Sunday, December 31, 2006

Norwegian Wood

While reading Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood (1987) a few weeks ago, I wrote:
For all that Murakami's books get discussed as weird pageants of contemporary life, icons of postmodernism, the ones I've read have all featured narrators driven by loss, alienated from their past or from the world by people they can't have back, decisions they can't unmake, times they can't recapture. There is a similarity in tone between Murakami and Berry, or Murakami and Anthony Powell, or Proust, that I would never have guessed when I first opened him.

Having finished the novel and spent a few weeks idly thinking about it, I still agree with what I wrote, but I think it gives an inappropriate sense of the book, making it sound melancholy rather than wistful. Instead, I think it's probably more important to focus on the loving attention to the material stuff of the world (and, thus, of memory) that lies at Norwegian Wood's core—and that fundamentally ties it to Murakami's other works, however different they may seem at first glance.

Take this description, for example:
Sunday morning I got up at nine, shaved, did my laundry, and hung the clothes on the roof. It was a beautiful day. The first smell of autumn was in the air. Red dragonflies were flitting around the quadrangle, chased by neighborhood kids swinging nets. With no wind, the Rising Sun hung limp on its pole. I put on a freshly ironed shirt and walked from the dorm to the streetcar stop. A student neighborhood on a Sunday morning: the streets were dead, virtually empty, most stores closed. What few sounds there were echoed with special clarity. A girl wearing sabots clip-clopped across the asphalt roadway, and next to the streetcar barn four or five kids were throwing rocks at at a line of empty cans. A flower store was open, so I went in and bought some daffodils. Daffodils in the autumn: that was strange. But I had always liked that particular flower.
It's simple, straightforward writing, relating an inconsequential morning in the young narrator's life. But the concrete details of this scene, joined to the host of other elements of everyday, non-noteworthy life that accrue throughout Norwegian Wood, form a backdrop of consequence, a sense of a real, lived life moving forward day by day, laundry load by laundry load. The elements of everyday life may not seem worthy of notice, but Murakami's attention to them reminds us that they're all we have—that in a very real sense, our attention to the world around us is us. By taking notice of the seemingly inconsequential, we both sharpen our ability to attend to what is truly consequential—human lives and emotions—and we simultaneously invest the everyday, material world with consequence. We thus impregnate the world with a numinous quality that, in its best moments, reflects back to us with increased weight and potency. The following passage, in which the older narrator recalls the powerful emotions evoked by a friend's ill-treated girlfriend, demonstrates some of what I'm talking about:
It finally hit me some dozen or so years later. I had come to Santa Fe to interview a painter and was sitting in a local pizza parlor, drinking beer and eating pizza and watching a miraculously beautiful sunset. Everything was soaked in brilliant red—my hand, the plate, the table, the world—as if some special kind of fruit juice had splashed down on everything. In the midst of this overwhelming sunset, the image of Hatsumi flashed into my mind, and in that moment I understood what that tremor of the heart had been. It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained—and would forever remain—unfulfilled. I had forgotten the existence of such innocent, all-but-seared-in longing: forgotten for years to remember that such feelings had ever existed inside me. What Hatsumi had stirred in me was a part of my very self that had long lain dormant. And when the realization struck me, it aroused such sorrow I almost burst into tears. She had been an absolutely special woman. Someone should have done something—anything—to save her.
The physical and inconsequential stores, amplifies, and reflects the emotional and consequential, either directly, as when Proust tells of the madeleine, or obliquely, as when Murakami's narrator is overcome by the sunset. Attention to the world, however minor its manifestations, is repaid with moments of knowledge, clarity, beauty, insight, transcendence. That sense of the importance—the necessity, even—of the everyday is, for me, the strongest connection between the straightforward love story of Norwegian Wood and the superficially very different Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In those novels, the details are, in their strangeness, more immediately arresting. But the care that Murakami lavishes on the physical things of this world is similar and so is its effect, both grounding and arguing for the importance of even the most mundane events of the novel.

