On the bamboo coffee-table in Graham Greene's modern one-bedroom flat at Antibes lies a dog-eared Penguin copy of Our Man in Havana. The book's cover has been crudely repaired with opaque brown Sellotape by Greene himself. "I'm afraid I've rather made a mess of it," he says apologetically. The book, he explains, was a present from a Russian cosmonaut he met in Moscow last September, when he returned to the Soviet Union for the first time since 1961, invited by the Union of Writers. (Since then Greene returned briefly to attend last February's massively publicised Peace Forum.) On the flyleaf is an inscription written in English by the cosmonaut.
"He took it with him in space," Greene says, sitting in a wicker chair in his small, unstylish book-lined sitting-room overlooking the noisy Antibes harbour. "It was the mission that broke the record for the longest time in space, five men out there for over five months. They were only allowed three books each."
The inscription reads: "There are books which you forget as soon as you've read them, there are some which make you read them a second and a third time; and as to this one, I've been re-reading it all my life, both on Earth and in Space. I've learnt it by heart; while in Havana, I specially visited all the places described here. This is the most valuable thing of mine, and I give it back to you with gratitude."
Greene only remembers the first name of the cosmonaut - "Yorgi - it's the equivalent of George, in Russian..." - but he values the book and shows you underlined words in the text - places in Havana: the President's Palace, the Chacha Club; colloquial expressions. "He used it to learn English, you see," Greene says, apparently pleased.
Today most of Graham Greene's books, including The Power and The Glory, Monsignor Quixote, and even The Human Factor, are all in print in the Soviet Union; but for over ten years he'd forbidden his work to be published in Russia, following the internment in a labour camp of the dissidents, Siniavski and Daniel, in the late Sixties.
In his usual fashion, Greene made that decision public by writing to the Times: in his letter he also said he wouldn't set foot in the USSR as long, he wrote, "as new conditions are not brought about". A few weks after its publication, he received a Moscow-stamped letter from his old friend and wartime colleague, Kim Philby, breaking a silence of seven years since his defection in 1963.
Philby wrote he approved of Greene's decision - and hoped that "the conditions" in the USSR might change, "not only because what you did is just and honourable, but also because it might result for us in some unexpected gratification, some meal together, for instance, when we could talk like in old times..."
A correspondence ensued, "largely on private matters," Greene insists: "Well, if there was anything political in it, I knew that Kim would know that I would pass it on to Maurice Oldfield, so it was either information or disinformation...", he says, letting his voice trail off.
In a span of some fiteen years, Philby wrote seven or eight times. Greene sent him all his books, as well as the manuscript of The Human Factor - a novel about an Intelligence Service agent who defects to Moscow - for comment. (Philby answered that the flat assigned to Greene's hero in Moscow was too drab and that he'd been much better treated; but Greene stuck to his description, which he'd based on Eleanor Philby's account of her life in Moscow.) And so, as Greene finally visited Gorbachev's glasnost-tempered Russia twice in the past six months, he did have his long-awaited reunion with Kim Philby.
"I don't say anything about that," he says, when first asked. And again, as you insist; "I don't give any answer to that." But to a point-blank question he will not lie - honesty has been an habit with him for so long. "Well, actually yes, I met him both times."
There were three meetings in September, when Greene had come from France with a woman friend of 25 years; then a quiet dinner in Philby's flat, cooked by Philby's wife, in February, when the two men swapped stories of their wartime years in SIS - where Philby was Greene's immediate superior - over Russian wine and vodka. Greene will gladly tell you that Philby's Russian mother-in-law fussed about his coming and helped prepare the dinner, but he remains vague about the conversation itself. Philby, unlike Burgess - whom he dismisses as "drunk and homosexual - I didn't like him very much" - remains a friend. (Even before receiving Philby's first letter from Moscow, Greene had agreed to write an introduction to his autobiography.)
Greene is uneasy talking about these meetings - when asked a precise question he will answer with an abrupt non-sequitur, either veering the conversation on Gorbachev, whom he met in February and admires very much ("His speech at the Peace Forum was almost unanswerable - moderate, non agressive... I wish there was a similar character in Washington...") or on his most recent trip to Nicaragua, two weeks ago, when he visited the Sandinista government, whom he has been supporting wholeheartedly since president Somoza's overthrow in 1979.
