By David Lehman
Featured Art: Ventana de Radiografías by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
The first paragraph of “Under the Garden,” Graham Greene’s finest story, consists of just two sentences:
It was only when the doctor said to him, “Of course the fact that you don’t smoke is in your favour,” Wilditch realized what it was he had been trying to convey with such tact. Dr. Cave had lined up along one wall a series of X-ray photographs, the whorls of which reminded the patient of those pictures of the Earth’s surface taken from a great height that he had pored over at one period during the war, trying to detect the tiny grey seed of a launching camp.
With the indirection that passes for a physician’s professional “tact,” the masterly opening sentence reveals that the protagonist, a man named Wilditch, has just been handed a death sentence. Greene’s opening dwells on the doctor’s discomfort with speaking the bald truth (“what it was he had been trying to convey”), his determination to skirt the subject, with the result that the bitter prognostication of the man’s demise dawns on the reader in the same way that it dawns on Wilditch: belatedly, like the answer to a riddle or trick question. Or so it feels: Greene gets us right into the mind of his protagonist at the moment of revelation.
The names (Wilditch, Dr. Cave) may seem allegorical, but that is perhaps as it should be in a piece of dreamlike fiction that sets store (we learn later) by “the power of the name.” Wilditch does have an untamed side, and in the extended sequence that gives the story its title, he is a little boy lost in a cave under the garden behind the house in which he grew up.
The simile in the second sentence is sublimely on the mark, the X-ray likened to aerial photography of enemy territory “during the war”—the war that need not be named because it was the central event in the entire twentieth century. The diseased body is likened to a landscape, and a war-torn zone at that, dominated by destructive weapons and therefore a likely target of destruction
itself. It is a brilliant touch. The sentence conveys something about the medical profession—its appeal to the impersonal, the technical, the clinical and allegedly scientific—introducing at the same time a critical piece of information about the past life of our hero, now reduced pathetically to “the patient,” like an accused man standing powerless before a tribunal.
The word “trying” appears twice in this short paragraph—the first time in reference to the doctor’s inadequate use of language, the second time in reference to Wilditch’s work in the war. The word almost always implies failure or futility, and it hangs in the air here, perhaps to remind us that for all its airs of precision, the medical profession is as approximate and as founded on guess- work as military maneuvers—ill-named “surgical strikes,” for example—and that it is the inevitable fate of the human body to decline into a state of decay or rebellion, and when that happens, life becomes a terminal trial.
“Under the Garden” is much the longest story in Greene’s 1963 collection, which he called A Sense of Reality. It is a shrewd composite title for a book of stories that lives up to an ideal that Coleridge described in Biographia Literaria (chapter xiv). Coleridge, accounting for his contribution to the Lyrical Ballads, tells us he aimed at writing poems in which “the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural” and nevertheless felt “real.” “And,” Coleridge adds, “real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from what- ever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.”
David Lehman’s books include “One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir” (Cornell University Press, 2019) and “Playlist: A Poem” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019). He is the editor of “The Oxford Book of American Poetry” and series editor of “The Best American Poetry.” He has written nonfiction books about the New York School of poets, classic American popular songs, Frank Sinatra, and mystery novels, among other subjects.
Originally published in NOR 15