BOOKS JANUARY 24, 2005
The Life of Graham Greene
Volume III: 1955-1991
By Norman Sherry (Viking, 906 pp., $39.95)
In William Golding's wittily acerbic novel The Paper Men, the famous English novelist Wilfred Barclay is doggedly pursued by a young American professor of English, Rick L. Tucker, who sees him as the perfect vehicle for the creation of a dazzling academic career. From party to party, from country to country, impervious to rebuffs, irrepressible and indefatigable, Tucker stalks his quarry. Irritated yet flattered, and not averse to a little sly exploitation of so eager a hunter, Barclay teases him, makes fun of his earnest wife, dangles half-promises, leads him on. Tucker has a drafted letter ready in his briefcase, needing only its subject's signature, appointing him Barclay's official biographer, with sole exclusive permission to explore his archive and to quote freely from his fiction and correspondence. Thus armed, he grits his teeth and puts up with the great man's ridicule, knowing that if he attains his goal he will be made academically for life, a sure recipient of named chairs and other high honors. He even wins points by saving his prospective ticket to fame from falling to his death off a fog-bound mountain path. In the end, however, the teasing palls on Barclay. Bored with what he has always seen as no more than a game, he gives Tucker a flat and final refusal. Tucker, with the violence of despair, gets a gun and shoots him, so that the last word of Barclay's authorial narrative is left unfinished.
Despite the numerous differences, Golding's scenario recurred to me more than once while reading the three thick volumes of Norman Sherry's monumental biography of Graham Greene. Unlike Tucker, of course, Sherry got what he wanted; and at times during his almost thirty years' tracking of Greene he may have ruefully recalled the old adage about being careful what you wish for. In 1974, partly at the urging of family and friends—who knew as well as he did that there was plenty in his life better kept hidden—Greene was scouting around for a reputable yet manipulable Boswell, who could be encouraged to tell the truth but was likely to have dominant interests that did not emphasize the psychosexual. Norman Sherry, a onetime Catholic and current professor of English, whose previous work on Joseph Conrad was famous for retracing all the secretive Pole's foreign travels and hunting out potential originals for his characters, seemed just such a candidate. Greene carefully inspected him over lunch at the Savile Club in London and decided that he would do. Three years later, in a letter to a friend, he wrote: “When I read Christopher Sykes's Evelyn Waugh I felt I had done right in agreeing to Sherry undertaking me. He has the great advantage of not knowing me." The advantage, Greene seems to have felt, was the subject's rather than the biographer's. He was not entirely correct.
A NOTORIOUSLY PRIVATE and deceptive character, Greene was cautious in setting up his ground rules for Sherry. His original reaction, and with good reason, had been, “Oh, I wouldn't like anyone looking into my life." A few days after the agreement was made—with a handshake only: nothing on paper—he wrote to Sherry, as Sherry records, "asking me not to interview certain women he had known." (Either this caveat was later removed or the hard-beavering Sherry cheerfully ignored it.) Greene dreaded formal interrogations, tape-recorder running. “I will never lie to you, Norman," he told Sherry, “but I will not answer all your questions." His own two memoirs, A Sort of Life (1971) and the well-titled Ways of Escape (1980), were exercises in suppressio veri and devious obfuscation: most notoriously, they all but ignored his wife and children. The second, I have long suspected, was provoked by Sherry's zealous researches, and had the main object, as with a cornered cuttlefish, of squirting out a protective cover of indelible ink. But Greene's tactics proved unsuccessful.
In 1978, he gave Sherry a map of the world marked up with all the spots he had visited; but he over-estimated the degree to which Sherry's repetitive tracking of his obsessional globe-trotting would divert the biographer's energies from other matters, and he can never have anticipated the awe- inspiring and massive quarrying that Sherry carried out, decade after decade, into every aspect of his subject's life and work. The globe-trotting had been not only continual (until quite late in life, Greene averaged about forty thousand flying miles a year), but also, especially early on, so rough and dangerous as to suggest either masochism or suicidal impulses, and--taking the rest of his life into account—very probably both. This was particularly true of the famous trek across Liberia in 1935, chronicled by Greene in Journey Without Maps (not strictly true, though the one he had was full of areas blank except for the legend “Cannibals").
