Graham Greene at 100

Graham Greene, who was born a hundred years ago, had an exceptionally long literary career. He published a slim volume of undergraduate verse in 1926, followed three years later by his first novel, The Man Within. It had many successors, and Greene’s last book, a barrel-scraping collection of short stories provocatively called The Last Word, came out in 1990, the year before he died. The centenary has been marked by the publication of the third and final volume of Norman Sherry’s biography and a brief memoir by Yvonne Cloetta, Greene’s mistress and companion for the last thirty years of his life.

Sherry’s biography—the first volume came out in 1989—has been a remarkable enterprise. Greene, an intensely private person, never wanted his life to be written about, but when he reached his seventies he realized that that was certainly going to happen, and he had better try to control the process by appointing an authorized biographer. He decided on Norman Sherry, then a little-known professor of literature, because he had read and admired Sherry’s accounts of Joseph Conrad’s travels. It was a great opportunity for Sherry, but it led him into a form of servitude that lasted a quarter-century, and itself suggests the stuff of fiction. Like King Wenceslas, Greene urged Sherry, “Mark my footsteps, good my page, tread thou in them boldly”; as far as possible, his biographer was to see the same places and undergo the same experiences Greene had on his journeys. Sherry duly did so. He succumbed to dysentery in the Mexican village where Greene had suffered from it, he became temporarily blind, and nearly died from a tropical illness. And he was left heavily in debt. But Sherry persisted and has, in a sense, completed his task. His final volume shows that he was both a tireless follower in Greene’s tracks and a scholar who keeps his files in order. Much of the detail comes from interviews Sherry conducted in the late 1970s (some of the people he talked to are now dead).

Greene was never enthusiastic about Sherry’s biography but he stuck to their agreement, and on April 2, 1991, the day before he died, he signed a document, which Sherry reproduces, giving his biographer permission to quote from his published and unpublished writings. When the first volume came out, Greene made a prophecy—or was it a curse?—that he, Greene, would not live to read the second volume and that Sherry would not live to complete the third. He was right in the first proposition. Sherry admits that he took this prophecy with superstitious seriousness and makes the coy gesture of ending the final chapter with a broken sentence and a row of dots, so that his book can be regarded as somehow incomplete. Sherry deserves admiration for his energy, his dogged determination, his assiduity, his absolute fidelity to his mission. He completed his task even if he likes to think that he hasn’t quite finished his book, but it seems to have been at a fearful cost. The writing shows disturbing signs of fatigue, even exhaustion. This is apparent in his prose, where there is an abundance of limp, clumsy, and sometimes ungrammatical sentences. Here are a few I marked before I gave up: “And while the young Graham was suicidal, he never attempted to hang himself, although that is not to suggest that such an attempt hadn’t crossed his mind.” “The war as to who would publish in England heated up—it seemed an impossible task.” “If in later years Greene revealed himself as a different (and by no means better) writer, it was because there was no longer a Catherine.” “His spells of debility were tied to him as inevitably as a tail to a dog.” (What breed of dog is that, I wondered.)

There are far too many words in Sherry’s book, and this too looks, paradoxically, like a sign of exhaustion. As all experienced writers know, it is far less demanding to write copiously than succinctly and relevantly. Sherry is certainly not helped by adhering to the prevailing biographical convention that everything has to go in. He has had access to a mass of material from Greene and those who knew him, and he tries to draw on as much of it as he can: the blessed principle “less is more” has been lost sight of. And Sherry’s inclination to quote freely from his own thoughts, opinions, and writings adds to the dominant logorrhea.

This volume covers the last thirty-six years of Greene’s life. It was a period of ceaseless travels—Greene claimed that his only roots were in rootlessness—which produced a succession of accomplished novels set in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Greene’s struggles for literary success were in the past. He was acknowledged as one of the leading English novelists of his generation; and then—as much in France as in the Anglophone world—as an important Catholic man of letters, though for some he remained the bad boy among Catholic literary converts. By the end of his life he was world-famous, bearing many honors, literary, academic, and civic. The one that notoriously eluded him, to his readers’ distress and Greene’s irritation, was the Nobel Prize. Sherry shows that the obstacle was the implacable opposition of an influential and fanatically anti-Catholic member of the Swedish prize committee. Greene gratefully accepted some honors and politely turned down many more; Sherry lists the lot.

