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A P R I L   1 9 7 8
Fiction
Greene

by Paul Theroux

THE Ritz bar was empty, quiet, but crazed with decoration. I tried to get a fix on it. It was white, with a Bischof gleam, gold-trimmed mirrors that repeated its Edwardian flourishes of filigree and cigar wrappers, frosty statuettes, velvet and the illusion of crystal in etched glass. The chocolate box of a whore's boudoir. I guessed I would have to lie on my belly to get the shot I wanted, but then I noticed in all that tedious gilt a man behind the bar polishing a goblet. He wore a white dinner jacket and was bald; his head shone. I saw at once how the crown of his skull gathered the whole room and miniaturized it, and he wore it like a map pasted to his dome. Shoot him nodding and you've got a vintage Weegee.

"A very good evening to you, Madam."

"Same here," I said. "A large gin and tonic."

"Kew," he said, and handed it over.

"You're welcome," I said. I expected him to take a swing at me, but he only picked up another goblet and continued his polishing. What a head! It made the wide-angle lens obsolete. But I didn't have the heart to do him. In fact, since arriving in London I had begun to feel winded and wheezy, a shortness of breath and a sort of tingling in my fingers and toes I put down to heartburn and jet lag.
Return to the Interview with Paul Theroux

Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

See other travel essays and short stories by Paul Theroux published in The Atlantic:

  • The Imperial Icehouse,
    April, 1979.


  • A Circuit of Corsica,
    November, 1978.


  • The Johore Murders,
    March, 1977.


  • The Odd-Job Man,
    April, 1976.


  • The Last Mohican Between Khabarovsk and Moscow,
    August, 1975.


  • Misery on the Orient Express,
    July, 1975.


  • Pretend I'm not Here by Paul Theroux
    February, 1974.


  • Burma,
    November, 1971.


  • Two in the Bush,
    July, 1968.
  • Greene entered the bar at six sharp, a tall man in a dark blue suit, slightly crumpled, with an impressive head and a rather large brooding jaw. I almost fainted: it was my brother Orlando, a dead ringer. Ollie had grown old in my mind like this. Greene's face, made handsome by fatigue, had a sagging summer redness. He could have passed for a clergyman -- he had that same assured carriage, the bored, pitying lips, the gentle look of someone who has just stopped praying. And yet there was about his look of piety an aspect of raffishness; about his distinguished bearing an air of anonymity; and whether it was caution or breeding, a slight unease in his hands. Like someone out of uniform, I thought, a general without his medals, a bishop who has left his robes upstairs, a happy man not quite succeeding at a scowling disguise. His hair was white, suggesting baldness at a distance, and while none of his features was remarkable, together they created an extraordinary effect of unshakable dignity, the courtly ferocity you see in very old lions.

    And something else, the metaphysical doohickey fame had printed lightly on his face -- a mastery of form. One look told me he had no boss, no rivals, no enemies, no deadlines, no hates; not a grumbler, not a taker of orders. He was free: murder to photograph

    He said, "Miss Pratt?"

    A neutral accent, hardly English, with a slight gargle, a glottal stop that turned my name into Pgatt.

    "Mister Greene," I said.

    "So glad you could make it."

    We went to a corner table and talked inconsequentially, and it was there, while I was yattering, that I noticed his eyes. They were pale blue and depthless, with a curious icy light that made me think of a creature who can see in the dark -- the more so because they were also the intimidating eyes of a blind man, with a hypnotist's unblinking blue. His magic was in his eyes, but coldly blazing they gave away only this warning of indestructible certainty. When he stared at me I felt as if it was no use confessing -- he knew my secrets. This inspired in me a sense of overwhelming hopelessness. Nothing I could tell him would be of the slightest interest to him: he'd heard it before, he'd been there, he'd done it, he'd known. I was extremely frightened: I had never expected to see Orlando again or to feel so naked.

    I said, "How did you happen to get my name?"

    "I knew it," said Greene. Of course. Then he added, "I've followed your work with enormous interest."

    "The feeling's mutual."

    "I particularly like your portrait of Evelyn Waugh."