"Well," he finally answers, "when I went to meet Kim the first time, he said: 'No questions, Graham.' I said 'I've only got one question: how is your Russian?' And we drank and conversed about the past..."
At 82, Graham Greene, possibly the greatest living English writer - and a long-time contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature - has not much changed from his photographs of the Fifities, when he used to live at the Albany in London. He is very tall, with only a hint of a stoop, white hair, and slightly protruding, very clear blue eyes. He pays little attention to his clothes - on the coldish day we met last week, he wore a short-sleeved light blue shirt, shapeless beige trousers, and an uncongruous solid gold Rolex watch with a simple black leather strap.
The watch has a story. Greene explained it was a present from President Paredes of Panama, the man who succeeded his friend General Omar Torrijos when Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1982. "Paredes asked me to go and see Castro in Cuba and assure him that Panama's intentions towards Cuba remained the same. So I went off, and told Fidel, 'Fidel, I'm not the messenger, I'm the message.' Fidel knew how much Omar and I were close, you see." On his return Greene was presented with the watch, and promptly got rid of its flashy solid gold strap.
Politics and travel still take a great deal of Greene's time these days. He is just back from two weeks in Nicaragua. He is furious that the Times wouldn't publish a letter of his about Contra atrocities - "the Sandinistas may have shot by mistake some innocents in the course of a war, but there's no such thing as shooting by mistake an innocent baby, which the Contras do routinely," he says. He is planning to spend August in Siberia, where he's been invited to visit.(To the question "won't you be - well, haunted, by the ghosts of the people who've died there?" he answers "I daresay I will, but it will be purely tourism. And it is a new place to discover.")
There hasn't been a book since Monsignor Quixote, although he is working with difficulty on a novel started 15 years ago, abandoned, then picked up and left off once more five years ago. He doesn't know, he says, "whether I'll have time to finish it," and doesn't talk about it either, except to deny that it's about his recent Central American travels.
"I find that when I talk about a novel, it's dead. But I recently found an old unfinished play of mine in a drawer, that I'd abandoned ten years ago because I couldn't see how it would end. I reread it and rather liked it, and I saw quite clearly what the third act would be, so I wrote it. It's now with my agent."
The play, called The House of Reputation, takes place in Central America.
"In a brothel," Greene says with relish. "It has a rather good song in it. The girls sing it: 'I was born in a dive on Geronimo Street, Between one strip-tease and another, A man at the bar heard a baby bleat, And there I was with my mother, More naked than the law allows...' ...and each verse ends like that, 'More naked than the law allows...' ...and then there's this awful sentimental young man who's the son of the minister of the Interior, and falls in love with one of the girls. So to take her out he has the House of Reputation smashed up... But he doesn't get her all the same."
The "awful, sentimental young man" bears a more than passing resemblance with Ernie Pyle, the Quiet American, Greene's prophetic novel of American involvement in Vietnam; and Greene remains more than ever wary of what he calls "the dangers of innocence."
"You know, there are some people who'll tell you 'some of my best friends are Jews;' well... some of my best friends are American," he says. "There's an awful kind of innocence even behind the lies and stupidity of Reagan." He doesn't hide his dislike of America, which contrasts strongly with his respect of Gorbachev, and even of Andropov, whom he saw as a reformer. "Any change in the Soviet Union will have to come from the KGB," he says. "Because they take the youngest and the brightest and they train them and they send them abroad, where they learn about the world. Whereas the army are really a bunch of Napoleonic old men."
Greene watches little television apart from the news, hates book programmes ("There's no use doing them if you're bad, and if you're good they turn you into a television star. John Betjeman became a television star and it didn't do his poetry any good") and sees much less films than during his London and Paris days. He spent a very long time fighting a complicated custody battle for a goddaughter of his who had a messy divorce from a young Nice hoodlum, and although the case was finally won in appeal, he still has scathing words for the judges and the Mayor of Nice. He still gets up in the morning to write, and rewrite, and rewrite, in his spindly handwriting, some 300 words that will get typed and rewritten some more. What he enjoys most these days, he says, is "the company of a friend."
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1987