Revisiting Greeneland

Book cover
The Life of Graham Greeneby By Norman SherryViking. 800p $39.95

The urge to reveal ourselves to others is often stifled by prudence. One of the rewards of writing novels is that the inner, hidden self of an author can be mined, brought to the surface and exhibited as fiction. As the Joseph Conrad scholar Norman Sherry demonstrates in his authorized biography of Graham Greene, there is a strong affiliation between the history of his subject, who died in 1991, and the fictive world he created.

Sherry has finally brought to completion his sympathetic but forthright account of the life of one of the most complex, enigmatic and fascinating figures of the 20th-century literary world, replete with numerous photographs and insightful analyses of Greene’s vast oeuvre: more than 20 novels and entertainments, novellas, short stories, plays, children’s books, a collection of verse, numerous political and literary essays, travel books, a biography, screen scenarios, hundreds of film and book reviews and two volumes of autobiography (in which very little of the writer’s personal life is divulged). Although Greene explored a variety of genres, it is primarily for his fiction that he is known.


In addition to Sherry’s frequent meetings with his subject and the usual archival research, his method of literary sleuthing involved becoming Greene’s doppelgänger: following in his footsteps back and forth across the globe, on exhausting and perilous journeys, to interview people the novelist had met. This, the last volume of a trilogy, begins by briefly summarizing the previous two, the first of which treats Greene’s youth and early writings, his travels in West Africa and Mexico, his conversion to Catholicism and his marriage to Vivien Dayrell-Browning. Although it is too detailed, as Greene himself noted (does one need to know, for example, when the author cut his first tooth?), it deservedly won the 1990 Edgar Allan Poe Award. The second volume deals with the period from the London blitz to Vietnam, during which “the trinity of novels upon which Greene’s reputation rests” were produced: The Power and the Glory (1940; U.S. title, The Labyrinthine Ways), The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), as well as The Quiet American (1955) and the masterful film scripts The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). These were also the years that witnessed the disintegration of Greene’s marriage and his obsession with the beautiful American Catherine Walston. Despite impressive research and documentation, one error stands out: Greene could not have attended Mass on Good Friday, as Sherry says he did, since that is, of course, the one day of the year when no Mass is celebrated. The book is further marred by substandard copyediting: some passages are repeated.

This final volume, the publication of which coincides with the celebration of Greene’s centenary, takes us from 1955 to the author’s death from leukemia in Switzerland in 1991. The portrait drawn is that of a reticent, courteous, inveterate traveler with an overwhelming compulsion to write who sought refuge from a profound ennui—a spiritual torment that plagued him virtually all his life—in such palliatives as alcohol, opium, tawdry sexual adventures and flirtations with death. Writing, too, Greene admitted, was a means of escape from “the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” Owing to financial problems and a strong attachment to Yvonne Cloetta, the novelist moved to Antibes, France, in 1966, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Sherry is objective and nonjudgmental in his handling of the sensational matters, never prurient or exploitative. Some issues previously introduced, like Greene’s anti-Americanism, his support of the traitor Kim Philby and fondness for Latin American dictators, the blocking of his Nobel Prize by a committee member and his involvement with British intelligence—an experience that engendered Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Human Factor (1978)—are taken up again here and expanded, resulting in a certain amount of repetition.

Sherry picks up some cudgels and hurls them at the biographer Michael Sheldon, countering the latter’s accusations of anti-Semitism, clandestine homosexuality and sham Catholicism. Indeed, Greene’s faith—which he came to describe as “a malign virus from which one could never be cured”—has been a source of endless controversy. Wishing to please his fiancée, he entered the church at age 22, accepting Catholicism as an intellectual likelihood. His novels reveal not only his personal angst but, starting with the psychological thriller Brighton Rock (1938), the state of his vacillating belief, which was undoubtedly affected, as he himself suggests, by his continual disregard—not without anguish—of the church’s moral precepts regarding sexuality. As the years passed, he continued to attend Mass despite increasing doubt as to the existence of a personal deity, eventually describing himself as a “Catholic agnostic.” He would explain that he had less and less belief every day but more and more faith. (From a theological standpoint, there can exist a valid tension between rational disbelief and faith.) This polarity informs much of his later work, in particular A Burnt-Out Case (1961). Late in life, Greene returned to the sacraments, and made an annual retreat at a Trappist monastery.

Greene has been categorized as a Catholic novelist. Certainly, much of his fiction employs a frame of reference that is specifically Catholic, including an examination of certain mystical concepts that clearly show the influence of François Mauriac. Like Georges Bernanos, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and a host of others, he rejected this label, which implies an author of religious tracts, arguing that he was a writer who, being Catholic, viewed reality through a special lens. Frequently accused of heresy on the grounds that some of his protagonists hold unorthodox opinions, he made the standard disclaimer that he should not be held responsible for the words of his characters. “The writer plays God until his creatures escape him.”

Sherry has written the definitive biography of Graham Greene, an English author of international status. Although at times he strains our credulity while attempting to provide historical models for Greene’s characters, overall his presentation is persuasive.

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