Graham Greene once estimated that he wrote around two thousand letters each year. Many were dictated over the telephone to his secretary in London who would then type them out over pre-signed headed writing-paper. From this vast resource, Richard Greene (no relation) has made a selection which makes an interesting addendum to the various biographies of Greene that have appeared in recent years. Letters by significant writers fall into three categories: those that are minor works of literature in themselves; those that contain information that adds to our knowledge of the man; and those that are of interest only because the recipient is also well known. In this collection there are few of the first, some of the second and perhaps too many of the third – for example, letters to Muriel Spark thanking her for her latest work. The letters to Evelyn Waugh, described as ‘treasures’ by the editor, are also insubstantial, though they do reveal something of the two authors’ somewhat cagey friendship.
The best letters as such are those that describe Greene’s travels in Africa, after being posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War to spy on neutral shipping. He describes the horrors of living in the tropics – the ants carrying off the corpses of squashed cockroaches, and his