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?”
Fortunately Selznick changed his mind or forgot his objections, which the film makers quietly ignored. The rest is cinematic history.
Mention of The Third Man brings us back to the subject of Philby and the whole question of Greene’s relations with the Secret Intelligence Service. When Philby, like Burgess and Maclean before him, defected to Russia in 1963, narrowly escaping arrest for treason, Greene wrote a newspaper article observing jocularly that he had invented the phrase “the Third Man” long before anyone could have imagined that it would one day apply to his old friend. But the real joke, hidden from most of his readers, was that the character of Harry Lime was based on and inspired by Kim Philby—or so Shelden very persuasively argues (he has the edge on Sherry in this matter). A crucial episode in Philby’s initiation into politics took place in Vienna before the war; and the equivocal attitude of Holly Martins to Harry Lime, divided between moral disapproval of his criminal activities and the claims of friendship and personal liking, exactly mirrors what we know about Greene’s relationship with Philby in their MI6 days. Shelden justly observes: “Greene never betrayed his friend Philby, but he spent the rest of his life thinking about the dilemma. He returned to it again in The Human Factor, and even sent the manuscript to Philby in Moscow, asking his opinion of the novel.”
The story of The Human Factor concerns a Soviet mole in the British Secret Service, married to a black South African woman, who reveals to the Russians a secret treaty between the Western powers and the South African government to prevent South African gold mines from falling into Soviet hands. Shortly after the novel was published, the existence of such a treaty became public knowledge. Leopoldo Duran cites this as an example of Greene’s uncanny powers of political clairvoyance, but it is possible that he got the idea through his contacts with the Secret Service. For these did not cease with his resignation from MI6 in 1944. Shelden claims to have received confirmation, in a “briefing” by the British Cabinet Office, that throughout the postwar period, up till the early 1980s, Greene’s trips to foreign countries were sometimes sponsored or subsidized by SIS and that he regularly reported back to its officers even if he was not a paid agent. After carefully considering the evidence, Norman Sherry concludes that, as the French authorities always suspected, Greene was acting as a British spy in Indochina during the French war against Ho Chi Minh, though he represented himself as a journalist and a novelist looking for material.
When Philby published his memoirs in 1968, Greene contributed an admiring introduction which caused a good deal of offense in England. He was accused of defending a traitor who had the blood of many British and Allied agents on his hands. The parallel Greene drew between Philby’s covert pro-Soviet activities and the undercover actions of recusant Catholics in Elizabethan times was denounced as sophistry. Perhaps in The Human Factor (1978) Greene sought to give the part of the mole a more sympathetic face by associating him with an irreproachably moral cause—opposition to the regime responsible for apartheid. But if Greene was collaborating with SIS all through the cold war period, then perhaps his public espousal of Philby’s cause was an ingenious cover which made Greene persona grata in Soviet Russia and gave him access to the great defector. Perhaps Greene was extracting information from Philby on his visits to Russia, perhaps he was part of a plot to “turn” Philby again, perhaps Philby had already turned. Here we enter the bewildering labyrinth of mirrors that is the world of modern espionage, in which anything is possible.
To Shelden, Greene’s continuing contact with SIS belied his pretensions, in later life, to be the friend of “international socialism,” and for some British reviewers (e.g., Philip Norman in The Independent on Sunday) it has been the most disillusioning revelation of the new biographies. On the other hand, if you never approved of “international socialism,” you might think his putative undercover intelligence work was to his credit. It was always Evelyn Waugh’s belief, for instance, that Greene was “a secret agent on our side and all his buttering up of the Russians is ‘cover.’ ” In many ways this is an attractive explanation of Greene’s puzzling behavior. To publicly endorse Philby’s treachery, bringing down obloquy on his own head, as a means of serving his country secretly would have been a gesture worthy of the heroes of the patriotic adventure stories Greene was brought up on. But it is a little too neat a theory, and doesn’t explain why Greene was troubled in his conscience about Philby until the very last hours of his life.
According to an article by Ron Rosenbaum in The New York Times Magazine (July 10, 1994), Norman Sherry wrote to Greene when he was on his deathbed in Switzerland, asking him if there was any truth in a suggestion, which he, Sherry, had encountered in the course of his researches, that Philby was a double-double agent, posing as a defector, but in fact passing information back to British SIS. Greene was sufficiently disturbed by this inquiry to send for all his papers referring to Philby, as if he wanted to reexamine the question of Philby’s motivation for himself. A tantalizing detail in Leopoldo Duran’s account of visiting Greene on his deathbed—“Amanda [Greene’s niece] mentioned something to him to do with the Secret Service which had been worrying him in recent days”—is presumably a reference to this matter. Duran comments: “Although he had difficulty articulating the words, he was completely conscious when he replied.” Perhaps, since it was not spoken under the seal of confession, Duran will one day reveal what the reply was.
