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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.