When I used to paint all day long, when all I did was dream of rich reds bleeding into cobalt blues beneath my brush, I had a patron saint painter who hovered above my canvas, with whom I was in constant conversation; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, impressionist painter of fin-de-siecle Paris nightclubs and bordellos, arguably the inventor of the modern poster, and lover of redheads.
“What do you think, Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec?” I would ask with furrowed brow as I studied reproductions of his work, searching for that magical combination of hues that would make my painting sing. “What color do you suggest for this shadow?”
“Try Prussian Blue,” he would answer patiently in his French accent. “Use this stroke.”
Maybe he answered me, maybe I was just talking to myself. What is important is that it felt real. It wasn’t just about painting, either. In Loehmann’s, as I agonized over whether I should be spending money on a new dress or on yet another tube of paint, I swear I heard his voice. “Buy a pair of red shoes,” he said firmly. “Go dancing.”
These days, it’s Graham Greene.
Last year, I read The Ministry of Fear. We’re in London, it’s World War II, and Arthur Rowe, the book’s main character, is lured out of his apartment and across the street by a church carnival. He goes in the hope of recapturing a little happiness.
Here’s the thing; sad, gentle Arthur Rowe is a murderer. He has just been released from jail for the mercy killing of his wife, who was suffering from an agonizing, incurable disease.
One of the attractions at the carnival is a prize cake, made with real eggs and butter, to be won by guessing its correct weight. In the dark of a fortune-teller’s booth, he is inexplicably given the right answer. But there’s been a mistake, he’s the wrong man. The intended winner wants it back; and he is suddenly caught up in a ring of enemy spies.
Halfway through the book, the plot takes an astonishing, unforeseeable turn. Bombed in the Blitz, Arthur loses his memory. He is quite happy now. His girl wonders if he isn’t better off this way, having forgotten the terrible crime he has committed.
In the end, Arthur recovers his memory, recovers the microfilm, and gets the girl, and yet, the happy ending is a lie, predicated on lies.
It blew me away. I’d never read a book like this, so ambiguous in so many ways. It started out a thriller, and concluded as a journey into the pain and treachery of the human heart.
After that, I read every Graham Greene I could get my hands on, the novels, the short stories. Just when you think you know where he’s heading, he changes direction. He knows how it feels to be on the outside when everyone else seems to be on the inside. He knows what we are thinking in the darkest nights of our souls. He knows what it means to struggle with faith in a benevolent God. He knows. And that’s before I even get into the beauty of his writing. With Graham Greene, each word is inevitable, each sentence a faceted jewel of the English language. This is a writer gifted by God.
Late at night, bleary-eyed in front of my computer, I type, I read what I have written, I stop.What do you think, Mr. Greene? I ask.
And he answers me. Not quite there yet. Do it again.