Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene, by Richard Greene (Little Brown, 591 pp., $42.48)

In this witty, elegant, revelatory biography, Richard Greene states that his “book takes a very high view of Graham Greene’s accomplishments, and so endorses the common opinion of three generations of writers and critics that he is one of the most important figures in modern literature.” “Important” writers are not necessarily good writers; in fact, they can be rather poor ones, especially if their importance hinges on their aping, or, worse, pandering to the prejudices of their age; but Greene was a good writer despite the “importance” often attributed to him. Not a stylist in the sense in which Evelyn Waugh or Ford Madox Ford were stylists, he accomplished his art—and won his popularity—by concealing his art. Moreover, while he may have shared his contemporaries’ fascination with the Cold War, his own personal obsessions with faith and betrayal, together with his solicitude for what one early critic nicely called the “ingloriously vicious,” always set his interest in such matters apart.

Born in Berkhamsted, Herefordshire, the son of a headmaster, Greene (1904–1991) read history at Balliol and converted to Catholicism after marrying Vivienne Dayrell-Browning, whom he never divorced, despite his numerous extramarital affairs. While pursuing his highly successful literary career, he worked briefly for M16 in West Africa. That both his last mistress and his estranged wife attended his funeral says something for his improbable lovableness. Asked in old age about his work, he allowed that he had written a few good books, some of which might remind readers of Flaubert. Thirty years after his death, his sales remain strong.

His Catholic novels are his best, particularly Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), and The End of the Affair (1951), though he also wrote what he called “entertainments,” including The Stamboul Train (1932), The Ministry of Fear (1943), and Travels with My Aunt (1969). Carol Reed directed the amusing film version of Our Man in Havana (1958) with Noel Coward and Alec Guinness, about the filming of which Guinness recalled: “We were put in a very gilded hotel and given vast over-decorated suites . . . Merula [the actor’s wife] had difficulty getting a hair-do in the hotel salon as it was always crowded with Castro’s officers having their shoulder-length hair permed and their beards curled while they sat with sub-machine guns across their knees.”

Greene also wrote excellent literary criticism. If he had never produced a page of fiction, he would still be remembered for his incisive readings of Henry James, François Mauriac, Henry Fielding, and Rider Haggard, all of whose work influenced his own. Moreover, as a publisher’s reader, he was instrumental in the publication of Flann O’Brien’s wonderfully funny debut novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), which was fitting: Greene and O’Brien shared an outrageous sense of humor. As Richard Greene (no relation) says of the novelist, his practical jokes included “ringing up a retired solicitor in Golders Green who happened also to be named Graham Greene and berating him, in various accents, for writing ‘these filthy novels.’” Then, again, “he would carry with him other people’s business cards, and when he spotted a friend in a restaurant, he would write lewd or inscrutable proposals on the back of a card, send it across, and watch the friend’s reaction.”

When Evelyn Waugh warned his friend that abandoning God in his fiction would be like P.G. Wodehouse abandoning Jeeves, he was making a shrewd point. Greene’s best books would be inconceivable without their God-haunted fixation on sin. As the critic V. S. Pritchett rightly observed, Greene’s greatest achievement was to revive the sense of evil in the English novel, from which it had been absent since the death of James. Greene’s depiction of the exultantly evil Pinkie in Brighton Rock bears this out. It was also his Catholic faith that enabled Greene to recognize the reality of eternity, which his character Craven memorably reaffirms in the short story, “A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road” (1947) when he says that “the squalid darkening street outside was only one of the innumerable tunnels connecting grave to grave where the imperishable bodies lay.”

Yet even when Greene left off writing directly about God in his later fiction—particularly in The Honorary Consul (1973) and The Human Factor (1978)—he took up secular themes in terms central to his Catholic faith. Certainly, the novelist’s Catholic sense of order made him appreciative of the comedy of disorder. In The Human Factor, Greene describes an old spy assigned to Africa being roused after nodding off at lunch:

He opened blue, serene unshockable eyes and said, “A cat nap.” It was said that as a young man somewhere in Ashanti he had inadvertently eaten human flesh, but his digestion had not been impaired. According to the story he had told the Governor, “I couldn’t really complain, sir. They were doing me a great honour by inviting me to take pot luck.”

