Paul Theroux

A Book of Quite Startling Banality

A World of my Own: A Dream Diary

By

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‘The most horrible thing he could imagine as a boy was to feel an ice-cold hand laid upon his face in a pitch dark room when alone at night; or to awaken in semi-darkness and see an evil face gazing close into his own; and these fancies had so haunted him that he would often keep his head under the bed covering until nearly suffocated.’

No, the young haunted writer is not Graham Greene but rather Edgar Allan Poe, the subject of Jeffrey Meyers’s new biography, a book I have been reading for pleasure. That was the sort of strangeness I was hoping to find in Greene’s Dream Diary. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Greene that even remotely resembles the ice-cold hand or the evil face. ‘Another thing lacking is nightmare,’ Greene explains in his introduction. ‘Never terror, never nightmare.’ What kind of serious writer has no nightmares? My heart sank further when Greene writes: ‘The erotic side of life may seem oddly absent from this record but I do not wish to involve those whom I have loved in this World of My Own…’

Dry dreams and nocturnal omissions: perhaps this is the key to Greene – that he was not tormented at all and that his libido had ample latitude. This book is a personal selection of Greene’s ‘best’ dreams from 1965 to 1989, listed under general topics, such as Travel, Reading, Science, Animals Who Talk and, of course, Brief Contacts With Royalty – it has been said that there is not a man, woman or child in Britain who does not at some time dream of the Queen. Greene’s royal dream seems fairly standard: ‘Then Prince Philip entered. I was not surprised at all that he was wearing a scoutmaster’s uniform, but I resented having to surrender my chair to him. As I moved away the Queen confided to me, “I can’t bear the way he smiles”.’

Early in his life, on the suggestion of one of his psychoanalysts, Greene jotted down the details of his dreams. Later on, he resumed the practice for his own amusement and edification, accumulating over this twenty-four-year period (he says) 800 pages of dreams. You would have thought Greene’s dreams would be highly enlightening. On the contrary, I know less than before. It is as though, in one of the current American expressions for deliberate obfuscation, Greene is ‘blowing smoke’.

I have always felt the story that Querry tells his lover in A Burnt-Out Case to be one of the weakest parts of the book. The story was a dream that Greene had while writing his novel, and he says that much of his work was derived from dreams. ‘In dreams begin responsibilities,’ as Delmore Schwartz once wrote: so true.

The trouble is that Greene spends such a lot of time in these dreams hobnobbing with popes, with dead writers (Henry James, T S Eliot), with Edward Heath (‘an agreeable evening’), Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Oliver Cromwell. I think it might be true to say these dreams reveal a distinct power mania, but nothing serious. He meets Hitler. They talk until the cows come home. But ‘I can’t remember the subject of our conversation.’ His memory seems to fail him in other dreams. This is Greene’s entire dream entitled ‘D H Lawrence’: ‘It was the Duke of Marlborough who introduced me to D H Lawrence. I found him younger and better groomed than I had expected. He was quite friendly towards my work.’

All the words that have been written about Greene since his death have made him seem to me a simpler and more remote figure. And here is the man himself, indulging himself in one of the most revealing and intimate activities anyone can attempt, and the result is a quite startling banality. There is a little comedy in the dreams, some satire, a touch of paranoia, a smidgen of folie de grandeur, but none of the tragic, harrowing, horripilant experiences that visit the average person – me for example – in his dreams. Greene is never chased – never pursued at all. He is never naked. Never seriously injured. Never regretful. Never guilt-ridden. After finishing the book I decided that, on the basis of his dreams, Greene was the most normal man in the world. And then I reflected on what was missing and thought the opposite.

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