I wrote back in July about the near-mythological ordeals that the narrators of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle endure. There's no comparable ordeal in Norwegian Wood, but I think the novel nevertheless mounts a strong argument for the value of simply carrying on. Norwegian Wood is crowded with suicides, nearly all by teenagers. [When we were discussing this book the other day, by the way, Stacey reminded me of the historical place of suicide in Japanese culture and how very different it is from our conception of the act. I'm choosing to avoid that complexity by arguing that the aggressively Western and modern orientation of Murakami's fiction limits the role of traditional interpretations—but I know I might be on shaky ground in doing so.] Some of the kids have fairly clear reasons, while others are essentially inexplicable, but the overall sense is that , faced with the quotidian difficulties of life, they decided they were unable to continue. In the face of so much death, there is a real sense of hard-won victory, of tangible achievement in the simple fact that the narrator is still alive twenty years later, able to vividly recall and tell us this story of his youth. His life has included great loss, disappointment, and sorrow, but he has kept going. Like the narrator in Hard-Boiled Wonderland swimming across the subterranean lake in the dark, he has chosen to muddle along despite having no idea of what's to come:
I looked back over my shoulder as I swam. I saw the Professor's light retreating into the distance, but my hand had yet to touch solid rock. How could it be so far? Decent of him to keep us guessing.

There are hints of the grudging optimism of Beckett in this vision of life: "I can't go on, I'll go on." We keep going, dealing with things as they come up, be they as straightforward as a fragile-souled lover or as complicated as unseen subterranean flesh-eaters. Effort itself is success, and it's decent of the future to keep us guessing. A reasonable note, it seems to me, on which to enter, blind as usual, a new year.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Book to book to book

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably have a sense of the oblique routes I take from one book or subject to another. Today’s post is a brief glimpse into that process.

Last week, I read Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (1936) because in Julian MacLaren-Ross’s Memoirs of the Forties, which I read earlier this month, he describes meeting Greene to discuss the possibility of MacLaren-Ross’s adapting the novel for the BBC. It turned out to be the right time of year to read the book, because I always like to read some Christmas book or other in December, and the events of A Gun for Sale take place right around the holiday. It’s a Graham Greene Christmas, however, so (even though this was before his Catholic novels) it’s a Christmas that serves mostly as a shabby attempt to tart up a fallen, grubby world. Raven, an utterly amoral professional gunman, finds himself hunted by the police in the town of Nottwich, and he soon discovers that, rare as aid and comfort are, goodness itself is even less common, in the upper classes or the lower. Raven is an outsider in a world of outsiders, which renders a holiday like Christmas mostly a cruel joke and life a painful struggle to the death:
Death came to him in the form of unbearable pain. It was as if he had to deliver this pain as a woman delivers a child, and he sobbed and moaned in the effort. At last it came out of him and he followed his only child into a vast desolation.

A Gun for Sale reminded me of the existence of James Jones’s The Pistol (1958), a tightly written novella about Richard Mast, a U.S. Army private in Hawaii who takes advantage of the confusion immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor to hold onto a pistol that he had been temporarily issued. Over the next few weeks, as the Army fortifies the beaches and roads of Hawaii in anticipation of a Japanese amphibious invasion, the pistol becomes a talisman, the tangible form of his hope for survival. With the pistol, he half-reasons, half-feels, he’ll have just enough advantage, just enough edge to make it through what’s ahead.

Word of his illicit firearm makes its way rapidly through the company, and Mast’s fellow soldiers fixate on taking it for themselves, by force if necessary. Most of them deliver variations on the same argument: “I need the pistol more than you because . . .” The repeated arguments and the symbolic role of the pistol could easily push the novella too far into allegory, but Jones pays such close attention to the details of life and work that the story doesn't ever come unmoored from reality. It’s a quick read and, if you’ve been interested in Jones but unwilling to commit the time to From Here to Eternity or The Thin Red Line, it would be a good starting point, giving a glimpse of his understanding of human motivations and of how men behave under pressure.

Logic would have led me from The Pistol to Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear (1940), which was sitting on my table and would have kept up some of the tone and subject of the Greene and the Jones, concerning as it does an English armaments engineer who finds himself caught up in World War II intrigue. But that will have to wait, because Christmas intervened, and for Christmas Stacey got me Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map (2006). It tells the story of the London cholera epidemic of 1854 and Dr. John Snow’s discovery that cholera is transmitted through contaminated water. In recent weeks I'd discussed the book with friends who, like me, knew some of the story from Edward Tufte’s discussion in Visual Explanation of the map of mortality that Snow drew up as part of his evidence. But whereas Tufte was primarily interested in the successful information design of Snow’s map, Johnson tells, in gripping fashion, the larger story of the epidemic and what Snow’s discovery reveals about history, innovation, science, intuition, and human thought in general.

