Greene on Capri: A Memoir


For millennia the cliffs of Capri have sheltered pleasure seekers and refugees alike, among them the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, Henry James, Rilke, Lenin, and hosts of artists, eccentrics, and outcasts. Here in the 1960s Graham Greene got to know Shirley Hazzard and her husband, the writer Francis Steegmuller; their friendship lasted until Greene's death in 1991. In Greene on Capri, Hazzard uses their ever-volatile intimacy as a prism through which to illuminate Greene's mercurial character, his work and ...
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Greene on Capri: A Memoir

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For millennia the cliffs of Capri have sheltered pleasure seekers and refugees alike, among them the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, Henry James, Rilke, Lenin, and hosts of artists, eccentrics, and outcasts. Here in the 1960s Graham Greene got to know Shirley Hazzard and her husband, the writer Francis Steegmuller; their friendship lasted until Greene's death in 1991. In Greene on Capri, Hazzard uses their ever-volatile intimacy as a prism through which to illuminate Greene's mercurial character, his work and talk, and the literary culture that long thrived on this ravishing island.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Shirley Hazzard chronicles the literary culture of the gorgeous Italian island of Capri in this excellent book. Hazzard focuses mainly on Graham Greene, a personal friend of hers, but also describes the other writers who were drawn to Capri throughout history, including Henry James and Rilke.
Michael Korda
Greene on Capri is the story of a friendship, touchingly and honestly told, and a much truer portriat of Graham than the reader is likely to find in his biographies.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Since Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius found refuge and inspiration on this magnificent, awe-inspiring rocky island in the Bay of Naples, Capri has been an escape, a place of inspiration for rulers, artists and writers. Hazzard (The Transit of Venus, etc.) and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, who have visited the island over the course of 30 years, starting in the late 1960s, developed a lasting relationship with fellow islander Graham Greene. Hazzard writes evenhandedly of their relationship with the sometimes volatile, contrary and often solitary Greene, who, she notes, was "visibly present on Capri" but "had no air of belonging." Periodically during those years, the three met at a restaurant called Gemma, took walks or dined at Greene's cottage, Il Rosaio, where he was working on The Honorary Consul. Hazzard evokes the island's charm and the spell it cast on such intermittent resident ex-pats as Norman Douglas, Henry James, Harold Acton, Maxim Gorky and Lenin. On Greene, however, Capri's charms were often lost: Hazzard observes that food, for example, "remained something of a tyranny" for Greene, who rarely indulged in and almost never commented on the tastiness of the local cuisine. While Capri was an escape for Greene, it also allowed him to form a few intense relationships: he spent time here with Catherine Walston (whom he fictionalized in The End of the Affair); Yvonne Cloetta, his last lover; and good friend Dottoressa Elisabeth Moor, who was an inspiration for Aunt Augusta in Travels with My Aunt. While Norman Sherry's biography, The Life of Graham Greene, is more comprehensive, Hazzard's precise prose beautifully captures the literary tone of the island through the decades. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this beautifully written and compact jewel of a memoir, Hazzard (winner of the 1981 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for Transit of Venus) gives a completely rounded, fully fleshed miniature of the British novelist Graham Greene. Seen through the shared times that she and her husband, writer Francis Steegmuller, spent with Greene on the tiny Italian island of Capri, from their meeting in 1962 through Greene's last visit in 1988, this narrative somehow manages to give even the uninitiated a thorough insight into Greene's complicated personality, life, and writings. Miraculously, Hazzard also interweaves this with much of the long history of Capri as a beautiful island retreat for rebels and artists of all types, particularly the English. Highly recommended, both for the writing and its many levels of content, this is essential reading for fans of Greene.--Shelley Cox, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
[Hazzard's] account of her friendship with Greene is fascinating and irresistible, and it is precisely Greene's complexity and remoteness that make it so...after reading Greene on Capri it is hard to imagine visiting the island without recalling a more immediate past. Such is the intensity of her memoir that you will see Capri through the eyes of Ms. Hazzard and be haunted by the spirit of her quarry, Graham Greene.
The New York Times
Hazzard attentively and elegantly writes of their friendship and life...a wise character study of an unrelenting writer...With this humble, warm memoir about an appreciated friend, Hazzard gives Greene the ease he couldn't find, placing him where he is perfectly suited, right on the page.
The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Melinda Lewis-Matravers
Shirley Hazzard's lovely memoir Greene on Capri begins on a rainy morning in the late 1960s. The scene is set in the Gran Caffè in the Italian island's piazzetta. Two Englishmen sit at a table; one is reciting Robert Browning's "Lost Mistress," but he can't remember the last line. A woman who has been sitting nearby gets up to leave and says, "Or so very little longer," finishing the poem as she heads for the door with her umbrella. That is how and where novelist Hazzard and Graham Greene, the legendary author of Our Man in Havana, began their friendship, which would last until he died in 1991. The pleasures of this slender, elegant book are many: remembered conversations, island vignettes, and precise prose. Ah... the literary life.
Islands Magazine
From the Publisher
"A model not merely of memoir but of the writer's craft." —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

"The "fascinating and irresistible" portrait of a great but difficult man and a legary island."—The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374166755
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/1/2000
  • Pages: 149
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Shirley Hazzard's books include The Evening of the Holiday, The Bay of Noon, and The Transit of Venus (winner of the 1981 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction). She lives in New York City, always maintaining her ties with Italy.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On a December morning of the late 1960s, I was sitting by the windows of the Gran Caffè in the piazzetta of Capri, doing the crossword in The Times. The weather was wet, as it had been for days, and the looming rock face of the Monte Solaro dark with rain. High seas, and some consequent suspension of the Naples ferry, had interrupted deliveries from the mainland; and the newspaper freshly arrived from London was several days old. In the café, the few other tables were unoccupied. An occasional waterlogged Caprese—workman or shopkeeper—came to take coffee at the counter. There was steam from wet wool and espresso; a clink and clatter of small cups and spoons; an exchange of words in dialect. It was near noon.