    "That's a story," I said. "I was in London. Joe Ackerly said Waugh was at the Dorchester, so I wrote him a note saying how much I enjoyed his books and that I wanted to do him. A reply comes, but it's not addressed to me. It's to Mister Pratt and it says something like, 'We have laws in this country restraining women from writing importuning letters to strange men. You should have a word with your wife' -- that kind of thing. Pretty funny all the same."

    Greene nodded. "I imagine your husband was rather annoyed."

    "There was no Mister Pratt," I said. "There still isn't."

    Greene looked at me closely, perhaps wondering if I was going to bare my soul.

    I said, "But I kept after Waugh and later on he agreed. He liked the picture, too, asked for more prints. It made him look baronial, lord of the manor -- it's full of sunshine and cigar smoke. And, God, that suit! I think it was made out of a horse blanket."

    "One of the best writers we've ever had," said Greene. "I saw him from time to time, mostly in the fifties." He thought a moment, and moved his glass of sherry to his lips but didn't drink. "I was in and out of Vietnam then. You've been there, of course. I found your pictures of those refugees very moving."

    "The refugees were me," I said. "Just more raggedy, that's all. I couldn't find the pictures I wanted, so I went up to Hue, but they gave me a lot of flak and wouldn't let me leave town. The military started leaning on me. They didn't care about winning the war -- they wanted to keep it going. I felt like a refugee myself, with my bum hanging out and getting kicked around. That's why the pictures were good. I could identify with those people. Oh, I know what they say -- 'How can she do it to those poor so-and-so's!' But, really, they were all versions of me. Unfortunately."

    "Did you have a pipe?"

    "Pardon?"

    "Opium," said Greene.

    "Lord, no."

    "They ought to legalize it for people our age," he said. "Once, in Hanoi, I was in an opium place. They didn't know me. They put me in a corner and made a few pipes for me, and just as I was dropping off to sleep I looked up and saw a shelf with several of my books on it. French translations. When I woke up I was alone. I took them down and signed them."

    "Then what did you do?"

    "I put them back on the shelf and went away. No one saw me, and I never went back. It's a very pleasant memory."

    "A photographer doesn't have those satisfactions."

    "What about your picture of Ché Guevara?"

    "Oh, that," I said. "I've seen it so many times I've forgotten I took it. I never get a by-line on it. It's become part of the folklore."

    "Some of us remember."

    It is the photograph of Ché that was on the posters, with the Prince Valiant hair and the beret, his face upturned like a saint on an icon. I regretted it almost as soon as I saw it swimming into focus under the enlarger. It flattered him and simplified his face into an expression of suffering idealism. I had made him seem better than he was. It was the beginning of his myth, a deception people took for truth because it was a photograph. But I knew how photography lied and mistook light for fact. I got Ché on a good day. Luck, nothing more.

    "Pagan saints," I said. "That's what I used to specialize in. They seemed right for the age, the best kind of hero, the embattled loser. The angel with the human smell, the innocent, the do-gooder, the outsider, the perfect stranger. I was a great underdogger. They saw things no one else did, or at least I thought so then."

    Greene said, "Only the outsider sees. You have to be a stranger to write about any situation."

    "Debs," I said.

    "Debs?" He frowned. "I didn't think that was your line at all."

    "Eugene V. Debs, the reformer," I said. "I did him."

    "That's right," said Greene, but he had begun to smile.

    "Ernesto wasn't a grumbler," I said. "That's what I liked about him. Raul was something else."

    "When were you in Cuba?"

    "Was it fifty-nine? I forget. I know it was August. I had wanted to go ever since Walker Evans took his sleazy pictures of those rotting houses. I mentioned this in an interview and the next thing I know I'm awarded the Jose Marti scholarship to study God-knows-what at Havana U. Naturally I turned it down."

    "But you went."

    "With bells on. I had a grand time. I did Ernesto and I don't know how many tractors, and the Joe Palooka of American literature, Mister Hemingway."

    "I hear from Fidel from time to time," said Greene. There was just a hint of boasting in it.

    I said, "I owe him a letter."

    "Interesting chap."

