Waugh + Greene = “The Odd Couple”

The Critic magazine has posted a feature length article by literary critic and biographer Jeffrey Meyers. This is entitled “The odd couple: Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene may have been unlike as possible, but they remained the closest of friends for four decades.” The article opens with this:

Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene had one of the great modern literary friendships — comparable to Conrad and Ford, Eliot and Pound, Owen and Sassoon. Strikingly similar in many ways, they were close contemporaries and came from professional middle-class families. Waugh’s father was a publisher, Greene’s father a headmaster.

Both had successful brothers: the older Alec Waugh was a popular novelist; the younger Sir Hugh Greene was Director-General of the BBC. Waugh and Greene went from minor public schools, Lancing and Berkhamsted, to Oxford — Greene to Balliol, Waugh to the less distinguished Hertford College — where they were acquainted but not close since (as Waugh claimed) Greene “looked down on us as childish and ostentatious. He certainly shared in none of our revelry”.

Both men had an unhappy marriage. Greene left his wife and children in 1939 but remained married, which allowed him the freedom to have many affairs without the risk of a permanent connection. (His long-time lovers, Catherine Walston and Yvonne Cloetta, were also married.) Betrayed by his first wife whom he divorced, Waugh had seven children with his second wife and was a severe and distant père de famille. Both men travelled widely and were temperamentally pugnacious.

Both men were Catholic converts in the late 1920s, but for different reasons. Greene converted in order to marry a devout Catholic. Waugh sought solace in the Church after being deeply wounded by his first wife’s adultery. A religious conservative and political reactionary, Waugh supported the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Greene, resolutely left-wing, befriended the revolutionary dictators Fidel Castro and Omar Torrijos of Panama…

After then describing several ways in which they differ, Meyers engages in a fascinating and detailed discussion of their relations with each other as writers and friends from the mid 1930s until Waugh’s death in 1966. Included are extended public and private debates of their works, especially in the case of two of Greene’s novels–The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter. Meyer’s essay appears to be an attempt at producing the definitive written consideration of this relationship. From what I know, it appears to be successful. It is accurate, fully supported with relevant quotes and reads well. After an extended discussion of their different approaches to the Roman Catholic Church, the article concludes with this:

…Waugh called Greene “the greatest novelist of the century”. When Waugh died in April 1966, Greene told his widow, “As a writer I admired him more than any other living novelist, & as a man I loved him. He was a very loyal & patient friend to me.” In Ways of Escape, he mourned “the death not only of a writer whom I had admired ever since the twenties, but of a friend” and noted his literary and religious qualities: “There was always in Evelyn a conflict between the satirist and the romantic … He had too great expectations even of his Church.” Despite Waugh’s reputation for rudeness and cruelty, Greene thought he was privately generous and physically courageous in war.

Waugh envied his friend’s good looks, glamorous lover, considerable wealth, freedom from domestic ties and connection to powerful leaders; Greene tolerated Waugh’s doctrinaire criticism and bad behaviour. Their friendship was sustained by their deep emotional affinity; worldly experience, common interests and stimulating talks; respect for each other’s intelligence, perception and judgement; understanding of their struggles and admiration for their books. Their bond was strong enough to survive their political and religious crevasse, and their extraordinary friendship survived without a serious quarrel to the very end.

Waugh had similar long lasting professional/personal friendships with, for example, writers Anthony Powell and Nancy Mitford, as well as friendships and correspondences with socially and intellectually prominent women Diana Cooper and Ann Fleming. That does not seem to have been the case with Greene but is perhaps beyond the scope of Meyers’ essay.  The Critic has posted both a full text with illustrations and a 24-minute audio version. Here’s a link. Enjoy.



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