Joan Acocella, a staff writer for the New Yorker whose work I have admired in the past, has a curious review of a new biography of Graham Greene in the magazine’s March 22 issue (“Original Sinner: Graham Greene’s Dark Heart”). Having written appreciatively of Greene for Commonweal on the occasion of his death (“Sources of Desire,” May 3, 1991) and reviewed a subsequent biography for New York Newsday, I was naturally interested to read Acocella’s piece.
Acocella doesn’t find much to praise in The Unquiet Englishman by Richard Greene (no relation to Graham). The author’s effort to avoid the “excessive interest” in Greene’s concupiscence shown by other biographers doesn’t pass muster with Acocella. Given “how much time and energy” the novelist “put into his sex life one wonders how any biographer could look the other way for long.” Acocella refuses to look away, and approaches the “rather lurid events of Greene’s life” with a supercilious disdain. She duly notes Greene’s “first little scandal,” involving his salacious description of Shirley Temple in a movie review. She implausibly links that incident to the suggestion that Greene seemed determined to go “to bed with every other woman he came across.” The mix of sex, religion, and violence in his novels is “a hot stew,” which Acocella claims readers found “rather a thrill...bad behavior was fun after all.” She clearly finds Greene’s “procedure” of marrying “torments of the soul to frenzies of the flesh” incredible, if not adolescent. She grants that Greene is a master of novelistic plotting but dismisses his attempts at profundity: “How hard he reached for it!” She sniffs at the notion that he is “viewed by some” as one of the most important novelists of his generation.
Greene’s treatment of his wife and two children, and the pretensions of his erratic attachment to Catholicism, come in for special disapprobation. Greene converted in order to marry, only to leave his wife, who raised their two children alone. His wife would not agree to a divorce, and he never remarried. He did, however, support his wife and children financially, a fact Acocella does not mention. She acknowledges that Greene underwent psychoanalysis as a teenager and was diagnosed with a manic-depressive disorder, but suggests his adult behavior probably had more to do with alcohol and drug use than any innate psychological imbalance. She similarly casts doubt on his adolescent suicide attempts. To cinch the case for the prosecution, Acocella quotes a letter Greene wrote his wife explaining his “restlessness, moods, melancholia, even my outside relationships” as “symptoms of a disease.” The disease “lies in a character profoundly antagonistic to domestic life,” he concludes. Acocella judges that a lousy alibi, and thinks the letter was an effort to explain why Greene’s inexcusable behavior “wasn’t his fault.”
That seems a narrow reading of both the letter and Greene’s admittedly dark understanding of moral failure. It seems more characteristic of Greene’s thinking to understand such betrayals as realities that can be owned up to, or perhaps transformed into art, but not explained away. His novels, after all, are filled with inexplicable acts of both evil and virtue. “Writing is a form of therapy,” he contended. “Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in the human situation.”