Thursday, 30 November 2006

The Life Of Graham Greene, Norman Sherry, 2005

THE LIFE OF GRAHAM GREENE Volume Three: 1955-1991 Norman Sherry, Jonathan Cape, London, 906 pages, hardback, NZ$79.95
ISBN 0-224-05974-2
[NZ agents: Random House]

In my high school library, the only example of modern fiction was a shelf of Graham Greene’s novels. Our rite of manhood was to plough through the moral thickets of Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter, emerging desperately in need of a guide. Now that guide, Professor Norman Sherry, has completed his massive three volume analysis of Greene’s life and works. Some thirty years’ dedicated work – Vol 1 appeared in 1989, Vol 2 in 1994 – his trilogy is 2,251 pages long and weighs 3.85 kg (8lb 10oz), a very healthy baby.

Decades ago Greene appointed Sherry his official biographer “on a handshake alone,” giving him easy access to documents and friends, and full freedom to quote. Sherry who uses ‘sleuthing’ as his job description, says he was chosen because he was not a Catholic and not a friend. David Lodge recorded that Greene was deriving “a mischievous glee from the tribulations that poor Norman Sherry had suffered in trying to retrace Greene’s every step.” Sherry is entitled to be less gleeful, since during his travels in Paraguay, Sierra Leone, Haiti Panama and Mexico, he contracted fever, dysentery and gangrene. He was even blinded for six months. Greene quipped, “I fear he will catch leprosy if he goes to the Congo.”

Perhaps the only worse feature of the biographer’s life was Sherry’s midnight realisation that Greene was stalking him in Anacapri. Countess Cerio explained, “Graham felt if you had the right to be a detective following him – even into the brothels he’d visited, then he had the right to follow you.”

Reading all three volumes has been stimulating. This is an excellent account of Greene’s tortured personal life, telling how he established himself as a writer of international reputation as well as examining the moral ambiguities of his inner life. Sherry also disentangles Greene’s complex marital and romantic life, using an amazing range of letters, diary entries and interviews. Greene’s diary of his dreams includes one where he commits lese-majesty with the Queen. Sherry is particularly good at decoding Greene’s novels to reveal the writer’s private history. “When we read Greene’s novels, we are a witness to torment.” This well-structured biography is a model of its kind and very readable.

Sherry’s prose is sometimes leaden but he astutely uses others’ word-pictures. Frederic Raphael wrote, “If God could count every hair on your head, Greene did not fail to draw attention to the dandruff.” Greene’s cousin Barbara, who shared his grim trip through Liberia, wrote that Graham’s brain “frightened her – it was sharp and clear and cruel.” His friend, Shirley Hazzard, called Greene’s humour “the snowball that conceals the stone,” while Auberon Waugh wrote, “As a fox to the furrier, that’s how Greene approached the Catholic church.”

Did Sherry’s growing friendship with Greene create moral handcuffs? Sometimes Sherry pulls his punches. Greene remained loyal to his friend, the traitor Kim Philby, but when asked about the distinction between betrayal of country and betrayal of friends, Greene became angry. Sherry notes, “Philby did have friends he’d worked with killed: he had blood on his hands. This last I did not repeat.” Sherry had been in touch with Philby and could have pushed Greene further but chose not to.

Sherry offers all the possible nuances, which can irritate. It was refreshing to read Michael Shelden’s crisp Graham Greene The Man Within as a companion to Sherry’s 3-decker. Shelden’s view of Greene is invariably hostile but readers can appreciate how carefully Sherry lays out all possible interpretations of Green’s personality, actions and words.

Sherry has elicited many revealing comments. “I’ve betrayed very many people in my life,” mused Greene, “I betrayed Dorothy. Particularly Dorothy.” Sherry’s baffled account, in Vol 2, of Dorothy Glover, Greene’s wartime mistress is now supplemented by a small gem of a tribute to her personality in Vol 3. This is one of several instances where Sherry also rectifies or clarifies earlier less well-handled points.

We need meticulous researchers like Sherry, who spotted that Greene sometimes re-wrote his diary entries. Sherry sees his subject as “elusive aloof, and inaccessible”, with “a splinter of ice in his heart.” Yet he has succeeded in his search for Greene’s “inner vulnerabilities,” best captured in a melancholy moment when they were standing together on a deserted railway platform and Greene sang sadly to him, “Shovel the dust on the old man’s coffin and take up your pen and write.”

This massive work ends with a final chilling joke from the Old Fox. After his moving account of Greene’s death and burial, Sherry tells of Greene’s mordant prophecy. “It was Greene’s belief that he would live to read the first volume of the biography – he did; that he would not live to read the second - he did not; and that…Sherry would not live to complete the third.” Bowing to his own “superstitious dread of Greene’s powers of divination” Sherry has carefully left his final sentence incomplete. “Let peace…”

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on January 29th 2005

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