“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.