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LIMELIGHT IN VIENNA: SOME NOTES ON BRITISH CINEMA’S MOST CHARISMATIC VILLAIN
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the release of Carol Reed’s The Third Man and the 20th anniversary of its being voted the best British film of the century in a British Film Institute poll, I want to offer some reflections on the film and particularly on the character of Harry Lime, who, as played by Orson Welles, is assuredly one of the cinema’s most charismatic villains. A remarkable aspect of Lime’s cinematic durability is that he is only on screen for around 8 minutes or so. My focus will be on those scenes in which he appears and the reasons for their impact. To begin with, however, I wish to ruminate on one of his most striking features: his name.
What’s in a name?
In Ways of Escape, Graham Greene mentioned some of the symbolic interpretations which had been offered about the names of the two main characters of his screenplay, Harry Lime and Holly Martins: for example, how the former had been linked to the lime tree in Sir James Frazer’s classic study of pagan mythology, The Golden Bough (1922); and how Holly was clearly associated with Christmas, so symbolically they represented a clash between paganism and Christianity. Greene could offer a much simplerexplanation for what he had in mind:
The truth is I wanted for my ‘villain’ a name natural and yet disagreeable, and
to me Lime represented the quicklime in which murderers were said to be
buried. As for Holly, it was because my first choice of name Rollo had not
met with the approval of Joseph Cotten. So much for symbols.[i]
However, it is worth noting that a character’s name in The Third Man, like his or her nationality, is a very slippery business in what is an extremely slippery film (in terms of its narrative development, its camera style, and even its streets, which seem to gleam with wetness although it never rains). Holly was originally Rollo but is sometimes called Harry by Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who is supposedly Austrian but is actually Czech, so one could surmise that Schmidt is not her real name. The British Chief of Police, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) is mistakenly called Callahan by Holly (the name probably derives from the head of the British Military Police at that time, Galloway); but Calloway is also the name of the crooked financier of one of Greene’s short stories ‘Across the Bridge’ (1938) which concludes with one of his most potent phrases- “the baseless optimism that is worse than hopeless despair”- which seems to predict the folly of appeasement and the onset of war. In The Third Man, we are amidst the rubble of Vienna after World War 11; and Holly will encounter a sinister Austrian doctor called Dr Winkle (Erich Ponto) whose name Holly will mispronounce as “winkle”. The film is a veritable miasma of unstable identity in a city of fluid nationalities and borders and even more flexible morality. As one of Lime’s shady associates, ‘Baron’ Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) tells Holly: “ I tell you, I have done things that would have been unthinkable before the war.”
Although Greene indicated that the name of Holly for his main character was inspired by the 19th century American poet Thomas Holley Chivers, who was essentially a figure of fun (Greene wanted the name to be absurd and at one stage Anna comments directly on how silly it is), it has been suggested that the actual character of Holly Martins was based on the American screenwriter and producer Robert Buckner as an act of retaliation for Buckner’s screen adaptation of Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent, which had been filmed by Herman Shumlin in 1945. Buckner had been the screenwriter on a number of westerns, including The Oklahoma Kid (1939). and. Holly Martins writes westerns, one of which is called ‘Oklahoma Kid’, which ‘Baron’ Kurtz displays on his first meeting with him and which Major Calloway later tells Holly he has read with some pleasure. Greene might have been having a private joke at Buckner’s expense (he was a great practical joker), but I don’t think he was after revenge. After all, he rallied to the defence of Lauren Bacall’s much-criticised performance in that film, and in general thought The Confidential Agent perhaps the best American film adaptation of his work, far surpassing the endeavours of more prestigious Hollywood directors, such as Fritz Lang ( Ministry of Fear ,1944) John Ford ( The Fugitive, 1947, based on The Power and the Glory), Joseph L. Mankiewicz ( The Quiet American, 1958) and George Cukor ( Travels with my Aunt ,1972). He might also have been pondering ‘Holly’ as a diminutive of ‘Hollywood’, and thinking wryly of those bizarre story conferences about The Third Man that he and Carol Reed had shared with Hollywood mogul, David O Selznick, which on one occasion seemed destined to be endlessly protracted until Selznick realised he was thinking of another film entirely. In his Preface to The Pleasure Dome (1972) Greene recalled, among other things, Selznick’s dislike of the film’s title ( “Who the hell is going to a film called The Third Man?” he grumbled), and his preferred choice of Noel Coward in the role of Harry Lime ( both Reed and Greene were appalled).[ii]
But what about the name ‘Harry Lime’? ‘Harry’ is a good English name with Shakespearean connections (“Pray God for Harry, England and St George!”), but it also has connotations of to ‘harry’, as in ‘harass’, or ‘hurry’, for a character who is elusive, sometimes threatening, and always on the move. Lime is a shade of green, or what Peter Conrad called “an acid variant of the novelist’s name.”[iii] Another connection between Greene and Lime is obliquely suggested by an interesting comment about the novelist which is cited in Ian Thomson’s book Articles of Faith, where Tom Burns is quoted as saying that, when Greene entered a room, he “seemed to me to have a spotlight on him”.[iv] Think of Harry Lime’s first entrance in The Third Man: arguably the most dramatic spotlit entrance of any film character..
The name resonates in other ways. It is only one letter short of ‘smile’; and he is the only character in the whole film who really smiles. (When anyone else does, or laughs, it is so remarkable an occurrence that it usually attracts comment. Anna has only two laughs in her, she says; and Holly seems almost terminally morose, a potentially monotonous mood which, it should be said, Joseph Cotten invests with a good deal of variety and charm.) ‘Lime’ is also only one letter short of ‘slime’, as if presaging that final chase in the sewers. It is a clever name because it is such a fizzy concoction of ‘sly’, ‘slime’, ‘smile’ and ‘lie’, all of which make up the cocktail of his character. And the film certainly ensures that we don’t forget it, or him: the name is mentioned twice in the prologue, and ten times in the opening ten minutes; and he dominates every scene in the picture, whether he is in it or not. His absence is always present; indeed it ensures the film always seems to have a spring in its step and a surprise round every corner. “Lime, Harry Lime,” says Holly in the opening scene when he gets off the train and is explaining the purpose of his visit to Vienna. “Thought he’d be here to meet me.” But he isn’t, for Lime is a will o’ the wisp. who is not where Holly thought he would be nor is he where Calloway thinks he is. “Could you tell me.. is this …?” says Holly at the graveyard when wondering whose funeral service it is “A fellow called Lime, “says Calloway, dispassionately. But it is not quite, for someone else is in that coffin; although even when he is supposed to be dead, his spirit seems to walk abroad and every character seems obsessed with him.
All of this mystery and mythologizing is setting the makers of the film a huge challenge, because when he does eventually appear, it must deliver on that promise. It is similar to a Hitchcock suspense sequence: when you have worked an audience up to such a pitch of expectation, you have to top that expectation with something extra in order to avoid anti-climax. After all, an audience knows that Orson Welles will appear sometime in the film, because his name is on the credits. When Carol Reed told Welles apologetically that he would not appear until halfway through, Welles replied: “ Could you make it two-thirds?” He might well have been thinking of something like the carefully delayed entrance for maximum effect of the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, a work very close to Welles’s own heart (he had adapted it for radio, and it was intended to be his first film before location and financial complications forced its cancellation: nevertheless, Citizen Kane was to show clear traces of its influence. )[v] And it is not just a case of when the character is going to appear; it is also how.
Extract 1: Enter Harry Lime
This is surely one of the classic moments of the cinema: once seen, never forgotten. Much of its power derives from the skill of its preparation.
As Anna and the lovelorn and inebriated Holly are sharing their memories of Harry in Anna’s apartment, the camera, which has been behaving oddly throughout the film, makes a sudden lunge towards the open window, as if it has spotted something strange out in the square that it was not expecting to see. A dark figure is walking across the street but it seems to stop as if noting a light on in Anna’s apartment. The cat, which Anna has said only liked Harry, has gone wandering off into the square to see what is happening. (One is not surprised to find that Harry was a cat person- sly, self-sufficient, a loner- whereas Holly is associated with a squawking parrot.) It comes to a doorway and starts sniffing round a person’s shoes, which are well polished and give the impression of a man who is doing quite well for himself for someone in a bombed out city. Another thing about those shoes: they might give a clue as to the identity of the murderer of the porter (Paul Hoerbiger), who just, before his death, looked as if he had seen a ghost. The screenplay reads: “Porter slams the window and turns towards camera. He stays still, listening. The sound of squeaking shoes [my emphasis] approaching from the next room. As they come closer, there is a look of horror on the Porter’s face.” [vi]. Holly will be suspected of that murder; and it could be another example of Holly’s getting into a scrape from which his best friend has escaped, a repeated pattern of their childhood friendship.
