The Life Graham Greene: Volume One – 1904–1939 by Norman Sherry - review by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux

Impure Thoughts on Our Greatest Writer

The Life Graham Greene: Volume One – 1904–1939


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When they were writing in the Sunday papers about the death of the last Marx brother, one of whose film characters was Otis P Driftwood,’ Vivien Greene – Graham’s former wife – told his biographer, ‘I thought “That’s the name for Graham” – never staying in the same place for more than weeks together.

It is a rum idea, the greatest living novelist as the fifth Marx brother, wearing a funny hat and flapping shoes, with a false nose and an exploding Bible, tripping all over the world – today Berkhamsted, tomorrow Haiti, next week Budapest – Otis P Driftwood the ambidextrous writer, scribbling novels with his right hand and travel books with his left and occasionally doing a life-like imitation of Gustave Flaubert’s most notable feat, of copulating with a woman, writing a letter and smoking a cigar all at the same time. After all, wasn’t it Greene himself who pointed out in a preface to a volume of his plays how near tragedy is to farce?

There is something rather farcical in the very existence of this biography. Norman Sherry was once a lecturer at the University of Singapore – I know this because I inherited his office there and some of his students were passed on to me. Stories were told in the staff club of how Norman would set off for Surabaya, to make sure whether there had been a real-life prototype for, let us say, Axel Heyst’s cook Wang in Conrad’s Victory and whether there had been three mysterious strangers like those in the novel. Actually, Conrad had nicked those three from a minor R L Stevenson novel called The Ebb-Tide. Norman was less interested in literary antecedents than those he might find in equatorial back streets, and this eagerness to embrace little-visited countries, strange people and the possibilities of amoebic dysentery so impressed Graham Greene that on the publication of Conrad’s Eastern World Greene got in touch with Sherry and eventually authorised him to write his biography. Professor Sherry, as he is now known, has moved to Texas where he teaches – perhaps at the very university which houses the Greene Papers.

The years of a writer’s struggle and failure often spell success for the biographer; there is no question but that in his following in the footsteps of Greene’s life, and in possession of all the papers, Prof Sherry has, as they say in Texas, lucked out – he has a career, a subject, and probably a considerable income, and he is sole proprietor of the official life.

If this book were not so long, so plodding and so odd it would not be necessary to raise these points. At this very moment Greene himself is stonewalling the publication of an unofficial biography by one Anthony Mockler (also two volumes, but racier – I am told – and the first volume ends in 1945). Sherry’s life of Greene is one of those monumental works which appears to be so exhaustive that you are almost certain that something crucial is being left out. William Faulkner’s biographer also took two long volumes in which he mentioned every insignificant detail imaginable but failed to find space for the fact that over a period of about thirty years Faulkner was an ardent adulterer and had a long-standing affair with a woman who apparently mattered very much to him. It is impossible to read Sherry’s book without thinking that a similar bit of sleight of hand is being practised.

An enormous amount of this volume is given over to the courtship between Graham and his future wife Vivien. Am I alone in finding it comic that Greene’s hundreds of love letters have been sold to and solemnly catalogued by the University of Texas? Sherry offers us many lengthy and gushing passages from these letters (showing a tender and romantic and vulnerable side to the novelist whom most people regard as a cold fish), but he does no more than suggest that at the same time Greene was living quite a different life – with ‘tarts’, girlfriends and drifting women. Indeed, any reader of Greene’s work can easily guess that he is well-acquainted with the one-night stand and the protracted affair. Where it is possible to document Greene’s comings and goings, Sherry gives us great helpings; but clearly there have been many episodes Greene had not wished to discuss with his biographer, and so we are forced to witness the sorry sight of the biographer reading Greene’s diary and reporting ‘The rest of this entry has been torn out’ – or scribbled over or amended or whatever – reminding me yet again that there are often more lacunae in a long book than in a short one.

Greene’s selective autobiographies, A Sort of Life and Ways of Escape were wonderful in their way, but I felt they were also somewhat hyperbolic. I felt that Greene had the strongly self-dramatising streak that characterises travellers more than it does novelists, and I never quite believed those seemingly well-polished stories about Russian roulette, failure and school bullying. As for the nervous breakdown – it seemed to me that Greene’s interest in dreams would lead him to a psychiatrist out of sheer curiosity quicker than as the result of neurosis. Greene tells many such stories about how he hated and suppressed certain books he wrote in his early years – and I felt these stories, too, to be exaggerations for effect.

Sherry’s biography not only substantiates these facts in Greene’s life, but adds detail to them. The suicide attempts were real, the manic-depression was actual, the sense of failure was repeated, and the suppressed novels really were quite dreadful. After struggling with poetry and even publishing a book of it, Babbling April, Greene turned to journalism and fiction, made a success of his first novel The Man Within and then suffered the ignominious fate of writing one dud after another, culminating in a life of Lord Rochester that lay unpublished for more than thirty years. At various points he considers teaching in Bangkok or Norway or Japan and he sees the folly of having chucked his sub-editor’s job at The Times.

With the writing of what he felt was his pot-boiler, Stamboul Train, Greene achieved popular success, but it was short-lived. This first volume of Greene’s life tells two stories, the first about Greene’s courtship and marriage, the second about his first ten years as a novelist. Vivien said that Greene had a splinter of ice in his heart – it was that which made him so objective and vivid a writer. By the end of the first volume he appears to be getting to the end of his marriage and just beginning to find real fame as a writer; and the splinter of ice is now the size of a dagger.

Greene’s decision in 1935 to walk through the hinterland of Liberia was crucial. The oddest feature of it was that he chose as travelling companion his socialite cousin Barbara; but Barbara proved to be tough and resourceful, and her own book about the trip is nearly as good as Graham’s (Penguin are soon to be reissuing it). Going to Liberia proved to Greene that he could endure hardships, that he could be brave and take risks, that there was an attraction in squalor and seediness, and that – having put his mind to it – he had convinced himself that he had something of Jim Hawkins as well as Stevenson in him. One of the most attractive traits of Greene is his willingness to put himself on the line. In the quietest sort of way he is a man of action, and he makes the most of any experience. At the end of this first volume, after his five weeks – only – of travel in Mexico, he has produced two of his best books, The Lawless Roads and The Power and the Glory. Fifty years remain to be recorded by his biographer.

After an aversion to the minutiae of this book l began to enjoy it, taking it slowly, spinning it out over two months and rather relishing its stubborn addiction to scarcely significant matters such as – to choose at random – the long description of the directory of brothels and prostitutes in San Antonio in 1938: Sherry names a couple, gives their addresses, and adds, ‘No doubt some of those girls were still living there when Greene went to explore the street…

One of the unhealthiest aspects of the age in which we live is our curiosity to know the last detail of a writer’s life, because this curiosity has to be contrasted with the almost total indifference to the writer’s work. The curiosity is a sure sign of a second-rate mind, because it is compounded of vulgarity, anti-intellectualism and a liking for tittle-tattle. Do we understand Greene’s books better or like them more as a result of this biography? l think the answer must be no – it is not at all a literary book. l found it fascinating in the same way that Greene must have found Lord Rochester fascinating, and l read it with the same enthusiasm that animated Greene when he went to a freak show in San Antonio to see two dead gangsters (mummified), a siamese sheep and ‘a frog baby born to a lady in Oklahoma’ – in other words, impure enthusiasm. But that’s the kind that gets books like this written and read. Greene’s triumph, surely, is that even after 704 pages, and more to come, he is left with his secrets intact.

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