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The End of the Affair

1.

Norman Sherry’s Life of Graham Greene has occupied him continuously and exclusively for twenty-eight years, which may be a record of some kind. Greene died in 1991, having correctly predicted that he would not live to read the second volume (published in 1994). He also prophesied that Sherry would not survive to read the third and last volume, a remark in which one might detect some resentment at the ever-increasing scale and scope of the biography, and regret for having authorized its often embarrassing revelations. The prophecy was happily unfulfilled, but at times it was a close-run thing. Sherry promised to visit every country that Greene had used as a setting for a novel, a vow that took him to some twenty countries, entailing danger, hardship, and at least one life-threatening illness. He admits on the penultimate page of the biography that “reaching the end had often seemed beyond my strength and spirit” and superstitiously left the very last sentence of his narrative unfinished.

It is impossible not to see in the progress of this enormous work a cautionary tale about the perils of literary biography when it becomes an obsessive and all-consuming project, a doomed attempt vicariously to relive the subject’s life and somehow achieve a perfect “fit” between it and his artistic output. “No novel can be believable if the novelist does not acknowledge the truth of his own experiences, even when these are disturbing,” Sherry asserts in the course of this final installment. “Greene needed to deal with his past: and we, in turn, need to excavate his private history.”

There are several debatable propositions here. What does “truth” mean in this context? If we grant that writers often deal with painful and disturbing personal experience in their fictions (and Greene himself wrote that “writing is a form of therapy”), does this not usually involve departing from the empirical facts of such experience—altering them, even inverting them, reinterpreting them, and combining them with purely fictional material? If so, is there not a danger in trying to pin down the sources of characters and events of novels too literally in the writer’s own life? Does a novel become more “believable” when we succeed in doing this? Or less?

These are old questions in literary theory, which go back at least as far as the New Criticism’s worry about “the intentional fallacy.” The fact is that the appeal of literary biography is undeniable and irrepressible but aesthetically impure. We are fascinated by the mystery of literary creation, and therefore in the sources of a writer’s inspiration; but we also take a simply inquisitive human interest in the private lives of important writers, especially if they involve behavior that is in any way unusual. Graham Greene was a man whose life offered ample opportunity to satisfy both kinds of curiosity—perhaps so much opportunity that Norman Sherry allowed himself to be overwhelmed and in the end exhausted by it.

His first volume, covering the years between 1904 and 1939, was by far the best, convincingly locating the source of Greene’s obsession with the theme of treachery in his unhappy childhood, and telling vividly and lucidly the absorbing story of his up-and-down early career as a writer, and his remarkable courtship, marriage, and extramarital sexual life. It thoroughly deserved the praise it attracted. The second volume was less satisfying.1 Its thematic organization obscured the narrative line of Greene’s life in the period from 1939 to 1955, but it did memorably contain the stranger-than-fiction story of Greene’s love affair with Catherine Walston, wife of Harry Walston, the British Labour Party politician, which inspired The End of the Affair (dedicated to Catherine).

The third volume is the longest and also the weakest. Sherry’s determination to find a real-life model for every important character in Greene’s novels, unweaving their artful blend of observed fact and imaginative invention, becomes increasingly obtrusive. In spite of the book’s enormous length and plethora of facts, there are puzzling gaps. If there was a reference to Dr. Fischer of Geneva, for instance, I missed it, and there is none in the index (which is itself very inadequate). It wasn’t the best of his later books, but one would like to know a little about the background to its composition and its reception. Apart from what we learn from Greene’s letters, which are quoted at length, we get from this biography a less vivid sense of what Greene was actually like as a person in later life than from the much shorter and more selective memoirs of Yvonne Cloetta and Shirley Hazzard,2 perhaps because Greene always maintained a wary and defensive relationship with his appointed biographer. Sherry has no anecdote as revealing as, for instance, Yvonne Cloetta’s first intimation of The Honorary Consul:

One morning, he appeared in the doorway, looking extremely worried, and announced quite abruptly, “It’s terrible to think that from now on I’m going to have to live for three years with a certain Charlie Fortnum.” And he went back to whatever he was doing, without saying another word.

Sherry’s book is self-indulgently and often eccentrically written. The discourse is frequently broken up into short sections consisting of a paragraph or two, separated by asterisks, which disrupt the cohesion of the narrative and afford the biographer too much freedom for digression and superfluous comment. Mixed metaphors run amok (e.g., “When Greene writes a letter to the press, it’s a lightning rod for shoals of letters to be poured out in answer, swords drawn”). Similes often baffle (e.g., “Had he failed this couple, he’d have been as ashamed as a nudist caught with his clothes on”). Sometimes, like Nabokov’s Kinbote in Pale Fire, Sherry addresses the startled reader directly: “Don’t you feel that at times, writing a novel was for him a disease?” Toward the end of the book there are lurid disquisitions on the horror of death which seem to tell us more about the biographer than his subject. Either Sherry has been poorly served by his editors or he has ignored their advice. This is a great pity, because his dedication to his task is manifest, and the research that has gone into the book is awe-inspiring.

