Cover story -- A turbulent life
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Issue Date:  November 19, 2004

Essential Graham Greene

Norman Sherry lays bare the 'agnostic Catholic' writer


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 Greene’s stature as one of the globe’s preeminent men of letters was beyond dispute.

This fall, a full century after Greene’s 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 Greene’s death from leukemia 36 years later in Switzerland. A fascinating, painstakingly researched biography that treats Greene at the height of his powers, Mr. Sherry’s book evokes not only the dynamics of Greene’s 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 Greene’s 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 don’t like academics. They’re all brains from the Adam’s 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, ‘It’s on, then.’ ”

Mr. Sherry’s 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 London’s blitz, nearly died hiking through unmapped Africa and served as a secret agent for Her Majesty’s 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. “You’ve never seen eyes like this chap had, you see. If you honestly saw his eyes, you couldn’t take your eyes away from them -- light, light blue.”

A man of his era

Over the course of 27 years, Mr. Sherry followed Greene’s 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. Sherry’s 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.

Greene’s 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 Greene’s “Catholic trilogy”: The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter.

In the first novel, Greene’s 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 Greene’s friend Evelyn Waugh, a Catholic who grieved when the Mass was no longer said in Latin, regarded Greene’s spirituality as superficial -- “great balls theologically,” as Waugh put it.

Nevertheless, Greene’s 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 Greene’s complex identity by early on describing “the green baize door” that separated Greene’s 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 Greene’s 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.

Religious belief

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 Greene’s 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 Greene’s 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 Greene’s life.

Bizarrely, it was Vivien who introduced Walston to a priest when she expressed interest in Catholicism. Vivien even attended (without Greene) Walston’s reception into the Catholic church, describing it later as Catherine’s ploy to attract Greene’s attention.

Vivien knew a great deal about Greene’s 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.

Political player

Mr. Sherry’s accounts of Greene’s 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, Greene’s 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 Cornwell’s 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.

And heaven?

“My idea of heaven,” Greene told Mr. Cornwell, “would be that it would be something active. … Perhaps one’s 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 they’ve 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 can’t help believing it.”

Ed Conroy writes from San Antonio.

Biographer makes Greene an open book

For close to three decades, Norman Sherry has investigated Graham Greene’s life. He has followed Greene from Africa to Cuba and Haiti, to Central America and Vietnam to his adventures challenging the criminal underworld in Nice, France.

In the new and final volume of his biography published this fall, Mr. Sherry chronicles Greene’s adventures around the globe, his turbulent life with women and provides as well a remarkable account of Greene’s treatment over the years at the hands of the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He reports the anti-Catholic prejudices of the Swedish critic Arthur Lundkvist played a clear role in denying him the prize.

Ironically, his Scandinavian travels rewarded Greene with the affections of the Swedish film star Anita Bjorg. Mr. Sherry said he set a single rose on Greene’s grave, at her request.

The son of an Irish Catholic mother and British father, Norman Sherry has served as Mitchell Distinguished Professor of Literature at Trinity University in San Antonio since 1983.

His author tour to cities in both the United Kingdom and the United States reflects the strong, continuing interest in Greene as one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. It is also a credit to Mr. Sherry’s role, through more than a quarter century of research, in making Greene himself an open book.

“I always wanted to be a novelist,” Mr. Sherry said, “but I became a literary detective!”

Mr. Sherry said Greene had been attracted to him as a biographer because he admired Sherry’s first book, Conrad and His World, which profiled novelist Joseph Conrad.

For it, the young Sherry went to Singapore and sifted through more than 60 years of 19th-century editions of The Straits Times to finally find the front-page story of a ship carrying Muslim pilgrims abandoned at sea by their British crew -- the basis for Conrad’s Lord Jim.

“I learned with Conrad that wherever we go, whatever we do, we all leave tracks, and you can find them, even 80 years later,” Mr. Sherry said.

With more than 2,000 pages of text in all three volumes, Mr. Sherry’s capacity to covey the dramatic sweep of Greene’s life is abundantly evident. He writes with a novelist’s flair, though he credits his editor, Lucinda Cummings, with “ripping” his text into shape.

The new biography has generated both favorable reviews and controversy. Some members of Greene’s family are said to be enraged that Mr. Sherry focused on Greene’s sexual exploits to the extent he did. Greene’s son and literary executor, Francis, is quoted in a Nov. 4 article in The New York Times as saying that the biography is more about Norman Sherry than Graham Greene.

British publications have been more critical of the biography than U.S. reviewers. While Paul Theroux praised the new volume in The New York Times as “incomparable,” The Spectator of London called it a “truly appalling work.”

Mr. Sherry’s dedication to his subject is undeniable. After suffering tropical diabetes in Liberia, dysentery in Mexico and intestinal gangrene in Paraguay in the course of his research, he is quoted in The New York Times article as saying “I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me.”

Mr. Sherry recounts in Volume III that the only time Greene became angry with him was when he confronted Greene about his loyalty to British spy Kim Philby.

Greene joined the British intelligence service (then the “SIS”) during World War II and became fast friends with Philby long before Philby’s service for the Soviets was suspected. Greene even wrote the introduction to Philby’s memoirs, My Silent War, justifying Philby’s betrayal of his native country as service to a higher ideal.

When Mr. Sherry questioned Greene about why he remained loyal to a man who had arranged for the Soviets to capture and kill agents Philby had trained, Greene became infuriated. Beet-red in the face, he shouted, “Still you don’t know him and cannot judge.”

In an interview in San Antonio where he lives, Mr. Sherry spoke of one of his final conversations with Greene.

“As Graham lay dying, I called him and said, ‘Graham, I’m going to have a male child!’ He says, ‘Illegitimate, I hope.’ I said, ‘No!’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m disappointed in my biographer!’

“I told him I wanted to call my first-born son John-Michael, but I also wanted to add his name. Then there was a pause, and he said, ‘Well, Norman there’s an old Graham going out of the world, so it’s a good thing a young Graham is coming in to take his place.’ ”

Mr. Sherry leaned forward, looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Then he said, ‘Norman, I am going out of the world soon. I know that. But remember this: If it’s against me, fine. If it’s for me, fine. Write the truth. If you don’t, I’ll come back to haunt you!’ ”

“And has he haunted you?” I made bold to ask.

Mr. Sherry laughed with an emphatic “No!”

-- Ed Conroy

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 2004

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