Thus the challenge to his would-be biographer involved more than a little Barclay-like literary teasing. As late as 1985, David Lodge, after visiting Greene in Antibes, reported that he “seemed to derive mischievous glee from the tribulations that poor Norman Sherry had suffered in trying to retrace Greene's every step." Indeed, three decades of such sleuthing took a serious toll on Sherry's health (tropical diabetes, dysentery, temporary blindness, internal gangrene) as well as on his time, money, and energy. They were also largely responsible, it would seem, for two divorces.
In a letter in 1984 to Dr. Michel Lechat (the Congo leprologist who figures as Dr. Colin in A Burnt-Out Case), Greene wrote that “[Sherry] ... nearly got involved in a revolution in Liberia ... and I fear he will catch leprosy if he goes to the Congo." Still, Greene seems not to have discouraged the trip. What is more, a careful study of all three volumes raises serious doubts, again and again, as to just how effective Sherry's debilitating and often very unpleasant travel may have been. Michael Wood, while trailing Alexander the Great for a television special, suddenly stopped during his ascent of the Khawak Pass, turned to the camera, and simply asked “Why?" Sherry at times must have felt like doing the same. Reading him, I certainly did: Greene himself, after all, thought that his fiction was located in “a region of the mind." This does leave one wondering what his primary motive may have been in choosing a biographer who, on his track record, obviously thought the answers lay in regions of the world.
ONE TELLTALE FEATURE THAT becomes apparent to anyone reading all three volumes in sequence is the biographer's increasing—and perhaps inevitable—personal involvement with his subject over the years. Though Sherry is too modest to include himself in its index, he figures quite noticeably, and to what British critics in particular have found an unseemly degree, in this final volume. He uses lines from his own poetry as epigraphs. He prints a quite appalling prose meditation, apropos Greene's death, on the posthumous ravages carried out by lascivious worms, “turning us gradually into a sort of human jam. " He includes a perky photograph of himself, some thirty years back, on a donkey in Mexico. He offers several understated—and revealing—footnotes describing Greene's personal dealings with him. Once, after spending all his own money on Greene at the Savile Club bar, Sherry did manage to borrow a fiver from him for his train fare home. “Don't forget to return it to my sister Elizabeth," he was told (“which of course I did"). As is made very clear elsewhere, while Greene could be generous when so moved, he was expert at getting others to pay for him. One English Secret Service officer's memo noted: “Despite the money he makes out of making the great British public worry about its soul, [Greene] is extremely mercenary."
Sherry was also the target of mischievous retaliation by Greene because of his relentless pursuit of personal details. On one occasion Greene and his Secret Service brother-in-law Rodney Dennys peppered Sherry with quickfire questions about his private life; on another, in Anacapri, Sherry realized that a tall shadowy figure, later proved to be Greene, had been physically stalking him. (The novelist had always been a practical joker. He once found another Graham Greene in the phone book, called him up, and berated him for having written “those filthy novels.") And the teasing went on right to the end.
Unlike Rick L. Tucker, Sherry finally did get the letter granting him exclusive permission to quote from Greene's writings, published or unpublished. Greene signed it, shakily, complete with the addition of an ambiguous comma, on April 2, 1991—the night before he died. Understandably, his biographer took full advantage of it (some of the best letters are tucked away in the notes). Privileged citation includes, in this final volume, a facsimile, with transcription, of Greene's comments on some forty-seven of his favorite prostitutes. (One is listed, rather mysteriously, as a “real tough buggerer.") It looks as though the biographer may have been getting a little of his own back here. Predictably, this and similar tidbits have aroused fury in Greene's surviving relatives, even though most of what Sherry reveals had already been aired a decade ago in Michael Shelden's prosecutorial Graham Greene: The Enemy Within.
