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Places of cycling: Graham Greene and the art of knowing when to put one’s pen down

Words by Paul Maunder with images from Getty

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The topic that will get any writer exercised – other than money – is that of the daily word count. For a creative bunch, writers can be awfully data-obsessed. Of course quantity is no guarantee of quality, but when faced with the daunting task of writing a novel, especially a doorstopper, it is reassuring to see the total word count tick up. Stephen King aims for 2,000 words per day. Michael Crichton reportedly achieved five times that. By contrast Tom Wolfe made much slower progress. His book A Man in Full took eleven years to complete, at an average of just 135 words per day.

Portrait de Graham Greene, en juin 1982. (Photo by Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Graham Greene falls on the lower end of this scale and is famous for keeping strictly to 500 words a day. One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Greene (1904 – 1991) was unusual for combining literary acclaim with popularity. The books he wrote would, today, cross several genres. His subjects were politics, morality, love and above all, Catholicism. He extensive travels gave him a range of backdrops for his stories: Cuba, Mexico, Africa, Vietnam and England. During the Second World War Greene worked as a secret agent for MI6 where his supervisor was Kim Philby, later unmasked as a Soviet spy.

At the end of the war Greene began an affair that was to prove both the undoing of his marriage, and the inspiration for his classic novel The End of the Affair (1951). The protagonist of the book, Maurice Bendrix, is (conveniently) a novelist. When he describes his daily routine, we know it is Greene’s routine too:

English novelist, short-story writer, essayist and playwright Henry Graham Greene pouring out a drink. Original Publication: Picture Post – 7289 – A Third Man Or Real Life – pub. 1954 (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Getty Images)

“I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript. No printer need make a careful cast-off of my work, for there on the front page is marked the figure — 83,764. When I was young not even a love affair would alter my schedule. A love affair had to begin after lunch, and however late I might be in getting to bed — as long as I slept in my own bed — I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it.”

2nd December 1975: English screenwriter, playwright, travel writer, essayist and best selling novelist Graham Greene (1904 – 1991). (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

For Greene, amid a life of intrigue, travel and moral ambiguity, writing was a constant. He kept strictly to his 500 words, five days a week. To some degree writing replaced Catholicism as the dominant religion in his life. In the mid-1960s he moved to an apartment in Antibes, in the south of France. He moved – naturally – for love; to be close to a woman, Yvonne Cloetta. For his writing, location mattered not one jot. On the Côte d’Azur he maintained his daily output. But after he closed the notebook the rest of the day was more hospitable than in grey old England. A swim, some sunbathing, reading. Then a daiquiri or three (Greene picked up the taste for daiquiris in Havana).

When Greene was 66 a reporter from the New York Times came to Antibes to interview the great man. The reporter asked if Greene was a nine-to-five sort of writer.

‘No,’ Greene replied. ‘Good heavens, I would say I was a nine-till-a-quarter-past-ten man.’