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The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry
The Life of Graham Greene; Volume III: 1955–1991
(906 pages; $39.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Franklin Freeman
In 1949, Graham Greene, after an audience with Pope Pius XII, visited a Franciscan monastery with his mistress, Catherine Walston, where he heard Padre Pio say Mass. Pio’s stigmata “profoundly moved” him and he lost “the sense of time” during Mass, yet when, through a messenger, Pio invited Greene to meet him, his reaction was, “I didn’t want to change my life by meeting a saint. I felt that there was a good chance that he was one. He had a great peace about him.” Nevertheless, Greene at eighty years old still carried Padre Pio’s picture in his wallet.
One can assume that to change his life meant to Greene giving up his affair with Walston and visits to scores of prostitutes. During the 1950s, when his affair with Walston was at its most intense, Greene stopped going to confession and Communion, although he continued to attend Mass regularly. In 1960, when he was writing A Burnt-Out Case, he had almost given in to despair.
However, in the 1970s, “suffering from intense grief” about his sexual sins, Greene’s faith returned. He befriended a Spanish priest, Father -Duran, who heard his confessions, gave him Communion, and kept vigil with him as he died in Switzerland. Even then Greene had a mistress in Antibes, France. Was he a believer, a serious Catholic? Sherry contends that he was, albeit, as is apparent from his life and works, a tortured one.
Also torturous was Norman Sherry’s struggle to write his three-volume authorized biography of Greene, who chose Sherry because he admired Sherry’s books on Joseph Conrad. Sherry had traveled to the places Conrad had lived and discovered important insights into his work, insights unobtainable in libraries, and made a promise to do the same for Greene. He almost died fulfilling it. Sherry wanted “not only to trace the life and career of his subject but also, so far as possible, to penetrate the mystery of his character and personality.” Greene told him, “I will never lie to you, Norman, but I will not answer all your questions.”
Sherry began his work on Greene in October 1976 and completed it in October 2002. (Volume One was published in 1989 and Volume Two in 1995.) For him Greene is a great writer, one in the first tier, approaching -Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Greene himself ranked his place, more accurately, in the second tier.
Sherry ultimately admits defeat in trying to penetrate the mystery of Greene’s personality. He does explore the territory, however, which is vast, both geographically and psychologically.
This volume begins when Greene’s affair with Walston was beginning to wane (even as another, with a Swedish actress, was waxing) and when Greene was succeeding as a dramatist with his hit play, The Potting Shed, about a priest’s loss and recovery of faith. Greene hoped his work as a playwright would free him from the grinding labor of writing novels, but when another play, Carving the Statue, flopped, he turned back to fiction.
Sherry discusses in detail the writing and themes of the major plays and novels in the years covered by Volume Three, singling out The Honorary Consul (1973) as Greene’s last masterpiece. He greatly admires Our Man in Havana (1958), A Burnt-Out Case (1960), and The Comedians (1966); less so the later novels, beginning with Travels with My Aunt (1969). The Human Factor (1978) is only “brilliant in parts,” Getting to Know the General (1984) is “a curious work,” and he makes no judgment of The Captain and the Enemy (1988). He never mentions Dr. Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (1980) or The Tenth Man (1985), perhaps because he could think of nothing good to say about them.
Thus Sherry chronicles a decline in Greene’s work the last years of his life, except for - Monsignor Quixote (1982), to which he devotes a whole chapter. Greene’s advanced age and time-consuming, emotionally draining, and sometimes even physically dangerous conflicts with his last mistress’s son-in-law, spats with other writers, and involvement with political causes, exhausted him. When someone asked him in 1984 why his novels were getting shorter and shorter, Greene replied, “Because I get older and older.” Greene died of leukemia in 1991 in Switzerland, his last words recorded as, “Oh, why does it take so long to come?”
This final volume is at times riveting and profound, well worth reading by anyone interested in Greene or his works, or the struggles and creative process of a religious writer. However, I winced at Sherry’s sporadically self-indulgent and self-referential tone. He prefaces two of the chapters with quotes from his own poetry, and at times writes too much about the writing of his biography, as if his experience of having wrestled with Greene matters more than Greene. Sometimes the writing is too chummy and at other times melodramatic.
The biography is organized by topic, with contemporaneous events—for example, the writing of a book, a visit to another country, and his faith and doubts—treated in separate chapters, and the chronology is very confused. It offers no short chronology or timeline.
Blind & Insightful
At times Sherry seems blind to his subject’s duplicity, or perhaps blinded by it, but at others shows great insight into Greene, in passages like the following:
Greene, to the end of his life, had a powerful desire to believe in the Living God and His Sacrificed Son. Only Greene would put truth so resolutely in the centre of a fable [in Monsignor Quixote], and wrap doubt snugly around great faith. As a fox to the furrier, that’s how Greene approached the Catholic church.
And he includes some piquant quotes from Greene’s friends. One, the novelist Shirley Hazzard, called his humor “the snowball that conceals the stone,” and another noted that “If God could count every hair on your head, Greene did not fail to draw attention to the dandruff.”
Ultimately, though, the contemplation of Greene’s life and works disappoints and so the biography disappoints also. Not so for Ruth Franklin, however, who, reviewing this book in the New Yorker, claimed that Greene’s failings as a Christian were his virtues as a writer “because the novelist’s dedication is to humanity, not divinity.” Try to apply this to writers like Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Mauriac, Bernanos, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Did their writing suffer from including “divinity” in the reality they portrayed?
Hans Urs von Balthasar presented the best summary of Greene’s heterodox theology in his book, The Christian and Anxiety, which I wish Greene had read (when Greene was asked what was his predominant feeling, he replied, “anxiety”). Greene was “a great writer,” he wrote, but nevertheless guilty of presenting the “mystique of sin,” the thesis set forth under the pretext of sincerity and anti-pharisaism, that guilt itself, when assumed voluntarily (in solidarity with another sinner), contains a -redemptive element, which is today perhaps the decisive element; this plainly and necessarily contradicts true redemption . . . . A Christian can share burdens and be in -solidarity precisely in the measure that he has separated himself from sin. He can enter into anxiety on behalf of the sinner precisely in the measure that he has, objectively, been freed from the anxiety of sin.
Greene complained when reviewers of his work spoke of “Greeneland,” replying that he wrote of the world as he saw it. However, his life and work fall short for the same reason: he could not, or would not meet with or portray someone like Padre Pio. He was willing to visit brothels and war zones, showing tremendous physical courage, but would not change his life, and his work as a whole (exempting his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, and perhaps The End of the Affair as a close second) suffers for it.
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.