This by now more-than-Catullan love-hate relationship between biographer and subject is clearly what has made so many critics uncomfortable about Sherry's final volume, which is also the longest, slackest, and most self-indulgent of the three. “At Graham's death," he writes, “I suddenly felt I'd lost a father, brother, son." In a recent interview he went further: “I often felt I must be him: I lived within him." Then he added: “You can't help but admire him for having sex with everything in sight." Opinions on this may differ. Not surprisingly, Greene continues to haunt Sherry even from beyond the grave. “I have out of fear left the last sentence incomplete," Sherry remarks. Why so? Greene predicted that he would live to read the first volume, but not the second, and he was right on both counts. Having established at least his first prophetic credential, he carefully told Gavin Young in the Travellers' Club that Sherry himself would not live to complete the third. Sherry's "superstitious dread of Greene's powers of divination," he explains, is the reason why he has left unfinished the final sentence of his magnum opus (like the final sentence of The Paper Men, though for different reasons). “I haven't completed the work, so I still breathe." In those three long decades he never, like Rick L. Tucker, took a gun to his tormentor, but I suspect there must have been moments of frustration when the idea at least crossed his mind.
Sherry's long odyssey is now over, and its 2,251-page monument to his stamina, perseverance, and nervous obsession with his elusive subject demands comparison to such earlier marathon biographies as George D. Painter's of Marcel Proust, Leon Edel's of Henry James, and (perhaps most strikingly) Bevis Hillier's of John Betjeman, also in three volumes totaling more than two thousand pages, and the result, similarly, of almost thirty years' hard work. Unfortunately, although Sherry's appetite for research matches Hillier's, it sometimes remains hit-and-miss in places where one most wants it. To take an obvious example, we learn a good deal more about Greene's lifelong undercover activities as a British spy from Shelden than we ever do from Sherry. Since the present volume covers Greene's trouble-shooting in Cuba, Haiti, the Belgian Congo, Argentina, and Paraguay, this is a pity. We could have done with more of our man in Havana or Port-au-Prince and less of the guilt-ridden Catholic sexpot. Perhaps by way of compensation, Sherry takes care to give us, in each case, a full, knowledgeable, and, when it comes to Haiti, brilliant survey of the political background. But he also sidesteps embarrassing characters, such as the drop-dead beautiful Australian Jocelyn Rickards, with whom Greene was having a very active affair, full of daring al fresco sex, while at the same time trying to juggle his relationship with the Swedish actress Anita Bjrk and his still ongoing attempts to get his longtime mistress Catherine Walston to marry him. Sherry says Greene downplayed this relationship to him. But it was all there already, convincingly documented, in Shelden.
Sherry is sometimes frustratingly vague about details. This is particularly true of Greene's dealings over income tax. In the 1960s he suffered temporary financial ruin through the machinations of his financial adviser, Thomas Roe, a specialist in offshore tax havens against crippling British tax demands who turned out to be an embezzling crook. Just how far Greene was in danger of prosecution by the British authorities for tax evasion is never made clear: Greene himself thought there was a real risk, and his permanent relocation to Paris and Antibes shows how seriously he took the matter. For a while, too, he was extremely short of cash, living (as he informed Catherine) “on a shoestring and a Swiss overdraft." This was no hyperbole, as the movie director Peter Glenville made clear: “Graham, through Roe, lost all, repeat all." Sherry's verdict is correct: “[Greene] survived financially, but he'd sustained a severe hemorrhage."
Other clients, including Robert Graves and Nol Coward, were also burned. But perhaps the most serious long-term consequence (as David Lodge, always very perceptive on Greene, recently pointed out) was that “the acute and eloquent observation of English culture and society in the novels up to The End of the Affair is not to be found in the later ones." Nor (perhaps because of his always inadequate French) did Greene turn his attention very much to his new country of residence. Instead, as Sherry's final volume reminds us in mind-numbing detail, he kept taking off to promising exotic trouble spots, such as Cuba or Haiti, that would provide him with useful local color, plus that volatile cocktail of sleazy sex and political mayhem which was by now his recognized trademark.
