OLIVER WALSTONGraham Greene in Cambridgeshire, England, circa 1953

“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?

That is not to say that A Life in Letters does not manage a steady, inviting flicker, punctuated by the occasional psychic bonfire. It could not be otherwise in a work where Greene’s dichotomous persona, prone to self-effacement and self-dramatization in maddeningly equal measures, holds the floor. Part of the appeal of any such collection, but particularly one involving a writer as prismatic as Greene, is the readerly detective work–the hard nerd labor–so much raw material impels. Despite RG’s occasionally intrusive opinions and biased contextualizing, his savvy arrangement of the material facilitates some solid independent study; a reader who undertakes an investigation of the letters’ tone, address, frequency and signature style will find that, even in the most mundane of these missives, that work becomes its own obsessive reward. I’m still not sure what it means that there were several authors with whom Greene was on a strict last-name basis–“Dear Orwell”–but I certainly enjoyed mulling it over.

Beginning with his earliest letters, Greene demonstrates a crack novelist’s gift for narrative and a keen sense of address; his voice alters with his intended audience and effect, and within those alterations a pattern of strategic self-fashioning emerges. Greene conceived of himself as a writer from a startlingly young age, as evidenced not just by his teenage literary networking and angling toward publication but the personal storytelling that was his natural, and perhaps restorative, milieu. As a 16-year-old on a Mediterranean cruise with his aunt, Greene writes to his “Mumma” in Berkhamsted, England, dispatching quickly with news of himself to move on to a sharp tableau of the ship’s most memorable passengers. The cruise was preceded by what RG refers to as an “emotional collapse,” which prompted the first in a series of suicide attempts and a six-month course of psychoanalysis. The wry, cheering letters home suggest that even as a boy travel made Greene happy, not least because it provided him with a tale to tell and, in turn, the solder for his rapidly cohering identity.

As a lover Greene is no less compelled by the narrative impulse, and a new persona emerges. At Oxford his nascent literary ambition took root, as did the mania that would charge many of his romances, in particular his pursuit of Vivienne Dayrell-Browning (later Vivien Greene). By the third letter and the second month of their relationship, Greene is in what will become a familiar agony, anticipating her too reserved responses and then responding to his own anticipation, single-handedly creating a dialogue of courtship in which he is the aggrieved but unyielding, ardent lover, pleading perfectly rational solutions for his unreasonable predicament. At 22 he feels entrenched in not just the writing life but the perilous self-examination it entails. While hospitalized following an appendectomy, he witnesses the death of a small child and writes to Dayrell-Browning: “Are people who write entirely & absolutely selfish, darling? Even though in a way I hated it yesterday evening–one half of me was saying how lucky it was–added experience–& I kept on catching myself trying to memorise details–Sister’s face, the faces of the other men in the ward. And I felt quite excited aesthetically. It made one rather disgusted with oneself.”

It took Greene fourteen books to arrive at a first-person novel, a project that even then he undertook with considerable trepidation. Having grown so comfortable in the third person that he came to regard it as a velvet prison, the chronic escape artist in Greene soon grew equally wary of inhabiting a single character–a self-loathing writer of “entertainments” at that–so fully. “Many a time I regretted pursuing ‘I’ along his dismal road,” Greene wrote, “and contemplated beginning The End of the Affair all over again with Bendrix…seen from outside in the third person.” Indeed, if Greene was endlessly cagey about being mistaken for his protagonists (in a letter to Evelyn Waugh, he relents: “With a writer of your genius and insight I certainly would not attempt to hide behind the time-old gag that an author can never be identified with his characters”), in these letters he also appears tactically aware of being mistaken for himself. Greene’s deployment of the third-person generic is legion and is in most cases simply a product of a different era and upbringing. Occasionally, however, he tends to dissolve behind the impersonal “one” when uncomfortable, lest an errant “I” pin him too firmly, or revealingly, to the wall. In 1943, deep into a wartime affair with a woman named Dorothy Glover, Greene writes emotionally, drunkenly and somewhat manipulatively to his wife: “My darling, in vino veritas. You are the best, the most dear person I’ve ever known. Life is sometimes so beastly that one wishes one were dead.” As RG notes, in this case Greene originally ended the last sentence with “I wish I were dead,” before opening his favorite syntactical booby hatch and slipping away, leaving a sort of holographically hedged version of himself–as it seems he did in the actuality of his marriage as well–in the place where a husband should be.

Greene’s letters to Catherine Walston–the American wife of a British politician, itinerant socialite and fellow convert who in 1946 finagled an introduction to Greene by asking him to be her godfather–cannot really be oversold. Though already heavily quoted elsewhere, here they suggest her pivotal role in a decade of productivity but also the feelings of “great happiness and great torment” she elicited in Greene (Walston provided at least partial inspiration for The End of the Affair‘s Sarah). Greene could be a bossy, petulant, melodramatic lover, raising the specter of suicide more often than a Spanish courtesan, and the romantic pattern of demanding, almost delusional idealization followed by disappointment and retreat set forth in his letters to Dayrell-Browning is, largely and somewhat depressingly, repeated here. But in these letters to Walston, whom he often used as a kind of literary cheat sheet, Greene is also incited to compose his most full-bodied and finely crafted epistolary narratives. “Will you keep this letter in case I need it to refresh my mind?” he writes at the top of a long, gorgeously observed letter from Haiti in 1954. The letters’ ruminative, searching cast and almost dizzingly heightened language are the highlight of a collection that is padded with some dry, cursory correspondence; particularly after fame elbows in, the letters are almost always dutiful responses to fans, colleagues and intimates alike. (“I only write letters when I receive letters,” he wrote to author Etienne Leroux in 1972. “I imagine that’s a common fault with a writer who feels he’s done enough when he’s put his five hundred words on paper.”)