    "I did him, too, but he wasn't terribly pleased with it. He wanted me to do him with his arms outstretched, like Christ of the Andes, puffing a two-dollar cigar. No thank you. The one I did of him at Harvard is the best of the bunch -- the hairy messiah bellowing at all those fresh-faced kids. Available light, lots of Old Testament drama."

    Greene started to laugh. He had a splendid shoulder-shaking laugh, very infectious. It made his face redder, and he touched the back of his hand to his lips when he did it, like a small boy sneaking a giggle. Then he signaled to the waiter and said, "The same again."

    "Isn't that Cuban jungle something?" I said.

    "Yes, I liked traveling in Cuba," he said. "It could be rough, but not as rough as Africa." He put his hand to his lips again and laughed. "Do you know Jacqueline Bisset?"

    "I don't think I've done her, no."

    "An actress, very pretty. Francois Truffaut brought her down to Antibes last year. I gave them dinner and afterward I began talking about Africa. She was interested that I'd been all over Liberia. 'But you stayed in good hotels?' she said. I explained that there weren't any hotels in the Liberian jungle. 'But you found restaurants?' she said. 'No,' I said, 'no restaurants at all.' This threw her a bit, but then she pressed me quite hard on everything else -- the drinking water, the people, the weather, the wild animals, and whatnot. Finally, she asked me about my car. I told her I didn't have a car. A bus, maybe? No, I said, no bus. She looked at me, then said, 'Ah, I see how you are traveling -- auto-stop!'"

    "Pardon?"

    "Hitchhiking."

    "Bumming rides?"

    "That's it -- she thought I was hitchhiking through the Liberian jungle in 1935!" He laughed again. "I had to tell her there weren't any roads. She was astonished."

    "Say no more. I know the type."

    "But very pretty. You ought really to do her sometime."

    "I did a series of pretty faces," I said. "My idea was to go to out-of-the-way places and get shots of raving beauties, who didn't know they were pretty. I did hundreds -- farm girls, cashiers, housewives, girls lugging firewood, scullions, schoolgirls. A girl at a gas station, another one at a cosmetics counter in Filene's Basement."

    "One sees them in the most unlikely places."

    "These were heartbreaking. Afterward, everyone said I'd posed them. But that was just it -- the girls didn't have the slightest idea of why I was taking their pictures. Most of them were too poor to own mirrors. One was a knockout -- a Spanish girl squatting with her skirt hiked up to her waist, sort of pouting, her bare bottom near her ankles. What a peach -- there was a beautiful line cupping her bum and curving up her thigh to her knee. She didn't see me. And another one, a Chinese girl in Hong Kong I did after that Vietnam jaunt -- long black hair, skin like porcelain, one of these willowy Oriental bodies. She was plucking a chicken in a back alley in Kowloon, a tragic beauty with that halfstarved holiness that fashion models make a mockery of. I weep when I think of it. That's partly because" -- I leaned forward and whispered -- "I've never told anyone this before- -- she was blind."

    "You've done other blind people," said Greene. "I've seen them exhibited."

    "When I was very young," I said slowly, trying to evade what was a fact. "I'm ashamed of it now. But the faces of the blind are never false -- they are utterly naked. It was the only way I could practice my closeups. They had no idea of what I was doing -- that was the worst of it. But they had this amazing light, the whole face illuminated in beautiful repose. They're such strange pictures. I can't bear to look at them these days. I was blind myself. However, let's not go into that."

    But as I described the pictures to Greene I saw that he had this same look on his own face, a blind man's luminous stare and that scarifying scrutiny in his features, his head cocked slightly to one side like a sightless witness listening for mistakes.

    "I understand," he said.

    "I'd be glad to show you the others," I said. "The pretty faces. You'll cry your eyes out."

    "There were some lovely girls in Haiti," he said. "Many were prostitutes. Oh, I remember one night. I was with that couple I called the Smiths in my book. I said they were vegetarians. They weren't, but they were Americans. He was a fairly good artist. He could sketch pictures on the spot. We were at that bar I described in my book -- the brothel. He picked one out and drew her picture, a terribly good likeness. All the girls came over to admire it." Greene paused to sip at his sherry, then he said, "She was a very attractive girl. If the Smiths hadn't been there I would have dated her myself."

