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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Griffith Review dazzles;
Newest Greene book has ALL the dirt.
A bit too much, actually.

A welcome Xmas present was The Best Australian Essays 2004 (Black Ink $24.95) with notable and stylish contributions by Donald Horne (on his ageing body), Tom Keneally (on how he came to write the Schindler book), Kerry Goldsworthy (on choral singing), Nicholas Shakespeare (Somerset Maugham)... but why bother listing them all? The point of an anthology such as this is to allow each reader to sip and sup according to individual taste. No general reader can keep eyes on the total range of Australian non-fiction writing, in publications as diverse as The New York Review of Books, Granta, Art Monthly and the daily papers, so this selection is a valuable sampler of what's on offer. It allows you to discover new talent and to follow it up. What Lord Acton wrote to a friend in the 19th century is still true: "The go-ahead work" is in the magazines.

I noted that for the first time since the series began seven years ago, Best Australian Essays carries nothing form the Jesuits' Eureka Street magazine. This failure to make the cut must concern the new editorial team at Eureka Street. Their places on centre court seems to have been taken by Griffith Review, the newcomer edited by Julianne Schultz and published quarterly by Queensland's Griffith University and ABC Books. Somewhat as Granta editors do, Schulz groups her writers round a topic - I hear sectarianism is soon to come - and gives them their head. It's a simple formula, one whose success after only six numbers may be judged by the inclusion of two of her pieces in Best Australian Essays. Schultz's magazine is the one to watch.

Speaking of Xmas presents, the third and final volume of Norman Sherry's biography of Graham Greene (Jonathan Cape $75.00) arrived in the shops, some two months after its publication in London, just in time to fill an irritating gap in some peoples' Xmas lists. I wonder what a reader who wasn't expecting it made of this 906 page tome (of Online Catholics No 17). There's a danger signal in the book's illustrations, the very first of which is a photograph of the biographer himself on a mule in Mexico. Such authorial egotism recurs throughout the book, where the Perpendicular Pronoun muscles its way onto page after page. In spite of much claimed familiarity, however, Norman Sherry seems tentative about Graham Greene himself, as if he had never really known him. "A shilling life will give you all the facts," as Auden wrote; what we expect from a bulky book is more - understanding, interpretation, penetration. What we get instead are more and more facts. This is especially true of Greene's affair with Catherine Walston, where his love letters get much more space than they need or deserve - there's no reason to stare at a man with his pants down, a single glance will tell you all you need to know.

On the central question of Greene's religion, Sherry looks for and gets some useful direction from an Australian source, George Russo of Western Australia. A former priest, Russo had become a Graham Greene man after reading The Power and the Glory. Then, puzzled by Greene's animosity toward the Jesuit man of letters, Philip Caraman, he wrote to the author to clear up the puzzle. Back came a reply: "Father Caraman is a Jesuit whom I dislike very much. He was a man who tried to intervene in my private life." Sherry quotes Greene's letter to Russo but is somewhat opaque on the cause of Greene's enmity. It appears that Caraman spoke once too often about the Greene/Walston affair and so publicised it to church authorities. By that time, however, Catherine had found comfort in the arms of a Dominican friar, Thomas Gilby OP, "a priestly libertine and debauchee" according to Sherry. Caraman was more attuned to Evelyn Waugh's world then to Greene's although the Jesuit had received another Greene mistress, Dorothy Glover, into the church, Graham and Catherine attending her confirmation. When his fellow Jesuits turned against Caraman, Waugh wrote to Greene asking him to be kind to the man, although they were no longer friends. Dazzled by Waugh's expectations of goodness Greene shuffled: "I have not sought his company for so many years". He wrote that shuffling response 25 years after sending his fierce letter to George Russo, which shows how capable he was of maintaining the rage. (A friend who reads the Times Literary Supplement tells me that a new life of Caraman is on the way; perhaps it will clear up Sherry's opacity. In the meantime, Martin Stannard's Life of Evelyn Waugh is the best account of Father Caraman's ministry.)

Norman Sherry was working on one of his final chapters, the one that traverses Greene's religion, when he got a long letter from George Russo. Basically Russo argued that Greene's determination to have a priest at his deathbed, as well as his regular attendance at Mass and his many faith based acts of charity proved that, despite his sins, he remained a believing Catholic. For all his verbal posturing ("I am a Catholic agnostic") and mental juggling, the Catholic faith was bedrock. Impressed with Russo's letter, Sherry ran large slabs of it over two pages. At the end of the book he acknowledged Russo's aid: "I need to state categorically that the remarks he made to me influenced the way in which I dealt with Greene in the chapter about his religion."

And now, the Perpendicular Pronoun muscling its way in again, as it habitually does in Books Etcetera, I want to tell you that I have known George Russo for many years. Ordained from the Manly seminary, in 1955, he belonged to a stellar generation of priests who would have been an alternative hierarchy if they had stayed the distance. Younger men coming behind him were delighted to find in George a priest in a Sydney parish who read widely and was familiar with Greene, Waugh, Ronnie Knox and other luminaries of the English Catholic Revival. He cannot have had an easy passage through that house of sorrows, the Manly seminary. Indeed, there was a story abroad that he had travelled to Italy during one long vacation WITHOUT PERMISSION, and the boat he came back on broke down at sea, so that he was a day late in returning to the seminary - for which he was penalised. Something like that. When I looked him up just now in the clerical studbook, to get his year of ordination, I noticed that he had been ordained, not at mid-year in the Sydney cathedral like his classmates, but in the seminary chapel at the end of his course - a sure sign that his card had been marked.

One more story, because it is redolent of a vanished church and may astonish younger Catholics today. After ordination, George Russo was sent as a curate to the Sydney parish of Matraville, whose pastor was a cranky Irishman called Maurice Roche. There was a telephone in the presbytery, it was in Maurice Roche's office; and when Maurice Roche went out, he locked the office so that no one could get at the telephone. To George this sequestered telephone became a symbol of the servile condition of the parish curates, the church's proletariat. So one day when Maurice Roche went out George got an axe and chopped down the door of his office. "But, Father," he said to the returning parish priest, "the phone was ringing and I thought it might be someone who was dying and in urgent need of a priest."

The Works:

  • Life of Graham Greene: Vol 3 1955-1991
  • The Best Australian Essays 2004
  • Griffith Review


    Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1 Books Etc
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  • Issue 5 Books Etc
  • Issue 7 Books Etc
  • Issue 9 Books Etc
  • Issue 11 Books Etc
  • Issue 13 Books Etc
  • Issue 15 Books Etc
  • Issue 17 Books Etc
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  • Issue 21 Books Etc
  • Issue 22 Books Etc
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  • Issue 31 Books Etc
  • Issue 36 Books Etc

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