Greene on Capri: A Memoir

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9780374166755: Greene on Capri: A Memoir

The author offers a memoir of her longtime friendship with Graham Greene, begun when he vacationed near her home on Capri

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Review:

Shirley Hazzard's first encounter with Graham Greene had it all: timing, art, and an unbeatable setting--Capri. One December morning in the late '60s, he and a friend sat down at a café table next to hers and he began to quote from Browning's "The Lost Mistress." Yet try as Greene might, the last line wouldn't come to him. When she got up to go, Hazzard filled in the blank. As the beginning of a literary friendship goes, this could hardly be bettered. What's more, within hours she and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, were dining with the English author. Greene on Capri, Hazzard's evocation of their subsequent years of friendship, is generous, restrained, and complex. Two of those adjectives could, she makes clear, describe her friend, while restraint doesn't seem to have been part of his being.

That longing for "peace," which Graham invoked throughout his life, in published and in private writings, seemed, on the other hand, a fantasy of transfiguration. Anyone who knew him--and he knew himself best of all--was aware that peace was the last thing he desired. It was literally the last thing, synonymous--as often in his fiction--with death.
Hazzard's narrative mirrors the great allure of Greene's magnetic and destructive personality. First came the rapture of discourse--whether on Dryden, detective fiction, or the pleasures of Marjorie Bowen's The Viper of Milan: "A calm mingling of charm and horror sustains the reader's attention and dread: on a spring night in a moonlit garden, the fragrant wallflowers are 'the colour of blood just run dry.' As Graham has suggested, the book made evil interesting." Soon, however, Greene, an adept of instability, would proffer the conversational equivalent of a lethal injection, and Hazzard learned to beware his "bedevilment grin." Though she kept few records of her encounters with this "formidable master of the impossible," her too-brief memoir leaves the reader with a sympathetic picture of this angular, pitiless individual.

Many of the book's pleasures come, too, in her descriptions of Capri, capturing both the island's romance and its layers of unreality. But in the end, Hazzard's considerable generosity cannot preclude disappointment with Greene. How could it when she too often witnessed her friend's discernment edging into deep disdain? Readers will rejoice in her seven marvelous pages (which beg to be anthologized) on the writer Harold Acton, an exquisite contrast to Greene. "From his company one brought away unique lightness, tolerance, a sense of joy," Hazzard writes, and offers this misunderstood man the following valediction: "If his shade revisits his beloved garden, it certainly does not waste the moonlit evenings there in rancour; but will pass them joyfully, re-experiencing the grand illusion of art in the company of those who count the hours spent with him among the best." Greene on Capri makes one long for a fuller Hazzard memoir--and even more so for another of her beautiful fictions. --Kerry Fried

About the Author:

Shirley Hazzard's (1931-2016) books include The Evening of the Holiday, The Bay of Noon, and The Transit of Venus (winner of the 1981 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction). She lived in New York City, always maintaining her ties with Italy.

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