My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that Greene’s political views were confused and contradictory, and that his postwar involvement with the Secret Service was essentially personal and opportunistic in motivation. We know that he was addicted to hoaxes, practical joking, and social deceptions of various kinds, and we know that from a precociously early age he dabbled in the business of spying not for any ideological reason but for the sheer hell of it, and for the pleasure of seeing the world at somebody else’s expense. Undoubtedly it tickled him to move around the globe, hobnobbing with selected political leaders, observing wars and revolutions and political intrigues at first hand. It was, in the pro writer’s familiar phrase, all material.
His stance on the cold war was always idiosyncratic. Its guiding principle was an anti-Americanism that went back to his days as a film critic before World War II. In review after review he made it clear how much he detested Hollywood and everything it had done to the art of the cinema. In finding Shirley Temple movies sexually titillating in the magazine Night and Day he went too far for Hollywood, and the studios punished him for his temerity by suing him and the magazine for libel. Night and Day collapsed and Greene was heavily fined. He did not forget or forgive that episode.
Greene made a shrewd and prophetic analysis of the folly of the US involvement in Southeast Asia in The Quiet American (1955), but he had been generally sympathetic to the anti-Communist campaign of the French colonialist forces in his journalism a few years earlier. He was quite capable of singing the praises of communism just because it affronted American opinion, while secretly supplying British Intelligence with information gathered on his travels behind the Iron Curtain. His anti-Americanism also led him into a rather undiscriminating endorsement of revolutionary and populist movements and their leaders in Central America—Castro, Trujillo, Torrijos, the Sandinistas—whose morals and methods were often dubious and brutal. Shelden makes some very telling points against Greene’s dabbling in Central American politics, which he sees as both duplicitous and irresponsible. It will be interesting to see if Sherry can cast any redeeming light on this phase of Greene’s life in the third volume of his biography.
Sherry and Shelden are the heavy-weights in this biographical competition, and will probably be slugging it out for some time to come. Anthony Mockler is a journalist and military historian, a Catholic by education. He knew Greene’s daughter in youth, and has traveled widely, often along the same routes as the novelist. On the face of it he is well qualified for his task, yet his book comes across as curiously amateur in tone. He appeals intermittently for help from other students of Greene’s life, like a contributor to some arcane hobby-journal. He is, understandably, still sore at having had his original biography spiked by legal action, and, like Shelden, is severely restricted in his freedom to quote by the executors of the Greene estate. Nevertheless he has gleaned from the available evidence a few interesting details overlooked or underestimated by his fellow biographers.
The oddest of the books under review is Leopoldo Duran’s memoir. He first met Greene in the early 1970s, after Duran presented the novelist with a copy of his doctoral dissertation, completed at London University. One day Greene rang him up and invited him to lunch at the Ritz. Duran never seems to have recovered from the dazzlement of this occasion, and it was indeed a surprising and uncharacteristic gesture by Greene, who tended to dodge his admirers, especially clerical ones. Nor was Duran, on the face of it, the kind of priest to whom Greene’s imagination had been drawn in his fiction. He comes across as thoroughly conventional in character and views, indeed distinctly right-wing in political and theological matters. He is an unrepentant admirer of Franco, which perhaps accounts for otherwise unexplained difficulties in his academic career. He alludes darkly to a student boycott of his classes, and to his failure to obtain the promotion his publications on Greene might have been expected to bring him (the novelist, so he tells us, was very shocked by this instance of academic injustice).
Duran has a Pooterish way with an anecdote which makes his book often very funny, if unintentionally so. For instance, he was once invited to give a lecture on Greene at Complutense University. Greene personally helped him to revise his text, but when Duran turned up to deliver it, nobody came. Not a single soul.
Later, when I phoned Graham to tell him what had happened, the line seemed to have gone dead. I thought that we had been cut off. But it was not that; he was thinking.
One would love to know what he was thinking.
Nearly every summer Greene would spend a week or two with Duran, being driven about the Spanish countryside, mainly in the northwest of the country, with a hamper of food and a good deal of wine in the trunk, talking and drinking. Greene called these excursions “picnics.” Their conversations, of which Duran kept a detailed record, were often about religious questions, and especially about Catholic teaching on sex.
