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Books: Greene Lite

3 minute read
Pico Iyer

“He is very agreeable,” wrote a baroness in Belgium, introducing Graham Greene to a doctor running a leper colony in the Congo, but “very problematic.” Indeed so. The love of ambiguity and restless sense of privacy that made Greene one of the defining writers of the past century rendered him a mystery in life, even to himself. Fifteen or so years before his death, perhaps as one of his celebrated pranks, the aging novelist appointed an intrepid Joseph Conrad scholar, Norman Sherry, to be his official biographer. In the 28 years since his appointment, Sherry followed Greene to more than 20 countries, got dysentery in the same mountain village where Greene got dysentery and tracked down almost everyone who knew him. Yet as Sherry brings his massive project to a close with The Life of Graham Greene, Volume III: 1955-1991 (Viking; 906 pages), the overwhelming impression is that the professionally elusive Greene–an “old fox,” as he called himself–has left a lumbering bear in the dust.

“No lies, please” was Greene’s injunction to his shadow, and Sherry seems to have heeded the challenge. Instead of lies, he gives us antic speculation, reductive lay psychology and endless chatty asides. Greene evaded his pursuers in part by always being on the move–directing a brewery, bombarding Bodley Head publishers with new discoveries, roaming the world ceaselessly and maintaining a private life that quickened and deepened his heartbreaking novels. At one point we find him writing hundreds of letters to his longtime mistress Catherine Walston, visiting another mistress in Stockholm and, while roaming from Martinique to Moscow, crafting one of his most indelible books, Our Man in Havana, partly to support the wife and two children he had left behind in England.

That vagrancy was complicated by a sense of conscience and compassion that made him painfully aware of the hurt he was causing. Sherry responds to that anguish by trying to find the sources in life for what was memorable in fiction, starting with a dusty old man in Mexico, his hand “caked with dried excrement,” who, Sherry says, was central to The Power and the Glory. The trouble is, Greene’s magic lies not in what he found on his travels but what he made of it. Searching for his initial inspirations is like scrambling after the hat out of which a conjurer pulled a rabbit.

Sherry’s greatest find is, no doubt, the letters–tender, imploring and naked–that Greene wrote over decades to Walston. The man often celebrated as the patron saint of doubters is here revealed as one of the romantics of the century (“You are the only real life there was: everything else was a drug to keep me going until you were with me”). Yet showcasing these letters gives us a sexual Greene at the expense of a mischievous Greene or the anguished Catholic Greene. And each time Greene’s prose appears on the page, Sherry’s seems more prosaic by comparison.

Sherry, in fact, soon becomes the central character in the book–comical, ingratiating, bumptious, ingenuous and somewhat dotty, a latter-day James Boswell. But Boswell, in his epic biography, gave us a Samuel Johnson so sharp and defined that he leaps across the centuries. In Sherry’s case, each new detail somehow leaves Greene deeper in the shadows and more contradictory. Perhaps the wary writer sensed, in appointing his biographer, that 2,000 pages on, we would know much more about Norman Sherry than we will ever know of Graham Greene. –By Pico Iyer

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