|Cover story -- A turbulent life|
Issue Date: November 19, 2004
Essential Graham Greene
Norman Sherry lays bare the 'agnostic Catholic' writer
By ED CONROY
Recognized as much for his controversial life as for the Catholic conscience he wielded in his novels, by the time of his death in 1991, Graham Greenes stature as one of the globes preeminent men of letters was beyond dispute.
This fall, a full century after Greenes birth, his authorized biographer Norman Sherry is celebrating publication of the third and final volume of his massive book, The Life of Graham Greene.
At just under 1,000 pages, Volume III covers the period of 1955 to Greenes death from leukemia 36 years later in Switzerland. A fascinating, painstakingly researched biography that treats Greene at the height of his powers, Mr. Sherrys book evokes not only the dynamics of Greenes relationships with family, friends, critics, enemies and lovers but the drama of their century as well.
Greene in this period left his mark on the world stage as one of its most powerful political novelists, enjoying success, too, as a dramatist and much sought-after screenwriter. The Third Man, The End of the Affair and, of course, The Power and the Glory are among some of Greenes now-classic novels adapted to stage and screen.
His novels dealing with Vietnam (The Quiet American) and Cuba (Our Man in Havana) as well as Paraguay/Argentina (The Honorary Consul) revealed his increasingly critical stance toward the United States and growing interest in liberation theology. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Greene had an ongoing if difficult relationship with his faith. He once expressed to Mr. Sherry the hope that God was hounding him.
In an interview in his office at Trinity University in San Antonio, Norman Sherry discussed his new book and distilled some of the characteristics of the essential Greene.
I first met Greene at my club, the Savile, in London, Mr. Sherry said. The first thing he said was I dont like academics. Theyre all brains from the Adams apple up, and they have forgotten the pants. Nevertheless, there are some exceptions. You seem as you wear pants.
If Greene attached great importance to having an active sex life (the pants), Mr. Sherry said, it was his many brushes with death and danger that made him feel most alive. After their first lunch, Greene was nearly run over by a taxi while crossing a street with Mr. Sherry.
He turned to me, smiling, and said, You almost lost your subject, Professor Sherry, to which I replied, Not half so bad as losing your biographer, Mr. Greene. We shook hands and he said, Its on, then.
Mr. Sherrys third volume reveals a man embroiled in contradictions, intrigues and clandestine loves, reveling in them, using them to impel himself from stage to stage in the theater of the modern age.
He suffered greatly from depression, Mr. Sherry said. And there was no lithium for much of his life. Later, he took it, but sometimes his depressions nearly destroyed him.
Greene also had an extraordinary sex drive, manifested by a list he left of 47 of his favorite prostitutes as well as by numerous affairs during and after his marriage.
Competing with his love for women was his passion for intrigue and travel. His visits to dangerous places were fueled by a cavalier attitude toward disease and death. In these perilous adventures, Greene sought inspiration for his art and cure for depression.
He served as an air raid warden during Londons blitz, nearly died hiking through unmapped Africa and served as a secret agent for Her Majestys Government, working closely with the notorious Kim Philby, an agent for the British secret intelligence service, MI6, who betrayed his country to the Soviet Union.
In his new biography, Mr. Sherry paints a portrait of Greene as a man who is many things to several women. In addition to his wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning, whom he married in 1925 and who triggered his conversion to Catholicism, his lovers included Dorothy Glover, whom he met while serving as an air raid warden in London during the blitz; Catherine Walston, perhaps his greatest love, married to an English peer; the Swedish film star Anita Bjorg; and Yvonne Cloetta, companion of his last years.
Women loved him, Mr. Sherry said. Youve never seen eyes like this chap had, you see. If you honestly saw his eyes, you couldnt take your eyes away from them -- light, light blue.
A man of his era
Over the course of 27 years, Mr. Sherry followed Greenes tracks, even contracting the same tropical diseases as he made his way from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Spain, Switzerland and the Antibes, among many other locales.
Mr. Sherry believes Greene was scrupulously honest with him and insisted that while Greene might have lied to other writers, he told his biographer the truth with great attention to detail -- although Greene did not always fully answer Mr. Sherrys questions.
The result, for the professor, was that Greene challenged him to do the kind of literary detective work for which he distinguished himself early in his career with his biography of novelist Joseph Conrad, Conrad and His World.
Although Greene masked the identities of the people in his novels, Mr. Sherry has revealed who many of them were. He shows how, time and again, Greene utilized his personal conflicts to catalyze travel to global danger spots and inspire stories set in those locales. Themes of faith, loyalty and betrayal figured greatly in his work, illuminated by his highly observant eye and great powers of description.
Greenes most serious novels, films and stories mirror the conflicts -- both inner and outer -- experienced by contemporary men and women in an age of competing ideologies, global wars and bloody revolutions.
Generations of university students have read his classic tale of the persecution of a dissolute but faithful whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, set in revolutionary 20th-century Mexico.
Two other novels join with The Power and the Glory to form what literary critic Ruth Franklin calls Greenes Catholic trilogy: The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter.
In the first novel, Greenes characters are tortured by the conflict between their illicit love for each other and love for God. In the latter novel, Greene creates a situation in which the characters go so far as to attempt to bargain with God in the face of an incurable illness.
Miracles and epiphanies are in short supply in the literary terrain both critics and fans have come to call Greeneland.
Mr. Sherry notes Greenes friend Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic who grieved when the Mass was no longer said in Latin, regarded Greenes spirituality as superficial -- great balls theologically, as Waugh put it.
