When Graham Greene died in Swiss tax exile in 1991, aged 86, his reputation as a great “Catholic” writer was assured.
His novels reflected an awareness of sin and confronted discomfiting themes with a sombre eye. Brighton Rock, Greene’s 1938 classic of gangland Britain, remains a disturbing theological parable of conscience. In his three subsequent novels — The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair — Greene’s gift was to locate the moment of crisis when a character loses faith, religious or otherwise, and life is exposed in all its drab wonder.
A writer of this stature would need a very good biographer and, at first, it looked as though Greene had found him in Norman Sherry, a Texas-based academic, who devoted more than 30 years to his reclusive subject: Greene’s every depression, love affair and alcoholic spree was scrutinised in three galumphing volumes. “Oh why does Sherry waste so much time talking about me?” Greene grumbled, though secretly, perhaps, he relished Sherry’s spaniel-like devotion to the task and might even have enjoyed the vinous associations of his surname. (“Let’s go to Sherry’s,” a hoodlum recommends a drinking club in Brighton Rock, adding, “I can’t stand the place”.)
Several biographers have tried but failed to topple Sherry’s monopoly. Michael Shelden, publishing his life in the mid-Nineties, sought to arraign Greene on charges of sadism, anti-Semitism and alcoholism. Anthony Mockler offered a Boy’s Own hagiography and fancifully imagined Greene on his Lake Geneva deathbed: “Graham looked out of the antiseptic room over the sterile Swiss sky. No vultures gazed back…” Thank goodness for Richard Greene, whose splendid one-volume biography offers a succinct counterbalance to Sherry’s inedible trifle and conjures the man Evelyn Waugh nicknamed “Grisjambon Vert” (French for “grey ham green”) in all his perplexing variety. Where Sherry is tactless and indecorous, Richard Greene (no relation) is respectful and considered. Crisply written, Russian Roulette takes its title from Greene’s vaunted flirtation with suicide as a teenager in Berkhamsted outside London, where his father was a school headmaster. Prone to bouts of self-loathing, he drank heavily, smoked opium and patronised brothels.
Over the 60 years of his writing career, Greene created a gallery of shabby creatures who try to hide their weaknesses from the world and themselves. In Catholic terms he was a moralist excited by human turpitude and the presence of evil in our times. In Catholicism Greene seems to have found a sense of melodrama — an atmosphere of good and evil — that served him well as a writer. Greene had married a committed Catholic, Vivien Dayrell-Browning, in 1927, having converted to Rome a year earlier, but had numerous affairs with some enviably glamorous women.
Excellent use is made of the thousands of letters from Graham Greene to his family, friends, publishers, agents and close associates that have come to light since Sherry published his first volume in 1989. Cogently argued and happily free of jargon, Russian Roulette offers a long-needed antidote to “dirty linen” biographers who have sought to expose a darker shade of Greene and, in consequence, lost sight of the books. At last Graham Greene has the biographer he deserves.
Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene by Richard Greene (Little, Brown, £25), buy it here.