Sherry's other major problem is his writing style. Breezy and conversational, full of intimate asides, curdlingly mixed metaphors, and sometimes embarrassing aphorisms, chopped up into short sections with attention-grabbing titles, his prose too often reads like the paragraphs of a jaunty literary gossip columnist. Worse, his vast text remains conspicuous throughout for its comparative lack of interest in literature as such, especially when dealing with the “Catholic novels." We learn a lot about Brighton in the 1930s, but very little about how the raw elements of Brighton Rock—loathing, despair, spiritual accidie—coalesce, against all the odds, to create stunningly effective fiction. We trudge through Tabasco in Greene's footsteps, but emerge none the wiser as to why the spare, monochrome narrative of The Power and the Glory moves us so deeply. Sherry proves (what many of us had long suspected) that Greene, Catherine Walston, and her husband Harry, a wealthy and latterly ennobled British Labor supporter, were uncomfortably close models for Maurice Bendrix and Sarah and Henry Miles in The End of the Affair—even to the point, Sherry suggests, of using Catherine's real-life diary for parts of Sarah's agonized (and widely praised) journal entries. Yet all this truffling for real-life antecedents fails to come to grips with the terrible intensity of Maurice's battle with God for Sarah's soul, or to explain why so fine a critic as Frank Kermode regards The End of the Affair as Greene's masterpiece.
LIFE AND ART IN GREENE'S fiction were, it is true, sometimes disconcertingly intermixed. II. Life and art in Greene's fiction were, it is true, sometimes disconcertingly intermixed. Catherine owed her own Catholic conversion to Greene's novels, and was in fact his goddaughter; the publication of The End of the Affair put a fatal strain on Greene's actual relationship with both his mistress and her hitherto complacent husband. The agonizing tension between Greene's religious convictions and his creative priorities (among which his unusually strong sexual drive should surely be counted) lies at the heart of his long career as a writer. By the time of The Quiet American, the emphasis was beginning to shift from God to politics, from sex to opium; but the chronic depressions, the guilt, the quasi-suicidal pursuit of danger remained as strong as ever.
Greene often said (and not only when excusing his marital history) that with him writing always had absolute priority, eclipsing any other demands. We have to ask how this sat with his Catholicism. For Shelden, the answer was easy: Greene—who admitted that he found invention hard, whose characters tended to be drawn from life, whose travel notes were often copied into his novels almost verbatim—simply used Catholicism as a wonderful bag of emotional and dramatic props, to be largely abandoned after he had squeezed the last creative drop out of them. This is plausible, but impercipient. It is rather like Orwell's commonsensical review of The Heart of the Matter: “If [Scobie] really felt that adultery was mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women." And if he was really averse to causing pain, added the onetime Burma policeman, he “would not be an officer in a colonial police force."
What we have here, generically speaking, is the Protestant reaction to Greene's fictional constructs, that nervous distaste for what the old priest at the end of Brighton Rock memorably describes as “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God." Here Greene's Catholicism, being decidedly eccentric (the hints of Jansenism, the recurrent efforts to strike deals with the Almighty, what Evelyn Waugh characterized as “great balls theologically"), was vulnerable. It also had to carry much unresolved conflict in the matter of sin and damnation left over from his Protestant boyhood, a legacy to which his father, who was also his headmaster, contributed in no small degree. Charles Greene of Berkhamsted School had a raging and prurient obsession for finding and stamping out any hint of masturbation or other sexual activity among his pupils. What was more, he expected his son to serve as one of his many spies and snoopers in this unsavory pursuit. No wonder the adult novelist ended up obsessed by the twin themes of sex and betrayal.