When Holly comes out of Anna’s apartment, he notices a figure in shadow in a doorway across the square. Still quite drunk, he starts shouting at it: “Cat got your tongue?”; and then defiantly initiates a game with this mysterious spy: “Come out, come out, whoever you are…” Suddenly this childish chant seems magically to summon up the very person who has defined childhood for him. Joseph Cotten’s reaction shot at that point is superb, for the shock of what he sees jerks him forward; and what will follow in a moment is what Graham Greene said was his favourite game from childhood: a game of hide-and-seek in the dark. The game has cropped up also in The Fallen Idol (1948) and in his short story ‘The End of the Party’ and in each case the game will start playfully but will turn into something much more serious, as it will in The Third Man, when the game is to be played out again in earnest and fatally in the sewers of Vienna.
The revelation is visually stunning. One of the neighbours, complaining about the noise in the street, opens her window and the light from her room illuminates the doorway like a theatrical spotlight, to reveal Harry Lime, an appropriately grand entrance for a larger-than-life character who, it seems, even has his own theme tune and one which is so insistently catchy that it sold 40 million copies on its release. Anton Karas’s music is one of the film’s master-strokes (there are a few) and part of its magic is that it fits the character so snugly. There is a hollowness to it, as if it is suggesting that Harry, like Conrad’s Kurtz, is hollow at the core, yet its jauntiness has something of Harry’s cheek; it is not the obvious music for a villain; it seems to invite us to forgive him. Incidentally it is quite wrong to claim, as some soundtrack critics have done, that the theme is repeated incessantly through the film. Apart from the opening credits, it only appears when Harry appears.
In the published screenplay, Greene describes Lime’s habitual expression in Martins’ presence as one of “amused geniality, a recognition that his happiness will make the world’s day.”[vii] That could almost have been written with Welles in mind. It is as if his cockeyed smile, the ironical twinkle in his eye, his cheerful rascality, requires the tilting of the camera to reflect Harry’s sardonic take on things.[viii] Even the step where he stands seems to be on a slight slope. In Citizen Kane, there is a famous close-up of Welles when the young Kane as newspaper editor has just enunciated his ‘Declaration of Principles’, and Joseph Cotten as his best friend Leland asks to keep a copy of it as he feels it might someday be important. Welles as Kane smiles at that but looks uncomfortable, as if he has been caught out at something. Peter Bogdanovich thought the shot looked awkward, though Welles always insisted it was meant to look that way, but the close-up in The Third Man cannot be faulted: it is exactly what the moment demands. The great French critic, André Bazin thought this performance enshrined Welles as a movie actor much more than Citizen Kane. This is all the more remarkable given its short duration, and is particularly interesting because, unusually for Welles, he played the part without make-up, meaning that this was the closest we ever got to him on screen. Bazin went on:
The topicality of Greene’s script equated the ambiguity of his hero with our
war-torn world. Personable bandit, in tune with the disillusionment, the
romanticism of the period, archangel of the sewers, an outlaw prowling the
zone dividing good from evil, a monster worthy of love, Harry Lime/Welles
was, in this case, more than a character: he was a myth.[ix]
Personable bandit/ monster worthy of love: Bazin’s paradoxical description of Lime cannot but remind one of those favourite lines of Greene’s in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, which Greene said could stand as an epigraph to all his books::
Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things,
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demi-rep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books-
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway.[x]
Small wonder that Harry Lime appealed so strongly to Greene’s imagination. Little wonder also that Carol Reed was his favourite of all the directors he worked with, not simply fulfilling his vision of this moment but imaginatively enhancing it.
There is a fine touch still to come. When Holly tries to cross the square, he is almost run over; and in the time it takes him to recover, Lime has gone. It is a subliminal recollection of how Lime is supposed to have died (being hit by a car), but he seems to have disappeared as if by magic. We remember that Lime has taught Holly the three-card trick, and also perhaps that Orson Welles was an accomplished magician who could no doubt make himself disappear in a deserted square. It is another example of why Welles was such perfect casting.
As yet, we have only seen Harry Lime. We have heard much about him- the worst racketeer in Vienna, fun to be around- but we have not heard his voice. From a brilliantly constructed visual sequence, we will move to what one could equally be described as an exemplary piece of screenwriting, where the eloquence of the dialogue and the sharpness of the characterisation never get in the way of purposefully moving the film forward.
Extract 2: The Great Wheel
The scene on the Great Wheel is so important because it is the only one in the entire film between Harry and Holly. In those five minutes the momentum of the narrative has to be maintained, but the scene must also capture the essential relationship between the two men, which is the core of the film and what has kept Holly in Vienna. If that does not come across, the whole film falls apart.
There is an immediate contrast in character; Holly waiting glumly, Harry arriving on the move- brisk, unapologetic, already smiling, no explanations, just a greeting (“Hello, old man…”). There is no suggestion of guilt. He does not suffer from a bad conscience, only from bad indigestion (rather like the lawyer Prewitt in Greene’s Brighton Rock, who is also corrupt and dyspeptic and who says that “I’ve sunk so deep I carry the secrets of the sewer”: Harry Lime has taken that one literal stage further.) Yet immediately on his appearance, and even as Harry circles round him (he could always run rings round Holly), one can feel life quickening with excitement for Holly and can sense within him the magnetism of Harry’s attraction..
“Hello, old man” is a slightly odd greeting, a term of endearment (he uses it six times in the scene) that is not meant literally but does carry certain inferences. There is still an element of the naughty boy about Harry Lime. “He never grew up, “Anna has said about him, “the world grew up around him.” Holly seems older by comparison, having the melancholy of maturity. The setting adds to that feeling: a playground, a fun fair out of season; and in this context, one might also think back to the little boy Hansl (Herbert Halbik) with the round chubby cheeks, whose whole purpose in the film seems to be to get Holly into trouble and who is surely meant as a sort of surrogate of what Harry was like as a child and his relationship even then with Holly. The phrase “old man” also suggests to me a comparison with a film made the previous year, John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), another allegorical fable about the post-war situation, with Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco, a deported gangster in hiding, planning a return to America by flooding it not with diluted penicillin (which is Harry’s racket) but with counterfeit money. “Who’s gonna stop me, old man?” he says to Lionel Barrymore, who is in a wheelchair and who symbolically, I think, is meant to evoke Roosevelt. There the phrase “old man” is literal and said with a sneer, unlike the affectionate address of Harry, but the underlying sentiment is similar. Barrymore in Key Largo and Holly in The Third Man are ‘old men’ in comparison with their audacious adversaries, or, more specifically, old-fashioned men, dinosaurs of decency out of place in the ruthless new world of pragmatism, profit and power.
The Great Wheel is an inspired choice of location. It is a reminder of the old Europe which the recent war has destroyed. It is also appropriate for a film of constant instability and revolving perspectives. Anna tells Calloway at one stage that “You’ve got things upside down”; and when the porter tells Holly about Harry’s funeral and the destination of the dead body, he points upwards to indicate Hell and down to indicate Heaven. In his 1947 essay ‘The Lost Childhood’ (which would be a good alternative title for the film), Greene writes that, inspired by Marjorie Bowen’s novel, The Viper of Milan, he had discovered the pattern for his future work, which was: “perfect evil walking the world where perfect good can never walk again, and only the pendulum ensures that after all in the end justice is done.” [xi] It seems to me that The Third Man is an elaboration of that pattern, with Lime as a charismatic Lucifer, who insists that he still believes in God but who knows the way the world is turning. The sin of Lucifer was pride, which comes before a fall, and Harry Lime’s fall will be precipitous: from the top of the Great Wheel all the way to the sewers. As Calloway said on discovering that the man they buried at the beginning of the film was not Lime: “We should have dug deeper than a grave.”
