Bugger the sources and get to the heart of the matter

The Life of Graham Greene Volume Three
December 3, 2004

While self-indulgent digressions say more about the biographer than his subject, Duncan Wu finds substance in the final part of Graham Greene's life

At more than 900 pages, the third and final volume of Norman Sherry's biography of Graham Greene could hardly be faulted for lack of thoroughness. It deals painstakingly with Greene's life from 1955 to 1991, bringing every last witness to the bar - letters, diaries, unpublished writings of all kinds, as well as the testimony Sherry gathered from Greene himself or those who knew him. It has many pleasures, not least Sherry's eye for peculiar details - what Greene was told in China when he asked his minder to buy him a condom ("I do not know your size"); the drowning of Evelyn Waugh in the lavatory; and Greene's favourite meal ("cold sausage and a glass of beer").

Yet it is strangely unsatisfying: at the end you are left with the feeling that the real Greene has never materialised. Much paper is sifted and numerous witnesses interrogated, but the subject slips through his biographer's fingers. Why this should have happened is hard to say, but one factor appears to be the very thing that legitimises Sherry's enterprise: Greene gave him exclusive permission to quote from his published and unpublished writings, enshrined in a signed statement on the eve of Greene's death. The unfortunate result is that Sherry allows them to dominate, devoting whole chapters to summaries and quotations from the novels. The effect is to generate a wall of words that does more to conceal than reveal their author. And why, if we have read the novels (as we probably have if we're reading this biography), do we need them in this regurgitated form?

Another factor is Sherry himself, hardly the most self-effacing of biographers. There has been a marked trend in recent years for life writers to regard their experience as researchers as equal in significance to that of their subjects. This is a controversial area, and Sherry is by no means the worst offender. All the same, he does have a tendency to interpolate himself as the figure by whom all doors in Greene's life are opened. "In 1976, when I became Greene's biographer..." is a typical throwaway. His qualifications as Greene's intimate are emphasised by way of revelations that might have been better kept private: Yvonne Cloetta and Greene "deliberately kissed for me to witness and photograph". Earlier, Sherry reveals that Jocelyn Rickards and Greene spoke to him about their relationship, remarking: "It was a wonderfully exhilarating love affair, as the interview Jocelyn gave me proved, and she inscribed a book to me with the legend: 'Everything I've told you is true.' (I did not doubt it - things like, they had made love on a train, and he took her from behind when she was bending over to brush her teeth - mild stuff like that.)" Leaving aside the gushing manner ("wonderfully exhilarating" is too Julie Andrews for me), one strives not to be irritated by the brandishing of confidences that add little to our understanding of Greene. But it is not Greene of whom Sherry writes: the point is that it was he, Sherry, to whom this was divulged rather than his rivals. There are other examples. He quotes one source as saying Greene "likes bottoms". A page later David Higham is quoted as remarking: "Without any question, he is a highly sexed man." Towards the end there is speculation as to Greene's sexual prowess in old age. This kind of gossip has no place in a serious literary biography.

It assumes a prurient interest in Greene's sex life on the reader's part, which does nothing to cast light on his art.

Sherry's preoccupation with himself rather than Greene occasionally manifests itself in comic moments such as his recollection of his visit to the Olofsson Hotel in Haiti, formerly frequented by Greene, where, he tells us: "I stayed in the John Gielgud suite (and)I was chased out of the room by a swarm of bees who were determined to take over my bathroom." "So what?" you might want to respond, but that would be to miss the point.

Incidents such as this legitimise Sherry's status as authorised biographer, as much as his claim to possess insights into Greene's essential nature. "Greene... had this possessive quality - many of us do, we the jealous ones, nursing resentment, envious of another's success, especially in love." Not only does this reveal more about Sherry than Greene, but Sherry gives nothing to support the contention that Greene was envious of others' success, in love or otherwise.