GREENE'S STRUGGLE TO WORK this burden out exhibited the mercy of God in stranger ways, I suspect, than even he had foreseen. It could also be argued that such a conflict of loyalties at an impressionable age—to his parents on one side of that famous green baize door, to his fellow students on the other—was a perfect preparation for his part-time career as a spy (even, some might speculate, as a double agent). That a quite astonishing number of his relatives (including an uncle, his sister, and two of his brothers) actually served in SIS or MI6 should come as no surprise. Masks and deception, creative lying, cover stories and double-dealing, ambiguities of faith and allegiance: for Greene, all these were bred in the bone. Catholicism, with its rock-hard certainties, its system of confession and absolution, must have struck him as having at least an outside chance of resolving his guilt, of freeing him from what he once described as the mortmain of the past, of helping him to govern, or at least to find forgiveness for, his always unruly sexual conduct, his troughs of self-hatred and despair.
As an Oxford undergraduate, Greene was an articulate and aggressive atheist. By his own account, he originally became a Catholic because of his determination to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, also a convert. After innumerable urgent letters and even the offer of a celibate union (she was terrified of sex) had failed to wear down Vivien's nervous resistance, Greene took the plunge. “If you need this for your fuck,” said his friend Claud Cockburn, “go ahead and do it.” He did. Initial marital bliss followed: for a while husband and wife were inseparable. Neither Sherry nor Shelden offers any explanation as to how the lady's fears were so quickly overcome; Greene obviously deserves some credit here. But domesticity, the original Venus flytrap, loomed threateningly. Vivien developed a line in cuddly animal love-talk; children arrived to challenge Greene's monopoly and interrupt his creative silences. Bliss evaporated, the itch for tarts returned.
It was not only his work that demanded spells of solitude. Love turned to boredom, for Greene a constant menace. God indeed moves in a mysterious way, as Vivien must often have reflected after her husband finally left her: they were never divorced. Ennui morphed into loathing. “Poor dear,” Vivien once told him, disconcertingly, “you wish I was dead.” The hatred of his marriage clearly lay behind a story called “The Destructors,” which described the vandalism, by a gang of hooligans, of a house based, in detail, on the last London home the Greenes shared.
From Brighton Rock to The End of the Affair, hatred, damnation, and hell were far more powerful elements in Greene's fiction than love, redemption, and heaven: the huis clos of eternal damnation had left its indelible mark on him. Byron's famous couplet—“Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;/ Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure”—might have been written with those two angry novels in mind. Pinkie Brown, the teenage Brighton thug, and Maurice Bendrix, Greene's atheistical alter ego, eat away at God and women like acid. (Pinkie actually carries a flask of vitriol.) His belief in heaven, Greene once noted, stemmed from his belief in hell. These emotions were deep-rooted.
As Sherry realizes, his subject's faith was sharpened by danger, conflict, and violence. Sex brought him in, but it took violence of a different sort to convert him. “In the dirt of Mexico, Greene became an ardent Catholic.” But it was not just the dirt—it was also the executions, the criminalization of faith, the desecration of churches that stimulated Greene. He wrote with passion of the torture, the bonfires, the priestly martyrs, and the seedy double agents of Elizabethan England. Pain and suffering were endemic to his belief, and to more than his belief: he sometimes encouraged his lovers to inflict cigarette burns on him, and spoke with regret of the fading of these love scars. Faut souffrir pour être boss.