Nevertheless, Greenes own faith life parallels much of the saga of the contemporary Roman Catholic church.
His early, pre-World War II acceptance of the traditional creed and catechism gave way to a reexamination of his faith during and after the war. Later, he embraced liberation theology and the Latin American bishops preferential option for the poor.
Taking Thomas for his confirmation name, he derived great inspiration in midlife from attending a Mass celebrated by the [Italian] mystic Padre Pio, who carried the stigmata. The sheer physicality of that phenomenon was something he apparently required.
Mr. Sherry sets the stage for understanding Greenes complex identity by early on describing the green baize door that separated Greenes Anglican family home from the comparatively savage world of the Beckhampstead School, where his father, Charles, served as strict headmaster.
Suspecting his adolescent son of homosexuality after several suicide attempts, Charles Greene sent Graham to live in London with the family of psychoanalyst Kenneth Richmond.
There, Mr. Sherry relates, he found a dinner table where anything and everything was up for discussion, including the shadow side of human life. Although Greenes condition improved well enough for him to enter and graduate from Oxford, he attempted Russian roulette several times after being rejected by a young woman with whom he was infatuated.
Despair turned to euphoria, though, when Greene met Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a convert to Catholicism, in the office of his first publisher, Basil Blackwell, in 1925.
Although only shortly beforehand Greene had been willing to whip a revolver from behind his back and pull the trigger (the bullet was one chamber away from his brain the last time he tried), Greene now became obsessed with Vivien -- and with converting to Catholicism.
His biographer notes Greene wrote Vivien more than 2,000 love letters in their early romance, sometimes three a day. Curiously for a young man who already visited prostitutes, Greene even offered her a celibate marriage to assuage her fear of sex.
Greene was baptized into the Catholic church at Nottingham Cathedral at the age of 21. He wrote years later that his feeling upon leaving the cathedral was not so much joy at the prospect of marriage with Vivien as one of sombre apprehension.
Mr. Sherry believes, however, that while Greenes conversion to Catholicism was motivated by his desire to win Vivien, his faith matured in a quantum leap through the process of visiting Mexico in 1938 and writing perhaps his most famous novel, The Power and the Glory.
Although Greene had originally felt repelled by Mexican culture, Mr. Sherry said the sight of peasants walking for miles on their knees profoundly moved Greene and deepened his own faith.
Originally published to little success in 1940, after World War II The Power and the Glory became a huge success and Greenes reputation as a Catholic writer began to precede him.
Greene also emerged in the Cold War period as a major literary and cultural critic and, increasingly, as a public intellectual who used his very free lance to opine broadly about the state of the world in general.
His novel set in Vietnam, The Quiet American, brought him unfavorable attention in Washington and resulted in restrictions on his U.S. travel. By 1985, when Greene sat beside Mikhail Gorbachev at a Soviet peace conference in Moscow, he noted that Roman Catholics and Communists were fighting side by side in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile.
Greene declared, There is no division in our thoughts between Roman Catholics and Communists.
Keeping to his quota of 500 words a day, Greene produced an extraordinary amount of text in his lifetime: 26 novels, two autobiographies (in which he writes not at all of his love life), as well as plays, film scripts and an extraordinary correspondence with friends such as Evelyn Waugh, W. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Malcolm Muggeridge and many other notable writers and artists of his day.
Greene described himself as a bad husband and a fickle lover. After having two children, he and his wife Vivien separated in 1948 but never divorced.
In 1946, he met the wealthy, American-born socialite Catherine Walston. Married to Harry Walston, an English aristocrat, she became the greatest love of Greenes life.
Bizarrely, it was Vivien who introduced Walston to a priest when she expressed interest in Catholicism. Vivien even attended (without Greene) Walstons reception into the Catholic church, describing it later as Catherines ploy to attract Greenes attention.
Vivien knew a great deal about Greenes lovers and once threatened to write about them but never did so. Greene was free to pursue his multiple affairs with women throughout the 60s and 70s.
It was in the 1980s, though, that his progressive politics, international prestige and desire to do battle for the oppressed converged just as popular revolutionary movements inspired in part by liberation theology began to break out in Central America.
Mr. Sherrys accounts of Greenes visits to Nicaragua and financial contributions in support of the Sandinistas, his friendship with Panamanian president Gen. Omar Torrijos and his visit to the White House as part of the Panamanian delegation to sign the Panama Canal Treaty provide a fascinating glimpse of Greene at what may have been the height of his influence as a player on the world political stage.
In the final analysis, it appears, Greenes vocation as a writer and his religious faith were inseparable.
At the conclusion of Volume III of his biography, Mr. Sherry quotes extensively from the distinguished British journalist John Cornwells 1989 interview with Greene for The Tablet.
Mr. Cornwell went to Antibes to see Greene at home -- and because, Greene explained, he had a girlfriend who lived there.
Mr. Cornwell gave Greene no quarter.
In response to Do you even believe? Greene simply said I call myself now a Catholic agnostic.
To an inquisitorial series of questions concerning sin, Satan, hell and angels, Greene confessed disbelief.
My idea of heaven, Greene told Mr. Cornwell, would be that it would be something active. Perhaps ones prayers in that state could influence somebody on earth.
What was it, then, that kept his faith alive?
Aside from seeing Padre Pio in the flesh, Greene said it was the passage from the Gospel of John recounting the Resurrection where the beloved disciple is running with Peter because theyve heard that the rock has been rolled away from the tomb, and describing how John manages to beat Peter in the race. ... It just seems to me to be first-hand reportage, and I cant help believing it.
Ed Conroy writes from San Antonio.
National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 2004
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