“One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have been conditioned by what we have read, and if I had never known love at all, perhaps it was because my father’s library had not contained the right books.”
Graham Greene, Travels With My Aunt
I read through a fair part of Green’s oeuvre, choosing three books at a time from the British Library, during what were some of the darkest days of my life when I was depressed to the point of death and working in a godforsaken little city where nothing ever happened, so much that I almost empathised with him on reading A Sort of Life, in which he narrates how he visited a dentist to have his good teeth pulled out as he was painfully bored.
Analysing Greene’s writing, a pattern begins to emerge on what makes him a writer’s writer. Fresh layers of meaning roll off from between the lines as one reads, and re-reads.
Allegedly, Greene explained his own writing habits in The End of The Affair, mentioning how he would systematically product five hundred words a day, putting down what had already evolved within his unconscious mind.
“Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene… So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.”
The End of The Affair, Pages 36 – 37
He writes further in the same novel about how this writing within the unconscious continues to happen, even as the writer goes about the mundane everyday life, “So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one’s days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.”
As compelling as his writing is, there is a shade of darkness about much of it, a sense of disillusionment, of weariness and resignation with life, as in the novels of Anita Brookner and Anita Desai. The world-view of a novelist reflects in their writing and sometimes, more often than not, Greene’s stories tend to dampen the spirit. Still, his narrative voice is compelling even when he writes about dark, lonely or apathetic characters, powerfully bringing through it all on the page – a sense of time and place, the narrator’s life and the recesses of the narrator’s mind.
Note: I have extended my AtoZ Challenge to the end of June, for various reasons. I am enjoying this process of revisiting favourite authors and rediscovering them with new eyes.