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 …