Playing literary detective

Reading Professor Richard Greene’s magnificent new biography of Graham Greene, I came across a character named Claudette Monde – a French literary critic with whom Greene claimed (to Catherine Walston) to have had an affair (in September 1946 or thereabouts). Since no French literary critic with that name seems to have existed, the biographer concludes (on pages 169-170) that she was either invented by Graham Greene (so that he could boast about her to Catherine), or else “the woman was using a false name, as many did in the days of reprisals against collabos”.

However, if it is true that there was no literary critic named Claudette Monde, there was a Claude-Edmonde Magny (and Claude-Edmonde sounds just like Claudette Monde, making it entirely possible that Catherine Walston or someone else misheard the name and passed it on in this form), who was actually a very influential critic at the time. She lived between 1913 and 1966. Her 1948 book L’Âge du roman américain (translated to English in 1972 as The Age of the American Novel), which argued that modern English-language literary fiction had been powerfully influenced by the cinema, had a significant impact on post-war French literary culture (and on French film culture, too).

Most of Magny’s examples were indeed American, but she was also seriously interested in Graham Greene’s work – she wrote the introduction to a 1953 French edition of Brighton Rock. And regardless of whether they had an affair in 1946, they were certainly in contact at the time. On the website of Sotheby’s can be found a first edition of The Ministry of Fear, inscribed by the author to her: “An expression of the schizoid for Claude-Edmonde Magny from Graham Greene”.

I shared with Professor Richard Greene (no relation, by the way) my solution to this small literary mystery, and he agreed with me. With his encouragement I wrote to Michael Hill and Jonathan Wise, two eminent Graham Greene scholars who manage the website of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust and the Trust’s quarterly newsletter. My letter was published in the November 2020 issue of the newsletter. The issue also features the first half of my 2017 essay on The Quiet American and its 1958 film adaptation, an essay originally written for for this blog.