“Have you ever seen any of your victims?” Holly has asked Harry, referring to the patients who have suffered from taking the diluted penicillin. (And, incidentally, the turning-point for Holly is the later occasion when Calloway tricks him into visiting the children’s hospital and he sees for himself some of the victims of Harry’s racket.)
In response, Harry will nonchalantly deliver the first of two statements of personal philosophy which encapsulate the moral deformities of a fallen post-war world. “Victims?” he says. “Don’t be melodramatic.”. Opening the door to the cable car to look down at humanity below, he goes on:
Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped
moving forever? If I said you could have twenty thousand pounds for every dot
that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money- or would you
calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man,
free of income tax.
A moment later he will go on to say:
In these days, old man, nobody thinks of human beings. Governments don’t, so
why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, and I talk about
the suckers and the mugs, it’s the same thing. They have their 5-year plans; so
.Harry’s smooth alignment of his own individual philosophy with the political morality of the day is still capable of chilling the blood. From his vantage-point of superiority, Harry has the dangerous egotism of the demagogue, an attitude that has accounted for the current devastation of Europe. In Harry’s eyes, such cheerful cynicism is not an erosion of the soul but a recognition of the new reality. It could not be more different from the naive simplicities of Holly’s western novels where good will always triumph and evil will always be defeated.
As if delighting in his amorality, Harry starts teasing Holly with a little game of his own, which typically Holly does not quite grasp. “There’s no proof against me. Except you,” Harry says and muses how easily Holly could now be disposed of. “Don’t be too sure,” says Holly with grim apprehension but Harry seems still to be turning the idea over in his mind. “Hm…I carry a gun. Don’t think they’d look for a bullet after you hit that ground.” And then he laughs: “I suppose he was laughing at us all the time,” Anna has said of him. He has been pulling Holly’s leg, of course, for, as he says, “as though I’d do anything to you or you to me.” Inadvertently he reveals his Achilles’ heel.
The cuckoo clock
As he gets out of the car, Harry extends his offer to Holly to come in with him as a partner and set up another meeting, adding that “when we do meet, old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police.” And then comes the parting shot. ”And don’t be so gloomy,” he says. “After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed- they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.” It is the one part of the scene not written by Graham Greene, but improvised on the spot by Orson Welles, and it is an improvisation of genius. Throughout the scene, his delivery of the dialogue- the timing, the rhythm, the apparent spontaneity, the irresistible shafts of mischief, the way he seems always two sentences ahead of Holly’s laborious thought processes- has been instrumental in lifting the words off the page. That exit speech- witty, paradoxical, sardonic, and, as enunciated by Welles, a marvel of breath control and ironic inflection- elevates the scene onto another level. Supreme man of the theatre that he was, Welles knew that a character who had been given such a stunning entrance would need an equally inspired exit, because, to all intents and purposes, this is his last line in the film. What is wonderful about it is that is perfectly in character. It is a lot more than an afterthought by an egotistical actor; it is the magical something extra that makes a screen character not simply memorable but immortal and makes a film sequence not just exceptional but unforgettable.
Harry’s curtain-line, as it were, makes you smile, reminding us that The Third Man could be a rather glum film without Harry Lime, which perhaps is one of the reasons that audiences can like him in spite of themselves.[xii] And the cuckoo clock is a compelling symbol, “an automaton that pretends to be alive,” as Peter Conrad put it,[xiii] whereas Harry Lime is a human pretending to be dead. It is very Wellesian for Harry to pick the Renaissance as his prize example of artistry in the midst of political turbulence. Yet underneath all the cleverness and the irony, one can still intuit the nihilist in Harry, the Fascist inside the funster, with a contempt for ordinary people and their values, and carrying within him a lethal message about the failure of democracy that now seems so worryingly topical..
The secret of the sewers
I have often puzzled over the last part of the film when Harry agrees to meet Holly. Does he not suspect that he is walking into a trap? Is it a kind of death wish? Or is his trust in Holly so absolute that it never occurs to him that he is being set up? The best defence I have read of Harry’s motivation at this point appears in a book on film-making by that great director Alexander Mackendrick, who, when a teacher at UCLA, had an exercise in which he invited his students to write out the thoughts of a screen character at a particular stage in a film: what would be going through that character’s mind? One of his main examples comes from The Third Man and the thoughts going through Harry Lime’s mind as he approaches that café. Mackendrick suggested a cluster of reasons for Harry’s keeping that appointment, including curiosity (and we know what curiosity did: it killed the cat), but at the heart of it is Harry’s absolute conviction of Holly’s enduring hero-worship and his capacity for loyalty, which makes him, in Harry’s eyes, completely trustworthy.[xiv] “As though I’d do anything to you, or you to me…”
When Peter Bogdanovich discussed loyalty and betrayal with Welles and suggested that “you must disapprove then of Cotten’s betrayal of Harry Lime in The Third Man, Welles replied: “ Of course….Betrayal is a big thing with me…almost a prime sin.”[xv] It is another aspect of the casting of Orson Welles which brings a resonance that would not have happened with any other actor. If there is one theme that recurs again and again in Welles’s work, it is the theme of betrayal and, more specifically, betrayal by one’s closest friend or confidante: from Citizen Kane (1941), Othello (1952), Touch of Evil (1958) to perhaps the greatest betrayal scene in all literature, when Welles’s Falstaff is disowned by Prince Hal, now Henry V, in Chimes at Midnight (1966). And casting him next to Joseph Cotten, an acolyte from Welles’s Mercury Theatre, only intensifies the theme. Cotten as Jed Leland in Citizen Kane moans at one stage, “I was his oldest friend- and he behaved like a swine.” Did Cotten betray Welles over The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s magnificent torso of a film, cut by the studio from 131 to 88 minutes after a disastrous preview, and in which Cotten appeared in some scenes that were re-shot by another director? Welles was very cross with him, but Cotten’s feeling was that, if he had not acquiesced, the film might not have been shown at all. Certainly the history between the two men feeds fascinatingly into the character complexities of The Third Man.
In one way, Holly exhibits a quality which Greene was to discuss controversially in his later career (notably in his defence of Kim Philby): the virtue of disloyalty. Holly is disloyal to Harry but for a virtuous reason: the sight of the ‘victims” in the children’s hospital. Yet why is it that this virtue feels so treacherous? In a later scene with Anna, when it seems as if her papers have been cleared, she realises that she is part of the bargain that Holly has struck with the police to trap Harry, and she tears up her papers in disgust. The price of her freedom is too high. “Look at yourself,” she says to Holly. “They have a name for faces like that.” We learn what that name is when she confronts Holly in the café just as Harry is stealing in by the back entrance and catches the end of their conversation. “Holly. What a silly name,” Anna is saying. “You must feel very proud to be a police informer [my emphasis].” It is on the word “informer” that Harry pulls his gun, and at that point his expression suggests he would do something to Holly, for this is the worst betrayal in his eyes. “Informer” was certainly a loaded word in the Hollywood of 1949, reeling from the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee and prior to the McCarthyist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, which will see friend informing on friend. Harry’s sentimental (complacent?) belief in Holly’s unwavering loyalty has proved his undoing.[xvi]
Extract 3: Chase, Funeral and Finale
From the heights of Vienna to its depths: from the top of the Great Wheel to the sewers. Greene was fascinated by the sewers: what he called, “a strange world, unknown to most of us, that lies under our feet.”[xvii] I suspect he saw people like that, essentially unknowable and with hidden depths; and the final chase does feel as if it represents the point when Lime is finally and inescapably trapped by the dark deviousness of his own personality. At the end, he is cornered, his bid for freedom now rendered as just fingers through a grating that lead out onto the street (another of the film’s indelible images). He has shot the sympathetic Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and retribution is at hand. Now wounded, he will nod consent for Holly to shoot him, even at the end holding dominion over him and, as it were, calling the shots. There is a loud report; and Holly will come back down the tunnel alone with gun in hand, looking for all the world, and for the only time in the film, like one of those western heroes he writes about.
