Greene’s next set of stories, titled (mischievously, of course) “A Sense of Reality” and brought out sixteen years after the first, shows him going back to that boyhood town without a Lola beside him. The pieces are among the most inward and private things he ever wrote, haunted by a mysterious sense of having been written more for himself than for any reader. Greene was the rare writer of his time and class who went to a psychoanalyst (at sixteen); some years later, going to Liberia, he was, more or less explicitly, going to explore the subconscious, undertaking a journey to the interior.
In these stories that same impetus is evident, to peel back the official story of our lives we tell ourselves and find its truth. One of the pieces in the first collection actually drew on that trip to Africa (noting, with typical mordancy, that the man who flees London to get away from boredom may only find a different kind of boredom in the jungle). But the heart of the second collection–and, really, of much of Greene–seems to me to lie in that long excursion called “Under the Garden.” As its title suggests, it is about everything that hides out from the daylight world, all that the child (and then the dying man, returning to his boyhood home) longs to find hidden inside the bourgeois surface. Always a lover of the renegade–in perpetual flight from the wisdom of headmasters (one of whom was his father)–Greene here offers up a counter-example, in the form of a literally Underground savant. “Be disloyal,” the ragged sage tells a suggestible boy, “be a double agent.”
This is, of course, what Greene himself chose to do all his life; the story has the feel of a psychic autobiography, whose sequel, perhaps, is the last major book Greene ever published, a record of dreams that came out after his death. When tossing off two books of official memoir, he characteristically chose to raise more questions than he answered; here, however, rooting about at the dark edges of the garden, and enshrining everything that would draw him on (the sexual and the forbidden), he shows himself uncensored. Much more than most writers he always kept up a keen sense of how the child’s intimations and fears lie at the core of us–Robert Louis Stevenson, he seldom forgot, was his mother’s first cousin–and there is an echo here of William Golding, even of Stephen King, in the sudden shock of a child coming upon a dead body for the first time. The names themselves enforce the air of allegory–characters are called “Miss Ramsgate” or “Mr. Strangeways”–and the boy who descends under the garden has all his creator’s restlessness and longing for rebellion in his name, “Wilditch.” The story’s setting is its theme, really: “The Dark Walk.”
These pieces do not always work as stories, or as works of fiction; but they do show that Greene, at some level, was always writing fairy-tales for grown-ups (or for children who know more than they should); the form appealed to him as less reductive, more open to mystery, than any theory. “A fairy story in such an event would be a more valuable asset than a Fabian graph,” says Wilditch, going mournfully over his dead mother’s things. Yet for all this sense of impendingness, the stories never lose their hold on comedy. Greene habitually called upon poignancy as a way to save his farces from becoming cartoonish, and on satire to rescue his sense of poignancy from the maudlin. At times, in this surreal world that feels more dreamed than plotted, it’s almost as if P.G. Wodehouse is bumping into Gregor Samsa.
“The tenth is difficult for the clinic, but the fifteenth–Sir Nigel doesn’t think we should delay longer than the fifteenth.”
“Is he a great fisherman ?”
“Fisherman ? Sir Nigel ? I have no idea.”
The humor, the pathos and much of the terror of Greene, we recall, come from his simple ability to set down a typical specimen of the English middle classes in a setting of real urgency and suffering. So, too, does the aching sense of vulnerability that makes one long, at times, for anything to believe in, if it can make the pain go away. As he moved towards the rounded stories of his final collection–I am excepting for the moment the almost posthumous Last Word and Other Stories, which I leave readers to discover for themselves–he moved towards a blend of shrewdness and forgiveness that, at its best, has some of the ripened mellowness of Shakespeare’s final plays: realism and hope in balance.
“Absolute reality belongs to dreams and not to life.” That, I think, is the central line of this second collection. And it begins to explain to us that the title of the collection, which first might have seemed just a prank is, in fact, a way to nudge us towards the mystic’s (the believer’s) sense that what we call real is only a charade, and what is truly real is everything we can’t see or even guess at. In that sense, it serves to show us how this most guarded and contrarian of souls would hold himself to a faith, so long as he could find no reason for it.
This element of dream, leavened and made more interesting by a light serving of the human comedy, comes to its intricate climax in the last real set of stories Greene ever wrote, which might have taken their cue from his beloved master, James (who wrote that short stories are situated “at that exquisite point where poetry ends and reality begins”). The beauty of his best work is that it was located on precisely that cusp, as if on the wall of Eden, as the door begins to open to let its subjects out (or to let its former inhabitants look in). “What is cowardice in the young is wisdom in the old,” he writes, “but all the same one can be ashamed of wisdom.”
In his recent book How to Read and Why, the critic Harold Bloom declares, with an authority as unqualified as his title, that “Short stories are not parables or wise sayings, and so cannot be fragments; we ask them for the pleasures of closure.” Yet Greene’s work, it seems to me, asks for precisely the opposite: open-endedness, a humbled sense that life is always wiser than our notions of it, a refusal to settle down into one category or the other. Asked, near the end of his life, what he traveled in search of, he said, simply, “Ambiguity.”
The very title of May We Borrow Your Husband catches this mingledness, the sense that we’re hovering somewhere between comedy and something much more sinister, but can no longer tell which is which. When first I saw this book on my parents’ bookshelf, as a teenager, it seemed to me as everyday and banal a description of adultery as could be imagined (and, in fact, sat on the shelf next to Updike’s Couples); with each passing year, though, the title troubles me more, and in the context of the eponymous story, stands in fact for a quite manipulative cunning hidden behind the polite enquiry. Greene’s stories are tales of guile and innocence, except that Iago is helplessly in love with Desdemona; and the awful import of that is itself made more unsettling by the fact the drollery is handed so lightly.
On the surface, the stories Greene wrote in his later years are all urbane amusements, worldly fables of corruption and death graced with such a light touch and such wise humanity that they might almost have come from his neighbor on the Riviera (whose work he claimed to dislike), Somerset Maugham: Up at the Neighboring Villa, perhaps. They are written in the first person, mostly, and Greene goes out of his way to suggest, unusually, that the observing narrator is himself. He mentions restaurants he was known to haunt–Felix au Port in Antibes, Bentley’s in London–and tells his little parables as if they were just scenes he chanced to overhear while sitting in a corner.
The settings and ostensible concerns are nearly all domestic; such politics as exists here are mostly sexual. The pieces turn often around a man and a woman whose relations are strained; and many of the characters, all of whom sound alike (Greene was never a master of voices), are in mourning at some level for an innocence lost. The central moments of his novels, often, come with two men talking in the dark; here, more unsettlingly, they center around a male and a female more divided than they know (those who complain about the treatment of women in Greene’s novels tend to glide over the fact that friendship, however qualified or temporary, is his thing; between the sexes there is always a rueful consciousness of distance). These are, you could say, love stories about people who shouldn’t be in love.