On the Lower Slopes

Stefan Collini

  • Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family by Jeremy Lewis
    Cape, 580 pp, £25.00, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 07921 1

Graham Greene was more than half in love with easeful failure. He chose to end A Sort of Life, the sly memoir of his early years that stood in for an autobiography, with ‘the years of failure which followed the acceptance of my first novel’, adding the characteristic gloss that ‘failure too is a kind of death’ and so may conclude the story of a life as appropriately as one’s last breath. Greene had famously gambled his adolescent life on the odds that one of the five empty chambers of the revolver he held to his head would come up when he pulled the trigger (or so he later wanted us to believe). In his case, it is not clear which outcome should more properly be regarded as failure: ‘winning’ at Russian roulette could be seen as condemning him to more years of unbearable boredom. A typical character from one of his novels would presumably have put the gun to his head but been unable to pull the trigger, thereby generating further grounds for the self-loathing which had driven him to his desperate act. Desperate and sinful: suicide, even attempted suicide, perhaps even the stagey simulation of possible suicide, is a sin against the Holy Ghost, and although Greene, who converted to Catholicism when he was 22, may have had no orthodox belief in the Holy Ghost, he devoutly believed in sin. And sin, too, is a kind of failure, a confirmation of man’s fallen state as well as a welcome escape from the tedium of virtue. It is easy to come away from Greene’s books with the thought that the deepest form of inauthenticity is to be a worldly success.

But that is precisely what Graham Greene became. He became a bestselling author who was also critically acclaimed; he became a very rich man; and he became that indefinable but recognisable thing – a public figure (he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, a major form of consecration in the decades after the Second World War). This was success as members of his family and class understood it, though Greene inhabited his fame in an idiosyncratic and reclusive way. It was, he always felt, just a series of disguises; he was driven on, he claimed, by ‘this damned desire to be successful that comes from a sense of inferiority’. The wealth, fame and independence that he came to know in the 1950s could never still the itch of self-disgust. During that decade he roamed the world with even more than his usual restlessness: ‘I had no employer from whom to escape – only myself, and the only trust I could betray was the trust of those who loved me.’ Escape and betrayal were something to hold onto when one’s life seemed to be slipping into a bottomless abyss of success.

Greene had gambled with his life in a different way when in 1929, at the age of 25, he resigned his secure job as a subeditor on the Times in order to try to convert the unexpected success of his first novel, The Man Within, into a career as a writer. Three years and two woeful flops later, it looked as though the chamber with the bullet was spinning into place. He wished, he later reflected, that he had had an experienced mentor to call on for advice – someone such as Robert Louis Stevenson, who ‘had always seemed to me “one of the family”’. Greene was distantly related to RLS through his mother’s cousin. ‘Names which appeared in his Collected Letters were photographs in our family album. In the nursery we played on the bagatelle board which had belonged to him.’ This sense of connection, even identification, with Stevenson stirred his imagination. Wishing in retrospect that he had been the beneficiary of the right kind of avuncular counsel, he instinctively thought of ‘my relative in Samoa’, a writer who had capped success in his thirties with voluntary exile and early death at the age of 44. As a boy playing on Berkhamsted Common, Greene had cast himself as David Balfour, and as a novelist he can be thought to have given his own bleak twist to the kind of ‘adventure story’ with which Stevenson’s name was for so long associated. In 1949 he began to write a biography of Stevenson, abandoning it only when he discovered that another biographer was well ahead of him. For such a determined loner, Greene had a pronounced streak of family piety.

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