There follows a funeral scene which echoes how the film has begun and brings the narrative full circle (like the Great Wheel). What a strange narrative journey it has been: of a man investigating the suspicious circumstances of his friend’s death; suspecting he has been murdered but then discovering he is a murderer; and who, in a delicious stroke of irony that Harry himself might have appreciated, finds that finally it will fall upon him to kill the friend whose death he has been investigating. And yet is Harry dead really? His death is implied, not shown- like the ravages of his diluted penicillin. He still gets the girl, living on in the memory of Anna, who departs from the cemetery and walks past the waiting Holly without so much as a glance, leaving him on the margins of the film frame and amongst the falling leaves, sidelined in love, the absolute epitome of the forlorn romantic loser. Would audiences remain in their seats for this long goodbye and tolerate an unhappy ending in what had been intended as a film with, in Graham Greene’s words, no other desire than “to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh.” ?[xviii] Greene had misgivings, but Reed insisted that artistic truth should take precedence over commercial calculation, and he was triumphantly vindicated. As Greene later generously acknowledged, he had underestimated the mastery of Carol Reed’s direction and the potency of Anton Karas’s music in making the ending so perfect a conclusion. Although Greene said they had no desire to move people’s political emotions, it seems to me that, if T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land is the definitive evocation of post-World War One decadence, demoralisation and dismay, then its equivalent artistic masterpiece of post World War Two is The Third Man. With its own babble of languages and heap of broken images, and with its extraordinary visual deployment of a devastated Vienna to suggest a whole culture and civilisation in ruins, The Third Man quite transcends its thriller genre. At its heart stands Harry Lime, buried but seemingly imperishable, for he will soon be resurrected on radio and on television. With just a few lightning strokes of inspired creativity, Welles, Greene and Reed had fashioned an altogether extraordinary character who was realistic, symbolic, and mythical all at the same time.
[i] Graham Greene, Ways of Escape ,Penguin, 1980, pp181-2.
[ii]The Pleasure Dome, Secker & Warburg, 1972, pp.3-4.
[iii] Peter Conrad, Orson Welles: The Stories of his Life, Faber & Faber,2003, p.329.
[iv] Articles of Faith, edited by Ian Thomson, Signal books, 2006, p.146.
[v] Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a work close to Greene’s heart also. As I have argued in Graham Greene: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), it has always seemed to me that the relationship between Holly Martins and Harry Lime owes its pattern to the Marlow/Kurtz relationship in the Conrad novella. “In both cases, one can see the attraction of the ostensibly ‘good’ character for the ostensibly ‘evil’ character, who makes him uncomfortably aware of darker potentialities within himself that he would rather not see. In Greene’s screenplay, Lime is the suppressed Dionysiac side of Martins’ inhibited personality, representing an outlawed vitality that Martins both envies and fears. Marlow has the same ambivalence towards Kurtz [ Conrad’s phrase for this is “the fascination of the abomination”] In both cases , the temptation of irresponsible licence that his ‘double’ represents is to be rooted out in a symbolic confrontation in darkness- in Conrad’s case, in the heart of the jungle; in Greene’s case, in the sewers of Vienna.” (p.26)
[vi] The Third Man screenplay, Faber &Faber, 1973, p.63.
[vii] ibid, p.95
[viii] After seeing the film, the great Hollywood director, William Wyler had sent Carol Reed a spirit level, with a note that read: “ Carol, next time you make a picture, just put it on top of the camera, will you?” See Nicholas Wapshott, The Man Between: A Biography of Carol Reed, Chatto & Windus, 1990, p.228.
[ix] André Bazin, Orson Welles: A Critical View, Elm Tree books, 1978, p.105
[x] Graham Greene, Why the Epigraph?, Nonesuch Press, 1989.
[xi] Graham Greene, Collected Essays ,Penguin, 1970, p.17.
[xii] When Welles’s daughter Chris saw the film with her father and told him afterwards that she felt sorry for Lime at the end, he was delighted. “That’s what makes the movie work…and any other one, for that matter- that you can feel sympathy for the villain.” But when she asked him whether he liked Harry Lime, Welles replied: “Like him? I hate him. He’s utterly cold and without passion.” She says she was startled by the vehemence with which he spoke. See Chris Welles Feder, In My Father’s Shadow, Mainstream Publishing, 2009, p.101.
[xiii] Peter Conrad, p.357.
[xiv] See Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-Making, edited by Paul Cronin, Faber, 2004, pp.55-7.
[xv] Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Harper Collins, 1993, p.296.
[xvi] The screenwriter William Rose once wrote that the basic theme of his screenplay for Alexander Mackendrick’s classic black comedy, The Ladykillers was: “In the Worst of all Men is a little bit of Good – that will destroy them”: see Mackendrick, On Film-Making pp. 103-4. This could apply to the ending of Greene’s short story, “Across the Bridge” and is also applicable to Harry Lime.
[xvii] The Third Man screenplay, p.86.
[xviii] Graham Greene, ‘Preface’, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, Penguin,1971, p.11.
GRAHAM GREENE’S ROMANIAN CONNECTION: A 30-YEAR CORRESPONDENCE
Graham Greene made a visit to Romania (People’s Republic of Romania, as it was called then) in 1962. It was his 1955 novel The Quiet American – with its trenchantly critical depiction of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and its British protagonist who, in the end, takes the Communist side in the conflict – which had opened the doors for this Western Catholic novelist to what was then the Soviet bloc. As Newsweek reported with dismay to the American public, ‘the Kremlin has discovered Graham Greene’, though ‘not the Greene of The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, whose characters wander through a haze of tortured religiosity’, but ‘the political Greene of The Quiet American’, which Pravda itself, adding its voice to ‘a chorus of acclaim from Soviet journals and newspapers’, had called ‘the most remarkable event’ of recent British literary history.[i] During 1957, Greene visited Russia twice.[ii] Before the end of the Cold War he would return several times – once in 1960, when he attended a representation of Sergei Yutkevich’s and Nikolai Rozhkov’s production of the Quiet American, at the Moscow Drama and Comedy Theatre.[iii]
Greene’s novel had been translated into Russian in 1956, and the other Eastern bloc countries seem to have been quick to follow suit. A Romanian translation by Radu Lupan appeared in 1957 at the Editura de Stat pentru Literatură și Artă. (It wasn’t the very first Romanian translation of a Graham Greene novel; The Confidential Agent had been translated for the first time in 1945.) It was Lupan who also translated Our Man in Havana (in 1960, for the same publishing house), for which he also provided an introduction portraying Greene as a politically progressive writer.
Greene arrived in Romania on August 26, 1962. He spent a few days in Bucharest, a few more days at the seaside and, finally, a few days travelling through Transylvania; all in all, he was in Romania for nearly two weeks. It was Lupan who acted as his guide in Transylvania, while during his excursion to the seaside he was accompanied by a Romanian poet named Petre Solomon. For the rest of Romania’s state socialist era, which ended in 1989, Solomon would become the official translator of Greene’s novels into Romanian. His translations of The Ministry of Fear and The Confidential Agent appeared in 1965, followed by A Gun for Sale in 1967, A Burnt-Out Case in 1968, see left, (with Solomon also providing a substantial introductory study), The Comedians in 1969, a short story collection in 1973, Travels with My Aunt in 1982, The Tenth Man and Doctor Fischer of Geneva in 1986 (brought together in a single volume), and The Captain and the Enemy in 1991 – the year in which both Greene and Solomon died. A final translation from Greene by Petre Solomon – the short story collection May We Borrow Your Husband? – came out in 1993.
During the state socialist era, Solomon seems to have applied more than once for permission to translate The Power and the Glory – the 1940 novel most often cited as Greene’s masterpiece. But that novel, with its clearly religious sensibility, not to mention its hostile depiction of Mexico under a socialist regime, was never deemed acceptable enough to pass Romanian censorship. Of Greene’s quartet of major ‘Catholic novels’, only one – The Heart of the Matter – was translated into Romanian (by Liana Dobrescu, in 1979) before the fall of the Communist regime. Romanian readers were thus kept for decades from appreciating the full scope of Greene’s literary imagination – a situation only corrected in the 2000s by a new series of translations.[iv]
Greene never returned to Romania after his 1962 visit, but he and Petre Solomon exchanged many letters in the course of the next three decades. Greene’s earliest letter to Solomon, letting him know that he had arrived safely back in London (if only after missing his connection in Vienna), and also that he intended to mail him copies of A Burnt-Out Case, The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, and In Search of a Character: Two African Journals, is dated 10 September 1962. Greene’s last letter to his Romanian translator is dated February 12, 1991 – less than two months before the novelist’s death. Solomon’s own death would come eight months later, at the age of 68. The Greene-Solomon correspondence, comprising all or nearly all of Greene’s letters and early drafts of some of Solomon’s, is the property of the translator’s son, Alexandru Solomon, a noted documentary filmmaker. I am deeply grateful to Alexandru Solomon and his wife, Ada Solomon – an important film producer – for letting me consult it.