Was this book edited? Looked at in isolation, many of these glitches are minor - lapses of tone or taste, self-indulgent digressions of which many writers are guilty at an early stage of composition, that with sensitive editing could have been eliminated. But there are so many that you begin to suspect that no one checked the typescript before it went to press. Why else would Sherry have been allowed to refer to Greene's determination to finish The Comedians despite illness by saying: "Like the 'little railway engine that could', he keeps on keeping on"? Or, rather more dramatically:

"Greene lived seeking the perilous, and this he continued until finally doing battle with death. He would write like a lifer sentenced to hard labour, breaking rocks in the hot sun, with no hope for parole." And besides purplish passages, any decent editor would have deleted Sherry's repetitions: we are twice told that The Guardian told him of Greene's death, twice that Catherine Walston lost her looks towards the end of her life, and twice that Greene wrote the introduction to Kim Philby's My Silent War .

Sherry's interpretive method raises important questions about what constitutes "truth", although Greene clearly did not mean to make it an issue when, as Sherry recalls, he instructed him to: "Tell the truth. If it's for me, fine. If it's against me, fine. But the truth, Norman, else I'll haunt you." It sounds straightforward enough, except that Sherry has taken the view that "truth" means correlating the fictional places and people in Greene's novels with real-life counterparts. Referring to the protagonist of A Burnt-Out Case , he says: "Querry is Greene taken to extremes"; on the next page, he claims the character of Marie Rycker "is based on Yvonne Cloetta" (the last of Greene's loves). Further on, Sherry claims to have discovered the "origin" of Charley Fortnum from The Honorary Consul , while Greene is said to have admitted that his friend Dottoressa Moor was the "source" for Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt .

Doubtless all fictional works have their roots in life, but when source hunting becomes a substitute for interpretation, the effect is to reduce creative works, with all their complexities, to the level of a puzzle. It is a literal way of thinking that takes no account of the essential anarchy and unpredictability of the artistic process, neither sensitive nor revealing enough to justify its repeated application over 900 pages.

Sherry's adoption of it as his method is a principal cause of the tendency to become distracted by his own experiences as opposed to his subject's. At times, you have to remind yourself that Greene was actually one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. "Bugger the sources!" you want to scream, "What about the passion?" But it is precisely that dimension of the novels for which Sherry has little interest and less feeling.

The sad fact is that Sherry was acquainted with Greene, but seems not to have known him. As a result, his subject remains aloof, mysterious, essentially unknowable. For that reason, Sherry's judgements are not flawless. He discusses an occasion when, phoned at night by Bryan Forbes in the midst of his confrontation with the Nice mafia, Greene "panicked". But when you read Forbes' account of what happened, it is not obvious that this was the case. Greene may have been rattled, but it is confusion that registers, not terror. Perhaps his advocacy of Greene makes Sherry feel obliged to demonstrate even-handedness by accommodating unfavourable comment. He quotes Shirley Hazzard as saying that Greene was willing "to side with any king at war with Rome". This makes Greene sound posturing and juvenile, when there is ample evidence that his political judgements were more considered than that. His instinctive dislike of authority does not, for instance, explain his support for the Israelis, hatred of the IRA or sympathy with Soviet Russia. As befitted someone who worked for the intelligence services, Greene was a sophisticated political animal whose views (whatever one thinks of them) cannot be explained away by psychological reflex. Another informant, a Catholic priest, is allowed to observe, unchallenged, that Greene's stories are "totally Catholic". One can see why Catholics might wish to claim him for themselves, but that this is a partisan sentiment is demonstrated by the popularity he enjoys among non-Catholics.

For all this, it must be stated that Sherry's three volumes provide the most detailed overview of Greene's life available and comprise the most accurate and comprehensive account we are likely to have for some time. It will be valued for Sherry's inclusion of hitherto unpublished material that provides new insights into Greene's psyche. But unlike Richard Ellmann's Joyce , its many hundreds of pages fail to deliver the essential man. Late in the book, Sherry describes how Greene once paid a nocturnal visit to his bedroom in Anacapri while he slept, before stepping back into the night pursued at a distance by the still-drowsy biographer, who failed to catch up with him. Sherry interprets this thwarted encounter as evidence of Greene being his doppelgänger, but it is more persuasive as an emblem of his inability to find the real Greene, even when led in the right direction.

Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature, Oxford University.

The Life of Graham Greene Volume Three: 1955-1991

Author - Norman Sherry
Publisher - Cape
Pages - 906
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 224 059742

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