- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004



By Norman Sherry

Viking, $39.95,

906 pages, illus.


What is one to make of an enterprise like Norman Sherry’s enormous three-volume biography of Graham Greene? He has devoted many years to knowing Greene and to writing about him. There cannot be many parts of the English writer’s life and oeuvre that have gone unexamined in these thousands of pages.

And examined they have been, with both knowledge and intelligence. A professor of literature at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Mr. Sherry knows his stuff and he was not afraid to ask Greene difficult questions during their many conversations, with the result that anyone who reads these volumes will come very close to knowing all about Graham Greene.

Why should anyone read that much about Greene? Even if you are a devotee of his novels, do you really need to know all about his life? Perhaps not, but he did lead a long and uncommonly interesting life. His work in publishing and for the British Intelligence Services, his politics, his travels to many a remote stop, his forays into the world of movies are all interesting to read about.

Then there is his love life. His dreadful marriage (which endured in name until his death), his passionate love affairs, even his visits to prostitutes are chronicled in what some might find excruciating detail in the course of these volumes. The portrait of Greene’s great love, Catherine Walston, is an extremely vivid and extensive one, more complete and revealing about her than the book entirely devoted to their affair which appeared some years back.

In chronicling the ins and outs of Greene’s lovelife, Mr. Sherry has given a nuanced portrait of a seemingly cold man who actually was pretty chilly quite far down into his psyche and yet was capable of truly feeling — and expressing convincingly both in his fiction and in letters — great emotional turbulence.

For it must be said about Mr. Sherry’s biography that it is consistently interesting to read. This is not one of those biographies which degenerates into an expanded version of its subject’s date book. The author probes beneath the skin; and for all his closeness to Greene, some might even say his over-involvement with him, he challenged him to his face, called him on what he said when he felt it was untrue. And of course as any biographer does, he has the last word; in this case, it might be truer to say, many last words.

Some readers might indeed feel that Mr. Sherry is too prominent a presence in this biography of Greene. It is certainly true that he has inserted himself into his text to a remarkable degree, more so than in any biography I can think of with the possible exception of Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson.” Indeed, there are times when you feel that he not only wants to walk in Greene’s footsteps (which he actually does in retracing his travels in such places as the Congo and Haiti) but also to feel the tormented writer’s emotions.

In recounting his own visits to Catherine Walston, Mr. Sherry leaves the reader with the distinct impression that he was almost as smitten by her as was Greene. On the other hand, it is always Greene who is — properly — the central focus of the book and if Mr. Sherry can sometimes irritate by getting in the way, his presence never eclipses his elusive but oddly compelling subject.

A good deal of the biography is necessarily devoted to a discussion of Greene’s politics. Mr. Sherry does not sugarcoat Greene’s virulent anti-Americanism, which led him into some strange company. How else can one explain his closeness to the Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos? The source of Greene’s antipathy to the United States seems to have lain not so much in his disapproval of specific American policies, (although he did vigorously disapprove of many of them, notably the Vietnam War), but rather in his strong sympathy for the underdog, which to his way of thinking included many U.S. adversaries.

On other political matters, Greene could be surprising, for instance, exhibiting a robust disapproval of the Irish Republican Army. His championship of dissidents fighting Soviet repression makes for stirring reading and his mischievous baiting of USSR authorities by attempting to hand over to some dissidents his ruble-denominated royalties reveals the harsh reality of the regime as it does his own humanity.

He is also a thoughtful and sympathetic visitor to Israel in the aftermath of the Six Day War: “I was pro-Israel long before the Six-Day War and I am more so now.” It is an example of Greene’s suppressed but powerful emotionalism that a near-death experience under live fire during this trip prompted an extraordinarily self-revelatory effusion addressed to Catherine Walston. Mr. Sherry’s ability to blend such highly personal material with the social, military and political observations which are the chief focus of this trip is a shining example of his skill at fusing the various strands of Greene’s life into an absorbing whole.

Nowhere is Mr. Sherry more admirable than in his challenging Greene’s unaccountable partiality for the traitor Kim Philby. Greene’s angry response shows that a nerve has definitely been touched, but his interlocutor will not let him get away with bromides about loyalty.

What about those who were betrayed by Philby, he asks, and lost their lives as a result? “Being Philby, he must have got to know the…agents well. They’d have become friends; only he knew they were to be sent off to Albania. He also knew that he had imparted the information to Moscow so that when his agents arrived they’d be caught and shot.” Greene has no answer, but the exchange tells the reader a great deal about the limitations of one who was inclined to fancy himself as something of a moralist, in his life and in his novels.

“The trouble with so much of Graham Greene’s writing,” the wise and wickedly witty Dame Rebecca West remarked to this reviewer one early autumn day late in the 1970s, “is that it is — to use a plain word — tripe.” Actually, she didn’t use the word tripe; she employed another anatomical term applicable only to the male of the human species which in its plural form is an even plainer word for nonsense.

In the end, that is the trouble with Norman Sherry’s exhaustive and sometimes exhausting excursion through the highways and byways of Graham Greene’s life. Greene is just not a good enough writer to justify all this fuss and bother. Sherry may be a credible Boswell; but Greene, for all his colorful life and distinctive oeuvre, is no Doctor Johnson.

Martin Rubin is writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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