It cannot be claimed that the Greene-Solomon letters shed any substantial new light on the British novelist’s life and work. Through all those years, Greene kept his communications to Solomon laconic and businesslike, never engaging in anything resembling a true discussion of literature or world events. He didn’t have much to say or ask about Romania – a country which seems never to have caught his imagination except to a very limited degree, even compared to other Eastern bloc countries, like Czechoslovakia or Catholic Poland. His references to it, in either his public writings or his diaries, seem to be very few and to attest to this lack of engagement. According to scholar Brian Diemert, Greene spent the Cold War decades looking for ways out of the binaries centred on support for either the United States or the Soviet Union: he sought developing nations where socialism and communism appeared to be evolving ‘along lines distinct from the Soviet or the Chinese models’.[v] The Romania of the early 1960s, tentatively distancing itself from the Soviet Union, could have been taken for such a promising place. However, travelling through Cuba in 1966, and praising in his journal the enthusiasm that he saw invested in the construction of Cuban socialism, he contrasted it with what he called ‘the cynicism of Romania’.[vi] As Diemert puts it, Greene’s ‘continued search for communism’s human face’ led him more and more towards ‘Third World communism or some combination of liberation theology’.[vii] It is not surprising if Romanian Communism appeared to him as early as 1962 to be corrupt. On the other hand, he may not have looked too closely. In a foreword to Brighton Rock[viii] he later confessed that what he actually had in mind, as he was travelling through the Carpathians, was the map of ‘Kravonia’ – a fictional country created in 1906 by the English novelist Anthony Hope that he had fantasised about since childhood.
Greene was evidently very adept at keeping a correspondence going for many years while also keeping his correspondent at arm’s length. His connection to his Romanian translator was one of the many such professional connections that he kept in many countries – some of which were state socialist. (His unique position as a Western literary celebrity whose name could open a lot of doors in the sphere of Communist influence also made him valuable to the British Secret Service, for which he had worked during World War II; there is evidence that he informally continued to pass on information to his old contacts there.) Most of Greene’s letters to Solomon were dictated – to Josephine Reid, who was Greene’s secretary until the mid-70s, and then to his sister, Elisabeth Dennys, who replaced her – and either personally signed by him, or else signed in absence (in which case this is specified under the signature). Only four of them were handwritten. During the first decade of their long-distance acquaintance, Solomon translated six books by Greene, and for each of them he sent the author lists of words and passages that he found obscure; Greene dictated answers to all these queries. He also helped Solomon by sending him copies of the French translations, and also other books, not by him – among them a big Oxford dictionary and a collection of Herman Melville’s stories (unobtainable at the time – 1965 – in Britain, at least according to Greene’s letter, and thus procured from the U.S. through his American agent). Asked by Solomon which Joseph Conrad stories he should translate first, Greene gave him some suggestions. He also recommended some books on Henry James (Solomon’s Romanian-language book-length introduction to James’s writings appeared in 1988).
There is very little that is personal in this 30-year long correspondence. The earlier letters keep returning to the two men’s one shared memory of adventure – when Greene, after many drinks in Solomon’s company, had insisted on taking a bathe in the Black Sea very late at night, and Solomon, trying to look after him in the waves, had contracted otitis in the left ear. As late as 1971, Greene wrote to Solomon that he thought of him ‘a lot a few weeks ago when I was suffering from my ear rather in the same way as you suffered after our midnight bathe in the Black Sea’. The episode – the fragile basis for a closer rapport than the distant, unequal, purely professional dealings of internationally famous British author and obscure Romanian translator – would keep making appearances in the correspondence, although, by the 80s, the otitis seems to have mutated, in Greene’s memory, into an eye ailment.
In the early days of their correspondence, Greene kept apologising for the briefness of his replies, more than once assuring Solomon that he was the same with everybody he wrote to. On March 31, 1964: ‘Forgive this hasty scrawl but I have been away for four weeks struggling with a novel and finishing a play and I have a mass of correspondence to deal with.’ On September 17, 1964: ‘Forgive this hurried line but I have a play [the London premiere of Carving a Statue] coming on today.’ On March 1, 1965: ‘I am just back for a few days to find your new questions [related to The Ministry of Fear, which Solomon was translating at the time], so forgive a very hurried note.’ On July 18, 1966: ‘Forgive a rather perfunctory reply to your letter, but I am feeling very tired after finishing the film script of The Comedians. What exciting news that you have become the father of a boy – I hope he will continue healthily to interrupt your work of translation! Now for your questions [related to A Gun for Sale] as far as I can answer them.’ This note is followed by a page and a half of dictated explanations of words and passages from the book.
Through the years, Greene also did a lot of apologising for being unable to meet Solomon during the latter’s infrequent trips to England or to France, where Greene had moved in the mid-60s. Solomon’s journal, published in Romania in four volumes between 2006 and 2012, mentions one Parisian meeting, which happened on July 7, 1967.[ix] On that occasion, Greene invited him for drinks to his Boulevard Malesherbes apartment, and then to a restaurant downstairs. According to Solomon’s diary notes, they talked about the recent Arab-Israeli war (Greene declaring himself one-hundred percent pro-Israeli), about Cuba (Greene enthusiastic), and about New York (Greene saying that it reeked of violence and strident pornography like 1930s Berlin). Greene talked about his intention to orchestrate the mass resignation of the Honorary Members of the American Academy – Institute of Arts and Letters, in protest against the Vietnam War. He described himself as a politically committed writer who generally felt better understood by Marxist critics from the socialist world than by Western critics, the latter too often unwilling to see beyond the Catholic aspects of his novels. They also talked about literary life in London – Greene saying that he disliked the company of writers and comparing it to masturbation – and France – Greene saying that he didn’t socialise much with French writers either, but mentioning as an apparent exception the name of Maurice Druon, then recently elected to the Académie Française. Solomon also jotted down Greene’s pronouncements on a number of writers – classics like Melville (‘a giant’) and Joyce (Greene having come to prefer the Joyce of Dubliners), but also contemporary writers like Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson (both of them dismissed by Greene).
There is no mention of this meeting in Greene’s letters to Solomon. However, a handwritten letter, Greene’s first, dated November 22 (the year has to be 1966) alludes to an earlier, somewhat embarrassing Paris meeting, on which Solomon’s published diary keeps silent. It’s a strange-sounding letter: ‘My dear Petre, I must apologise for receiving you so churlishly this afternoon, but the facts are these. After sending you a message from Antibes [which became Greene’s main place of residence, although he also kept the apartment in Paris] I was summoned to Paris yesterday by the murder of an old friend in mysterious circumstances in Morocco. When you called I couldn’t let you in because his widow was with me in a state of great distress. I have to look after her tomorrow too, and then I return to my flat in Antibes. I wish you could have visited me there. Affectionately, Graham Greene.’ Greene’s excuse may sound somewhat outlandish, like something out of one of his own thrillers, but the fact is that the tortured dead body of Yves Allain, a World War II French Resistance hero and espionage colleague of Greene’s, had recently been identified in Morocco. The Times of November 24, 1966 carried Greene’s tribute to Allain.
