Not Easy Being Greene: Graham Greene's Letters | The Nation


Not Easy Being Greene: Graham Greene's Letters

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

OLIVER WALSTONGraham Greene in Cambridgeshire, England, circa 1953

About the Author

Michelle Orange
Michelle Orange is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F....

Also by the Author

From Yes Minister and The Thick of It to Veep, Scandal and House of Cards, British political satire and its American progeny reveal growing disillusionment with political irreality.

R.I.P. Newspapers--but Not the News

Belmont, Mass.

"If anybody ever tries to write a biography of me," Graham Greene once mused, "how complicated they are going to find it and how misled they are going to be." It's a sentiment often held up by Greene's biographers as a kind of immunity medallion: his intractability appears to surpass that of even your average manic-depressive titan of twentieth-century literature, yet it is paradoxically essential to understanding his character.

Canadian scholar Richard Greene, who is no relation to the author, brandishes this medallion in the preface to Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, a new collection he has assembled from the tens of thousands of letters Greene wrote over his lifetime. A chief attraction of this volume is the access RG received to several recently discovered troves of letters, many written to Greene's family members, which were not available to previous biographers. Nevertheless, RG warns, "The sum of all these discoveries is to make Graham Greene a stranger to us again."

A stranger with no shortage of calling cards: devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing, to name just a few. "But who are you, Mr. Greene?" Yvonne Cloetta, his last mistress, remembered Greene being asked throughout his career. "I am my books," he insisted, a problematic deflection for several reasons, the most obvious being that the Greene oeuvre and its secondary materials support any number of conclusions about who their creator was and what he believed. Indeed, in Greene's two memoirs he manages--resolutely, annoyingly--to reveal little of his emotional life. Considered as a literary trope, Greene's contradictions hold the appeal of universality: in him, we can all locate some part of ourselves. As a man, he may be too like us for adulatory comfort. Even among his fans, abiding love for Greene is rare; for a man who considered disloyalty to be a privilege of the faithful, the hair shirt fits.

Another problem with the "I am my books" autobiographical imperative is that his books, by his own account, have been so widely misunderstood. I first encountered Greene's writing in my early 20s. Exiting the Catholic faith at the age that Greene converted to it, I found myself drawn to his works of doubt and devotion. I devoured The End of the Affair, deeply enamored of Greene's chiseled, controlled and yet blissfully, somehow permissively emotional prose. As a moody kid I reveled in Maurice Bendrix's paroxysms of jealousy, his "record of hate," and despite my status as a recovering Catholic, took comfort in the idea that even an atheist can have doubts. It was Greene's first novel narrated in the first person, an experiment he undertook after reading Great Expectations, and the voice was a revelation.

By the time The End of the Affair was published in 1951, Greene had already ascended the ranks to Catholic superstardom. Sarah, Bendrix's married lover, was received as the next in the author's growing line of martyrs; on the cover of Time magazine, an iconic etching of Greene in three-quarter profile was underlined with the painfully dense summation: "Adultery can lead to sainthood." The Catholic faith was booming, and a number of high-profile conversions suggested, however improbably, that it had also captured the imagination of the scribbling elite. Three years after Ernest Hemingway adopted the faith of his Roman Catholic second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, Evelyn Waugh made headlines with his conversion in 1930, followed by Robert Lowell, Edith Sitwell, Walker Percy and Muriel Spark; the work of earlier convert Ford Madox Ford and, to a lesser extent, James Joyce, marked the beginning of a period that reached its peak at mid-century, during which theological concerns were at the center of Western sociocultural discourse. Greene had collided with his times and, as is often the case with asteroid-force mass-market impacts, some critical concussions were sustained. Reading The Heart of the Matter fifty years after its publication, I found the character of pious philanderer Major Scobie--a suicidal wretch whose enshrined selflessness disguises a potent narcissism--tip-to-toe enraging. It was clear to me that Scobie was repellent, less so that Greene knew he was repellent. My suspicion that what is considered one of Greene's best books, like so many of its era, might hinge on a genteel misogyny--where women are experienced foremost as vessels of demand and responsibility that men inadvertently create and then sentence themselves to love as punishment--was a bit of a buzz-kill. And so years later, when I read in Ways of Escape, Greene's second autobiography, that he was crestfallen by the dominant reading of the book, and intended Scobie not as a model of exalted self-sacrifice but an example of the way "that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride," I felt that I had a book--and an author--returned to me.

Reader, I read on. "Material is not easily or painlessly gained," Greene wrote in his introduction to a collected volume of Ford Madox Ford's work, "and one cannot help wondering what agonies of frustration and error lay behind." One cannot, indeed. But Greene's readers seek out his self, spread across the modes of memoir, novel, short story, travel narrative, play and screenplay, criticism, essay and now an enormous lode of daily correspondence, against not just his wishes but the premise of human opacity posited throughout his work. It's a brilliant circularity, and it has kept his legacy and the biographical gravy train running right on time.

As Greene predicted, his biographers have proved no less boggled for being fixed on their tracks. One of the chief recommendations of the Norman Sherry trilogy, three volumes written over thirty years and with Greene's cooperation, is watching an Oedipal bond to a subject take hold of an author so completely that he botches one of the finest opportunities in twentieth-century literary biography. Sherry's growing disillusionment with his subject, which by the third book compels him to include a list of Greene's forty-seven favorite prostitutes, eventually supersedes the text. And so when RG writes in his preface to Graham Greene: A Life in Letters that "this book intends to clear the stage and to give the life back to its subject," he is sniffing in Sherry's general direction. He landed a more direct hit in the fall of 2006: among the complaints lodged in "Owning Graham Greene: The Norman Sherry Project," RG's lengthy and punitive review in University of Toronto Quarterly of Sherry's final volume, are Sherry's deliriously prurient approach, "adolescent and obsessional" prose and his omission of Greene's correspondence with Auberon Waugh, his French agent Marie Biche and the author R.K. Narayan, whom he championed for decades. (This last objection is attended by no small amount of chagrin, given Sherry's extended monopolization of Greene's papers. Citing a contested letter of permission Greene had signed at Sherry's behest the day before he died of leukemia in April 1991, Sherry assumed exclusive control of Greene's archive and was still holding tight in 2002. This effectively hamstrung RG's work on a still-forthcoming biography of Edith Sitwell, her correspondence with Greene at the time of her conversion being crucial to his research.) Finally, RG mentions Sherry's abandoned plans to publish Greene's letters in multiple volumes without the addendum that he was negotiating with Greene's children and literary estate to secure the contract for himself.

It would have been fair warning. A Life in Letters is very much not just a response but a correction to Sherry's trilogy. In his preface, RG announces that "Graham Greene was a man of decency and courage; he chronicled the suffering of the world's most oppressed people and devoted his life to writing books that enriched the lives of millions," and suggests that to examine his flaws would be "redundant." And so it is unsurprising that most of RG's editorial choices and commentary prove blandly flattering to Greene. One begins to worry, however, as Greene's more unsavory attributes are habitually--if not completely--elided, buffed or excused away, and pages of boilerplate encouragements and charitable offers to distant family members and assorted associates pile up: if RG had not been so bent on avenging Greene, might he have come up with a more illuminating book? Has he too, in his sympathetic way, been misled?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.