Travels With Graham
As a biography, Seeds of Fiction appeals to the reader who tires of salacious details about a subject’s personal life. Bernard Diederich writes with a discrete respect for his subject and tells us they were close friends. “I knew enough not to intrude. I was in awe of Graham…,” he begins, and then much later, “I knew little of Graham’s personal life.” This is all as if to say: It was none of my business. Diederich is not very interested in asking invasive questions of his friend, and in this book—which is also a memoir—he isn’t interested in adding to the speculations about Greene’s affairs, drinking, suicidal tendencies and the like. Instead, Diederich wants to tell us about Greene the traveler/adventurer, Greene the novelist/researcher, Greene the political liberal, Greene the friend.
How refreshing this is, in part because Graham Greene has had more malevolent biographers than anyone is due. Michael Shelden’s 1994 sensational bestseller, for instance, famously accused Greene of duplicity, evil “and a heart full of darkness,” and that was only in the first two and a half pages. Norman Sherry, the biographer whom Greene officially sanctioned, wrote three informative, terrific volumes, retracing Greene’s steps all over the globe, and yet exhibits on several occasions an only slightly veiled animosity toward his subject.
Bernard Diederich may deserve his own biographers. Born in 1926 in New Zealand, he left high school at the age of 16 to seek adventure sailing the world, ending up in the Pacific aboard a U.S. Merchant Marine vessel before the end of World War II. He visited Haiti for the first time in 1949, founded a newspaper a year later called the Haiti Sun and also found work as a correspondent for The New York Times and Time. When he talks about himself, you can feel the explorer side of Diederich’s personality: “En route to the South Pacific I had sailed into Port-au-Prince, quit the sea to search for my stolen camera, fallen in love with Haiti and, after a short stint working at an American-owned casino, started an English-language weekly newspaper.”
Five years ago, in 2007, Richard Greene, no relation of Graham, wrote in an editorial note in Graham Greene: A Life in Letters that Diederich’s “memoir of Greene is eagerly anticipated.” That’s this book.
In 1963, because of his courageous reporting in Haiti, Diederich was thrown into prison by President Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, and then exiled from the country. His print offices in Haiti destroyed, Diederich set up shop in the adjoining Dominican Republic. There Greene met him that summer. Two years later, in 1965, Greene and Diederich were back together in the Dominican Republic, and the journey they took that spring along the D.R.-Haitian border forms the backbone of Seeds of Fiction.
Diederich was a newsman, and Greene famously despised the press. He believed that most journalists were lazy; that’s why he was drawn to Diederich, who loved getting stories firsthand. They also shared a desire to risk their lives for a cause. For the newsman, this was his work and passion; for Greene, the obsession for taking personal risks seems to have been a part of his spiritual makeup.
Greene was a self-professed “hunted man,” a theme reinforced in a short profile of his life and novels filmed and broadcast by the BBC in 1968. In that interview, he refers to a “mercy which is the opposite of pessimism,” as a way of saying that his work is about both of these things—one divine, the other very human. Tangling with real-life characters like Papa Doc was Greene’s way, perhaps, of attempting both.
At one point during that rare 1968 recorded interview, Greene said the following, which he later echoed in print in his 1971 memoir, A Sort of Life:
There’s a passage in [Robert] Browning that I’ve always felt could have acted as an epigraph to all my books: ‘Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things/ The honest thief, the tender murderer..../ We watch while these in equilibrium keep/ The giddy line midway….
Greene wrote often of “tender murderers” in his fictions—most memorably, the character of the husband, Arthur Rowe in The Ministry of Fear, who gently poisons his sick wife with tainted milk. Did he do it for selfish reasons or to help her? A typical Greene-ish ambiguity. The Comedians—first published in 1966—is less ambiguous. It is a novel Greene wrote to overthrow a dictator, and Papa Doc is never tender. It is The Comedians that Diederich’s memoir/biography aims most of all to illuminate. Greene was inspired—perhaps even tempted—into writing the novel by Dierderich and his wife, who knew Greene’s appreciation of danger, easy identification with the religiously persecuted and loathing of official duplicity. The man who had written The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American also had a novel in him that could turn the tide in Haiti, and Diederich knew it.
There are plenty of marvelous details in Seeds of Fiction along the way, tidbits to which Norman Sherry probably did not have access. (The exhaustive bibliography of Sherry’s three-volumes does not list Diederich among the 79 people interviewed.) During Greene’s visit to Haiti in the summer of 1963, for example, as he researched what became his bombshell article shining a light on the atrocities of the Duvalier regime, “Nightmare Republic” (published by London’s Sunday Telegraph, Sept. 29, 1963), Diederich tells us that the novelist carried everywhere a “green clothcovered book of Victorian detective stories.” This was only a cover for voluminous blank notebook pages that Greene filled “in a tiny, nearly microscopic script, making it impossible for anyone other than him to read.”
By the end, Diederich returns to those questions that everyone seems to want to explore in Greene’s life, particularly the matter of his friend’s mistresses. Diederich spent time in the company of Catherine Watson and later Yvonne Cloeta. In the concluding chapter of Seeds of Fiction, entitled “We’ll Meet Again,” Diederich recounts several conversations between him and Greene about Yvonne. Eventually, Diederich offers, “Graham rarely discussed such private matters, and I felt rather uncomfortable. He said Yvonne was no bother, no hindrance; in fact she was a great help to him. As a married man and a Catholic I wondered about Yvonne’s husband.” He seems to have kept this wondering to himself.
But a moment later, Diederich reflects to us, not to Greene, “Obviously the sin of adultery didn’t bother Graham.” And Greene, sensing his friend’s unease, offers an answer, interpolated with brackets that show Diederich’s understanding: “We [he, Yvonne, and Jacques] have an understanding, an agreement.”
This is a book 50 years in the making; Diederich and Greene first met in 1954. Anyone interested in the life and work of Greene will find it full of new insights. It left me wanting to know more about the relationship between the two men, sending me back to my shelves for Greene’s letters and to Sherry. And, as someone who believes in the power of the written word, even in the 21st century, one message of Seeds of Fiction is to remind us that books can be powerful weapons, as The Comedians certainly was.