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The dramatic — and embellished — life of Graham Greene

British novelist Graham Greene in his home in Antibes, France, in 1978. A new biography explores his adventures, as well as his depression and self-mythology. (Photo by Simon Michou/Paris Match/Getty Images)
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The first character any novelist creates is himself. A biographer’s task is to close the gap between this surface image and a mosaic of messy subterranean facts. Like an undercover operative, Graham Greene mined his diaries, letters and interviews with misinformation to foil literary snoops. My sympathy goes out to Richard Greene, who, after editing the English novelist’s collected correspondence, now chronicles a life as crazed as a hall of cracked mirrors.

At school, Graham felt torn between his classmates and his father, who was the headmaster. Sometimes he betrayed both sides to stay faithful to himself. As a college student traveling in Europe, he offered to spy for German intelligence. Simultaneously he was willing to act as a double agent for other nations. During World War II he joined England’s Secret Intelligence Service, and even after he resigned from the SIS, he continued to file secret reports while working as a journalist. He wrote sympathetic copy about his friend Kim Philby, who spied for Russia, then passed Philby’s correspondence to the SIS and debriefed the agency after visiting Philby in Moscow.

At age 16, Greene underwent psychoanalysis and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His cycles of anxiety and acedia grew so acute that suicide seemed the only escape. He claims in his memoir, “A Sort of Life,” that he played Russian roulette half a dozen times. Decades later, when he met Fidel Castro, even the Cuban dictator was familiar with the tale and marveled that Greene hadn’t killed himself.

But Richard Greene, who is not related to the novelist, indicates in “The Unquiet Englishman” that “A Sort of Life is not entirely reliable on some important points. It is reasonable to believe that this story is at least embellished, that Graham Greene did play Russian roulette but with blanks, or, more likely, empty chambers.” Still, “Russian Roulette” is the title of the British edition of “The Unquiet Englishman,” and the biographer stresses that Greene “did many things at least as dangerous as Russian roulette. . . . It is not simply a tall tale but a personal myth, a story that allows Greene to explain a recurrent pattern.”

In chapter after chapter, Richard Greene dramatizes this pattern, showing the novelist’s death-wish penchant for putting himself on the spot wherever poverty, political violence and religious persecution terrorized the population. Critics dubbed these settings Greeneland, as if the squalor and trauma were pure invention. But “The Unquiet Englishman” emphasizes the accuracy of Greene’s portraits of Mexico in “The Power and the Glory,” Africa in “The Heart of the Matter,” Vietnam in “The Quiet American” and Haiti in “The Comedians.”

Richard Greene plays down previous biographies that “focused to a remarkable degree on the minutiae of his sexual life, provoking some reviewers to regard parts of the works as prurient and trivial.” About Norman Sherry’s three-volume authorized biography, he says: “In the later stages of [Sherry’s] project he was developing dementia. His third and final volume, published in 2004, was strangely incoherent.” Usually meticulous with footnotes, Richard Greene cites no source for this information.

He maintains that with the emergence of new research material, the “landscape of [Greene’s] life has a different outline,” and his aim is to study “the political and cultural contexts” of Greene’s novels. In large measure, this approach enriches the perspective. Recounting Greene’s excursions to Central America, where he seemed to chum around with brutal caudillos, Richard Greene reveals that even as he aged, the novelist didn’t only continue to write. He served as a go-between during kidnapping cases and revolutionary negotiations.

Sometimes, however, this focus on “political and cultural contexts” comes at the expense of attention to Greene’s private behavior. “The Unquiet Englishman” contains many examples of his charity to worthy causes, generosity to relatives and friends — he supported ex-mistresses long after their affairs ended and bought one a house — and assistance to writers he admired. But perhaps to avoid any charges of prurience, Richard Greene lets a stream of prostitutes and lovers flow through the book as one-dimensional as shapes in a shooting gallery. Greene’s promiscuity is mentioned but seldom delved into.

Where depression is usually defined as anger turned inward, Greene was apt to turn it outward and pick fights. Of this I speak from experience. For 20 years I was a recipient of his kindness and hospitality, a rapt listener to his anecdotes about Ho Chi Minh and Castro. When I proposed to draw on these stories and do a profile of Greene for Playboy magazine, he gave me the go-ahead, with the proviso that I not mention his last mistress, Yvonne Cloetta.

Playboy rejected my article, complaining it was too much like one author schmoozing with another. Later I placed the profile in the Nation and the London Magazine, happy to have it in print and show it to Greene. In response, he shot back an apoplectic letter, accusing me of multiple mistakes and expressing “real horror. I don’t think that any journalist has done worse for me than you. . . . I have annotated every page of The London Magazine and propose to sell it for a large sum.”

At the distance of almost half a century, it shocks me that I stood up to Greene rather than apologize or disappear down a hole. I rebutted his accusations and observed that if I had had the imagination to invent the stories he now denied, I would have saved them for my fiction — which, I suggested, was what he should have done. This prompted a second disciplinary letter from Greene and a slightly more conciliatory one from me. Two weeks passed, and Greene’s internal weather changed. “Let’s forget all about it,” he wrote.

The friendship resumed as if nothing had happened, and Greene permitted me to republish the profile in Italy and Spain and to include it in my collected essays. Later, when Penelope Gilliatt plagiarized the piece in the New Yorker, recycling material that Greene had disowned, I accepted a financial settlement from the editor, William Shawn, but wondered whether Greene hadn’t indulged once again in mythomania and unspooled the same stories to Gilliatt.

This minor incident in Graham Greene’s career — it remains a memorable one in mine — contains much of what I remember about the man: his quickness to anger, his almost physical need to start arguments, then just as abruptly his recovery of equilibrium and his forgiveness. As “An Unquiet Englishman” maintains, Greene was a product of his political and cultural context. But what made him truly remarkable was his ability to transcend that context and his personal quirks to create literature that is, to quote Ezra Pound, “news that stays news.”


A Life of Graham Greene

By Richard Greene

W.W. Norton & Company.

608 pp. $40