Tuesday 1 March 2016

I, Spy: Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958) and Ways of Escape (1980)

For anyone interested in exploring the geneses of and backgrounds to Graham Greene's novels (not to mention his plays, screenplays and travelogues), I can highly recommend Ways of Escape (Bodley Head, 1980, dust jacket design by Michael Harvey). A kind of sequel to A Sort of Life (1971) – Greene's autobiography, which covers his life up to the age of twenty-seven and the publication of his fourth novel, Stamboul Train (1932) – Ways of Escape is part memoir, part book-by-book exploration of the author's backlist, drawing on his introductions to the 1970–1982 Bodley Head/Heinemann Collected Edition of his works along with assorted essays for assorted newspapers and magazines. I read the whole thing last year (after buying a first edition for a fiver at the Lewes Book Fair) and touched on it briefly in my review of The Ministry of Fear (1943) and my year-end books top ten; but I'm minded to dwell on it a little more in regard to another Greene book I read last year:

Our Man in Havana (Heinemann, 1958, dust jacket design by Donald Green – said wrapper also to be found, naturally, in Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s). The story of a middle-aged Havana-based vacuum-cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, who winds up spying for British Intelligence – after a fashion; he fabricates all of his reports – Our Man in Havana also featured in my top ten books of the year, placing at number ten, just below the ninth placed Ways of Escape in fact. While I enjoyed it, I'd venture that it isn't as rich a piece of fiction as, say, the aforementioned The Ministry of Fear, or The Quiet American (1955), or The Human Factor (1978). However, like those novels it does deal with matters of espionage – a subject Greene had plenty of experience with, having spied for the Secret Service in Africa during the war – and in many ways is perhaps more illuminating on the realities of spying than any of them.

Greene notes in Ways of Escape that Our Man in Havana started life as an outline for a film, written shortly after the war at the request of the Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti but never developed into a full screenplay. (In the event the book was filmed – after publication – by British director Carol Reed.) "I thought I would write a Secret Service comedy based on what I had learned from my work in 1934–4 of German Abwehr activity in Portugal," Greene explains, before continuing:

I had returned from Freetown – and my futile efforts to run agents into the Vichy colonies – and been appointed to Kim Philby's sub-section of our Secret Service, which dealt with counter-espionage in the Iberian peninsula. My responsibility was Portugal. There those Abwehr officers who had not been suborned already by our own service spent much of their time sending home completely erroneous reports based on information received from imaginary agents. It was a paying game, especially when expenses and bonuses were added to the cypher's salary, and a safe one. The fortunes of the German Government were now in decline, and it is wonderful how the conception of honour alters in the atmosphere of defeat.

I had sometimes thought, in dealing with Portugal, of how easily in West Africa I could have played a similar game, if I had not been content with my modest salary. I had learned that nothing pleased the services at home more than the addition of a card to their intelligence files. For example there was a report on a Vichy airfield in French Guinea – the agent was illiterate and could not count over ten (the number of his fingers and thumbs); nor did he know any of the points of the compass except the east (he was Mohammedan). A building on the airfield which he said housed an army tank was, I believed from other evidence, a store for old boots. I had emphasised the agent's disqualifications, so that I was surprised when I earned a rating for his report of 'most valuable'. There was no rival organisation in the field, except SOE, with whose reports mine could be compared, and I had no more belief in SOE reports than in my own – they probably came from the same source. Somebody in an office in London had been enabled to add a line or two to an otherwise blank card – that seemed to be the only explanation.

So it was that experiences in my little shack in Freetown recalled in a more comfortable room off St James's gave me the idea of what twelve years later in 1958 became Our Man in Havana.

In their absurdity and especially their apparent veracity, Greene's recollections of spying in Ways of Escape and their fictionalised versions in Our Man in Havana remind me of W. Somerset Maugham's magnificent Ashenden, or, The British Agent (1928). Admittedly there's less humour in the latter, but despite the differences in tone (although less marked differences in the clarity of their prose; Greene and Maugham were both beautifully clear writers), in its own way Our Man in Havana strikes me as being as authentic a (fictional) depiction of spying as Ashenden. And regarding the lighter tenor of Our Man in Havana, as Greene reasons, "It seemed to me that either the Foreign Office or the Intelligence Service had amply merited a little ridicule."

Incidentally, the chapter on Our Man in Havana in Ways of Escape is revealing in ways entirely unrelated to espionage as well, not least when Greene recounts the episode in Cuba when he tried to score some cocaine. And equally incidentally, the copy of Our Man in Havana pictured in this post is a first edition (and first impression) I bought on eBay last year, partly because I wanted to read the book, partly because I love Donald Green's wrapper, but also because this particular copy bears the ownership signature of a Georgina Greene on the front free endpaper. I haven't been able to establish any kind of familial connection with Graham Greene, but Greene did have quite an extended family – he had five brothers and sisters – so you never know. In any case, as a collector of books himself, in particular signed editions, Graham Greene would surely have approved of the purchase.