Johnson presents Snow (and the mostly forgotten Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose work, both independently and with Snow, contributed greatly to the ultimate vindication of Snow’s theory) as a consilient thinker, someone who, by being interested in all fields and—more important—willing to apply insights from one field of study to a problem in another—was able to see connections and draw conclusions that other scientists and medical professionals of the era, blinded by received wisdom, were simply unable to see. As Johnson presents the evidence, it is extremely hard to understand how anyone could fail to accept Snow’s conclusions. Yet many extremely smart and educated people refused to surrender their adherence to the longstanding theory that disease was caused by “miasma” emanating from the slums.

As Johnson explores that blindness, the book becomes more than just good popular history. Johnson is fascinated by the question of how ideas come together and how various factors, from individual temperaments to religion to social thought to urban planning (or lack thereof) aid or hinder the furthering of knowledge and the acceptance of ideas. As he explains,
This is how great intellectual breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.
By the conclusion of the book, a Jane Jacobs-driven paean to urban living, The Ghost Map has become as much a book about ideas and knowledge in general as about the 1854 cholera epidemic itself. It's a success in both regards.

And, finally, where will The Ghost Map lead me? Well, one reason I had been discussing it earlier in the month with my friend Maggie is that she was reading Robinson Crusoe, which led to us talking about Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which led to The Ghost Map. And I've never read A Journal of the Plague Year. . .

And now you understand why I’ll never get everything on my shelves read.

Friday, December 22, 2006


For a brief moment last night, purely by accident, the following three books were stacked on the bed at my house:

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson
Ghost Hunters, by Deborah Blum
The Unquiet Grave, by Cyril Connolly

The only one of the three having anything, really, to do with ghosts or spirits is Ghost Hunters, whose subtitle, "William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death" tells you all you need to know. Johnson's The Ghost Map, which was a pleasantly surprising Christmas gift from Stacey, is about London's 1854 cholera epidemic, while The Unquiet Grave, is a sort of commonplace book or journal that, if it's about anything, is about how Cyril Connolly can't form this mess of thoughts into a book.

But if I stack those in the windowmaybe with The Oxford Book of Death on top and The Oxford Book of the Supernatural on the bottomthey would probably serve as a reasonably effective burglar-deterrent.

However, as Stacey pointed out last night when I broached the idea, we just might return from work one night to find our house lousy with ghosts and spirits of every stripe. They'd probably even have figured out how to work the buzzer and let all the vampires in, too.

Monday, December 18, 2006


From the Introduction to Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripedes (2006), translated by Anne Carson
Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He'll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim's head enables him to throw away the anger of all his bereavements. Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother's funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drover away.

From Edward St. Aubyn's Bad News (1994), collected in Some Hope
Patrick looked down the avenue. It was like the opening shot of a documentary on overpopulation. He walked down the street, imagining the severed heads of passers-by rolling into the gutter in his wake.

If I find myself lopping off anyone's head (going all Judith on someone? all Highlander?) in the next few days, there's my alibi: look at what I was reading! It's nearly as bad as those video games Congress is always warning me about.

Friday, December 15, 2006

On the importance of a good prose style

A good dinner, a martini, a quiet hotel room with a wireless connection, a good book, and a Blogger account. What more could I want after a long week in New York of work and visiting friends?

So, as I've said before on this blog, I'm unlikely to enjoy a novel if I don't approve of the author's prose. The sentence, after all, is the first evidence I have by which to judge an author, and a writer who can't figure out the difference between a good sentence and a bad one is necessarily suspect. There are exceptions (see Jones, James), but usually what I want to know about a writer is, first of all, can he or she write?

