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Whatever Happened to Graham Greene?

05/24/2013 01:37 pm ET

Over lunch with a colleague in London the other day I mentioned that business managers face a problem summed up by Graham Greene in the title of his book, The Human Factor. I was expounding my view that even the most experienced and intelligent members of staff could make irrational and expensive errors of judgement when I saw her face retreat into a questioning frown.

Who is Graham Greene she said? For a moment I was speechless. Here was a 30 year-old university educated English woman who had never heard of one of most famous novelists of the 20th century. Some days later I reported this episode to an executive in her forties who works in the HR department of a City law firm. She is an intelligent, lively woman with a passion for outdoor sports. To my amazement she shyly admitted that she too had never heard of Graham Greene.

When I dropped in the names of some of the better known film adaptations of Greene novels such as The Third Man, Our Man in Havana, and the End of the Affair there was a flicker of recognition by both women, especially for the last mentioned which was released in 2004 starring Ralph Fiennes.

But of Greene himself, author of 24 novels and many short stories, essays and plays, and winner of an array of literary prizes, these two women had no knowledge.

Yet both had heard of The Great Gatsby and were planning to see the film which has just opened in London -- to indifferent reviews as it happens. Why? Because of Leonardo DiCaprio. Had they heard of the novel behind the film? Absolutely, although the name Scott Fitzgerald rang only distant bells. Until DiCaprio came along, the man they associated with Gatsby was Robert Redford whose starring role in the 1974 film underpins the continuing commercial success of the DVD version.

The Great Gatsby now sells more every year in English than it did in all Fitzgerald's lifetime. That slim book, a mere 50,000 words, has become the essential American text ranking alongside Catch 22 as the rite of passage book that every young man and woman has to read. Scott Fitzgerald's success is such that Gatsby has been translated into almost every language with a written script on earth and is on the syllabus of schools and universities around the world.

But Redford and DiCaprio hardly explain why Scott Fitzgerald remains so prominent in the public consciousness while Graham Greene seems to have been forgotten, if not by older readers, then certainly by the present smart phone generation.

For an answer I turned to my friend Erica Wagner, the starry literary editor of The London Times. She told me that Greene may well be entering the no-man's land between currently fashionable writers, be they alive or dead, and the enduring classic authors such as Hemingway, Wodehouse and Dickens. Her view is that this no mans land can swallow a writer and his work and some never re-emerge.

To make her point, Erica told me that she continues to champion the wonderful Canadian novelist Robertson Davies who has dropped beneath the literary radar since he died in 1985. And that gave me a pang of acute embarrassment : I'd never heard of him.

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