It is, perhaps inevitably, given Greene’s long life, a story of the gradual decline of creative power from a very high peak of achievement. Greene never retired from writing. “Retirement is always a distressing time for a man. But for a writer it is death,” he remarked to Yvonne Cloetta. So he went on writing although he seemed to find it harder and harder, and was seldom satisfied with what he produced, even when his readers were. He was his own harshest critic. “I think it stinks,” he said, sending the manuscript of Our Man in Havana to Catherine; and of A Burnt-Out Case, again to Catherine: “I hate the book. There are bits I like, but I’ve hardly had a moment of pleasure working this time and the result is muddled and shapeless.” His well-known practice of writing a certain number of words a day (five hundred, later reduced to three hundred) was a ritual that enabled him to carry on a task that he often found agonizingly difficult. The gradual accumulation of words was reassuring and he attributed to the figures an almost magical significance, cabling Catherine on the completion of A Burnt-Out Case: “FINISHED THANK GOD 325 WORDS SHORT ORIGINAL ESTIMATE.”

Sherry’s second volume ended with the composition of The Quiet American, perhaps Greene’s last fully achieved masterpiece. It was also the first novel to hint at the waning of his belief in the Roman Catholic religious doctrine which had underpinned his most powerful and important previous novels, from Brighton Rock to The End of the Affair. Politics, rather than religion, provides the ideological frame that defines character and conflict in The Quiet American, and it has acquired a justified reputation as a novel prophetic not only of the folly of the American involvement in Vietnam but also of other ill-fated foreign adventures, including the war in Iraq. Greene’s play The Potting Shed (1957), a hit in London but a flop in New York, showed that his imagination was still kindled by the more extreme paradoxes of Catholic spirituality, but the “entertainment” Our Man in Havana (1958) treated potentially dark and serious matters in a spirit of comedy.

This was a time of great turmoil in Greene’s personal life. His grand passion for Catherine Walston was slowly and painfully burning itself out. Though they continued to meet occasionally, Catherine resisted Greene’s pleas to leave her husband and children to live with him—in exactly what terms, we don’t know, because he burned all her letters; but his letters to her have survived and Sherry quotes them extensively. Greene was now in love with another woman, the Swedish actress Anita Björk, whose husband had recently committed suicide. He visited her frequently in Stockholm, and there was evidently a strong sexual charge between them, but Anita, tied to her career and her children, was no more willing than Catherine to throw in her lot with Greene.

Could this, one wonders, have been the secret attraction of both relationships for Greene, always shy of emotional ties and commitments, even as he agonized over them? (The Human Factor has an epigraph from Conrad: “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost.”) He refers openly in his letters to Catherine to his assignations with Anita, perhaps as a subtle form of punishment, but he never wants to break off either relationship. After parting from and then returning to Anita, he writes to Catherine:

I feel hopelessly muddled. I missed [Anita] more than I thought I would, but now that’s healed, it’s you I miss. Am I crazy or do I just happen to love two women as I never have before?

Several people thought he was crazy, including his wife, Vivien, who cited his compulsive traveling, never staying in one place for more than a few weeks. There is certainly room for a book called Graham Greene, Frequent Flyer. At the end of one year he himself calculated that he had flown more than 40,000 miles. His letters to Catherine constantly proposed meetings in various exotic locations all around the globe; and his friend Michael Meyer tells an amusing story of an exhausting trip to Fiji and Tahiti that Greene arranged simply to escape Christmas, a feast he did not enjoy. Because of problems with their flights and weather they crossed the international date line three times and experienced three successive Christmas Eves.

Greene was still married to Vivien, though living apart from her, and he never sought a divorce, annulment, or legal separation. In the eyes of the Church he was of course committing grave sin. He had his own way of reconciling his conduct with his conscience—or perhaps by the late 1950s he had privately ceased to believe in the metaphysical foundations of Catholic moral theology. To the world at large, though, he was still the great Catholic novelist (however strenuously he insisted that he was a novelist who happened to be a Catholic) and the experience of being pestered and appealed to for spiritual guidance by various devout and often troubled coreligionists, including priests, was an irony that caused him much embarrassment. “I felt myself used and exhausted by the victims of religion…,” he complained later. “I was like a man without medical knowledge in a village struck with plague.” When the affair with Anita finally came to an end in 1958, Greene’s appeals to Catherine became more fervent, and his frustration more acute. He was also oppressed by the fear that his creativity was drying up. According to Sherry he came near to committing suicide, not for the first time in his life. Instead he went to a leper colony in the Congo, looking for the material for a new novel.

  1. 1

    Reviewed by the present writer with other biographies of Greene in The New York Review, June 22, 1995.

  2. 2

    Yvonne Cloetta, In Search of a Beginning: My Life with Graham Greene, as told to Marie-Françoise Allain and translated by Euan Cameron (London: Bloomsbury, 2004); Shirley Hazzard, Greene on Capri: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), reviewed by the present writer in The New York Review, June 15, 2000.

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