Graham Greene: The Man Within
The Life of Graham Greene Volume II, 1939-1955
Graham Greene: Three Lives
Graham Greene: Friend and Brother
The Graham Greene Film Reader: Reviews, Essays, Interviews & Film Stories
For obvious reasons, literary biography tends to focus on the parallels between its subject’s life and work, but sometimes the discrepancies can be just as interesting and revealing. In The Quiet American, for instance, Greene shackled his hero, Fowler, with an estranged wife who, because she is a devout Anglican, refuses to divorce him, thus preventing him from marrying his Vietnamese mistress; but in real life Greene declined the offers of the devout Catholic Vivien to divorce after his affair with Catherine Walston had effectively ended their marriage of twenty-one years, and he never even legalized their separation. Why was this? Perhaps in spite of his fervent pleas to Catherine to leave her husband, he subconsciously feared another permanently binding relationship, and perpetuated his dead but valid marriage to Vivien as a defense.
Even while he was involved with Catherine he had adventures with other women; for example, Jocelyn Rickards, a handsome young Australian who specialized in glamorous literary conquests in postwar London—her other lovers included A.J. Ayer and John Osborne. Sherry passes over this affair quickly and discreetly, but Shelden gets a good deal of mileage out of it. It was by Jocelyn Rickards’s own account a short but passionate and exuberant affair in which Greene indulged his penchant for having sex in public places (in parks, railway carriages, etc.). He evidently derived a thrill from the risk of discovery. Shelden also reports a friend’s remark that Greene and Catherine had sex behind every high altar in Italy—but that sounds like a piece of conversational hyperbole.
It is time to consider the extraordinarily hostile spirit of Shelden’s book. (The jacket of the British edition carries a photographic portrait that makes him look, very appropriately, like a brutal interrogator from one of Greene’s own novels.) One has to say first, though, that of the four biographies under review, Shelden’s is the best written: its style is vigorous and lucid, its narrative structure is clear and gripping, and it is packed with interesting insights and discoveries, as well as dubious speculations. Sherry’s work, when completed, will be the definitive biography of record, and it is already a remarkable and heroic achievement. But there are times, especially in the second volume, when the shape and rhythm of Greene’s life are blurred and smothered by the plethora of information, and by its thematic (rather than chronological) organization. Shelden, because he was not allowed to quote from the letters and other private papers, is obliged to paraphrase, and thus manages to deal with the whole life in one volume, which is more satisfying for the reader.
He is also the best literary critic of this bunch (or should one say “a clutch” of biographers?)—sharp and observant on, for instance, the echoes and allusions to Conrad, Pound, and T.S. Eliot in Greene’s work. He is the first critic I have encountered who seems to have worked out how Pinkie’s gang murders Hale at the beginning of Brighton Rock (by choking him on a stick of the eponymous candy, which melts and leaves no trace). He makes some fascinating connections between Harston House in Cambridgeshire, which belonged to Greene’s uncle, Sir William Graham Greene, and is where the novelist spent several summer holidays in childhood (it is surprisingly not discussed in Sherry’s first volume), and the rather baffling story of Greene’s later years called “Under the Garden.”
Nevertheless Shelden’s book is fueled by a virulent hatred of its subject, which makes one wonder if there is not some source for it in Shelden’s own life. In a revised introductory chapter, written for the American edition, Shelden claims that he embarked on his biography as a devoted admirer of the novelist, and changed his opinion of him as a result of his researches. One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation: “Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.”
Shelden’s case against Greene is that his work is driven by hatred and malice and other negative feelings which his admiring readers have failed to recognize and acknowledge. “They do not hear—or do not want to hear—the anti-Semitism, the anti-Catholicism, the misogyny, or the many jokes made at their expense.” He frequently protests that he is not seeking to disparage Greene’s literary achievement in this way. “The weakness of the man cannot overshadow the merits of his art”; “Greene’s genius is marred by a wide streak of malice…but it is not a valid reason for dismissing his novels as works of art.” Shelden, however, persistently implies that to admire the novels we have to either identify with their negative attitudes or grossly misread them. Where does that leave Shelden himself? Curiously it seems to leave him in the same devil’s party as his subject.
But it is hard to see how one could continue to admire Greene’s novels while accepting Shelden’s reading of them as expressing, or releasing, the nastiest elements he claims to have discovered in Greene’s character and behavior. This, for instance, is what he says about Brighton Rock:
The unpleasant truth is that the author regards us as easy victims…. we want to be liked, and we want to like others. We want to trust Greene, we want to feel sorry for Pinkie, we want to think the world is not such a bad place after all. And while our smiling faces are busy looking for goodness and wisdom and purpose, Pinkie and Greene are cursing us for being Jews or Catholics, for being fat or crippled, for being old or female.