    Two tall figures under umbrellas appeared in the empty square and loped across to the café: a pair of Englishmen wearing raincoats, and one—the elder—with a black beret. The man with the beret was Graham Greene. I recognised him—as one would; and also because I had seen him in the past on Capri, at the restaurant Gemma near the piazza, where he dined at a corner table with his companion, and great love of the postwar decade, Catherine Walston. That was in the late 1950s, when I used to visit Naples and Capri from Siena, where I then spent part of the year. One knew that Greene had a house in the town of Anacapri, in the upper portion of the island, which he had visited faithfully if sporadically for many years.

    On that damp December morning, Greene and his dark-haired friend came into the Gran Caffè, hung their coats,and sat down at the next tiny table to mine. I went on with my puzzle; but it was impossible not to overhear the conversation of my neighbours—or, at any rate, not to hear one side of it. Graham Greene certainly did not have a loud voice, but his speech was incisive, with distinctive inflections, and his voice was lowered only in asides or to make confidences. It was an individual voice, developed before the great British flattening, when one's manner of speaking might, beyond any affectation of class, become personal speech: one's own expressive instrument casting its spell in conversation. I would in any case have noticed what he was saying, because he began to quote from a poem by Robert Browning called "The Lost Mistress." The poem opens:

All's over then: does truth sound bitter ...

but the passage that especially interested Greene comes later:

Tomorrow we meet the same, then, dearest?
May I take your hand in mine?
Mere friends are we—well, friends the merest
Keep much that I resign ...

He went on to quote the poem's concluding verse, but could not recall the last line. The lines he recited, and repeated, are

Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may

And then he could not remember the very end. He recurred to this several times, trying to draw it up from his memory, but did not manage it.

    When I had finished my coffee and my puzzle, and had paid, and had taken my raincoat and umbrella from the dank stand, I said, "The line is

"Or so very little longer."

    I went away at once, back under the rain to the Hotel San Felice—where we used to stay on visits to Capri until, soon after that December trip, we rented, in an old house, a simple flat that became our Capri perch for the next quarter-century. Francis—my husband, Francis Steegmuller—was waiting for me. And of course I told the story, which had already become a story. Francis had met Greene years earlier, in New York, when Graham, with his wife Vivien, was on a postwar trip to America of which he retained few good impressions. Later, Francis and Graham had briefly corresponded. The morning's encounter on Capri seemed to me, and seems still, like an incident from a novel: from a real novel, a good novel, an old novel. And I imagine that it appeared so to Graham also.

    That evening, as we arrived at our fireside table in the inner room at Gemma's restaurant, Graham, with his friend Michael Richey, stood up to greet us. We dined together. And so began our years of seeing Greene on Capri.

    A day or so later, Graham asked us to lunch at his house in Anacapri. In rather better weather we took the bus up the vertiginous road of the Monte Solaro, the island's presiding dolomitic mountain. Getting out in Piazza Caprile—a farthermost enclave of the little town of Anacapri, which runs along a ridge of the Solaro slope—we walked the couple of hundred yards to Graham's gate. Il Rosaio, as the house is called, sharing its name with an adjacent property, dates in present form from about 1922. It belongs to a period when the ancient rustic architecture of Capri, compact, domed, and curved, was taken up by certain of the island's more worldly residents—and in particular by an entrepreneurial mentor of Capri, Edwin Cerio—as a basis for constructing charming houses: white, but not starkly so; well made but never massive; not luxurious, but comfortable, and appropriate to climate and surroundings. A score or more of these houses, each different but linked in style, are scattered through the island, most of them still in private hands. The danger of such emulative architecture—that it may seem coy, or toy—has long since been exorcised by the Capri climate, which, through seasonal alternations of scorching and soaking, weathers any tactful, durable structure into authenticity. The island's prolific growth of flowering plants, shrubs, and vines does the rest.

    The wrought-iron gate of the Rosaio is set into the arch of a high white wall and provided with a bell and bellpull. You walk into a secluded garden reminiscent of Greece or North Africa, and characteristic, even today, of many Capri dwellings where the island's history of "Saracen" assaults by sea, and its once imperative climatic needs, linger in structural patterns common to all the Mediterranean. Intersecting paths paved with old rosy bricks lead, as in a childhood dream, to the obscure front door. The slight suggestion of a maze would have attracted the author of Ways of Escape. The house is small, its ground floor having four rooms and the upper storey consisting only of a single ledge-like space. (At a later time, Graham had a portion of the roof fitted up as a sheltered terrace that looks down the island's long western slope to the sea and over to the cone of Ischia on the horizon, providing vermilion views of extravagant sunsets.) The entire space of the property—imaginatively expanded, by censorious writers on Greene, into a site of sybaritic luxury—is that of a suburban English cottage with its pleasant plot of ground. The core of that particular criticism may be that the Rosaio is not suburban: it is on Capri.


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