There were no further meetings between Greene and Solomon after 1967. There were a few phone conversations; and practically every time he got an opportunity to travel to the West (France, Belgium, Germany and the UK being his four destinations), Solomon checked with Greene to see if it was possible to visit him. It never was. For example, in a 1979 letter, Greene wrote that recent surgery made him unfit for the train journey between Antibes and Paris, and he couldn’t take the plane either because of an airport strike. After encouraging Solomon to give him a phone call, and also to send him the English-language poems he had been working on, he wrapped up by assuring his Romanian translator that he would ‘always remember that midnight bathe in the Black Sea’, as well as Solomon’s ‘poor eye [sic] afterwards’. On March 30, 1981, Greene wrote: ‘I have been away in England and only just received your letter of the 19th. I am glad that you have got as far as Belgium anyway! And I do hope we can meet as you are staying for two months nearby. I am afraid it won’t be immediately as at the beginning of next week I go off for ten days to Palestine to get a prize in Jerusalem!’ On April 10, he was back from Jerusalem: ‘I was away a week, so you can imagine the amount of mail waiting for me. Now I leave for England (London) on the 20th & stay there till the 26th, so it is impossible to get to Paris. I can’t alter the London dates because among other engagements are my surgical check-up & my brother’s 80th birthday & I have to return here [Antibes] for an engagement on the 28th. So fate is against it unless you were able to break your journey say on the 27th via Nice. I would find you a room here – oh, I see you are going to London then. I am in a bit of a muddle. Anyway send me copies of your poems here.’ In August or September 1982 there was another failed meeting: ‘I am very sorry that it was quite impossible for me to get to Paris during your stay’, wrote Greene on September 12. ‘The war with Nice keeps me to Antibes’, he added, referring to the campaign he was leading at the time against the authorities of Nice – up to the Mayor, Jacques Médecin – accusing them of corruption and complicity with organised crime. (Greene’s pamphlet J’Accuse had come out in May 1982.) On October 11, 1984 – shortly after Greene’s 80th birthday – Solomon called him from Marseille; according to Solomon’s diary, Greene was willing to receive him in Antibes the same day, but Solomon couldn’t afford the train journey.[x] Soon after this, on October 24, Greene wrote to express his pleasure at hearing Solomon’s voice on the phone, and also his regret that it couldn’t be a meeting.
Greene’s correspondence with Petre Solomon affords an opportunity for observing the British writer’s balancing act of maintaining a friendly professional connection – one of many – for decades, while keeping it long-distance and marginal. Relationships like this were part of the necessary work of maintaining an international reputation, work that, judging from the evidence of this case, Greene performed adroitly and sensitively – for the most part. He clearly didn’t have much time, or much of himself, to give this Romanian acquaintance, but he was aware that anything he gave would be appreciated anyway, and he was generally able to perform with some delicacy the juggling trick of remaining guarded without making his Romanian translator feel snubbed or unwelcome. And for all his diffidence, and despite the businesslike ‘nothing-specialness’ of most of the letters, some of Greene’s qualities do shine through occasionally – his cruelty as well as his generosity. And partly because of the sense of time passing and both letter-writers getting older, and their acquaintance enduring, the correspondence reads like the story of a real relationship; it has an element of comedy, a big moment of crisis, and towards the end, as both Greene and Solomon entered 1991, the last year of their lives, a touch of something like pathos.
It is especially interesting when considered from Solomon’s end. In the early-to-mid-60s, when he and Greene started corresponding, he had little access to books in English – he repeatedly asked Greene to supply him with a copy of this or that – and his grasp of the language was not very sure: when translating Greene’s works, he relied heavily on the French translations, also provided by Greene. The specific queries he sent to Greene, about passages in some of his novels set in London (A Gun for Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear), often revealed his total separation from the world described by Greene – its physical geography, commodities and customs. One of the long lists of terms and references which he asked Greene to clarify for him includes the names Piccadilly, Burlington Arcade, and Garland Hotel (‘a hotel now destroyed by the blitz’, explained Greene). There are not a few lists like this. Over the years, Greene dictated explanations for names and phrases like Barkers (‘a shop in London’), Harrods (‘a shop in London’), the Cotswolds (‘a part of England’), ‘a little cad car’ (‘a two-seater open sports car’), ‘Woolworth ring’ (‘a ring bought in a Woolworth’s store. Woolworth’s are a big American Co. which have cheap price stores in England.’), and ‘bunny girls’ (‘waitresses scantily clothed in American clubs called Playboy who wear a rabbit’s tail on their bottoms’). Exchanges like these – between the English writer and the translator from an Eastern European state socialist country, to whom the phrase ‘bunny girls’ was bewilderingly exotic – provide a glimpse into an era when the world (or, anyway, most of it) wasn’t yet a single system, a single market.
It is worth pointing out that, for a Romanian citizen from that era, Petre Solomon was cosmopolitan enough. In 1944, faced with the prospect of being sent to a work camp for Jews, he had emigrated to Palestine; he had lived there until 1946, studying English – he had continued his studies upon his return to Bucharest. As a young man, he had developed a close literary friendship with Paul Celan, who was later to attain great prestige as a German poet of Romanian origin. Solomon would go on to write a book called Paul Celan: The Romanian Dimension – published in English by Syracuse University Press in 2019. He was an expert in the poetry of Rimbaud, whose completed works he translated into Romanian. His first translations from English literature were from Shakespeare and Shelley.
On the other hand, he was aware of the lack of a Romanian tradition of Anglophone intellectuals – the models had tended to be French, German and Italian. As he wrote somewhere in his journal, ‘before the war, Romanian specialists in literary translations from the English language could be counted on the fingers of a single hand’.[xi] When writing to Greene, he was aware of the stilted, antiquated quality of his English. He was also painfully unsure of the right tone – when and how to be jocular, how familiar he should be, how to avoid boring ‘the great man’, etc. Writing in Romanian in his diaries – which add up to a valuable between-the-lines record of one Jewish Romanian intellectual’s gradual disenchantment with Romanian state socialism – he is a different writer, steady, soberly lapidary, unostentatiously sophisticated. For example, this was his cool-eyed initial appraisal of Graham Greene, at their first meeting in 1962, when he knew little of his work: ‘Greene: very tall; watery blue eyes; rather muscular; beautiful hands. Not especially elegant. […] His political consciousness leaves a lot to be desired: he’s intoxicated with various sorts of anti-communist prejudice, although he tries to come towards us. He talks about the welfare state as if it were reality – a position that he doesn’t really back up; the idea seems to be that, in England, earnings are becoming more equal, the gap between workers and capitalists is decreasing, and in a couple of generations there would be perfect equality. All this due to taxation. He admits that in the U.S. the gap is an abyss and that American capitalism gives a very bad example. […] He’s an individualist à outrance, but with antennae reaching towards the world around him and with a real interest in life.’[xii]
The diarist Solomon, with his terseness and his appraising eye, contrasts with the Solomon writing to Greene in English – and coming across as wordy (and at the same time aware of the inadequacy of his words), daunted, and lacking in worldliness. For a low-ranking literary figure from recently destalinised Romania, travelling to a Western country was a rare event – at the beginning of a diary entry[xiii] dedicated to one such trip, he noted that it was his fourth, before proceeding to hungrily jot down views, places visited, films seen, etc. Every time he asked Greene whether it would be possible to meet in three or six months’ time in London or Paris, the unvoiced subtext is that, for him, going there for a few days was a rare occasion which won’t renew itself too soon. His life can appear as almost pathetically constricted when set next to the Englishman’s – who was, of course, a celebrated traveller – even if Solomon was a fairly privileged Romanian citizen and socialist Romania itself was, for a while, in the late 1960s, relatively open to the West. The publication of Solomon’s translation of The Comedians in 1969 – only three years after the first English edition – was itself an indicator of that openness. It is true that, back in the 1950s, Romanian publishers had been even swifter in translating The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, but that was Cold War swiftness – those books were regarded in the Soviet bloc as useful weapons.
It was at the time of The Comedians that Greene started showing signs of impatience with the long lists of words and passages that Solomon kept sending him for elucidation. The list dealt with by Greene in his letter of November 21, 1966, contained several dozen terms, and as the novelist was going through them, dictating explanations to his secretary, it sometimes looks as if he was pulling Solomon’s leg: ‘Gin-rummy is a card game. It would be too long to give you all the rules. […] massacre of pigs means massacre of pigs. […] South of Piccadilly I am afraid means south of Piccadilly the London street. […] I don’t understand your difficulty.’ Some of the translator’s difficulties are indeed not easy to understand by any standards. ‘Cherries are a fruit’, wrote Greene in answer to one of them, adding with a touch of exasperation: ‘Haven’t you got your big dictionary?!’
The crisis came six years later, as Greene was addressing Solomon’s difficulties with The Basement Room and several other short stories: ‘As I don’t have the Heinemann standard edition it’s difficult for me to trace some of your questions. Sir Arthur Stillwater I imagine is simply an imaginary name for an imaginary character. I don’t understand the difficulty here. […] Bo is a town in Sierra Leone. Lord Sandale like Stillwater is the name of an imaginary person. Baines’ remark “I said don’t let me touch that black again” is alluding to some incident in his life or his rather imaginary life in Africa. I don’t know what it refers to, and the boy only hears that phrase. Some of your questions do seem to me to show a complete lack of comprehension of the story.’ To his list of replies to this particular list of questions, Greene attache a very short letter (dictated and signed in absence, and dated 9 February 1972) which reads: ‘I wonder really if it would not be better to translate from the French rather than from the English because some of your questions do seem to show that French might be a better tongue for you. Affectionately, Graham Greene.’
