THE LIFE OF GRAHAM GREENE

Volume Three: 1955-1991

By Norman Sherry. Viking. 906 pp. $39.95

Graham Greene's authorized biographer, Norman Sherry, must have faced terrible anxiety in bringing this third and final volume to a close. His subject had anticipated surviving the first volume's publication (in 1989), dying before he could read the second (1994), and being joined by Sherry himself before the third could be completed. Given Greene's penchant for prophecy -- notably in The Quiet American (1955), which foresaw U.S. intervention in Vietnam -- Sherry had reason to dwell on the third volume for a decade. He ducks Greene's omen by leaving the last chapter incomplete, parting with a dreamlike fragment:

"At the news of Graham Greene's death, the king of writers dead, the chair empty, many felt a deep sadness, and young men, thinking of the quiet spirit of the newly dead (who had published compulsively for almost seventy years), were, even in their youth, made aware of their own mortality. Look into the sky, Signore, his star is not yet out. Let peace . . . " This loophole is a fitting end to a tale of literature's most celebrated Catholic convert. Greene, who died in 1991, never presumed heavenly pardon for his transgressions, yet in his fiction he believed in grace. He glimpsed mercy through the eyes of his characters, through the aperture of their sins and sufferings.

Volume III of The Life of Graham Greene picks up where Sherry left our man, in an apartment off Piccadilly Circus, his reputation at its height. At 51, Greene is nursing a surrogate career as dramatist. In Volume II, he befriended Alexander Korda and Carol Reed; the trio made "The Fallen Idol" (1948) and "The Third Man" (1949), a film-noir classic. Now he receives, unexpectedly, a Broadway premiere of his 1957 play, "The Potting Shed," which, in Sherry's view, contains "surely one of the most memorable moments of a play in our time." That "surely" fails to convince. Like other parts of the book where Sherry applies literary criticism to Greene's writing, the claim cries out for substantiation.

"The Potting Shed" introduces us to "the first of Greene's hollow men" in the character of James Callifer, a spiritually bereft middle-ager who learns that his uncle, a priest, sacrificed his faith in an act of compassion. Few of Greene's readers are likely to be familiar with his plays, yet the paradox of the priest's logic recalls novels like The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), where Catholic dogma is tested by the trials of the protagonists and individual love competes with divine absolution.

The heart of Sherry's matter is Greene's continued affair with Catherine Walston, variously styled by his biographer as "his ultimate love" and "the sun of his life in the beginning, and later the winter of his despair." Their correspondence forms the centerpiece of Volume II. A glutton for superlatives, Sherry calls Greene's contribution "some of the most passionate love letters in the language." In Volume III, the letters take on a more desperate quality, with Greene trying to maneuver a holiday with Catherine, whose husband is running for a minor political post. Their inability to get together allows Greene to fall for the Swedish actress Anita Bjork. Greene's dilemma resembles the agony he felt 10 years earlier while juggling Catherine and his wife, Vivien.

Indeed, partly due to Sherry's circular narration, there is a repetitive feel to The Life of Graham Greene; similar incidents are recast and understood from different perspectives. Sherry deploys witty asides to break up the monotony: "If we are tiring of Greene's ardent correspondence, think of the onslaught on Catherine." All the same, she represented the last hope of happiness for the graying Greene, just as travel to dangerous places revived his spirit. "Greene made the world his workplace, any strange hotel his study, and as long as Catherine was with him he was centered, at peace, so he could write. In Catherine's company he could draw on the unknown measure of himself, find his own secret amplitude." Greene wrote three of his best novels while consorting with Catherine -- The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair and The Quiet American. The couple's breakup -- and Greene's breakdown where faith is concerned -- provoked A Burnt-Out Case (1961), set in a leper colony in the Congo. The name of the novel's anti-hero, Querry, conveys the restless seeking one associates with Greene's life, a man who has touched bottom but keeps digging. It could also describe his unflappable biographer.

Sherry won Greene's approval for the project by vowing to personally revisit all of the novelist's former haunts. Volume III takes the reader to Cuba, Haiti, Paraguay and Panama -- destinations that produced some of Greene's later works, and where the originals of his characters can be found. From the mid-1970s onward, Sherry interviewed Greene and almost everyone still alive who came into contact with the author at a critical period.

Yet for all his travels and interviews, Sherry sheds little light on how Greene could have justified to himself the pain he caused Vivien and Dorothy Glover -- a woman he romanced during the London Blitz -- not to mention the cuckolded husbands of Catherine and Yvonne Cloetta, with whom Greene spent the last three decades of his life. Sherry portrays Greene as a relentless champion of the underdog -- yet in each case one wonders who was the real victim of those relationships.

"I'm for the victim, and victims change," Greene is quoted as saying. It's an attractive motto, but so much depends on the speaker's judgment. On a handful of occasions, Sherry takes his subject to task, questioning Greene's early admiration for Fidel Castro and, what seems worse, his excuses for the British traitor Kim Philby. When Sherry quizzed Greene on Philby and the lives he endangered by spying for Soviet Russia, the novelist flared: "YOU DON'T KNOW HIM. AND CANNOT JUDGE." This rap on the knuckles may explain why Sherry's criticisms are so tentative.

On other occasions, Greene implored his biographer: "Tell the truth, Norman, tell the truth" and "No lies please. Follow me to the end of my life." By this standard, Sherry cannot be accused of failing his subject. Even if he had not enjoyed exclusive rights to quote from unpublished material -- Volume III proclaims the fact in a reproduction of a letter Greene signed days before his death -- future biographers would be daunted by the sheer data The Life of Graham Greene accumulates. Sherry's three volumes, while captivating of their own accord, may free other writers to give Greene and his favorite authors a closer read, tracing the genealogy of his novels, essays and plays. Somehow, one senses, there will be more to unearth. The most endearing aspect of The Life of Graham Greene is the humility of Sherry's recognition that in an odd, "Citizen Kane" sort of way, Greene's motives often remain a mystery.

For example, Sherry speculates in a footnote that, had Greene been alive during the Sept. 11 attacks on America and had Ronald Reagan been in office, Greene would have supported the former president despite his opposition to Reagan's policies in El Salvador and Nicaragua. With Greene, however, one cannot be sure. He told V.S. Naipaul in the late 1960s that he was indifferent to the Middle East -- though he enjoyed a visit to Israel (declaring himself "pro-Israel") and later picked up the Jerusalem Prize. In an election year -- the year of Greene's centenary -- one misses the spark of his contrary flame.

Sherry is on firmer ground when treating Greene's love of mischief, such as his creation of a farcical society to honor critics of Nabokov's Lolita, which Greene helped introduce to the West, and his generosity to countless writers. Most impressive are Greene's powers of description, which pared his prose of ornament, and his prodigious output. (His 500 words a day has become a model for many writers.) "Good writing is one of the few things he believed in," a friend recounts; it was the one faith from which he never swerved. *

Sunil Iyengar is managing editor of the Gray Sheet, a medical technology newsletter, and a staff contributor to Contemporary Poetry Review.

Graham Greene in Havana