Review of The Life of Graham Greene, Volume III: 1955-1991
by Norman Sherry
Viking Penguin 2004 800 pp. 39.95
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
At twenty, Graham Greene signed an autograph album, “death being but a little while away.” In the intervening seventy-six years, amid the slow motion suicide that was his life, he produced over sixty books. These included twenty eight novels, some of the most memorable works written in English in the last century, among them Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, and The Comedians.
In publishing volume three, Norman Sherry (who teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio) has completed his massive and impressive biography of an author universally esteemed for his ability to portray the moral complexity of an ordinary character trapped in a tragic web of his own doing, often isolated in an exotic locale: Sierre Leone, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti. Most often, the character’s dilemma is posed as a conflict between his perceived obligation to believe in God coupled with an innate inability to do so. So compelling and distinctive is the form of Greene’s storytelling that, despite the novels being set all over the world, they in fact inhabit one specific place, Greeneland.
Volume Three begins in 1955, with Greene at the height of his fame. The Quiet American, Greene’s study of guilt and culpability in Vietnam, had just been published, and Greene celebrated in a characteristic fashion, by smoking opium with his mistress, Catherine Walston.
Catherine was not the first, or the last of Greene’s lovers, but perhaps the most important to Greene. Married to Vivien Dayrell-Browning in 1927, Greene was never faithful, and they separated in 1947 (though they remained married until his death in 1991). Much of the first half of this book is devoted to his love affair with Catherine. Although a solitary, shy man, one who “sought dare-devilish disaster in lost, forgotten places with the persistence of a determined suicide,” Greene obsessively pursued sex wherever he found himself, being particularly partial to both married women and brothels. In addition to Vivien and Catherine, he had lengthy relationships with three other women, Dorothy Glover, Anita Björk, and Yvonne Cloetta.
After writing his 500 words by eight in the morning (a disciplined regimen he maintained throughout his life), Greene turned to his other love, alcohol. Sherry notes that his attachment to sex, drugs, and travel, while of dubious moral worth, stem from Greene’s central malady, manic depression, or what we today call bi-polar syndrome, and accounts in part for his alcoholism. As the title of one volume of his autobiography indicates, he was in a lifelong quest for Ways of Escape from a punishing depression.
Sherry spends much of the volume engaged in outlining the plots and characters of Greene’s works during this period, among them Our Man in Havana, The Comedians, A Burnt-Out Case, Travels With My Aunt, The Human Factor, and Monsignor Quixote. Sherry is particularly concerned with identifying the people in Greene’s life on whom the characters are based, owing to his belief that Greene’s novels are a key to the biography of this “tense, nervous, fidgety man [who] needed to unburden himself somehow.” Sherry believes that “his novels and their veiled disclosures are the only kind of revelation he could give.”
Greene’s politics come under extended scrutiny, especially given the peculiar group of fanatics, thugs, strongmen, and Communists he chose to associate himself with publicly. An admirer of Castro, buddies with Torrijos of Panama, and, late in life, an ardent supporter of both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, Greene appeared to be a knee-jerk leftist. Indeed, he said that “I would go to almost any length to put my feeble twig in the spokes of American foreign policy.” Sherry argues that Greene was not so much a defender of an ideology as a supporter of the underdog. However, late in life, his fawning support of the Soviet Union compels Sherry to argue that “Graham is knee-deep in deliberate political folly.”
Even those who know little of Greene know he was a “Catholic novelist,” yet what he believed remains a mystery, one which Sherry tries to unravel. Converting to Catholicism at the time of his marriage, Greene sought to be true to his vows, yet his numberless, ongoing infidelities and disregard for the institution of the church make most skeptical. Late in life he defined himself as a “Catholic agnostic,” and though an oxymoron, the term seems to be an apt description of many of his protagonists as well.
Critics see Greene the man as far too flawed to be worthy of our attention: a self-absorbed alcoholic and drug taker who, though married, acquired mistresses and regularly consorted with prostitutes. Greene himself no doubt understood his life as that of a sensualist and contrarian, seeking whatever ways of escape he could find from the deadly bourgeois trap that was England. Like his countryman Lawrence Durrell, he sought physical and spiritual freedom in travel, finding himself most at home when he was elsewhere.
Sherry may be faulted for the sheer size of the biography. Greene “put himself down among the second class, not a Dostoevsky, not a Tolstoy.” For Sherry, “looking back over Greene’s many literary triumphs, surely he has a right to be wedged in there somewhere among the great.” For those like myself, enthralled both by Greene’s absorbing narratives and their exquisite artistry, Sherry’s authorized biography will be the standard account of Greene for the foreseeable future.