Up to now, Greene has not been fortunate in his biographers. Norman Sherry, whom Greene tapped to write the authorized biography, treated the novelist in three stupefying volumes as though his only claim to fame had been to churn out romans à clef of no discernible literary or moral significance, while Michael Shelden presented his subject as a pathological huckster, only masquerading as a Catholic to sell books. For Shelden, the real Greene was homicidal, sadomasochistic, homosexual, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, treasonous and, perhaps most ludicrously, anti-Mexican. (Both The Power and the Glory and The Lawless Roads (1939) are set in Mexico.) Richard Greene, by contrast, has succeeded in writing the best biography of the novelist by showing his subject both fair criticism and sympathy. He also writes a lean, brisk, cinematic prose reminiscent of Greene’s own, which gives his narrative its readability.

As for the effect that Greene’s Catholicism had on his work, his biographer shows that it was more decisive than the novelist was prepared to admit: he “believed in there being an essential self. Greene saw Mrs. Dalloway, for example, not as a novel with realized characters but as a mere prose poem. In his view, this was not only an intellectual difference between Woolf’s beliefs and his, but a failure of craft—her characters are defective because ontologically adrift.” One could never say this of Greene’s characters, most of whose reality derives from their maker’s Catholic belief in material and supernatural reality.

At the same time, Richard Greene shows how the novelist was never unsusceptible to the charisma of strongmen like Omar Torrijos and Fidel Castro. And Greene the biographer is also careful not to sentimentalize Greene the author’s relationship with the traitor Kim Philby, which even the broadminded John Le Carré found deplorable. Apropos Greene’s endorsing Philby’s claim that loyalty to individuals necessarily trumped loyalty to countries, his biographer is categorical: “It is an attractive thought, as nations have a lot to answer for . . . But as a moral principle it falls apart: it hints at tribalism and tends to justify indifference to strangers.” A timely point, in an age when the tribalism of our own elites holds unaccountable influence.

Greene also reminds readers of how blatant the novelist’s political misjudgments were. When one sees Graham Greene equating Communism with Catholicism, one can never be sure whether he knew what he was saying or whether he was simply turning phrases. “Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes,” the novelist has one of his characters say in The Comedians (1966), “but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate.” One has to wonder whether Greene would say the same of the blood on the hands of those fellow travelers in the Vatican who have sold out the Catholic Church in China to the hardly indifferent Red Chinese.

The storyteller, however, cannot be confused with the provocateur in Greene. When the double agent Castle in The Human Factor (1978) lands in Moscow, after his treachery surfaces, he spends his days in the dreary flat his masters have provided him reading Robinson Crusoe and musing as he looks out the window: “This was not the snow he remembered from childhood, and associated with snowballs and fairy stories and games with toboggans. This was a merciless, interminable, annihilating snow, a snow in which one could expect the world to end.”

Similarly, the storyteller in Greene could be prescient when it came to exposing what his biographer calls “brittle orthodoxies.” His characterization of America’s involvement in Vietnam is a good example. Reasonable people can debate America’s conduct of the war, but it is hard to argue with the narrator Thomas Fowler’s assessment of the character of Alden Pyle in Greene’s novel The Quiet American (1955): “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused . . . impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” Anyone inclined to doubt this should dip into Max Hastings’s recent history of the Vietnam War, or read Plato on the tragic hero, who must be neither rogue nor paragon but a “character between these two extremes . . . a man . . . whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.”

In describing the various manifestations of Greene’s bipolar illness, Richard Greene supplies his readers with a useful key to his subject’s manic restlessness, which the novelist may not have entirely understood himself but turned to good account when developing his characters. Castle, the reluctant double agent, wrestling with his family and M16 loyalties, is described, just before sleep, as “allowing himself to strike . . . off on that long slow underground stream which bore him on towards the interior of the dark continent where he hoped that he might find a permanent home, in a city where he could be accepted as a citizen, as a citizen without any pledge of faith, not the City of God or Marx, but the city called Peace of Mind.”

In his autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), Greene recalled his father reading Robert Browning to him as a boy and his later realization that the poet’s lines had influenced him “more than any of the Beatitudes,” especially these: “Our interest’s in the dangerous edge of things/The honest thief, the tender murderer/the superstitious atheist . . . We watch while these in equilibrium keep/The giddy line midway.” Here was proof that the novelist knew what he was about when he wrote the brilliant opening line of his autobiography: “If I had only known it, the whole future must have lain all the time along those Berkhamsted Streets.”

In a review of Charles Carrington’s life of Kipling, Greene observed that “It is the fate of a good biographer that the reviewer neglects him for random reflections on his subject,” but he also said that “Mr. Carrington has dug with effect: the quarry is exhausted, and, as Kipling would have wished, future writers need concern themselves only with the work.” The same can be said for Richard Greene and his clairvoyant excavations in the long-misused quarry of Graham Greene’s life and work.

Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images


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