The postmarks that precede each letter are perhaps the most vivid indication of the manic-depression that gripped Greene for most of his life; his whereabouts vary almost from letter to letter. From his first major trip, to Estonia in 1934 (where he conceived what was originally Our Man in Tallinn, a novel he later relocated to Havana), through countless African, Latin American, Asian and European sojourns, Greene whipsawed around the world like a man pursued. His early trips were aimless, though he was increasingly drawn to regions of conflict and suffering for narrative material as well as a kind of existential succor; Greene sought what his detractors have described as a morbid, almost decadent form of serenity, a sort he thought could be achieved only amid actual circumstantial horrors that matched or surpassed–and thereby stayed–those of an unquiet mind. In a 1940 letter to Anthony Powell he describes blitzed London as “extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new open spaces.”

Through numerous halfhearted suicide attempts and at least one round of electroshock therapy, Greene was relentlessly productive, as the chapters filled with his jobbing correspondence confirm. Hardly the cloistered novelist, Greene played a number of relatively public roles throughout his career, including film critic and book editor and later publisher, journalist and political advocate, but none less comfortably than that of professional Catholic. Sandwiched between The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair is the engine of his Catholic trilogy, The Heart of the Matter, released to great acclaim in 1949. “It’s all too fantastic,” he wrote to Walston that year, “my books in every shop.” Initially elated over the book’s reception in the Catholic community, Greene worried about being pigeonholed by others and perhaps himself. Having courted this attention with Catholic-catnip plot twists (he later expressed regret, for instance, over Sarah’s posthumous “miracles” in Affair), he was deeply ambivalent about his new status as an icon of the faith as well as the endless debates the trilogy’s success inspired. Interestingly, in that same letter to Walston he mentions priests who “flock reverently around” him and indicates that the reading of Scobie as a modern martyr was more intentional–and closer to his own empathies–than he would later admit. “Though now of course I take the opposite view to Scobie,” Greene writes, “that nobody can ruin another person.” (Evelyn Waugh, who described Greene as having “great balls theologically,” criticized Scobie’s suicide as “either a very loose poetical expression or a mad blasphemy.”)

Greene turncoat Anthony Burgess once noted that Greene had developed “a highly idiosyncratic version of Catholicism, which could even accommodate a probable absence of the deity.” It’s a charge these letters tend to bear out: whether he is invoking copyright technicalities to avoid amending foreign editions of The Power and the Glory (after an outraged cardinal denounced the book for its portrayal of the priesthood) or trying to convince Dayrell-Browning, for whom he would convert, that he could adopt her “ideal of celibacy,” Greene’s struggle with the faith is reflected in the way he seemed to shape his Catholic identity to suit not just his audience but his purpose. With the deeply pious Waugh, Catholicism was a hillocked common ground, one Greene traversed in his letters with an uncharacteristic deference, theological balls in check. With Walston, his faith was an exciting and treacherous playground–the thing that brought them together and would ultimately keep them apart–and some of his most breathtakingly contraindicated musing is found in the mingling of spiritual and physical passions she stirred in him. “Cafryn, dear,” he writes in 1947, “I want to kiss you, touch you, make love to you–& simply sit in a car & be driven by you…. I nearly slept at Mass today. How dead it was–not dead in the amusing phosphorescent way of last Sunday, aware of your shoulder half an inch from mine, but just limp & meaningless & boring. I’m not even a Catholic properly away from you.”

Green was inscrutable in his faith as in so many other things; over time his letters suggest a life of dedicated churchgoing despite a seemingly untenable relationship with the church. Ultimately he may have been more of a cradle Catholic–prone to doubt but enthralled by the church’s sacred mysteries; preferring the familial culture of the faith to its isolating dogmatic rigors–than his critics allowed. Greene was greatly disillusioned by the Second Vatican Council, which abolished the Latin liturgy and moved the church away from some of the strict theological tenets that converts seemed to hold especially dear (Greene felt that his friend Waugh, who died in 1966, was literally heartbroken by the event). In later years he remained critical but, like so many ambivalent Catholics, still attended Mass once or twice a month. In a 1978 letter to a fan, he wrote: “When I rather hastily said that if I was young today I would not become a Catholic I think I meant that the differences between the Christian beliefs were becoming less and less…. Our idea of transubstantiation has become far less physical and more philosophical.” It took a few decades, but “Catholic agnostic” is the designation he settled on; it’s an apt obfuscation, and he stuck with it.

“I’m writing a small bit of autobiography myself,” Greene wrote to the poet George Barker in 1967, referring to what would become A Sort of Life, the memoir of his childhood that his psychoanalyst urged him to begin as a rampart against the massive breakdown Greene feared his deep depression in the late 1950s might portend. “It’s something to fall back on when the imagination begins to fail. No more disgusting to my mind than old age itself.” And yet, as the sheer volume of his surviving letters insists, Greene wrote his autobiography–self-disgust be damned–every day of his life, with a nomadic imagination and coiled moral introspection that is, in brief but sky-opening flashes, equal to his fiction. That he knew this and must have known that we would someday know it too is perhaps the determinedly elusive Greene’s final, refractive jest.