Brighton Rock is certainly a novel that disturbs and challenges received ideas about good and evil, right and wrong: but fortunately the relationship between its “implied author” and protagonist is much more subtle and complex than the simple identification asserted here. Shelden, however, suggests that to admire the novels we have to either misread them or revel vicariously (and masochistically) in an essentially diabolic vision of the world.
If he himself is evidently quite comfortable with the second option it may be because he claims a perverse kinship between the novelist and the biographer. This is particularly marked in the British edition. For example, after discussing the libel action that followed Greene’s review in October 1937 of a Shirley Temple movie, a review described in court as “gratuitous indecency” (Greene suggested that the juvenile star was being marketed as a stimulus to jaded sexual appetites), Shelden airily admits to having indulged in “an occasional wild surmise and gratuitous indecency” himself. He comments that Greene “was ruthless in his willingness to use friends and family for copy,” and adds, “no wonder he was often tempted to write biography, an art that demands a shameless devotion to voyeurism.” Again, invoking a famous metaphor of Greene’s for the writer’s temperament, he writes, “It is the ‘splinter of ice’ in the novelist’s—or biographer’s—heart that enables him to plunder other lives for material.” When he speculates archly on the kind of biography of Greene the character Parkinson, the loathsome journalist in A Burnt-out Case, might have written—“digging up all the dirt and burying even his best work under the pile”—he anticipates but does not deflect a possible criticism of his own project.
Undoubtedly there is an element of truth in many of Shelden’s accusations, but they are exaggerated, or tendentiously expressed, or developed in unjustified ways. There is no doubt, for instance, that Greene’s early novels betray a kind of prejudice against Jews that would be unacceptable today—but then so did the work of most English writers of his generation. It is perverse to judge this strain in his work from a post-Holocaust position in history. And Greene’s Jewish characters are far from being anti-Semitic caricatures. Myatt in Stamboul Train, for instance, is drawn with considerable subtlety and not without sympathy and understanding. Though he is morally flawed, he shows more human feeling than most of the other characters. The charge of misogyny is another anachronistic invocation of political correctness that doesn’t help define the real limitations of Greene’s characterization of women. As to what Shelden strangely calls Greene’s anti-Catholicism, it was precisely his refusal to act as a literary propagandist for the Church or its members that made his religious novels interesting and valuable, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Shelden’s index in the British edition has a long, lip-smacking list of entries under “Greene, sex” including: “anal sex, flagellation, incest theme, interest in male love, possible actual homosexuality, masochism, paedophilia, prostitutes and brothels.” The evidence for pedophilia, perhaps the most “unspeakable” of these alleged proclivities, is all gossip and unwarranted extrapolation. For instance, Greene reacted with what Shelden regards as suspicious heat to Richard Aldington’s hostile biography of Greene’s Capri neighbor Norman Douglas, who certainly was a pederast. But Greene was always prone to take up the cudgels in this furious, impulsive way, especially on behalf of anyone he knew and liked. A man called Scoppa who used to deliver telegrams to Greene’s villa on Anacapri was surprised to find Italian boys staying there, and was told by unidentified people in the town that they were for sexual purposes. This was early in Greene’s occupation of the villa, at a time when Catherine used to come and stay with him, sometimes bringing her sons. Could these have been the boys Scoppa saw? Is it in any case likely that Greene would have been interested in this kind of sex while engaged in a passionate heterosexual love affair?
“From beginning to end the subject of homosexuality is an intrinsic part of Greene’s work,” Shelden claims. “His male characters are forever searching for some elusive bond with another male.” But those two sentences are not logically connected. Shelden has confused homoerotic attraction and desire (which there is no evidence that Greene ever felt or indulged) with the formation of intensely emotional friendships between boys, and between men, which was the inevitable concomitant of a segregated educational system like that of the British public schools and (as regards college life) universities in Greene’s day. Shelden is obliged, invidiously, to endorse the crass reaction of the film producer David O. Selznick to the script of The Third Man, when Greene and Carol Reed first showed it to him. The occasion was drolly recalled by Greene in Ways of Escape and the passage is reprinted in The Graham Greene Film Reader:
“It won’t do, boys,” he said, “it won’t do. It’s sheer buggery.”
“It’s what you learn in your English schools.”
“I don’t understand.”
“This guy comes to Vienna looking for his friend. He finds his friend’s dead. Right? Why doesn’t he go home then?”
After all the months of writing, his destructive view of the whole venture left me speechless. He shook his grey head at me. “It’s just buggery, boys.”
I began weakly to argue. I said, “But this character—he has a motive of revenge. He has been beaten up by a military policeman.” I played a last card. “Within twenty-four hours he’s in love with Harry Lime’s girl.”
Selznick shook his head sadly. “Why didn’t he go home before that?”