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.
A Burnt-Out Case (1961) is not a completely satisfactory novel, but it is a peculiarly fascinating one for anyone interested in Greene because of its confessional nature. In the character of Querry, the famous Catholic architect who is praised as much for his spirituality as his artistry, but in fact reveals himself to be totally lacking in faith in either art or religion, and a coldhearted failure in personal relationships, Greene deliberately invited a biographical reading of the novel that would be uncomfortable for his Catholic admirers. Sherry, needless to say, finds models for other characters, and without much difficulty, since Greene was more or less making up the story as he did his research, putting in characters and incidents that he observed, as one can see from his journal written at the time, Congo Journey. But Sherry’s effort to connect the character of the obnoxious journalist Parkinson with a friend of Greene’s called Ronald Matthews seems to me forced and unconvincing.
Matthews was a journalist who had written a memoir of Greene, published in French as Mon Ami Graham Greene, which Greene disliked and prevented from being published in English; but there is no significant resemblance between the two men. What makes Parkinson live as a character, as Sherry’s quotations from the novel remind us, is Greene’s creative use of language, first in describing the journalist’s gross physical appearance (“his neck as he lay on his bed was forced into three ridges like gutters, and the sweat filled them and drained round the curve of his head on to the pillow”), and secondly in the wonderfully cynical rhetoric with which Parkinson defends his kind of sensationally fabricated journalism:
Do you really believe Caesar said “Et tu, Brute?” It’s what he ought to have said and someone…spotted what was needed. The truth is always forgotten.
During this trip Greene made the acquaintance of a French couple, Jacques and Yvonne Cloetta, and Yvonne probably contributed something to the character of the young wife of the colon Ryker in A Burnt-Out Case. Some months later she returned to the south of France with her children, leaving her husband working in Africa, and Graham Greene commenced an affair with her which, rather amazingly, they kept hidden from Jacques for eight years, after which he seems to have condoned it provided they were discreet. In the mid-Sixties Greene made his main home in Antibes, where Yvonne lived, and they settled down into a relationship that lasted until the end of his life. During this decade Catherine’s health began to deteriorate: surgery after an accident was botched, and Sherry thinks she became an alcoholic. Greene told her about Yvonne, for whom he said (in a letter of 1967) he had “a real quiet love…’peaceful as old age,'” in contrast to their own
tormented love—love which made one more happy & sometimes more miserable than I’ll ever be again…. I always remember that never for a moment have I ever been bored by you—enraptured, excited, nervous, angry, tormented, but never bored, because I lost myself in searching for you.
But his letters became less frequent and the relationship slowly atrophied, as Catherine became chronically ill and they met at longer and longer intervals. She died of leukemia in 1978, her beauty wasted, and refused to let Greene see her in her last illness. Harry Walston wrote a remarkably magnanimous reply to the remorseful letter of condolence Greene apparently sent him: “You should not have remorse. Of course you caused pain. But who can honestly say that he has gone through life without causing pain? And you gave joy too.” From then on, Yvonne was the only woman of consequence in Greene’s life.
Though Greene acquired the apartment in Antibes in 1966 in order to be near Yvonne (he already had a flat in Paris), the decision to settle permanently in France at this time was made for quite other reasons. His financial affairs were in crisis. Greene had entrusted a great deal of his money (and his royalties must have been considerable since The Heart of the Matter became a worldwide best-seller in 1948, not to mention the income from his plays and films) to his accountant, one Thomas Roe CBE, a well-connected and highly respected man who undertook to protect it from the high rates of British income tax by using foreign tax havens and tax-efficient investment schemes. Greene was not his only distinguished client—Noel Coward and Robert Graves also availed themselves of his services. Roe, however, turned out to be a swindler, with criminal associates and connections with the mafia. One of the companies he was involved in collapsed spectacularly in 1964. In 1965 he was arrested in Switzerland and charged with abuse of confidence, fraud, and passing counterfeit dollar notes. In 1968 he was convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment.
Greene not only lost a great deal of money by Roe’s perfidy—according to his good friend, the film director Peter Glenville, “Graham, through Roe, lost all, repeat lost all“—he also became liable for a hefty tax bill. And according to Sherry,
there was a chance that the British authorities, if Greene had not become domiciled in another country and had he not been willing to pay back what he owed, might have attempted to secure his arrest.
Sherry is irritatingly vague about this matter, as he often is when you most want hard facts from him. But it is obvious that this episode caused Greene much alarm and despondency, which, as Sherry observes, seem to be reflected in his troubled visage in the photographic portraits made by Lord Snowden at the time (one of which decorates the cover of this volume). It explains a lot, too, about his subsequent lifestyle. Many visitors, myself included, were surprised by the modest scale of his Antibes apartment, but at the time he bought it he was hard pressed for cash. “I live on a shoestring and a Swiss overdraft,” he wrote to Catherine on June 10, 1966.
