mutual joy in reading and writing.

Hazzard writes, “Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a life time to the rational as well as the fantastic.”

Greene on Capri
is not meant to be a complete portrait of Greene but from time to time Hazzard does reflect on his personality. In The Man Within, Greene wrote: “Always while one part of him spoke, another part stood on one side and wondered, Is this I who am speaking? Can I really exist like this?” Hazzard comments:

“I think that Graham was not simply made up of two persons. Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence.”

Elsewhere she notes how little Greene valued contentment “…pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.”

Is suffering where writers really belong, what they need to experience in order to write fiction? If we can believe Hazzard, it was for Greene. However, I doubt it is necessary for most writers but perhaps it is why many of them become alcoholics.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Lang explores the reasons why some authors were destroyed by excessive drinking. She writes: [Eugene] O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do. American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.


Linda said...

I enjoyed reading this post. I admire Shirley Hazzard - and I have you to thank for introducing me to her. I loved her novel "The Great Fire" and I have her essay collection "We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think" on my Kindle.

I confess I have not read anything by Graham Greene - I know he is considered an important 20th century author. I saw the film based on his book "The Quiet American" some years ago - was excellent, Michael Caine in the lead - and thought to myself I should read the book, but have not yet. Reading some of his quotes in your post, he sounds like an author after my own heart.

Writing and booze seem to go together, don't they? That has always been a puzzle to me. Maybe it's because writers are filled with so much self-doubt, the alcohol lowers their reserve and gives them a little courage. Who knows?

What I liked most was reading about their "conversational rambles" about literature, authors, the writing life, etc. That reminded me of something Hazzard said about her life with books and literature (I think in the title essay of "We Need Silence" - and I remember how it struck me when I first read it: "It is a companionship that can never be taken away."

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Linda. I'll say more later.

Richard Katzev said...

I recall also enjoying The Great Fire, but I see I didn't blog about it.

The End of the Affair is Greene's book that I liked a lot, as well as the film they made of the novel.

I must begin drinking so that I can also be a great writer. How about that?

Thank you Linda for your comments. You are about the only one now and I greatly appreciated it.