‘A friendship can be among the most important events in a life,’ Graham Greene wrote in his second memoir, ‘and a way of escape’. In this volume, fittingly titled Ways of Escape, Greene also described his meetings and correspondences with the Norwegian writer Nordahl Grieg. Although they met only three times, Grieg ended up making a lasting impression on the English writer, and proved to be just such an escape that Greene sought.
Their first meeting took place in September 1932, at a time when both men were going through times of unrest. After two consecutive literary failures, the young Greene had just finished the manuscript for Stamboul Train and was feeling depressed. Meanwhile, Grieg had moved back to Oxford and was struggling with his book of essays on English poets. Their unexpected meeting, which happened through a mutual acquaintance, seems therefore to have been a welcome change for both men, and Greene later wrote in Ways of Escape that ‘to me [Grieg] certainly brought a measure of hope (…) carrying it like a glass of akvavit down the muddy lane in Chipping Campden.’
Greene elaborated on his meeting with Grieg in his diary, where he described the Norwegian writer in charming terms. During their meeting, Grieg had suggested Greene should take up a lectureship at the University of Oslo, or at least give a talk at the Anglo-Norse Society. Despite the abruptness of Grieg’s visit, Greene later wrote that he immediately felt ‘caught up’ in Grieg’s intimacy. This feeling seems to have been mutual: Grieg related their meeting in a letter to his friend and Greene’s Norwegian translator Nils Lie on 16 September, describing Greene as ‘an unusually nice and sympathetic fellow’.
The two men did not meet again until Grieg’s London exile during the war years, but what Greene called ‘the dreamlike atmosphere’ of the Norwegian writer’s friendship remained. They corresponded throughout Grieg’s stay in Russia and the Baltics in 1933-34, and discussed everything from literature to failing love affair: Grieg commented on the English writer’s latest publications (‘the communist scene was very unconvincing’), and implored Greene to come and join him wherever he was. ‘It was a matter of messages,’ Greene later wrote, ‘warm and friendly and encouraging and critical, mostly in other people’s letters. (…) Nordahl Grieg, like a monarch, never lacked messengers.’
In the summer of 1933, Greene contacted Grieg about a potential meeting. He had decided to set his next novel in Stockholm, and was hoping to see Grieg there. Grieg wrote back to Greene from Estonia on 5 August: ‘I was very glad to get your letter. I am – alas – on the other side of the Baltic, but still things can happen’. Asking why Greene did not go to Norway while in Scandinavia, Grieg insisted that ‘You have got many friends there now.’
Grieg also invited Greene to Estonia, but the English writer lamented how he was unable to afford tickets. He later wrote in Ways of Escape: ‘How I wished I had borrowed, begged or stolen the necessary funds and replied to at least one of those messages – “I arrive on Saturday.”’ Greene did however travel to Oslo, where he was introduced to Nils Lie, Lie’s wife Ingeborg, and the writer Sigurd Hoel.
After his return from Russia, Grieg founded the left-wing political journal ‘Veien Frem’. Without Greene’s knowledge, the first edition had advertised a future contribution from him. ‘Are you angry?’ Grieg asked. ‘If you forgive me for old days’ sake, please then send me an article, something hairraisingly good.’ And the second edition of ‘Veien Frem’ did indeed feature a hair-raising contribution from the English writer – the short story ‘Brother’, published in The Basement Room and Other Stories the year before.
Their second meeting took place after the German invasion of Norway in 1940, when Grieg had just helped smuggle the gold from the Norwegian Bank out of his occupied home country. Interviewed by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation in 1976, Greene sniggered as he remembered the following scene:
When he arrived with the gold I went and saw him at the Charing Cross Hotel, and the room was full of Norwegian exiled politicians and what not, they were sitting on the bed, he was lying on the bed, they were sitting on the floor, and Nordahl was telling his adventures.
In Ways of Escape he elaborated on how Grieg managed to make ‘a private corner between bolster and bedpost’, talking ‘of anything that seemed at the moment to matter – Marxism or the value of history or the Spanish war and Hemingway’s new book’. It appears that Greene was still just as ‘caught up’ in Grieg’s intimacy as he had been during their first meeting almost eight years ago.
The two men’s final meeting took place in London in the autumn of 1943, ‘an evening of which, because I never imagined it could be the last, I remember only talk and talk, then an air-raid siren and some gunfire, and talk again’, Greene wrote in Ways of Escape. Nils Lie could also remember ‘an evening with Graham Greene, who is a wonderful person and a sincere catholic.’ Greene had been characteristically pessimistic about the future. ‘Against this, Nordahl placed his indomitable belief in humanity’, Lie explained, ‘so contagious that he veritably converted the catholic.’
On 2 December 1943, Grieg was allowed to join RAF bomber fighters on a raid over Berlin. Bomber Command suffered one of its greatest losses that night, and three of the squadron’s four war correspondents were reported missing – among them Nordahl Grieg. ‘Nordahl Grieg was an omen or a myth, and he remained a myth’, Greene later wrote of his Norwegian friend. ‘Even his death was to prove legendary, so that none will be able to say with any certainty, “In this place he died.”’
Greene never forgot his Norwegian friend, writing in Ways of Escape: ‘Each of our meetings was separated by a space of years from the next, yet I would not have hesitated to claim friendship with him – even a degree of intimacy.’ There seemed always to have been arguments around Nordahl Grieg, but without ‘a trace of anger.’ Greene would later describe his relationship with Grieg as that of ‘a friend I had grown up with, to whom I could speak and with whom I could argue about anything in the world.’ He was the only man Greene had have ever met ‘with whom it was possible to disagree profoundly both on religion and politics and yet feel all the time the sense of goodwill and an open mind.’
Grieg’s high spirits, his good humour and ‘charity’, which Greene described as being ‘of greater value than the gold of the National Bank,’ seemed always to have an encouraging effect on the English writer, and might help explain why the atheist Stalinist and the troubled Catholic kept in touch for so long and always tried to meet up in some corner of the world. Greene’s writing certainly makes it clear that he, long after Grieg was gone, could still remember the feeling of intimacy that the Norwegian writer had inspired, and which Greene described as being as impersonal ‘as sunlight.’
A version of this article was first published in the Anglo-Norse Review