In due course his fortunes recovered, and according to Yvonne Cloetta, when toward the end of his life he asked his lawyer for a rough estimate of his wealth he was astonished at its size. For a long time he had arranged to be paid a regular income from a company set up for the purpose. Personally he was never a big spender, though he was often generous with gifts to causes and individuals. The value of his estate at death seems to be unknown, perhaps because he died in fiscally secretive Switzerland. In a footnote Sherry quotes the Toronto Star (a surprising source) stating that it was only about £200,000, commenting: “I doubt that this is the whole story, but I know he gave away vast sums to friends and family through his corporation Verdant.”
The Thomas Roe episode is to me one of the most interesting revelations in Sherry’s third volume, because Greene’s tax exile had important consequences for his literary career. His visits to England were henceforth severely restricted (he writes to Catherine in 1967 that he will receive an honorary degree in Edinburgh “if the tax people allow me!”), and he gradually lost touch with, and it would seem interest in, his native country. It is a matter for regret that the acute and eloquent observation of English culture and society in the novels up to The End of the Affair is not to be found in the later ones. When he did set a late novel mainly in England—The Human Factor (1978)—his descriptive touch was not as evocative as it used to be, and his social focus narrower. Nor did he write very much about his adopted country, France. Instead, the practice established by The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, and A Burnt-Out Case continued: he went hunting for material in exotic locations and trouble spots: Haiti, Sinai, Northern Ireland, Russia, Argentina, Paraguay, Panama, Nicaragua. He acquired a reputation for anticipating where a political crisis would soon take place, and rather enjoyed it: “A few days ago The Times reported a plot against the President, & three colonels arrested—so I seem to have picked right again,” he writes gleefully to Yvonne from Paraguay in July 1968. Not all these trips produced novels, but they invariably yielded a nonfiction book, or journalistic articles, or letters to the press.
In later life Greene frequently used his status and celebrity to intervene in international politics. Sometimes this was entirely to his credit, as when he gave support to the Soviet dissident writers Sinyavsky and Daniel in 1967 by publicly requesting that his blocked Russian royalties should be paid to their wives, because he had no desire to revisit the country as long as they languished in prison; but he went on to say that this should not be taken as a criticism of the Soviet Union, where he would choose to live in preference to America. Commentators were quick to point out that in such case it would not be long before he shared the fate of Sinyavsky and Daniel.
Greene’s political gestures were seldom free from paradox, inconsistency, or internal contradiction. The often quoted statement in his 1969 Shakespeare Prize acceptance speech, “The writer should always be ready to change sides at the drop of a hat. He speaks up for the victims, and the victims change,” was not the all-accommodating loophole he claimed it to be. At about the same time as the Sinyavsky-Daniel affair, he gave considerable offense in Britain by writing an admiring introduction to the autobiography of his old Secret Service colleague, the traitor Kim Philby. Greene wrote: “He betrayed his country—yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?” This is pure sophistry, because “country” in this context was not an abstraction but a human community, including many British agents whom Philby sent to certain death. Sherry recalls that when he pressed Greene to condemn those deeds of Philby, he uncharacteristically became red with anger, and refused to do so.
Greene kept his word and did not return to Russia until 1987, when he participated in a peace conference convened under the regime of Gorbachev, whom he admired and wished to support. He made a speech improbably celebrating an alliance between Catholics and Communists:
We are fighting together against the death squads in El Salvador. We are fighting together against the Contras in Nicaragua. We are fighting together against General Pinochet in Chile. There is no division in our thoughts between Roman Catholics and Communists.
This rhetoric blatantly ignored the division within the Catholic Church itself between liberation theology–inspired socialists and conservative clergy and laity who supported oppressive right-wing regimes. Greene’s tendency to support any Latin American political movement that was ideologically leftist and hostile to the US often led him into an uncritical alliance with politicians who were as ruthless in their methods as those they opposed. Sherry has done his homework on this subject, and even if he tells you more than you really want to know about the political history of Cuba, Haiti, Panama, and the rest, he does enable an informed assessment of Greene’s treatment of these matters in his novels and reportage.
Sherry observes that “as Greene got older he seemed to take more risks, made up his mind in favour of those leading dangerous lives,” and this seems to be borne out by the novelist’s sympathetic fascination with guerrillas and revolutionaries in books like The Comedians and The Honorary Consul (probably the best of the late novels). But one must bear in mind that all this time he was also regularly reporting on his travels to the British Secret Service. Sherry adds little to what he revealed in the second volume about this topic, but Yvonne Cloetta is unequivocal in conversation with Marie-Françoise Allain: “What I can tell you is that, to the very end, he worked with the British Services.”
This puts his provocative public support for revolutionary struggle in a rather different perspective. It also raises a question which Sherry largely ignores: Greene’s attitude toward British politics. In his second volume Sherry reported in a footnote that, at the time of the 1945 general election, Greene wrote to his mother about the contest in his own constituency: “Reluctantly I shall vote Conservative. The Socialists are such bores! But if there were a Liberal I’d vote for him.” This is a surprising statement when one considers that almost everybody in the country of even mildly progressive views voted Labour on that occasion. In this third volume we learn that Greene confessed to Catherine, whose husband was a Labour parliamentary candidate, that he celebrated the defeat of that party under Gaitskell in 1959 with a slug of whisky while in a plane over Canada. Yvonne Cloetta recalls that he was delighted by Mrs. Thatcher’s victory in 1979, explaining, when she expressed surprise, “It doesn’t make a great difference with us, Labour or Conservative, in day-to-day life, or even in politics. But I’m pleased mainly because, for once, it’s a woman.”
