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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

On Graham Greene

In literary circles, this year is the Year of Graham Greene because on 2 October we will celebrate the centenary of his birth. A highpoint of our revels will be the publication of the third and final volume of Norman Sherry's official biography. There's a story in the awarding of the 'official' biography to Sherry, an Eng Lit. academic. In 1971 Greene read a book by him on Joseph Conrad and liked it. At the time Green's friends and family were pressing him to do something about getting his biography written. An intensely private man, Greene was not anxious to have someone trawling through his privacies. He noticed, however, that Sherry had taken many years to write his books on Conrad because he insisted on visiting every significant local in Conrad's life. If he did the same with Greene, the novelist might be dead before Sherry got to the messy bits and wrote about them.

And so it proved. The Life of Graham Greene, Volume One, taking Greene to the age of 35, when he was still firmly married, appeared in 1989. Two years later Greene died, his secrets unpublicised. Volume Two did not come out until 1994. There's internal evidence that Sherry had hoped to do the biography in two volumes, which would have made commercial sense. But his material got out of control: more than 1200 pages of text take Greene only to 1955, when he was 51 years old - there's a whole chapter on an operation for appendicitis and 60 pages on trekking through Liberia. Too much of a good thing, one could say. Still, Volume Three will be a must-read when it appears next month.

Not that it will contain many surprises, surely. Since Sherry started working, books on Graham Greene have multiplied. You won't find all of them in bookshops now; but your local library may have them, and what is missing there can be got through inter-library loans. There's personal memoirs, such as Shirley Hazzard's Greene on Capri (2000) and Father Leopoldo Duran's Graham Green: Friend and Brother (1994). Greene and Hazzard used to meet on annual holidays on Capri, where each had a house. Greene liked the expatriate Australian novelist's sure knowledge of 19th century classics while she, the wife of Francis Steagmuller, was not intimidated by his celebrity. Father Duran was different. He and Greene toured Spain each year, discussion points of Catholic belief and practice; and the priest was there at the bedside in 1991, to give the last rites and preside at the funeral. Somewhat similar in not going beyond personal reminiscence are two books by Marie Francoise Allain, a journalist whose father, a Resistance hero and later a spy, was murdered in the course of his duties. Greene admired Yves Allain and after his death agreed to record conversations with his daughter which, when published, became The Other Man (1983). It is a book that conceals more than it reveals although there are quotable passages in it. Similarly the current In Search of a Beginning: My Life with Graham Greene (London: Bloomsbury: $49.95) is a record of conversations with Yvonne Cloetta, his last mistress. Done to pre-empt Sherry's Volume Three, it doesn't give much away.

So: the women in Graham Greene's life. His wife, Vivien, after his departure, made a life for herself in Oxford, most notably as a collector of dolls houses. Exemplary in dealing with enquirers, she never bagged her errant husband, except to say once that perhaps he should never have married. On Catherine Walston, the diva among his mistresses, there is The Third Woman (2000) by William Cash, a journalist who has done the necessary research in American libraries rich in primary sources. Catherine Walston, a wealthy and glamourous beauty, was a Catholic convert intrigued by theological questions, as was Greene. This interest saturates and weakens The End of the Affair (1951), the novel that draws heavily on their personal situation. It was "theology" that put a stop to their affair, Catherine then finding solace with Father Thomas Gilby OP and Greene with a queue of other women beginning with the Australian painter Jocelyn Rickards. Otto Preminger, the film director, got it right when he said in his autobiography: "Though he gives a first impression of being controlled, correct, and British, he is actually mad about women. Sex is on his mind all the time."

Well, perhaps not all the time. After The End of the Affair came The Quiet American (1955), one of his great novels despite the lengthy talk about the meaning of life and all that, when the two main characters are trapped overnight in Vietnamese paddy fields. This is an intensely political novel, a necessary text for understanding American imperialism. It is a peak in the chain of great novels that run from Brighton Rock (1938) to A Burnt-Out Case (1961). After them, the work becomes lighter, more genial, more relaxed. It is as if Graham Greene, having passed his climacteric, had come to terms with the great questions and learned to laugh at life. He began to call himself a Catholic agnostic. In a sequel to A Sort of Life (1971), Ways of Escape (1980) - both autobiographies of a sort, but we have learned not to trust a novelist's autobiography to tell the truth - he wrote of his distance from "the piety of the educated, the established, who seem to own their Roman Catholic image of God, who have ceased to look for Him because they consider they have found Him".

These later years are the period when Greene became a public figure, giving long interviews collected in Conversations with Graham Greene (1992) and writing letters to the press (see Yours etc: Letters to the Press (1989), a valuable book for any biographer). Theology never quite lost its fascination, as The Honorary Consul (1973) and Monsignor Quixote (1982) show; but it had to be a radical theology, as these novels also show. Of all his fictional characters it is perhaps Querry, the ecclesiastical architect scorched by spiritual aridity, and Morin, the celebrated "Catholic novelist" who has lost his faith, who seem to come close to Greene's own religious position. Close, I said: remember the friendship with Father Duran and those deathbed sacraments.

For sixty years he had been writing about hunted men who lived on the rim of security, and how everyday life could open suddenly under their feet and swallow them. Greeneland had no white picket fences; it was a danger zone. A late book, Getting to Know the General (1985) on Panama and US imperialism, along with his letters to the papers and his unshaken friendship with the spy Kim Philby, testify to the constancy of his political radicalism. Writing in 1997, WJ West suggested that for all his radicalism, Greene kept his contacts with British Intelligence warm... Maybe this is not as sinister as it sounds, for we know that the spook world is sustained by its ambiguities. West's book is the best of the posthumous biographies - certainly better than Michael Shelden's (1994), which falsifies the evidence, or Neil Sinyard's (2003), a book whose central focus is on the films made from Greene's work.

So he waited for the end, putting scraps from the bottom drawer and offcuts into books like Why the Epigraph? (1989), a limited edition done, like several others, to help an old publisher fallen on hard times. One of the very last titles to appear under his name was Reflections 1922-1988 (1990), a selection of his travel journalism almost unique in that genre, for there's no space wasted on the usual touristy advice: these are places where tourists can get themselves killed.

Then death came for Graham Greene himself, in good time to save him from being embarrassed by whatever revelations Norman Sherry's Volume Three might contain.

Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1 Books Etc
  • Issue 3 Books Etc
  • Issue 5 Books Etc
  • Issue 7 Books Etc
  • Issue 9 Books Etc
  • Issue 11 Books Etc
  • Issue 13 Books Etc
  • Issue 15 Books Etc

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