The prose I like most straddles a fine line between careful observation and too much aestheticism, describing the world the way it is with near-perfect precision while not drawing attention to itself at the expense of the described. It's a product of continued, careful attention to the details that make up life and the language available to us for describing those details. At its best, such prose serves simultaneously to provide the background in which characters are placed for our contemplation and to convey a sense of those characters themselves. The following description of Dr. David Melrose, from the first page of Edward St. Aubyn's Never Mind (1992, collected in Some Hope), is a good example:
In his blue dressing gown, and already wearing dark glasses although it was still too early for the September sun to have risen above the limestone mountain, he directed a heavy stream of water from the hose he held in his left hand onto the column of ants moving busily through the gravel at his feet. His technique was well-established: he would let the survivors struggle over the wet stones, and regain their dignity for a while, before bringing the thundering water down on them again. With his free hand he removed a cigar from his mouth, its smoke drifting up through the brown and gray curls that covered the jutting bones of his forehead. He then arrowed the jet of water with his thumb to batter more efficiently an ant on whose death he was wholly bent.
Now, any half-competent high school English student could explain what St. Aubyn is conveying about the man--a doctor--in this paragraph, but that makes the achievement, concise and pointed, no less impressive. St. Aubyn has chosen the right details and the precise words in which to convey them. And it's not a matter of picking particularly unusual or erudite words, but of using words in a way that, in a sense, allows them to realize their full potential. Technique, struggle, thundering, arrowed, batter, wholly bent: these are not unusual words, but they are unusually well-chosen, creating an indelible picture of intense, almost finicky cruelty. Again, it's a matter of attentive observation of the world--or, in this case, of careful imagination of a character and how he would manifest himself in the world--followed by equal care applied to the words in which those observations are presented.

That sort of precision is the basis for the odd melding of minds of which the best reading consists, that sense of a real encounter with a previously unknown person who, through their prose, is showing you how they see the world. Encountering such clear evidence of care and intelligence in the first pages of a novel creates the trust that allows me to lend essential credence to the author's ideas about life and human relationships; I want to know what the author thinks because his prose has convinced me that those thoughts will repay the time I invest in them.

Further, in satire of this sort that trust, in turn, allows the author . . .
And yet, to Eleanor, David had seemed so different from the tribe of English snobs and distant cousins who hung around, ready for an emergency, or a weekend, full of memories that were not even their own, memories of the way their grandfathers had lived, which was not in fact how their grandfathers had lived. When she had met David, she thought that he was the first person who really understood her. Now he was the last person she would go to for understanding. It was hard to explain this change and she tried to resist the temptation of thinking that he had been waiting all along for her money to subsidize his fantasies of how he deserved to live. Perhaps, on the contrary, it was her money that had cheapened him. He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.
. . . to sink the stiletto with absolutely bloodless, surgical precision.

St. Aubyn seems to have the asperity, the cruel, unblinking honesty, of Waugh or Saki or Dawn Powell. Oh, I think I've found an author I'm going to really like.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

It's a helluva town.

I'm in New York this week for work, so my reading is on the subway instead of the L. Some New York notes:

1) I started my trip, on the plane, with the least New York book I had handy, Wendell Berry's new novella, Andy Catlett (2006). Berry is a man of the country and the farm, unimpressed by cities, though he has lived in them at times, and Andy Catlett is in part a lament of everything that I can hear right now through my hotel window, the sounds of post-War America--fueled by petroleum, always on the go, mind always split between here and there, now and the future. It's an elegiac book, despite being written about a nine-year-old boy, and in picking it to bring, I guessed right: its slow cadences put me in the right mood for entering the city.

2) But once I got to my hotel, the Hudson, I had no choice but to leap with both feet into the future that to Berry is of such uncertain value, for the Hudson resembles nothing so much as a vision of tomorrow dreamed up by Wong Kar Wei and Haruki Murakami, with the addition of at least a dollop of Eurotrash. So back to Murakami I went, this time to Norwegian Wood (1987, translated into English in 2000).

And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Norwegian Wood is haunted by a similar sense of loss to that which pervades Andy Catlett. A thirty-seven-year-old man looks back, from 1987, on a love of his 1960s youth:
Each time [that memory] appears, it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. "Wake up," it says. "I'm still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I'm still here." The kicking never hurts me. There's no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes with each kick. . . . Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I'm made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.
For all that Murakami's books get discussed as weird pageants of contemporary life, icons of postmodernism, the ones I've read have all featured narrators driven by loss, alienated from their past or from the world by people they can't have back, decisions they can't unmake, times they can't recapture. There is a similarity in tone between Murakami and Berry, or Murakami and Anthony Powell, or Proust, that I never expected when I first opened his novels.