    It seemed a rather old-fashioned way of putting it -- "dating" a hooker; but there was a lot of respectful admiration in his tone, none of the contempt one usually associates with the whore-hopper.

    "Dated her," I said. "You mean a little boom-boom?"

    "Jig-jig," he said. "But it comes to the same thing."

    I laughed and said, "I really must be going."

    "Have another drink," said Greene.

    "Next time," I said. I had lost count of my gins, but I knew that as soon as I remembered how many I'd had I'd be drunk.

    "Will you join me for dinner? I thought I might go across the street to Bentley's. That is, if you like fish."

    I was tired, my bones ached, I felt woozy and I knew I was half pickled. I attributed all of this to my sudden transfer from Grand Island to London. But I also had a creeping sense of inertia, the slow alarm of sickness turning me into a piece of meat. I knew I should go to bed, but I wanted to have dinner with Greene for my picture's sake. I recognized his invitation as sincere. It was an English sequence: they invite you for a drink; if you're a dead loss they have a previous engagement; if not, you're invited to dinner. I was pleased that he hadn't flunked me.

    I said, "Lead the way."

    Greene went to settle the bill and ring the restaurant while I tapped a kidney in the ladies' room. I met him outside the bar and said, "Bentley's -- isn't that where your short story takes place?"

    "Which one is that?"

    "'The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen.'"

    He looked a bit blank, as if he'd forgotten the story, then put on a remembering squint and said, "Oh, yes."

    "One of my favorites," I said. We left the Ritz and crossed Piccadilly in the dusty mellow light that hung like lace curtains in the evening sky. Greene towered over me and I had that secure sense of protection that short people feel in the presence of much taller ones. He held my arm and steered me gallantly to Swallow Street. I knew the story well. The couple dining at Bentley's are discussing their plans: their marriage, her book. She's a bright young thing and believes her publisher's flattery -- believes that she has remarkable powers of observation. Her fiancé is hopelessly in love with her, but after the meal, when he comments on the eight Japanese that have just left the restaurant, she says, "What Japanese?" and claims he doesn't love her.

    I heard the waiters muttering "Mister Greene" as we were shown to our table. Greene said, "I know what I'm having." He passed me the menu.

    He began talking about trips he intended to take: Portugal, Hungary, Panama; and I wondered whether he had people joshing him and trying to persuade him to stay home. Did he have to listen to the sort of guff I had to endure? I guessed he did. I had the feeling of being with a kindred spirit, a fellow sufferer, who was completely alone, who had only his work, and who, after seventy years, woke up each morning to start afresh, regarding everything he had done as more or less a failure, an inaccurate rendering of his vision, a betrayal. But I also saw how different we were: he was in his work -- I wasn't in mine. And perhaps he was thinking, "This boring little old lady only believes in right and wrong -- I believe in Good and Evil." We were of different countries, and so our ages could never be the same. In the two hours that had passed since I had first seen Orlando in him, Greene had become more and more himself, more the complicated stranger in the fourth dimension that confounds the photograph.

    "London's not what it was," he said. "Just around the corner one used to see tarts walking up and down. It was better then -- they were all over Bayswater."

    "I did some of them."

    "So did I," said Greene, and passed his hand across his face as if stopping a blush. "When I was at university I used to go down to Soho, have a meal in a nice little French restaurant, a half-bottle of wine, then get myself a tart. That was very pleasant."

    I didn't feel I could add anything to this.

    He said, "Soho's all porno shops now. It's not erotic art. I find it brutal -- there's no tenderness in it."

    "It's garbage," I said. "But there's an argument in its favor."

    "What's that?"

    "It works," I said.

    "I wouldn't know," said Greene. "I haven't seen any pornography since they legalized it."