Graham and I used to relate our most intimate experiences to each other. He never tired of hearing me speak about girls I used to know and his eyes would sometimes moisten when we spoke about such matters.
Were they perhaps tears of laughter Greene was suppressing? Certainly he recognized the priest’s potential as a comic character by portraying him (with Duran’s slightly coy collusion) as the eponymous hero of Monsignor Quixote (1982), a curious and not entirely successful book, like an extended private joke. Duran’s memoir is furnished with numerous snapshots in which Greene is invariably scowling at the lens as if consumed with impatience and ill-temper, but he clearly found the Spanish priest’s transparent sincerity soothing to his spirit, and asked to see him when he was dying. Duran administered the last sacraments.
Mockler’s book ends with a brief section entitled “What do I think of Graham Greene?” The question is rather plonkingly formulated, but it is one that every reader of Greene’s novels is bound to ask himself or herself on emerging from this welter of new biographical information and speculation. For many, the effect has been as dismaying as it was for fans of Philip Larkin when his letters and Andrew Motion’s life were published not long ago. This is an understandable but illogical reaction. Revelations about a writer’s life should not affect our independently formed critical assessment of his work. They may, however, confirm or explain reservations about it.
Graham Greene’s fiction had a powerful and inspiring effect on me as an adolescent and young man, when I was nourishing ambitions of my own to be a writer. His work occupied a key position in my master’s thesis on the Catholic novel, and was the subject of some of my earliest published criticism. In 1966 I sent him a copy of my Columbia University Press pamphlet on him together with a copy of The British Museum is Falling Down. He politely acknowledged the former, saying he didn’t much enjoy reading criticism about his own work (a feeling I came to recognize) but enthusing about the novel. He was kind enough to let my publishers quote him on that, and a subsequent, occasion, a generosity he showed to many authors. I met him a few times, when he was always friendly and courteous, if guarded. I have only warm memories of him, which the revelations of his biographers have done nothing to shake, though they have perhaps mitigated any regret that I didn’t know him better. (His relations with other writers were generally happiest when conducted at long distance; he and Anthony Burgess, for instance, fell out when they became near neighbors on the Côte d’Azur.)
The biographies certainly haven’t changed my opinion that the novels and Entertainments Greene wrote in the Thirties and Forties, up to and including The End of the Affair, were the work of a major writer, without which the map of modern literary history would look significantly different. But I cannot dissent from Shelden’s verdict that the latter phase of his career was one of slow and rather sad decline, and here perhaps the biographical facts are relevant.
In a 1976 postscript to my Columbia pamphlet on Greene, I concluded:
The epigraph to The Honorary Consul, from Thomas Hardy, expresses accurately enough his present view of the world: “All things merge into one another—good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics…” but his most successful work was based on the clash of antithetical ideas rather than this hazy, ambiguous flow of one idea into another.
The new information that has come to light about his equivocal involvement in cold war and Central American politics does help to crystallize certain doubts about the novels of the later period, The Comedians, The Honorary Consul, and The Human Factor. Never less than technically accomplished, these novels are in the end curiously unsatisfying because they pick up large political and philosophical issues only to drop them, unresolved. The humor of Our Man in Havana and Travels with My Aunt sometimes seems rather queasy when it embraces state torturers and war criminals. Reading Sherry and Shelden one is led to the conclusion that Greene had no coherent or consistent world view, and that he used his often-repeated insistence on the necessary disloyalty of the artist to ideological systems as a screen for his own lack of one. This wouldn’t have mattered perhaps if he hadn’t addressed himself so directly to political subjects in the later novels.
But the oddities and extravagances of Greene’s private life, his often selfish and callous behavior in personal relations, as revealed by his biographers, do not in any way retrospectively invalidate the emotional and spiritual insights of his best work. The moral discrepancy between the real-life writer and the “implied author” of these works is not a scandal but a manifestation of the principle famously enunciated by T.S. Eliot, the separation of the man who suffers from the man who creates. Greene certainly suffered, and it is hard to understand why Sherry is so puzzled by “the paradox…that this author, thought by many to be the greatest novelist of his generation, and also the most successful,…should yet suffer from a despair that seemed beyond success, beyond money.” Such Angst usually is unrelated to the subject’s material circumstances or objective achievements. To observers it looks like a kind of illness, but fortunately for Greene—and for us—he found a palliative if not a cure. “Writing is a form of therapy,” he wrote in Ways of Escape; “sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” May he rest in the peace that lies beyond biography.
(This is the second of two articles on Graham Greene.)
Greene & Anti-Semitism September 21, 1995