3) For weeks, I've been trying to remember the name of a contemporary British author, whose multi-volume family saga has been reviewed favorably, and whose prose style seemed like one I would appreciate. Take this exchange, for example:
"Imagine wanting to talk to someone on the phone," said Eleanor. "I dread it."

"Youth," said Nicholas tolerantly.

"I dreaded it even more in my youth, if that's possible."
Wanting to read this unknown author's collected novels, and knowing what its spine looked like, I'd even gone so far as to quickly look over all the fiction shelves at 57th Street Books in an attempt to circumvent my faulty memory, but to no avail. Then last night, while waiting to meet some friends, I wandered into Three Lives and Company on 10th Street and there it was, stacked high on the front table of staff favorites: Edward St. Aubyn's Some Hope (2003).

When fate gives you such clear instructions to buy a book, you are required to do so, fidelity to your local bookstore and lack of space in your luggage be damned.

4) As a longtime Joseph Mitchell fan, I talked the aforementioned friends into visiting McSorley's Old Ale House last night, and I was pleased that it was all I could have hoped for, abjuring modernity while somehow avoiding the deadly taints of kitsch or irony. The urinals alone--deep, tall, and majestic--made me feel young and insignificant, part of a lesser, fallen generation. We can't even pee like they used to pee.

Then we proceeded to irk our waiter with our frequent indecision in the face of his queries. It was hard to fault him: after all, one's only choices are light or dark, have another round or don't. And again I felt a failure. Joseph Mitchell would have had no trouble deciding. William Maxwell would have had no trouble deciding. Hell, had they allowed women back then, Dorothy Parker would have had no trouble deciding.

A couple of times, our waiter simply decided for us, always in the affirmative, always for the dark, and he was right, of course. We drank what was put in front of us and talked, of, among other topics, baseball, on which subject we were not the only patrons dwelling on this mid-December night. Imagining people talking of Ruth and DiMaggio in their day, just as we talked of Pettite and Giambi, made me feel a bit better about our efforts as patrons.

But my confidence received its largest boost when, as we made our thanks and headed for the door, the waiter chucked me on the elbow and said, "That's a nice suit."

Had I had my proper hat, I would have tipped it to Joseph Mitchell as I left.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Caesar and the Romans

Reading the excellent new Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006), by Adrian Goldsworthy, I was reminded of Cato the Elder, who ended each speech in the Roman Senate, no matter its topic, with "Moreover I advise that Carthage must be destroyed." Some days I feel that I should end every post, no matter its topic, with "Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Do it now."

Goldsworthy is best known as a military historian, and his accounts of Caesar's campaigns and feats of generalship are detailed, clear, and always interesting. Caesar's confidence, inventiveness, and willingness to try unusual tactics put me in the mind of Ulysses Grant (though without Grant's crucial willingness to invest trusted subordinates with great freedom and power (and yes, I realize I'm drawing the line of influence in the wrong direction)). Caesar himself remains, necessarily, something of a cipher: he is, as expected, smart, canny, and ferociously ambitious, and he inspires great loyalty in his soldiers, but he is also at various times brutal, merciful, egalitarian, authoritarian, friendly, and cold. The gaps in historical knowledge, along with the uncertain motivations of those of his near-contemporaries whose writings have reached us, force those contradictions to remain unresolved and Caesar, thus, to remain a complicated figure.

Throughout the book, Goldsworthy draws on Cicero, to whose copious writings we trace so much of our knowledge of the period, and who is one of the most perpetually interesting Romans. Brilliant and ambitious, and with a deep understanding of human nature and the uses of power, he is forever building and maintaining alliances, like a man who lives in the shadow of an enormous dike and knows the dangers of inattention. But his principles are only as strong as his backers, and in his craven willingness to blow with the prevailing winds, to change in whatever way is needed to preserve himself, his power, and his image as a statesman, he reminded me of no one so much as Joe Lieberman. Cicero at least lived in a time in which to fail to make self-preservation a priority might mean one's life; all Lieberman gets out of the deal is an occasional kiss from the Derelict in Chief and a ready chair on the Sunday morning blowhard shows.

