In the course of the 20th century, a good many British intellectuals lost confidence in their country and themselves, and Graham Greene was one of the most significant. George Orwell was quick to point out that Greene’s early books were built upon ‘the usual left-wing scenery’, but there was more to it than that. Greene saw virtue in disloyalty to the whole order: ‘I have never hesitated to be “used” in a cause I believed in.’ This is key to Greene’s finding in communism and later Catholicism new and different moral purposes.
Socially secure and financially established, the Greene family lived by all the Victorian liberal values that led to successful careers in one or another of the professions. Greene preferred victimhood, though he called it boredom. The idea of playing Russian roulette apparently came to him out of nowhere. In a cupboard in the room he shared with his brother, the teenage Greene discovered a ‘small ladylike’ revolver. A box of bullets was next to it. His brother is on record as saying that there was never a box of bullets, though there may have been some blanks. Greene went outdoors, pulled the trigger and survived to do it again. The thrill of dicing with death set him apart from the normal crowd and conditioned him for the future.
A lot of hard graft has gone into Richard Greene’s Russian Roulette. A Canadian academic, he writes easily and often with quiet wit. The intention is to supersede Norman Sherry’s massive but eccentric three-volume blockbuster, which was written over a period of thirty years. The enthusiasm with which Richard Greene