One of Greene’s best novels, and the last that is distinctively Catholic in spirit, is The End of the Affair, published in 1951. It was dedicated to Catherine Walston, who had been his lover for some years and who appears—very recognizably, according to those who knew her—as Sarah, the central female character. Of the other main character, Maurice Bendrix, Sherry flatly asserts, “Greene is Bendrix.” During the 1950s their affair was indeed coming to an end, though Greene was reluctant to let Catherine go, while he had a tempestuous fling with a Swedish actress and then embarked on his enduring relationship with Yvonne Cloetta, the wife of a French colonial servant whom he had met in Africa. After The End of the Affair, Greene decided to “give God a rest.” His friend Evelyn Waugh advised him not to, since “it would be like P. G. Wodehouse giving up Jeeves.”

In 1961, Greene returned to Catholic themes in A Burnt-Out Case, the story of a world-famous Catholic architect who has lost his faith and has retreated to a leper colony run by missionaries in what was then the Belgian Congo. Querry, the protagonist, is a gloomy, depressed figure with obvious resemblances to Maurice Bendrix and to Fowler in The Quiet American. Waugh was alarmed by the book, seeing it as a sign of loss of faith. Greene assured him that this was not so, invoking the familiar formula that a writer should not be identified with his characters. But Sherry indicates that Waugh was right and that Querry was Greene in essentials: “Being Querry was Greene’s wound, his unhealable sore until old age, when his heavy depressions lifted somewhat.” This loss of faith was not total and not permanent. Over the years Greene continued to regard himself as a Catholic, to attend Mass and practice certain devotions, though the complications of his sexual life kept him from the sacraments. He evolved a curious spiritual paradox—enacted in his story “A Visit to Morin”—based on the Catholic teaching that whoever abandons the faith is likely to suffer for doing so. Greene was suffering, which confirmed the truth of the teaching.

One of my problems with Sherry’s painstaking book is that he is more interested in the sources of Greene’s writing in his personality and his encounters with the world than in the novels themselves. Yvonne Cloetta complains that Sherry confuses Greene’s life and his fiction. Indeed, he tends to collapse the novels into their sources, which he explores at excessive length. Before long the practicalities of publishing will require his three huge volumes to be reduced to one large one, like Richard Ellmann’s on Joyce or Peter Ackroyd’s on Dickens. Such a redaction would improve the book no end, though Sherry may not be the best person to do it.

Yvonne Cloetta died in 2001. Her book is a slight but pleasant human document, the story of a long love affair. She acknowledges Greene’s manic-depressive qualities and remarks, “He never forgave himself for having made the women he loved suffer—even his wife Vivien.” That “even” strikes a false note. For a long time after the dissolution of their marriage, Greene was devoted to Vivien, from whom he was never divorced, and he continued to support her and their children; at his death he left them his estate.

These books tell us far more about Greene’s life than we shall ever need to know. One looks now for an intelligent critical engagement with his novels. My own conviction is that the best of them appeared in the earlier part of his career, particularly his disturbing masterpiece, Brighton Rock (1938). In her own memoir of Greene (Greene on Capri), Shirley Hazzard (whom Cloetta disparages) remarks that the later novels lack the “inspired pain of the earlier fiction,” and adds, “what remained was professionalism: a unique view and tone, a practiced topical narrative that held the interest and forced the pace of the reader. Poignancy was largely subsumed into world-weariness, resurfacing in spasms of authenticity.” That is a good starting point for a reconsideration.

 


Related: Paul Baumann, Remembering Graham Greene
Ralph McInerny, The Greene-ing of America
Robert Murray Davis, About the Author
Richard A. Rosengarten, Two Periods, One Faith
Bernard Bergonzi, The Catholic Novel

Published in the 2004-10-22 issue: 
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Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.

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