The Life of Graham Greene, vol. 1, 1904-1939.

Author:Begley, Ann M.

By Norman Sherry. Volume 1: 1904-1939. Penguin. Paper, $18.95. Volume 2: 1939-1955. Viking. $34.95

Graham Greene, one of the most accomplished English novelists of the twentieth century, whose vast oeuvre has been translated into forty languages, died in 1991 at the age of eighty-six, and already the presses are turning out conflicting accounts of who and what he was. All are in accord, nonetheless, that the author's life cannot be truly fathomed without first decoding his writings. Reticent yet prone to practical jokes, elusive and exceedingly complex, there are few more difficult subjects than (Henry) Graham Greene, who appointed Norman Sherry, the Joseph Conrad scholar, to be his authorized biographer--with the understanding that he would employ the same methods of literary sleuthing that he had used to penetrate the mystery of Conrad's character: to follow in his subject's footsteps wherever they might lead, to meet and interview the people he had met. In keeping with this agreement, Sherry has become Greene's doppel-ganger, journeying all over the world the past twenty years to difficult and dangerous places, a kind of bloodhound in pursuit of his quarry. The first volume of a projected trilogy, which treats the formation of Greene's personality and his early writings, his travels in West Africa and Mexico, his conversion to Catholicism and marriage to Vivien Dayrell-Browning, won the 1990 Edgar Allan Poe Award for that year's best critical-biographical study.

The biography is, however, as Greene himself observed, too detailed. Does one need to know, for example, when the author cut his first tooth? Although the copyediting of the second volume--not quite as hefty as the first--is substandard in that some passages are repeated, it is as meticulously researched and carefully documented as the initial volume (with one reservation: Greene couldn't have attended mass on Good Friday, as Sherry says he did, since that is the one day of the year when there is none). It takes the novelist from the London blitz to Vietnam, the period of his greatest creative work: The Power and the Glory (1940; U.S. title, The Labyrinthine Ways), The Heart of the Matter (1948), The End of the Affair (1951)--"the trinity of novels upon which Greene's reputation rests,"--in addition to The Quiet American (1955), as well as the masterly film scripts The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). These were also the years that saw the deterioration of Greene's marriage and his obsessive passion for the beautiful American Catherine Walston, whose husband was made a British peer.

Sherry, who has been given unique access to the novelist's private papers (some of which have false entries) and the right to quote without restriction, has also had the advantage of repeated interviews with his subject over the last two decades of his life, receiving answers to his queries even from Greene's deathbed in Switzerland. Treating the sensational matters in a manner that is candid but never prurient or exploitative, he is objective and nonjudgmental in his approach. Michael Shelden, on the other hand, his narrative tone carping and hostile, has written what Joyce Carol Oates calls a "pathography": his is a portrait of a dishonorable and reprehensible man whose whole life was based on deception. Widely regarded as a Catholic writer, Greene's faith, Shelden claims, was a sham, nothing more than one of the many masks that he wore. Labeling his subject an anti-Semite, a traitor, and a sexual pervert, he strongly suggests that the author of The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (1951) was the perpetrator of the infamous Brighton Trunk Murder.

The charge of "an emerging pattern of anti-Semitism" in Greene's fiction-based largely on a repeated confusion between narrative and authorial voices, the novelist's reference to the word Jew as a descriptive term, and Shelden's perception of these characters as villainous or unappealing--is a problematic one. He gives as "the best-known example" Colleoni, the Jewish gangster of Brighton Rock (1938), yet it is the volume's harrowing protagonist Pinkie, a Catholic, who is the moral monster, a veritable study in evil; in fact, among the cast of major characters, only Rose is admirable. In the first of a two-part work, Anthony Mockler, the author of a book on Haile Selassie, argues--in opposition to Shelden's view--that the revolutionary poet in The Name of Action (1930), "a thin Jew," and the Jew of Stamboul Train (1932; U.S. title, Orient Express) are effective and heroic figures. He further asserts that there is nothing anti-Semitic in using Jew as a descriptive term, since this reflected a social reality: Jews were regarded as being different "in race, in appearance, and in behaviour." At any rate, when it was brought to Greene's attention that certain material in his books might be considered objectionable, he had it deleted from all later editions. It is worth noting, too, that, in 1981, Greene was invited to Israel as a guest of honor where he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize.

Shelden's inclination to arrive at spurious assumptions without reasoned deductions seriously mars his biography, the first complete account of the novelist's life. Pointing out an undercurrent of homosexuality that can be found here and there in Greene's fiction and speculating about events in his life, he comes to the more-than-questionable conclusion--one that Sherry rejects--that his subject was a clandestine homosexual. The insinuation that the author was a quasi-pedophile is based on gossip so dubious as to make his position untenable, and the suggestion--primarily the result of a kind of malevolent decoding of Brighton Rock and Travels With My Aunt (1969)-that the writer committed murder is nothing less than...

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