    I laughed: it was so like him. And I was annoyed that I couldn't catch that contradiction on his face. He was surprising, funny, alert, alive, a real comedian, wise and droll. Knowing that I was going to meet him for a portrait I had been faced with the dilemma that plagued me every time I set out to do someone. Against my will, I created a picture in my head beforehand and tried to imagine the shot I wanted. I had seen Greene in a bar, seedier than the one in the Ritz, a slightly angled shot with only his face in focus, and the rest -- his long body, his reflective posture -- dim and slightly blurred: the novelist more real than his surroundings, special and yet part of that world.

    Then I saw him in the flesh, his sad, heavy face, his severe mouth, his blind man's eyes, and I thought: No, a close-up with a hand on his chin -- he had a watchmaker's fine hands. But his laugh changed my mind, and it struck me that it was impossible. I couldn't do him. Any portrait would freeze him, fix him, give him an eternal image, like Ché looking skyward, or that tubby talk-show bore everyone forgives because he was once Truman Capote, brooding under a shock of scraped-down hair.

    Once, I might have taken my picture and gone, and in the printing seen his whole history in his face, past and future. Tonight, I knew despair. Photography wasn't an art, it was a craft, like making baskets. Error, the essential wrinkle in the fiber of art, was inexcusable in a craft. I had seen too much in Greene for me to be satisfied with a picture.

    I said, "I think I ought to tell you that this is my last picture. I'm going to wind it up. Call it a day."

    "Whatever for?"

    "I'm too old to travel, for one thing."

    "Which Frenchman said, 'Travel is the saddest of the pleasures'?"

    "It gave me eyes."

    "I understand that well enough," said Greene. "Not long ago I saw an item in a newspaper about Kim Philby."

    "Always wanted to do him," I said.

    "I worked for him during the war in British Intelligence. Anyway, in this item Kim said what he wanted to do more than anything else was split a bottle of wine with Graham Greene and talk over old times. I fired off a cable saying that I would meet him anywhere he named if he supplied the wine. I felt like traveling -- it's as you say, an awakening. Kim cabled back, very nicely, he was busy. Some other time. I was sorry. I was quite looking forward to the trip."

    "As soon as I leave home my eyes start working. I can see! It's like music -- I don't really listen to it, but I can think straight while it's playing. It starts things going in my head."

    Greene was listening carefully, with his fingers poised like a pianist's on the edge of the table.

    "But there's something else," I said. "They're thinking of getting up a retrospective -- fifty years' accumulation of pictures! I have a fella digging them out. It was his idea. I don't dare look at them -- I know what they'll add up to."

    "Oh?" he said, and he started to smile, as if he knew what I was going to say next.

    "Nothing," I said in a whisper, "nothing. They're failures, every last one of them."

    "The long defeat of doing nothing well," he said, and sounded as if he was quoting. But he was still smiling. "Does that surprise you?"

    "Goddammit, yes!" I said. "I don't want to be famous for something I've failed at."

    "It's all failure," he said, speaking a bit too easily for my liking, as if he'd said it before and was getting so bored with it he suspected it of being untrue. Perhaps he saw my skepticism. He added, "Why else would you have started again so many times?"

    I said I saw his point, but that I expected more than that from all those years of work. It was a bit late in the day to talk so easily about failure, I said, and it was obnoxious to me to realize that while I thought I had been truthful I had only been deceiving myself. I said I felt like an old fool and the worst of it was that no one else knew, and that was a sadness.

    While I had been talking the food arrived. Novelists, I knew, ate what they wrote about; Greene had lemon sole and a cold bottle of Muscadet. Before he started he leaned over and took my hand gently in his. He had long, fragile hands, like beautiful gloves, and a pale green ring. He held on and said, "May I ask why you're taking my picture?"

    "I wanted to, and you agreed," I said nervously. "It will complete the exhibition."

    "What makes you think that?"

    I wanted to say a hundred things. Because we're both as old as the hills. Because you've lived a charmed life, as I have. Because no one wanted me to come to London. Because you've known what it is to be rich, famous, and misunderstood. Because anyone but me would violate you. Because you're alone, blind, betrayed, vain. Because you're happy. Because we're equals. Because you look like my poor dead brother.

    "Because," I said -- because people will see my face on yours -- "it's the next best thing to taking my own picture."

