Heartwood 7:1 – Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard

greene-on-capriThis blog post is prompted by the news that Shirley Hazzard died this past December at age 85.

It’s kind of funny to me that I read this book without ever having read Graham Greene (though he’s long been on my radar, and I’m a fan of the film The Third Man). Funnier still since I’d also not read anything by Shirley Hazzard (her Transit of Venus won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980, and The Great Fire won the National Book Award in 2003). But a few years ago, one of my book-talking buddies handed me this book and said I should read it. I must say I was quite taken by the cover, and seeing the book’s slim length, I decided to give it a try.

In the opening scene, Hazzard has run into Greene at a café on Capri where he is dining at a separate table with friends and reciting part of a Browning poem to them. Before leaving, Hazzard supplies him with the line he’s struggling to recall. This literary showiness rankled me enough that I put the book aside. But some weeks later, I picked it up again and found myself very much enjoying Hazzard’s stately prose, the descriptions of Greene’s home and the island of Capri (accent on the a, she tells us), and the friendship that develops between Greene, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller.

Hazzard devotes much of the book to Greene, mostly during their shared time there in the 1960s and ’70s, but she also includes some interesting details about the history of the island. Her account of Tiberio, the island-top ruins, features some fine descriptive language, and we learn that a number of Russian writers visited the island in their day, such as Gorky, Turgenev, and Ivan Bunin.

For the most part, Hazzard writes admiringly of Greene, but not without particular criticisms, such as in the passage here:

Repeatedly singled out as a writer of his “era,” Graham, even so, long eluded literary chronology. His best work, with its disarming blend of wit, event, and lone fatality, has not staled; and he himself, always ready, with eager skepticism, for life’s next episode, did not seem to “date.”  However, in one respect – his attitudes to women – he remained rooted, as man and writer, in his early decades.

From the 1920s into the 1940s, Greene and several of his talented male contemporaries were working, in English fiction, related veins of anxiety and intelligence, anger and danger, sex and sensibility, and contrasting an ironic private humanity with the petty vanities and great harm of established power.  Their narrative frequently centered on the difficulty of being a moody, clever, thin-skinned – and occasionally alcoholic – literate man who commands the devotion of a comely, plucky, self-denying younger woman.

The book doesn’t have chapters as such, but in one section, on the importance of reading to Greene, she tells how Greene insisted his biographer, Norman Sherry, travel to every place Greene had been, as background to writing his biography. Remarkably, Sherry did this – but Hazzard notes:

Had Graham enjoined his biographer to read, rather, the countless thousands of books, celebrated or obscure, that fuelled his life, thought, and work, consoled and informed his passions, and caused him, as he said, “to want to write,” that request would have been absurd, unfeasible, and entirely apposite.

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 lifeline to the rational as well as the fantastic. The tormented love affairs of adult years – and, supremely, the long passion for Lady Walston – brought him to the verge of insanity and suicide. It was in reading and writing that he enjoyed, from early childhood, a beneficent excitement and ground for development of his imagination and his gift… Our own best times with Graham usually arose from spontaneous shared pleasures of works and words – those of poets and novelists above all – that were central to his being and ours.

In its closing pages, Hazzard returns to the literary exchange that opens the book: in 1992 she received a letter from Michael Richey, one of those present when Hazzard supplied Greene with the words of the Browning poem at the restaurant all those decades before, and this letter, coming the year after Greene’s death, is what triggered her decision to write this book.

After finishing Greene on Capri, I looked for Capri on a map and discovered it is off the west coast of Italy, near the mainland city of Sorrento. And it strikes me that this would be the perfect book to take along to a “silent reading night” at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. Or maybe one of Greene’s novels.

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