Any Rowing in ‘Greeneland’?

Graham Greene

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

Is there anyone reading Graham Greene these days?

I remember reading Greene’s novels with great interest when I was in my upper teens, growing up in Sweden. In the end of the 1970s, when Greene was still regarded as one of the world’s greatest authors, the Swedish publisher Nordstedts, which published Greene’s works in Sweden, republished a whole stack of new editions of his novels. The publisher thought that the British author was up for the Nobel Prize for Literature and wanted to be sure that the Swedish readers had a good variety of Greene’s books to choose from when the Prize winner was announced; I, for one, bought several of his books at that time and started reading them, one after another (I would later reread many of them in English). Later studying literature at the university, I continued to come back to what was called ‘Greeneland’, a world I found appealing as a young man.

Those of you, who have knowledge of the Literature Nobel Prize laureates, know that Greene never received the Nobel Prize for Literature; Greene ended up in the group of brilliant authors who were passed over by the Swedish Academy, which is the assembly who selects the recipients of the Prize. Around the year 1980, The Times (or was it The Daily Telegraph?) published an extremely long article about the animosity towards Greene among some of the members of the Swedish Academy. The anti-Greene group was led by Artur Lundkvist, who was a powerful man in the Academy. How an author is selected and eventually chosen for the Prize is held in deep secrecy. The only reasons for Greene never receiving the Prize that leaked out was that he was ‘too popular’ and made enough money on his books, so he did not need the prize money.

Anita Björk, actress
Anita Björk

However, another theory did surface. In the mid-1950s, Greene had a love affair with the young Swedish actress Anita Björk, 20 years his junior, and who had been married to the journalist and author Stig Dagerman (for more information and photo of Björk and Dagerman, see here). Dagerman became famous in Sweden and Europe after the Second World War. Being a highly successful author, but later plagued by writer’s block and fighting his demons, Dagerman committed suicide by asphyxiation in November 1954. Twelve months later in Stockholm, Greene was introduced to Björk by his friend Michael Meyer, who retells the story in his Not Prince Hamlet: Literary and Theatrical Memoirs (1989). Soon thereafter the British author and the Swedish actress began their affair, which would last for four years.

About this episode, Blake Morrison writes in his article “A Prize Worth Writing For”, published in The Independent, on 22 October 2011:

[…] there is a conspiracy theory as to why the Nobel Prize never went to Graham Greene. It’s well known that Greene had an enemy in Artur Lundkvist, who thought his novels ‘too popular’ to merit the Prize. Less well-known is that Greene had an affair with Anita Björk, the Swedish actress. Björk was married to the Swedish poet Stig Dagerman, who committed suicide – inhaling car exhaust fumes in his garage – at 31. Lundkvist was an admirer of Dagerman’s poetry. Perhaps he was also an admirer of Anita Björk’s body. Or perhaps he blamed Greene in some way for Dagerman’s death. There were personal reasons, anyway, for him to resist Greene. So goes the story.

The story isn’t quite right – Greene met Björk when she was a widow, not a wife. But Michael Shelden’s recent biography of Greene [The Man Within; 1994!] points out that, after the affair with Björk was over, the distressing details of Dagerman’s death were used by Greene in his play The Complaisant Lover, a tasteless piece of exploitation which caused offence in Stockholm. Shelden is reluctant to believe that merely personal factors could have swayed Lundkvist. But others in the Academy may have been influenced, too. In many ways, Stockholm (population 650,000 [sic! 880,000 at the time this article was published]) is more like a small town than a city, with an everyone-knows-everyone artistic community, and a long memory for bad behaviour. Greene had been a face in town long before Anita Björk. His novel, England Made Me (1935), is set in Stockholm, and contains a disturbing portrait of a Swedish business mogul. It’s possible that familiarity bred contempt. Not even Swedes are immune to the human factor.

Enough of Graham Greene and the Swedes!

Travelling to Maine for Thanksgiving, I thought I should bring a book to read in between the eating sessions. Looking at the books in the book shelves, my eyes found their way to the ‘Greene section’. I picked a slim volume with the title Loser Takes All, a novella published in 1955 (which came out during the time of Greene and Björk’s affair). It is about a poor assistant accountant named Bertram, 40, who is going to marry his much younger girlfriend, Cary. The wedding is going to be in a boring church and the honeymoon is going to be spent in Bournemouth, as Bertram says, ‘not, on the face of it, an exhilarating programme.’ However, fate intervenes when the director of the company where Bertram works, Mr Dreuther, suddenly decides to invite the couple to get married and spend their honeymoon in Monte Carlo and spend some time onboard his yacht. While waiting for Dreuther’s yacht to show up, Bertram begins gambling at the casino. Read more about the plot here.

Loser Takes All Movie
A picture from the 1956 film Loser Takes All with is based on Greene’s novel. Glynis Johns played Cary and Rossano Brazzi played Bertram.

After reading a couple of the short chapters of Loser Takes All, I tried to recollect if I have ever read a Greene novel that brought up rowing, if only in a scene or getting a brief mention, but, alas, I could not remember. Greene went to Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, where I do not think that they had rowing on the programme, but he would at least be aware of the sport since his time at Balliol College at Oxford.

And suddenly, there it was, in the novella in my hand: in chapter 7, when Bertram and Cary, now married, are taking a walk in the harbour of Monte Carlo to look for Dreuther’s yacht:

We leant over a belvedere and looked down at the harbour – there wasn’t any change there. The sea was very blue and very still and we could hear the voice of a cox out with an eight – it came clearly over the water and up to us.

So, it is not much maybe, but at least we can now add Graham Greene to the list of writers who have mentioned rowing in their work, for example A.A. Gill, Billy Collins, Evelyn Waugh, Jeffrey Archer, John Betjeman, P.G. Wodehouse and Eric Linklater and many more.

Update 8 January 2018: Greene and the Nobel Prize.


  1. Midsummer murders and Morse had rowing scenes in them. Not my cup of tea.
    Preferred the Killing, the Bridge, Spiral, Wallander etc and the Wire no rowing there.
    The Facebook film had rowing with the brothers who didn’t get billions just had to be content with millions.

    How about a TV DETECTIVE who used to row. There could be a murder at HRR in the Stewart’s Enclosure. Sir STEVE R could make a brief appearance.

  2. As a matter of fact, Sir Steve did make a brief appearance in one of the episodes of Midsummer Murders.

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