Behind the Smoke Screen

Graham Greene: The Man Within

by Michael Shelden
Heinemann, 537 pp., £14.95
(Random House will publish an American edition of Shelden’s biography, Graham Greene: The Enemy Wilthin, in late June [442 pp., $25.00])

Graham Greene: Three Lives

by Anthony Mockler
Hunter Mackay, 237 pp., £14.95

Graham Greene: Friend and Brother

by Leopoldo Duran, translated by Euan Cameron
HarperCollins, 352 pp., £20.00

Reflections

by Graham Greene, selected and introduced by Judith Adamson
Reinhardt Books/Viking, 325 pp., $19.95; Penguin, $10.00 (paper)

If Graham Greene had never published any novels he would surely be remembered as one of our century’s finest book reviewers, film critics, and occasional essayists. In 1953 he wrote a characteristically shrewd and witty review (originally published in The New Statesman and reprinted in Reflections) of the first volume of Leon Edel’s monumental life of Henry James. He observed:

It is a testing volume, for here the greater part of the material has been supplied with incomparable glamour and cunning by the subject himself, in A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother. Mr. Edel, with great scholarship and freedom from undue reverence, works his way in and out of this luminous smokescreen: he never allows James to escape completely into the sense of glory.

One is inevitably reminded of the smoke screen behind which Graham Greene himself hid from inquisitive journalists and would-be biographers for most of his life, while allowing them just enough glimpses of personal trauma and wayward behavior—like the famous experiments with Russian roulette—to keep public interest in himself simmering. The review ended on a note that seems today even more pregnant with self-referential significance. Looking forward to future volumes of Edel’s life, Greene wonders how the biographer will cope with the middle years of Henry James, about which the novelist himself vouchsafed little information:

It was in these abandoned years behind the façade of the social figure…that the greater ambiguities stand like the shapes of furniture in a great house shrouded in dust sheets. Now the lights are about to go on, a hand will twitch at the sheets, and James himself, who nosed with such sensitive curiosity around the secret in The Sacred Fount, would surely be the last to complain of a detective of such gravity and honesty, even if he should have to come to deal with what Hanes might have considered the “all but unthinkable.”

Greene did not take so benign a view of such biographical detective work when, much later, it was focused on himself. By the early 1970s, however, he seems to have decided, or to have been persuaded by his family, that the best way to discourage intrusive investigators was to commission an authorized biography. Accordingly, he invited Norman Sherry, the author of two scholarly books about Joseph Conrad which Greene had read and admired, to he his official biographer. Sherry being at this time professor of English literature at Lancaster, one of Britain’s less fashionable new universities, this was the equivalent of a leading actor in some provincial repertory theater suddenly being offered the coveted starring role in a major Hollywood picture.

At the time it must have seemed like a miraculous blessing, but in the event it turned out to be more like a curse, or cross. Setting himself the herculean task of retracing his subject’s every journey (Greene was one of the century’s great literary travelers), Sherry suffered many trials and …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $74.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.