“Are people who write entirely & absolutely selfish, darling?”



In the last Nation, Michelle Orange picks apart A Life in Letters, a book of Graham Greene’s correspondence edited by Richard Greene (no relation, really, she checked). Orange decries RG’s tendency toward hagiography, an inclination she concludes is the result of an aging vendetta between Greene’s detractors and champions. That is, RG wants to restore Greene’s place in the canon while simultaneously downplaying the dirt literary detectives have dug up and heaped upon, in recent years, Greene’s character. Such is the trench warfare of human history. But, despite straying outside the narrow bounds of objectivity, says Orange, RG’s book manages “a steady, inviting flicker, punctuated by the occasional psychic bonfire.” The people that populate Greene’s stories are unfailingly failures–but primarily so on a personal level. They are people wedded to so-called selfless professions (a preacher, say) who have become mired in selfishness, or worse. They are people who swoon and swear love only to be overcome, mere months later, by tendrils of doubt before being swept willingly into full-blown betrayal. This is why it’s most compelling to ponder Greene’s own internal fracturing. While in a hospital, for instance, Greene witnessed a child die. He wrote this letter to a friend: “Are people who write entirely & absolutely selfish, darling? Even though in a way I hated it yesterday evening—one half of me was saying how lucky it was—added experience—& I kept on catching myself trying to memorise details—Sister’s face, the faces of the other men in the ward. And I felt quite excited aesthetically. It made one rather disgusted with oneself.”

Good writers avoid, or gloss over, their own contradictions. Great writers go toward them, into them, like Dante into Hell.

Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →