Greene on Capri: A Memoirby Hazzard
When friends die, one's own credentials change: one becomes a survivor. Graham Greene has already had biographers, one of whom has served him mightily. Yet I hope that there is room for the remembrance of a friend who knew him-not wisely, perhaps, but fairly well-on an island that was
The subtle portrait of a great but difficult man and a legendary island.
When friends die, one's own credentials change: one becomes a survivor. Graham Greene has already had biographers, one of whom has served him mightily. Yet I hope that there is room for the remembrance of a friend who knew him-not wisely, perhaps, but fairly well-on an island that was "not his kind of place," but where he came season after season, year after year; and where he, too, will be subsumed into the capacious story.
For millennia the cliffs of Capri have sheltered pleasure-seekers and refugees alike, among them the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, Henry James, Rilke, and Lenin, and hosts of artists, eccentrics, and outcasts. Here in the 1960s Graham Greene became friends with 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 extraordinary literary culture that long thrived on this ravishing, enchanted island.
Shirley Hazzard's books include The Evening of the Holiday, The Bay of Noon, The Transit of Venus (winner of the 1981 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction), and The Countenance of Truth. She lives in New York City and in Italy.
“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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Green on Capri
By Shirley Hazzard
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2000 Shirley Hazzard
All rights reserved.
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. II 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 wroughtiron 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.
Pine cones and short logs were burning in the convex fireplace of the little living room where we had drinks with Graham and his houseguest, Michael Richey. Richey, a writer, sculptor, graphic artist, lone long distance sailor, and, for many years, Director of the Royal Institute of Navigation, had met Graham in London in 1940. With a hiatus for war service, the friendship had been maintained ever since. Talk started up at once, favoured by the intimacy and simplicity of the setting. There were books, a few small pictures ("That one is by a former girlfriend"), a Neapolitan eighteenth-century crèche figure of the Madonna under its bell jar; the whole — easy, agreeable, cosy without clutter.
The room's high ceiling culminates in a miniature dome, or lantern, of paned glass giving extra light on dark days. The floor is of old white tiles set with tiled borders of green leaves and yellow flowers. Tiles of such quality and durability, with a depth of as much as two inches, have been a feature of Neapolitan pavements and decoration for centuries — overflowing, in the eighteenth century, into entire polychrome scenes in churches, cloisters, and palaces of the region. Locally known as le riggiole, they are individually fired, and can be reproduced, and laid, these days, only at high expense. Their beauty is enhanced by the tactile purity of a glaze luminous yet livable that — as in the case of Graham's white floors — suggests, by some fugitive tinge of rose, the underlying terracotta.
In a dining room, where winter light came through a set of small, high windows, our lunch of pasta and a fowl was served by Carmelina, who, with her husband, Aniello, and their family, cared for Graham on his visits and attended throughout the year to the house and garden. Short and staunch, with a coloured kerchief knotted over her coiled grey hair and an ample apron on her dark dress, Carmelina was a picture of the hardworking, good humoured Caprese massaia of her day: firm women, not without irony, who lived close to the land and the seasons, to weather, crops, and vines; to the daily narrative of the parish and the community; and, most deeply, to the ties of blood.
Many such women seldom left the island, even for a day's trip to Naples, twenty miles away. Theirs was the last generation of which that would be true.
Our hours went quickly, in talk and laughter. We drank a good amount of Anacapri's genuine light red wine, already becoming rare. There was pleasure, selfevidently shared, and some mild excitement in the oddity of that winter meeting on a Mediterranean rock: a brief adventure quickened by what Graham valued most, the unexpected.
Graham then was in his midsixties; Francis, two years younger; Michael Richey, late forties. I was in my thirties. Graham and Michael were both Catholics, Graham having converted at the time of his youthful marriage. (Years later, after Graham's death, Michael wrote to me: "One bond — if it's not too highfalutin' a concept — was Catholicism; it would not have been the same without that.") Francis, raised in a Catholic family, had withdrawn from the Church in early youth. I had grown up a perfunctory Anglican. We were, all four, writers and readers in a world where the expressive word, spoken or written, still seemed paramount — beneficiaries of what John Bayley once called "the inevitable solace that right language brings." We were all, in varying degrees, sociable yet solitary.
