Gloria Emerson wrote one of the most important and affecting studies of the Vietnam War. The moment I opened Winners and Losers in 1978 I was moved by an emotion that I hadn't found in what were then far more famous and influential works on the same subject, such as David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest. In the intervening years, Emerson published only two other books, Some American Men and Gaza: A Year in the Intifada, neither of which seemed to me to recapture her early passion. Just recently, after reading her first novel, Loving Graham Greene (Random House of Canada, $32.95), I went back and opened Winners and Losers for the first time in more than two decades. And there it was, right on the first page: her extraordinary combination of reason and outrage. I was instantly swept back to that other era. I also realized that Emerson probably has had the gift for fiction lurking inside her all along.
Certainly Loving Graham Greene is not the sort of first novel that a reader expects from a former reporter. Its structure, control and characterization are nothing like those of, for example, the early Ward Just, to name only one of her contemporaries who came back from Vietnam knowing that reportage was not large enough or subtle enough to deal with their important truths. Loving Graham Greene is more reminiscent of Ian McEwan or even Julian Barnes. The form is dictated by the plot (which is driven by character), and it never loses its forward momentum, gaining both complexity and clarity as it proceeds.
The storyline, in brief, concerns Molly Benson, a wealthy American woman who's been reading Graham Greene's fiction since she was 14. His books have helped to make her the New York liberal that she is. So, no doubt, has the mysterious death of her brother in El Salvador in 1981, during the troubles there. Eventually she and the famous British author become acquainted in Antibes, where Greene spent his last years. She moves a bit too quickly to build the chance meeting into a friendship, and Greene, a famously private personality, withdraws. But Molly constructs a way of keeping in touch with him from America, and finds her convictions bolstered by the mere fact of their being in touch. Until now, she has expressed her own beliefs mainly through charitable donations¨"money for medicines in Cuba, money for the Sandinista tuberculosis clinics in Nicaragua, money for the rebel hospitals in El Salvador, money for the Palestinians in Gaza, and so forth." But now, emboldened by her contact with Greene, she resolves to intervene personally in the name of human rights. She will go to Algeria to try to extract various artists and writers from the civil war there. In particular, she will try to save the novelist and journalist Tahar Djaout (another real-life figure¨fated to be murdered by Muslim fundamentalists in 1993).
Surely one of Greene's most extraordinary novels was The Quiet American (1955), in which the title character, Pyle, a well-intentioned but blundering and ignorant diplomat, is posted to Vietnam in the days following the collapse of the French regime there. The book is eerily prophetic in the way it foresees the even greater Vietnam fiasco that lay round the corner. Pyle possess facts but ones which are cancelled out by his basically ethnocentric view of the world.
Superficially, Molly Benson is different in that she's an anti-American American, one of those people "uncomfortable in their own country¨it's too loud, too brutal, and too much is wrong." But she is just as dangerously nanve as Pyle, believing that she can bribe Algerian officials to get want she wants. She travels with her spouse and a young Englishman they have picked up along the way, two characters defined sharply but with skilful economy. What they find, predictably, is a chaos that defies their efforts to understand it. "They could hardly keep count of the slain: nuns and priests and Trappist monks, journalists and writers and editors, businessmen, teachers, and students, women who were covered and women who were not, villages going about their daily lives or sleeping." Placid amid the carnage are two retired French clerics, the last ones left at an old European hospital. What with the added dimension that their religiosity gives them, these two seem especially Greenean. Their presence is another level of homage to Graham Greene himself, who is perhaps the character with the truest ring of all.
Emerson writes that Greene in person was not what Molly "expected to find, having always pictured a frail man of weary demeanor. He was very tall and quite graceful, with wide shoulders, someone who had not thickened with age or been dimmed by it. The face, once beautiful, was now interesting, with nice large ears, a boyish mischievous smile and blue eyes that watered slightly and saw everything. He was not pompous; he was not condescending. Instead of the spent and melancholy genius she imaged, he was a man easily amused." It's not clear whether Emerson actually knew Greene or whether, in making his portrait, she is drawing on novelistic instinct. A bit of both, I suspect. In any case, he certainly comes to life on the page.
I asked Louise Dennys, the president of Knopf Canada, how she reacted to the book. She is Graham Greene's niece as well as one of his former publishers. "I thought it captured Graham very well in many ways (far better than the biographies!)," she told me. She mentioned especially the way that Emerson got at "his extraordinary ability to influence his readers and gain their love¨something peculiar to certain writers."
What about the factual details? I asked. Was it really the case, as Emerson writes, that Greene dictated all his correspondence in his modest apartment in France and sent the tapes to England for his sister (Dennys's mother) to transcribe and send out on pre-signed note paper? "Altogether true with regard to my mother." And did the job then pass, as Emerson relates, to "a niece"? And is she herself the niece in question? No, in this instance the niece was "my sister Amanda Saunders," who temporarily put aside her career as a photographic artist and "stepped in at Graham's request to become his personal assistant when my mother had a disabling strokeÓShe remained his assistant over the next two years until Graham's death." The sly mention in the novel of a "Canadian professor" who edited a collection of Greene's journalistic pieces refers to Judith Adamson of Montreal. ˛