A Catholic less like G.K. Chesterton could hardly be imagined, yet both shared a revealing preoccupation with paradox. In this connection, Greene often cited, as best embodying the shape of his fiction, lines from Browning's great poem “Bishop Blougram's Apology”: “Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things:/The honest thief, the tender murderer,/The superstitious atheist ...” Greene knew that not one person in a hundred would read the whole poem, or figure out why he really cited it. The bishop--and unconventional Catholic author—is being interviewed at dinner by a somewhat nave journalist, whom he enjoys teasing as to his real beliefs and character. The journalist wants a straight answer: does Bishop Blougram believe in God or not? Blougram, well aware that his reputation depends on mystery, responds: “With me faith means perpetual unbelief.” He wants to keep everyone guessing—and so, in an identical fashion, did Greene, who was capable of describing himself, similarly, as a “Catholic agnostic” or even, later, as a “Catholic atheist.” Shelden's analysis of his use of this poem is spot-on, but Sherry refers to it only tangentially (and his hit-and-miss index omits the reference altogether). Greene, to whom belief came hard, and who took his baptismal name from St. Thomas the Doubter, was also protecting himself.
WHAT, THEN, DID HIS Catholicism offer him besides getting Vivien Dayrell- Browning to marry him, plus the solace of the confessional and the gift, or the trap, of unlookedfor conviction? It probably put a brake on his suicidal urges by branding selfdestruction a mortal sin; but this did not stop his lifelong habit of deliberately putting himself in the way of potentially life- threatening situations, a kind of generic extension of his alleged (and possibly exaggerated) early experiments with Russian roulette. As A.H. Clough noted wryly in “The New Decalogue,” “Thou shalt not kill, yet needst not strive, officiously, to keep alive.” Nor, as both Sherry and Shelden make abundantly clear, did Catholicism cure Greene's admitted inability to change his compulsive sexual habits: the long-term adulterous relationships with married women (first Catherine Walston, and latterly Yvonne Cloetta), the regular recourse to prostitutes (Greene became notorious as a “brothel expert”). If absolution following confession was dependent on a firm determination to amend his ways, Greene admitted himself incapable of it.
Here, it could be argued, lay the root of his obsession with the notion of the sinner as potential saint. Others, he once confessed, might have a vocation to love God, but “some of us only have a vocation to love a human being.” It was perhaps his most attractive admission. In his later years, Sherry claims, Greene “scotched the idea of sexual sin altogether”; but by then his erotic urge was fading, and he simply wanted to clear his slate. If it is true, as he claimed, that one of his and Catherine's private ambitions had been to make love behind every high altar they encountered, one can see his point.
At the same time he showed, in his novels and conceivably also in his life, a persistent (and very un-Catholic) urge to bargain with God, to wager the sacrifice of personal faith, or love, against a request for mercy to another soul. The best-known instance of this is Sarah, in The End of the Affair, promising to give up her atheist lover, Maurice Bendrix, if God saves him after his apparent death during a V1 “robot” bombing raid in wartime London. Not only does Bendrix survive virtually unharmed, but Sarah (who by keeping her part of the bargain suffers so miserably that the walk in pouring rain that leads directly to her death from pneumonia can be viewed as a kind of suicide) afterward seems to become the agent of a couple of minor miracles: the sinner-as-saint indeed. The masochistic streak in Greene is strong: even his faith is grounded in suffering. Sarah "caught faith like a disease,” and the disease is predictably painful. The immense and enduring popularity of these novels suggests that Greene tapped into a deep inarticulate human vein of hope against the despair engendered by the prospect of eternal damnation: his tormented characters, their own faith always uncertain, reach out to an endless multitude of the desperate and silent. As another Catholic, Joseph Pearce, wrote in Lay Witness, “his fiction is gripping because it grapples with faith and disillusionment on the shifting sands of uncertainty in a relativistic age.”
THE PICTURE PRESENTED BY Sherry's investigations—not so different from that reached by Shelden, though marked by regular use of the soft pedal—is of a dark, secretive, often cruel, sexually voracious, and spiritually masochistic manic-depressive, who also, to complicate the issue, happened to be a creative genius. Even though Sherry was writing a biography, I cannot help wishing that he had concentrated more on the books as literature, rather than as mere pabulum for source-hunting, and less on the often bizarre erotic-cum- theological kinks of their creator. After all, Greene's enduring fame is not as an indefatigable pursuer, from Clapham Common to Sierra Leone and Saigon, of seedy prostitutes and other men's wives, but as the literary magician and master of English prose who wove such material, with the added spice of unorthodox Catholic soul-searching, into a series of memorable and sometimes great novels. Yet Sherry, who in this latest volume is more obsessive than ever in his determination to run down the originals of the novels' fictional characters, has never, to my knowledge, so much as analyzed the contents of Greene's personal library, and for a professor of English seems far more interested in personalia than in literary antecedents. Writers, as he of all people should not need reminding, draw their inspiration at least as much from books as from people; and Greene was an immensely well-read man, with a retentive memory and a deviously active subconscious mind.