Greene’s words drew blood. Petre Solomon’s reply, dated February 23, is rather painful to read. (A reader of Greene novels can be put in mind of the pathos attained in some scenes by some of his supporting characters.) ‘Dear Graham Greene, I don’t know whether you intended it or not, but your letter dated 9 February did hurt me. Of course one doesn’t weep at fifty, but the blow is a rather damaging one. For a writer who happens to have translated nearly fifty books from English, Shakespeare and Shelley included, your remark that “it would be better to translate from the French rather than from the English” cannot be but unsavoury. The more so because six of the above-mentioned fifty books are your own, rendered by me into my language. Why are you punishing me in this way? I never pretended to be a perfect reader or speaker of your language, only a native Englishman could boast of such a knowledge. But I did my best to understand whatever I wanted to translate, and I have, here, the reputation of a good translator from the English. My queries seem to have irritated you up to the boiling degree, whereas my sole intention was to make sure no mistake remains in my text. Perhaps I was awkward in asking some things which to you are self-explaining. Of course I’m not entering into any polemics with you. How could I? You are a world-famous author, and I’m nothing, or nearly nothing. But I wanted to let you know that your disobliging remarks did hurt me.’
There was no immediate answer from Greene. Then, in October, there was a short letter acknowledging receipt of Solomon’s customary birthday wishes and informing the translator that a new novel, The Honorary Consul, was ready for publication. After this, things would get back to normal, though not immediately – there would be only one letter in 1973, one letter in 1974, and none between 1975 and the end of 1979, when the relationship resumed – and Solomon would never again send such long lists of questions. On the other hand, the acquaintance entered a warmer phase after Solomon sent Greene some of the poems he had been writing in English. With the promptitude and generosity that he had shown to countless other writers, Greene replied on November 29, 1979: ‘My dear Petre, I received your poems today. I thought that if I liked a poem I would put a little cross on the page for reference. I find now there are 19 crosses – a pretty remarkable score. Two poems – The Hour Glass & The Cemetery – have two crosses! – which make 21! I liked very much the poems about writing poetry in a foreign language – a highly original theme. I want very much to see some of these in print, & what I would like to do is to get at least a dozen well typed & well photocopied & start trying to interest a weekly paper – I would try first The Spectator, though it seldom publishes poetry. Book publication is much more difficult, but if a number appeared first in a weekly I would try to interest a small publisher called Carcanet who specialise in poetry & seem not afraid of a new name. I shall be going [to London] to see my surgeon in January & I would like to take a selection of your poems with me & try what I can do. Anyway I congratulate you on a fine start. Go on – whatever happens.’
The pace of the correspondence picked up again after this, Greene’s encouragements to Solomon and his attempts to help him publish providing them with their main subject over the next four years or so. In the end, Greene would help him get a poem – ‘A Language Is a House’ – published in The Times Literary Supplement, and another one – ‘Building a Poem’ – in The Spectator. Other possibilities would prove to be dead ends, Greene supportively blaming ‘the so-called intellectual press’ for only choosing to publish poems ‘which seem to me of a quite incredible dullness and lack of mood, leave alone some melody’. Apart from that, the exchanges between the two men in this last decade of their lives were mainly enlivened by occasional chit-chat about films: Solomon watching, on Greene’s recommendation, the 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant – elsewhere described by former film critic Greene as ‘the film which I’ve liked more than anything else in recent years, [although] I’ve only seen twelve films probably in the last ten years.’[xiv]; Greene commenting on the 1957 Across the Bridge (‘A friend of mine who is now dead, Robert Stafford, was the producer. I thought it was not altogether bad but not very good.’), a film adapted from one of his short stories and otherwise seldom mentioned by him; Greene admitting that he ‘couldn’t bear’ to watch the 1972 Hollywood adaptation of Travels with My Aunt (‘The script which was smuggled to me from Spain was appalling.’). Greene’s producer friend was John not Robert Stafford: no doubt a memory-slip on his part.
There was another silence, from 1987 to 1990. When Petre Solomon wrote again, it was after the violent fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist regime. The correspondence contains only one previous hint at Romania’s political situation – a few words from Greene, in the aftermath of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, appreciating the fact that, by refusing to participate in the Soviet-led invasion, Ceaușescu’s Romania had ‘come out of this situation with its honour unimpaired’. Romania and its regime had deteriorated a lot since then – Solomon’s diaries trace this modest, honest man’s growing disenchantment with the Eastern European version of state socialism. Still, Romania’s situation in its first post-communist months filled him with confusion and anxiety verging on distress, and he felt the need to talk to Greene about it – an urge he compared to that of Arthur Rowe, Greene’s protagonist from The Ministry of Fear, who had ‘an overpowering desire to talk to someone frankly’. He was dismayed by the vulgarity and the predatory mediocrity ‘unleashed by the recent events’. Rather touchingly, he asked the British writer – notorious as, among other things, a jaded connoisseur of depravity – to share his sense of shock at the appearance of sex ads in the post-communist Romanian press. He told Greene that he found solace in his books – the way they delineate ‘the human predicament’ without illusions, ‘but with a deep compassion’.
It was a very sick, 86 year-old Graham Greene who answered these last letters. His memory of the distant beginnings of his acquaintance with Solomon seems to have gone out of focus. In his penultimate letter he wrote: ‘I think of you often in the difficult situation in which you live. […] I have happy memories of my own visit to Romania, in far distant days before I think we knew each other. I wish the country had remained as it was then.’ And the last letter, on February 12, 1991, from the Swiss clinic where Greene would die two months later, reads: ‘Dear Petre, thank you belatedly for your letter of January 10, but I am in a very bad state of health and find it very difficult to get any work done. I am glad you came to a final arrangement with the publisher over The Captain [Greene’s final novel, The Captain and the Enemy]. I’m delighted to hear how busy you are with my work and you know how I trust your translations.’ Then back to the bread and butter of their correspondence – Greene’s helping Solomon with his translation difficulties: ‘Toad of Toad Hall was a well known children’s play of the period. “Brave Horatius” comes from a poem by Macaulay – a not very good one. Affectionately yours, Graham.’
[i] Quoted in Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene Volume Two: 1939-1955, London: Jonathan Cape, 1994, 472-3.
[ii] Christopher Hull, Our Man Down in Havana: The Story Behind Graham Greene’s Cold War Spy Novel, New York-London: Pegasus Books, 2019, 110.
[iii] Richard Greene (ed.), Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, London: Little, Brown, 2007, 248.
[iv] Doina Cerăceanu translated The End of the Affair, Alexandru Vlad did The Power and the Glory, The Honorary Consul and Stamboul Train, and I myself did Brighton Rock, The Human Factor and England Made Me.
[v] Brian Diemert, „The anti-American: Graham Greene and the Cold War in the 1950s”, in Andrew Hammond (ed.), Cold War Literature: Writing the Global Conflict, London-New York: Routledge, 2006, 215-6.
[vi] Quoted by Hull, 246.
[vii] Diemert, 222.
[viii] Reproduced in Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, London: Vintage Classics, 1999 (first edition: 1980), 79.
[ix] Petre Solomon, „Am să povestesc cândva aceste zile…”. Pagini de jurnal, memorii, însemnări”, volume II, Bucharest: Vinea, 2008, 210-12.
[x] Solomon, „Am să povestesc…”, volume IV, 2012, 144.
[xi] Solomon, „Am să povestesc…”, volume IV, 2012, 43.
[xii] Solomon, „Am să povestesc…”, volume II, 2008, 141-42.
[xiii] Solomon, „Am să povestesc…”, volume II, 2008, 231.
[xiv] Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theatre, 3 September 1984, printed in David Parkinson (ed.), The Graham Greene Film Reader: Mornings in the Dark, Manchester: Carcanet, 1993, 559.