It’s difficult to reconcile these laid-back attitudes to British politics with those Greene struck on the international stage. I have not changed the opinion I expressed when reviewing Sherry’s second volume, that Greene’s interventions in politics, both public and secret, were not driven by any coherent ideological conviction, but were essentially personal, emotional, and opportunistic in motivation.
Greene’s religious views are just as difficult to determine. He “was ever in a confused state about the condition of his faith,” Sherry remarks, but this was perhaps more forgivable than his political inconsistencies. Few of us, whether we define ourselves as religious believers, nonbelievers, or ex-believers, are completely consistent in our answers to the ultimate questions about life and death. Even convinced atheists have been known to light a candle in a church on occasion. (Tony Harrison has a fine poem on the subject.) It was Greene’s fate, however, to have to act out his uncertainty on the stage of his celebrity.
A Burnt-Out Case was an oblique announcement that he no longer believed in the letter of Catholic dogma; in due course he was more explicit in interviews, notably one with John Cornwell in the Catholic weekly The Tablet, in September 1989, where he described himself as a “Catholic agnostic.” In another interview he described himself more oxymoronically as a “Catholic atheist.” He made much of a distinction between “belief,” which he had lost, and “faith,” which he retained, though the latter always seemed to me, as I wrote on another occasion, more like a wistful kind of hope that the whole Christian myth might improbably turn out to be true.
Sherry, who is himself a lapsed Catholic, suggests that in his later years Greene was edging back toward the fold:
Greene was concerned about his promiscuity [in the past], wanted forgiveness to escape punishment in hell and be received in the arms of God.
The main evidence for this bold assertion is Greene’s curious relationship with the Spanish priest Father Leopoldo Durán, which inspired the whimsical fable Monsignor Quixote (1982) and which Durán himself described in his memoir, Graham Greene: Friend and Brother (1994). For many years Greene would spend a week or two with him in the summer, being driven about the Spanish countryside, always ending up at the monastery of Osera. On Sundays during these trips, or when staying in the flat in Antibes, Durán would say mass for the two of them, Greene told Cornwell—adding ambiguously: “And to please Fr Durán I make a confession now.”
In his memoir, Durán describes how he was summoned by Greene on his deathbed and administered the last sacraments, and asserts that Greene died a fully reconciled member of the Church. Yvonne Cloetta, however, gives a rather different spin to the episode:
I had indeed suggested summoning his friend, the Spanish priest Leopoldo Durán. He raised his hand casually and said, “Oh, if you want to…” That implied that he was indifferent.
Sherry himself did not arrive on the scene until after Greene’s death, and the details of the writer’s last days and hours are incomplete. In this respect as in so many others, this enigmatic man carried his secrets to the grave.
Graham Greene’s career as an author mostly predated our modern publicity-driven literary world of book tours, literary festivals, and gladiatorial prize competitions, and in later years, apart from giving an increasing number of press interviews, he generally kept clear of it. Toward the end of his life, however, he did get involved in one very typical manifestation of this new literary culture. In 1989 the Guinness Peat Aviation Company founded a prize worth a record £50,000 Irish for the best book written by an Irishman or established resident in Ireland in the last three years, and invited Greene to choose the winner from a shortlist to be drawn up from a panel of distinguished judges, who labored for many months sifting the works submitted. Greene, however, sought to overrule the judges and give the prize to a book not on the shortlist, The Broken Commandment by Vincent McDonnell, which he himself had helped to get published after it had been sent to him in manuscript by McDonnell’s wife. This caused huge consternation, anger, and embarrassment, and the crisis was only resolved by giving a special prize of £20,000 to McDonnell (in fact funded out of Greene’s pocket) while John Banville received the main prize for The Book of Evidence, but the controversy and recriminations continued for some time.
It was a tragicomic episode which took its toll on Greene and may have hastened his death (which like Catherine’s was caused by leukemia). “Dublin killed me,” he said to Sherry. Sherry argues plausibly that Greene adopted McDonnell as a kind of literary son and channeled into his cause some of the emotion generated by his own failure to win the Nobel Prize. He was denied this accolade year after year, partly because of the implacable hostility of one Swedish academician, Arthur Lundkvist, but also because other members of the Academy thought he was more of an “entertainer” than a “serious” writer.
That was a grave misjudgment. It is true that Greene used throughout his career the structures of the adventure stories he read in his childhood and youth, and that accounted in part for his wide readership. But he combined his page-turning narrative technique with a unique and unsettling vision of the world which subverted and transformed the stereotypes of popular fiction. He was also a master of English prose (something which Scandinavian readers are perhaps not able fully to appreciate). The same, alas, cannot be said for his biographer. Nevertheless this volume completes an indispensable companion to the work of a major modern writer, and gives a fascinating account of the last act of an extraordinary life.
December 2, 2004
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. ↩