Issue 112, Winter 1989
I saw a good deal of Graham Greene in the late forties and fifties. Once he mentioned that he was writing a film script. He told me the plot and it sounded pretty boring. I wondered who would want to see it. It turned out to be The Third Man. Graham’s account of it ranks with Orwell’s of Animal Farm as the most inadequateprécis of a work by its author that I have heard or can imagine.
Graham was a great practical joker. Once he heard that Cyril Connolly was giving a party to which he felt he should have been invited, and telephoned Connolly in the middle of it saying in an assumed accent that he was their chimney sweep and would be coming first thing next morning, so would Mr. Connolly please have the dust covers over all the furniture? The impersonation proved successful, for Connolly, after vainly pleading that the sweep should postpone his visit, obeyed, which must have been a tedious chore in the small hours after the last guest had gone.
Graham also invented a terrible game, usually played around midnight or later. Each of you opened the telephone directory at random, picked a name blindly and rang the number; the winner was whoever kept his or her victim talking the longest. Graham always won. He told me that he had discovered another Graham Greene, a retired solicitor in Golders Green. The first conversation between them went something as follows: “Are you Graham Greene?” “My name is Graham Greene, but—” “Are you the man who writes these filthy novels?” “No, I am a retired solicitor.” “I’m not surprised you’re ashamed to confess you’re the author of this muck.” “No, really, I assure you—” “If I’d written them at least I’d have the guts to admit it, etc.” Graham told me that he had made several such calls using different accents, and that in the end the unfortunate man removed his name and number from the directory He also kept other people’s visiting cards, which he would use for a variety of harmless purposes, such as sending them across restaurants to friends who had not spotted him, with cryptic and sometimes obscene invitations written on them. This was the bright side of his temperament. I glimpsed the other side only a few times during these years, but I remember asking Edward Sackville-West, an old friend of his, what he thought Graham would be writing in twenty years, and nodding in agreement as Eddie replied, “Oh, Graham will have committed suicide by then.” “The fifties were for me a period of great happiness and great torment,” Graham wrote in Ways of Escape. “Manic depression reached its height in that decade.”
I had seen him fairly often in England without getting really close to him until, in November 1955, he passed through Stockholm on his way to Poland. His Swedish publisher, Ragnar Svanstrom, gave a dinner for him to which I was invited, and towards the end of the evening Graham asked if I would join him and the Svanstroms as his guest for dinner the following evening. I explained that I had a date, but he said, “Bring the girl,” adding, “Perhaps you could bring one for me.” Immediately he added, “No, I was joking,” but it seemed a good idea. I pondered, and thought of Anita Björk.
I had come to know Anita and her husband Stig Dagerman two years earlier, having met them at a party at Ragnar Svanstrom’s house in the skerries, and during the summer of 1953 had been a frequent visitor at their house in Enebyberg, a few miles north of Stockholm. Stig was the best writer of his generation in Sweden, and one of the best in Europe, the author of two brilliant plays. The Man Condemned to Death and The Shadow of Mart, and of several fine novels and short stories. Anita was a beautiful and gifted actress who had become internationally famous through her performance in the title role of Alf Sjöberg’s film, Miss julie; as a result, she was offered a Hollywood contract, but the moguls were alarmed when she arrived with Stig, to whom she was not yet married. The head of the studio, no paragon himself, begged her to marry Stig, explaining in a deathless phrase: “We can’t have immorality in Hollywood.” Anita replied that neither of them wished to marry and, on being told that under these circumstances the studio could not employ her, packed her bags and returned with Stig to Sweden. But a year later, in that summer of 1953t having by then produced a daughter, they decided they would after all marry. I was a guest at the wedding feast, at the end of which they pronounced me unfit to drive home. I protested that I could not occupy the guest room on their wedding night, but they overruled me and together made up my bed before retiring into the bridal chamber. The three of us had many splendid evenings that summer. We would talk about literature and the theater until the sun rose around two o’clock. Then Anita would go to bed, and Stig and I would abandon these subjects for our greater love, football, which we would discuss for another hour or two before sleep finally overcame us.