Goldsworthy also does well with what is, for me, the most important job of the Roman historian: relating the detailed anecdotes that make the individual Roman leaders, and their ridiculously dramatic lives and deaths. For example, here's how he tells of the gruesome end of Cato the Younger, who, defeated by Caesar in the Civil War, found himself with the choice to flee, surrender, or commit suicide. Retiring to his room,
He complained when he noticed that his son and servants had removed his sword, and insisted that they return it, but then went back to his reading. His choice of work was significant, Plato's Phaedo, a discussion on the immortality of the soul, but throughout his life he had pursued the study of philosophy. Finally, without warning, he stopped reading, took up his sword and stabbed himself in the stomach. Teh wound was bad, but not immediately mortal, and once they heard the commotion his son and slaves rushed to him. A doctor was brought and Cato's wound cleansed and bound up. However, he had never lacked determination or courage, and once they had gone the forty-eight-year-old tore open the stitches and began ripping out his own entrails. he was dead before they could restrain him. When Casear heard the news he said that he bitterly begrudged the opportunity of pardoning his most determined opponent, but to a great extent Cato had acted out of a desire to avoid his enemy's mercy.

Of such detail, a remarkable amount of which has come down to us through the millennia, are the attractions of Roman history woven. Its mix of personalities and events makes it inexhaustible; the more I read about the classical world, the more easily I understand early curricula that focused on it to the exclusion of all else. At the very least, you'd never be bored.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Graham Greene

A busy week of work and the death of our laptop's monitor conspired to make last week a light blogging week. So this week might be a bit disjointed, like a whole week of notes rather than separate entries.

And tonight's topic is Graham Greene. It seems like anywhere Greene the man turns up, he's interesting or entertaining. Julian MacLaren-Ross, in Memoirs of the Forties (1965), tells of meeting Greene for the first time at Greene's apartment. Late in the evening, they are taken into the nursery by Vivien Greene to say goodnight to the children. On returning to the parlor:
"Lovely children," I said, "charming," in the hearty voice used by my father when he'd survived a social ordeal, and I was further relieved to see Greene had a brandy bottle in his hand.

He said: "Who was it complained that not enough children get murdered in detective stories?"

Evelyn Waugh tells a good story in a letter to Nancy Mitford, dated October 4, 1948 and collected in The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996):
So my friend Graham Greene whose books you won't read was sitting in a New York hotel feeling quite well when he felt very wet & sticking in the lap & hurried to the lavatory & found that his penis was pouring with blood. So he fainted & and was taken to a hospital and the doctors said "It may be caused by five diseases two of which are not immediately fatal, the others are." Then they chloroformed him & he woke up two days later & they said: "Well, we can't find anything wrong at all. What have you been up to? Too much womanizing?" "No, not for weeks since I left my home in England." "Ah" they said "That's it." What a terrible warning. No wonder his books are sad.

And from a October 19, 1954 letter:
Graham Green prefers spirits to wine and was not happy. As we started [a trip to Reims] he saw the name [Alan] Pryce-Jones (a harmless gentle Welsh journalist) on the list and said: "I can't go. I won't meet Pryce-Jones. He's too negative." Well, he came. That evening we all went to bed at about midnight--Lord Long haranguing the night porter--"Don't tell me all brothels are closed. I'll wake them up"--Next morning we met again at ten Graham looking ghastly. "I didn't get to bed until after four." "What were you doing?" "Drinking marc." "Who with?" "Pryce-Jones."

Then there's this, from Anthony Powell, who got along well enough with Greene but didn't like his books. In his journal (available in Journals: 1990-1992 (1997)), Powell wrote, on April 3, 1991, the day of Greene's death:
There was always an element of deviousness, indeed humbug, about all Graham's public utterances and behaviour. I think he was completely cynical, really only liking sex and money and his own particular form of publicity. I always go on pretty well with him, chiefly just before the war. We had the only colossal row after the war when he was my publisher. He would go white with rage on such occasions, admitting that he had to have rows from time to time for his health.

The occasion for the white-with-rage row was that Greene, who was at the time the managing director of Eyre & Spottiswode, was delaying the publication of Powell's book on John Aubrey, during which argument he let slip that he found the book "bloody boring."

Then there's Barbara Pym, in a letter to Philip Larkin of July 14, 1974, taking inspiration from Greene:
The sun is coming out again and I will turn to my novel. They say Graham Greene writes only 250 words a day, so I should be able to manage that!

I don't think those 250 words included the writing he did in his two journals, one real and one false, of which I learned from reviews of Norman Sherry's enormous, three-volume biography. That fact alone may force me to read the whole biography someday after all.