Novelist Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri, A Memoir, has at least as much in common with biography as it has with memoir. Hazzard acknowledges as much herself when she writes that “Graham Greene has already had biographers, one of whom has served him mightily. Yet I hope that there is room for the remembrance of a friend who knew him – not wisely, perhaps, but fairly well – on an island that was ‘not his kind of place,’ but where he came season after season, year after year.” It is a quintessentially literary book.
Hazzard was in the Gran Caffè on Capri one wet morning in the late 1960s when Greene came with a friend and sat down at the next table. During the conversation, she heard him quote from "The Lost Mistress" by Robert Browning. He couldn’t remember the end of the poem, and when Hazzard went on her way, she said to him, “The line is, ‘Or so very little longer.’”
"The morning’s encounter on Capri seemed to me, and seems still, like an incident from a novel: from a real novel, a good novel, an old novel. And I imagine that it appeared so to Graham also."
Returning to her hotel and her husband, the writer Francis Steegmuller, who had met Greene years earlier in New York, she told him the story, “which had already become a story.” Later that evening, when they went to Gemma's restaurant for dinner, they found Greene and his friend there. “We dined together. And so began our years of seeing Greene on Capri.”
Hazzard is a fine reader of Greene’s work, and if her comments on his fiction are the illuminating comments of a fellow-novelist, they are also enriched by the fact that she knew him “fairly well.” Having shared many meals with him over their long friendship, which lasted until his death in 1991, she is unusually well placed to write about the aversion to food in his work. One of the examples she cites is an “enormous curry which filled a washing-basin in the middle of the table” which Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter, shares with his unhappy wife.
Her book has the effect of sending us back to the novels of Greene and of Hazzard herself, but that has more do with the quality of her writing than with any literary genre. It also has something to do with her love of her subject. After the great success of her 2005 novel, The Great Fire, The Guardian published an article about Hazzard’s life and career that ends with a list of her five favourite works, among which are not only The Heart of the Matter, but also “The Lost Mistress.”
Shirley Hazzard, Greene on Capri, A Memoir. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000.
© Linda Leith 2012