A poet friend of mine has often complained about the common assumption that learning the biographical details about a writer brings us closer to the quality of the work. Learning that a scene in a novel came from a real-life meeting with a Mrs. Smith in Soho or the author’s experiences in Vietnam does not inevitably make the scene more appealing, or even more intelligible. A literary biographer must establish or assume that her readers already find her subject’s writing interesting. The fact that Tolkien got bitten in a Great War trench by a large spider will be of interest only to those already interested in Shelob from The Lord of the Rings.
As it happens, The Unquiet Englishman, Richard Greene’s sparkling new biography of Graham Greene, would have a lot of interest even if the latter were not an important writer who, twenty years after his death, still has a large audience. Graham Greene traveled widely, through Europe, Mexico, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and the United States, and he wrote about what he saw in all those places. He worked for the British secret service during World War II, and spent a lot of time with Kim Philby, who would later turn out to be a double agent for the Soviet Union. Greene became a Catholic in 1927 in order to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, but almost from the start, he had trouble with the practical demands of Catholicism—and in particular, trouble with marital fidelity. Soon after his marriage, he began a long series of affairs, but Vivien refused to grant him a divorce, and he continued to support her.
“There is no understanding Greene except in the political and cultural contexts of dozens of countries,” Richard Greene writes. But he does not explicitly say that those contexts are needed to like the novels. I knew nothing of Graham Greene’s life when I began reading his novels. Only because they were books I could not put down did I want to learn about the life of the man who had written them. Richard Greene, a professor of English literature (and no relation to his subject), does draw out the facts behind Graham Greene’s fictions, insofar as these are available. Even more usefully, though, he discusses how the novels work together or draw on the same themes.