A nice example from Greene's late period is Sherry's treatment of Monsignor Quixote (1982). “Where did this story come from?” he asks. Well, obviously Cervantes provided the name for the main character, but even here Sherry is more concerned with Greene's use of Father Leopoldo Durán, in whose company, with large supplies of wine and cheese aboard, he would motor around the Spanish countryside, arguing about religion and politics. In Monsignor Quixote, the priest's traveling companion is an equally voluble communist mayor, and at this point anyone whose literary memory stretches back as far as 1950 will develop a powerful sense of déjà vu. That was the year in which a vastly popular series of books by the Italian author Giovanni Guareschi, also featuring a guileless priest and a Communist mayor, began appearing in American translation. By far the best known was the first, The Little World of Don Camillo. It would have been virtually impossible for Greene to miss the Don Camillo series (one volume was actually a choice of the Catholic Family Book Club), and highly tempting, when his creative powers, thirty years later, were in decline, to borrow the formula for a quick rehashing of his jaunts with Father Durán.
I FIND THIS AS ENLIGHTENING as Sherry's discovery, forty years on, of the once yellow-fanged mestizo with the neighing laugh on whose physical peculiarities Greene drew for the Judas figure in The Power and the Glory. I cannot, for the life of me, see his exhumation of the person behind this particular persona as adding anything of real value to our understanding or appreciation of the novel. And this is where Sherry's titanic endeavor fails us. In many ways he has constructed a memorable panorama of the splendors and miseries of a remarkable twentieth-century literary life: the backstage gossip; the editorial crises; the film work (both as critic and scriptwriter) that sharpened Greene's style and enhanced his visual imagery; the quarrels (e.g., with Anthony Burgess) and friendships (e.g., after a rocky start, with Alexander Korda); the Hemingway-like writing discipline, sometimes fueled by Benzedrine, of so many hundred words a day; the political celebrities courted (Castro, Torrijos) or skewered (Papa Doc Duvalier); and, above all, the great love affair with Catherine Walston that shaped the whole middle period of Greene's life and art. (The publicity handout describes her as his “beloved wife,” a gaffe that Greene, for several reasons, would have relished.) All this is no small achievement.
Yet the truth is that while Sherry can and does show us the tools and the materials of Greene's trade, what he cannot fathom is the baffling magic that, again and again, turned dross gleaned from an often unappetizing life into pure gold. I have now read the trilogy through twice, and much though I enjoyed the incidentals (I was editorial adviser to Max Reinhardt at the Bodley Head in the late 1950s, when Greene was a wittily disruptive director), I don't think I am any the wiser as to the creative secrets of the major novels today than I was before. I have learned a good deal about their genesis, but the whole remains obstinately greater than the sum of its parts, even though the private life of their author is now more familiar to me than I find altogether comfortable. Despite Sherry's long and rambling chapter on Greene's religious beliefs, I can form no clear idea of his theology, or indeed of its precise relationship to his fiction, and suspect that this was also true of Greene himself. Let him have the last word. In a bleak letter to Vivien in 1948, he identified his antisocial tendencies as the result of a disease (it was depression) “profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life. Unfortunately the disease is also one's material. Cure the disease and I doubt whether a writer would remain.” Philoctetes was not the only figure in history torn between the wound and the bow.
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This article appeared in the January 24, 2005, issue of the magazine.