Graham's receding hair was grey, and would soon be white. His slightly stooping walk and posture were the mark less of the ageing writer than of the English schoolboy: into his last years, one would still perceive the gangling, narrow shouldered, self communing youth. His only "exercise" was walking — and he had walked, in his time, across countries and continents — but his body had the loose agility that derives from a lifelong sense of being thin, lanky, alert, and tall. His hands were at once notable: fine, strong, energised; subtle, but entirely masculine — the fingers flatly attenuated, the palms somewhat afflicted by what I imagine was Dupuytren's contracture, a condition in which a strap of thickened tissue progressively constricts the flesh. Those hands, vibrant even when still, proposed the entire prehensive faculty. At table, Graham habitually propped his chin or cheek on his left hand, as one might assume he did while working — not in a tapered, reflective, "Georgian" pose, but with tight fist, the knuckles edging bone. Or his fingers were lightly splayed on the tablecloth, like spokes of a half closed fan. His occasional gestures had nothing to do with the disarray of "body language." They were the gestures of a succinctly articulate man: slight, sparing, controlled, idiosyncratic; confined, except for a thin shrug, to the hands and concentrated in the fingertips. Hands, like body, conveyed acuity. There was restraint, but not repose.
His presence was immediate and interesting, with its emanation of expectancy and experience. His face was charged with feelings unhallowed and unmellowed, and lit by the blue, extraordinary eyes.
Graham Greene's eyes have been much described, and they were, in later years, occasionally photographed. They were part of his magnetism, and he knew it; but their power was not feigned. For his friend, the Italian writer Mario Soldati, Graham had "blue fire in his eyes, the eyes of a demon." Soldati told Greene's biographer Norman Sherry that Graham
had what I would call a hurt, offended face, metaphorically bruised by events, the expression, not continuously but every once in a while, of an angry and hurt face even when something small went wrong ... There was something unearthly in those eyes.
At the time of our meeting, and through most of his life, Graham was a good looking man — personable, and used to being attractive to women. In physiognomy and bearing he was clearly an Englishman of his era, but his looks belonged to no convention and fluctuated with mood. In his sixties, the short upper lip of sensitive youth was lengthening and toughening, the mouth pursing, the lower face growing jowly, the cheeks and nose pinkly veined from a past of serious drinking. Full face, the eyes were rounded, the lower lids drooping on a reddish rim. (Himself the keenest Greene watcher of all, he sometimes endowed his fictional characters with those same eyes: "The brandy [affected] even the physical appearance of his eyeballs. It was as if the little blood cells had been waiting under the white membrane to burst at once like buds.") The blue glassy stare, often challenging or antagonistic, was never veiled. In the demon rages, the eyes would glare out, accusatory, engorged with fluid resentment. From under frizzy white brows, the eyesockets appeared then to deepen, the eyeballs to protrude with a playground will to hurt, humiliate, ridicule. At those awful moments, Graham looked for all the world like Thomas Mitchell playing Scarlett's demented father.
His humours were conveyed intensely through the eyes — not only the lightning anger, but curiosity, too, and the readiness for amusement, engagement, event; as well as the literary intelligence in its originality and rigour, its extraordinary range and freedom. There was much conviction, some exasperated courage; there could be recognition, candour, reasonableness, and a degree of passing goodwill. But not, in my experience, tenderness: that is, there was no self forgetful surrender — whether to affection or to the vulnerable shades of trust or remorse; still less, to any enduring state of happiness. The avowed "sliver of ice in the heart" could at times loom forth as, merely, the tip of an iceberg,
Graham had many pleasures and, perhaps, even in later years, some euphoric moments. But enjoyment was transitory and not, to him, a necessity: a disposition, deeply attributable to temperament, which should also be referred to his background and generation. As with other Englishmen of his age — who had become adolescent during the slaughter of the 1914-18 war, and adult with the Great Depression — 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. "Happiness" had an element of inanity, verified by Greene in life and in his fiction: "Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil — or else an absolute ignorance."
(Flaubert, in a letter of 1846, also felt that "to be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost." Acknowledging the possibility of a higher form of happiness, achieved incidentally in the exercise of deeper capacities, Flaubert felt that, in his own case, that, too, would remain phantasmal.)
One of Graham's rare contemporary admirations, Padre Pio — a south Italian village priest said to be afflicted with the stigmata — asserted that "suffering is the test and testimony of love." In Greene, however, I think that suffering was a requirement of consciousness itself: an agitation of spirit providing some defence against the dreaded accidie. "I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive" — so writes the exhausted protagonist of Graham's A BurntOut Case in the opening sentence of that novel.
The elation of sexual passion itself is repeatedly portrayed, by Graham, as frantic or despairing. Here is the narrator of The Comedians making love: "I flung myself into pleasure like a suicide on to a pavement."
In Mario Soldati's novel The Capri Letters, the central character observes that human beings need unhappiness at least as much as they need happiness. (Almeno is mistranslated — surprisingly, by Archibald Colquhoun — in the English language edition of that book as "almost as much", as if shirking the issue.) Soldati assigns this thoroughly European view to his American protagonist. I would say that Graham Greene needed disquiet in many forms, not least in his pleasures.
Excerpted from Green on Capri by Shirley Hazzard. Copyright © 2000 Shirley Hazzard. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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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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