GRAHAM GREENE’S VISIT TO CHINA
Graham Greene visited two major Communist states in 1957. He took his son Francis to Moscow in August of that year as a 21st birthday present, and in April spent a month in China. Nearly thirty years later, in 1985, he wrote about the latter experience in an article for The Times newspaper entitled ‘A Weed Among the Flowers’.
Greene had expected to make the journey in the company of his friend Margaret Lane and her husband but was disappointed to find that they had been assigned to another group under the terms of the strict chaperoning system in force for foreigners visiting China. The writer’s account suggested that while he greatly admired and enjoyed the sites he was taken to, he behaved irresponsibly, indeed ‘abominably’ (to quote Greene himself), towards one member of the party in particular, whose excessive verbosity infuriated him.
Greene also managed to pick a quarrel with the unofficial leader of the group, the socialist lawyer Lord Chorley. He found the peer’s defence of the Chinese authority’s treatment of the dissident writer Hu Feng intolerable. The disagreement extended beyond the duration of trip itself, continuing in the letter pages on The Daily Telegraph. To add further embarrassment, Lord Chorley had been the first to apologise.
This may account for why it took Graham Greene nearly three decades to give his version of this episode. Indeed on the first page of ‘A Weed Among the Flowers’ he writes, ‘I was even to behave abominably to the innocent Lord Chorley, but Lord Chorley is dead and he will not be hurt by anything I write’. ¹ By 1985, the other person to invoke the writer’s ire, the over-loquacious professor of Comparative Education Joseph Laurweys, had also died.
Greene’s foreign travel has inevitably involved conjecture regarding his possible involvement with MI6 activities. His 1957 visit to China is no exception. His official biographer, Norman Sherry, states unequivocally that, ‘Greene went to China with at least one specific purpose: to spy’. ² His evidence is based on files he was shown at Greene’s sister’s house together with a measure of conjecture.
But did Greene also manage to enjoy China? His biographer claims he did not. Citing his letters home to his lover Catherine Walston, Sherry refers to his boredom and general indifference to the places he was visiting. However, this ignores the fact that Greene’s motives would have been driven by the person he was addressing at a time when their relationship was beginning to loosen. In stark contrast, immediately after he returned from China, Greene wrote to his old college friend Harold Acton. He was enthusiastic about the Yangtze River and the Great Wall, both of which he described as ‘superb’. An unrenovated tomb from the Ming Dynasty was ‘the loveliest thing I saw in China’. While he was disappointed with the Forbidden City, Greene enjoyed the old restaurants the most as they ‘served wonderful food.’³ Moreover, anyone reading ‘A Weed Among the Flowers’ in 1985 would immediately assume that, after all those years, the writer’s memories of China as a place were positive despite the deficiencies of the company he was forced to endure.
After 1985, the same article was re-printed twice in 1990. Firstly it took the form of a ‘miniature book’, just under three inches square, with a green silk cover and gilt label. It was presented in a green silk case with ivory clasp. The edition carried an afterword by the poet Stephen Spender and was illustrated by Vance Garry. It was published in Los Angeles by Sylvester and Orphanos. The same year, ‘A Weed Among the Flowers’ was included in Reflections, a collection of the writer’s essays which he compiled with the aid of Professor Judith Adamson, who also wrote the introduction.
‘A Weed Among the Flowers’ proved to be the last of three, ‘special collectors’ editions‘ of Greene’s work. The first, ‘How Father Quixote Became a Monsignor’ (1980), comprised the opening chapter of Monsignor Quixote, the novel published in 1982. In 1983, Sylvester and Orphanos produced A Quick Look Behind: Footnotes to an Autobiography. This limited and signed edition of Greene’s poetry in its blue embossed cloth cover and stylish white slipcase is far from a vanity product; by contrast it offers interesting insights into the writer’s life which have been largely neglected hitherto.
After the publication of ‘A Weed Among the Flowers’ Stathis Orphanos wrote to Greene in May 1990 seeking further collaborations. The ailing author protested that he was too tired to engage in another project but agreed to produce a short appreciation of the Sylvester and Orphanos publications for a forthcoming exhibition. Subsequently he wrote, ‘Their editions of tiny volumes are almost jewel like and I am very proud that A Weed Among the Flowers is included among them’. 4
Observers of Greene will find this remark deeply ironic. For much of his working life, the writer had fought ‘tooth and nail’ to ensure that his dust-jackets in particular were plain and unadorned – a battle he customarily won.
I am much indebted to Dr. Fang of Hangzhow, China for drawing my attention to this article by Greene and subsequently for providing me with important, related information. In the opening paragraph of ‘A Weed Among the Flowers’, Greene remarks that his visit, ‘… was during that deceptively hopeful season of the Hundred Flowers …’.5 The Hundred Flowers Campaign, or Hundred Flowers Movement, was the period when citizens, and particularly intellectuals, were encouraged to express openly their opinions of the communist regime. Officially it was designed to promote a flourishing of the arts and progress in science. It was followed immediately by a crackdown on those opposed to the Communist regime suggesting that the whole initiative had been engineered to re-impose Maoist orthodoxy.
The historical significance of the ‘hundred flowers’, as well as providing context to Greene’s aside, also serves to explain, at least in part, the somewhat enigmatic title. I had always assumed ‘A Weed Among the Flowers’ referred only to the writer’s awkward presence amid a group of left wing enthusiasts. Clearly not.
1. Graham Greene, Reflections: Selected and Introduced by Judith Adamson. London, Vintage Books, (2014), 394.
2. Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene, Volume 3: 1955-1991. London, Jonathan Cape, (2004), 76.
3. Letter: Graham Greene to Harold Acton, 9 May 1957. John J. Burns Library, Boston College, Massachusetts, Graham Greene Papers. Correspondence: Harold Acton.
4. Letter: Graham Greene to Stathis Orphanos, 5 June 1990. John J. Burns Library, Boston College, Massachusetts, Graham Greene Papers, ‘A Weed Among the Flowers’ (1985-90).
5. Greene, Reflections, op.cit, 394.
ERIC AMBLER’S BORROWED LANDSCAPE
In Eric Ambler’s novel Passage of Arms, Arlene, Dorothy and Greg are enjoying the sights of Saigon with a local guide who promises to show them, ‘where Quiet American made bomb explosion’. A rather bemused Greg replies that The Quiet American was just fiction.
The three discuss the driver’s comment and Arlene remembers that Graham Greene was supposed to have been in the city at the time of the explosion described in the novel. The driver instantly recognizes the author’s name and promises also to show his party the bridge where, ‘Fowler found dead body of correspondent’ and ‘restaurant where they talk’.
This blurring of fact and fiction seems decidedly modern yet Eric Ambler’s novel was published in 1960, just four years after The Quiet American itself. One can only speculate on his reasons for including this amusing example of intertextuality. Was it an in-joke between the two writers? Was it a ‘homage’ from Ambler in recognition of Greene’s consummate skills in describing ‘place’ so accurately that reality could overcome fiction in the mind of the reader? Greene was equally admiring too, claiming Ambler to be, ‘the greatest living writer of the novel of suspense’. In a telegram he addressed him as ‘the master’ while describing himself as ‘the pupil’.
And yet, there is no evidence to suggest that they were anything other than quite distant acquaintances. Only a paltry amount of correspondence has survived. The salutations are formal. ‘Dear Mr Ambler’ later softens ever so slightly to ‘Dear Ambler’, in the manner of the times. The letters that do exist are limited to the summer of 1961 when Greene, unhappy at the treatment by Heinemann of his great friend and mentor A.S. Frere, was on the verge of leaving the company which had published his books for over thirty years.
Ambler, also a Heinemann author, asked Greene for a meeting as he had got wind of the disquiet at the publisher. It was clear that Greene, who was by that time also close to the influential Max Reinhardt, took the lead in initiating a strategy to deal with the threatened restructuring at the top of the Heinemann hierarchy which would adversely affect the career of A.S. Frere. In a letter dated 21 August, he was able to reassure Ambler that although, ‘the war continues’ he had heard, ‘it is going our way’. However, he added cautiously, ‘but if we lose the fight I am determined to carry out my bluff and leave Heinemann’.
In the event, Greene was indeed forced to carry out his bluff. He joined The Bodley Head under the chairmanship of Max Reinhardt who gained not only an eminent novelist but also an energetic Board member. In her book Max Reinhardt: A Life in Publishing, Judith Adamson records that Greene ‘brought with him Eric Ambler’.