    I was grateful to him for not laughing at this. He said, "I'm afraid you're wrong. Deceived again, Miss Pratt. You're an original."

    I said that was all very well but that I still couldn't do a self-portrait.

    "Of course you can -- you have," he said. "Your self-portrait will be this retrospective, not one picture, but thousands, all those photographs."

    "That's what they say. I know all old people are Monday-morning quarterbacks, but I also know the life I've had, and it ain't them pictures."

    "No?"

    "No, sir. It's all the pictures I never took. It's the circumstances."

    He put his fingertips together thoughtfully, like a man preparing to pray.

    "When I did Cocteau, know what he said to me? He said, 'Je swee san doo le poet le plew incanoe et le plew cerebra.' And I know goddamned well what he meant, pardon my French." I took a few mouthfuls of fish. "When I take your picture, I'm sorry, but it's not going to be you. All I can shoot is your face. If I took my own picture that's all mine would be, an old lady, looking for a house to haunt."

    "With a camera," he said.

    "Pardon?"

    "I said, if you did your self-portrait with a camera."

    "What else would I use -- a monkey wrench?"

    "You could do a book," he said, and dipped his prayerful hands at me as if pronouncing a blessing.

    I said, "What do I know about that?"

    "The less you know, the better," he said. "You have forgotten memories. What you forget becomes the compost of the imagination."

    "My mulch-pile of memories."

    He smiled.

    "Renounce photography, the gentleman says."

    "Exactly." He said it with perfect, priestlike certainty.

    He made it seem so simple. It was as if he had led me through a cluttered palace of regrets, from room to shadowy room, climbing stairs and kicking carpets, and when we reached the end of the darkened corridor I'd feared most he had thrown open a door I hadn't seen and shown me air and light and empty space: hope.

    "All you have to do," he said, and now he turned, "is open your eyes."

    He was staring in the direction of the door.

    I saw eight Japanese gentlemen gliding noiselessly in. They wore dark suits, they were small and had that deft, precisely tuned, transistorized movement. They took their places around the large table in the center of the room and sat down.

    Greene said, "There's my Japanese!"

    "I see them! I see them!" I said. They were angels embodying the urgent proof that I write and remember. They were Greene's own magic trick, eight creaseless Japanese conjured from thin air and seated, muttering their gum-chewing language. So the evening had gone from salutation to reminiscence, subtle, solemn, funny, coincidental, and here it paused at valediction, to show my Speed Graphic as more futile than an eyeball, a box of peepstones that could only falsify this two hours. Any picture I took of Greene would be flat as a pancake. I knew that now; but I could begin again.

    Greene was reddening and laughing that rich laugh, as if he was amazed by his own success, by how perfectly his trick had worked.

    I said, "No one will believe this."

    And, by a professional reflex, saw my angle: Greene in Bentley's; his other half on the wall mirror; the sacrificial fish staring up at him; the half-drunk bottle of wine; Greene's face animated by laughter, all his features working at once, creating light; and in the background, just visible, his triumph, the circle of Japanese, their tiny heads and neatly plastered hair. The perfect photograph pausing in a gong of light, the artist at the foreground of his own creation: Greene by Pratt.

    There were tears in my eyes as I found the right f-stop and raised my Speed Graphic. I was humbled, just another crafty witness giving permanence to her piece of luck.

    Greene reached over -- he had very long arms -- and touched the instrument. It went cold in my hands. I lowered it.

    "No," he said. "Don't spoil it."

    "Please."

    He said, "Let this be your first memory."

    "I want to do you," I said. There were tears rolling down my cheeks, but I didn't care.

    "Don't you see? You've already done me."

    I still held the camera in my hand. I had looped the strap over my neck. I weighed the camera, wondering what to do with it. I could barely get my breath.

    "Do put it away," said Greene.

    I let it drop. It jerked my head forward. So I did not get the picture. But what did that insane Dutch painter say? "One seeks after a deeper resemblance than the photographer's." I had his portrait.


    Copyright © 1978 by Paul Theroux. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; April 1978; "Greene"; Volume 241, No.4; pages 92-97.

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