Full of Teeth

Patricia Beer

  • The Life of Graham Greene. Vol. II: 1939-55 by Norman Sherry
    Cape, 562 pp, £20.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 224 02772 7
  • Graham Greene: Three Lives by Anthony Mockler
    Hunter Mackay, 256 pp, £14.95, July 1994, ISBN 0 947907 01 7
  • Graham Greene: Friend and Brother by Leopoldo Duran
    HarperCollins, 352 pp, £20.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 00 627660 1
  • Graham Greene: The Man Within by Michael Shelden
    Minerva, 567 pp, £5.99, June 1995, ISBN 0 7493 1997 6

‘It is obviously the same person.’ The words of Lady Bracknell, one of the wisest characters in English literature, may eventually be echoed by readers when and if they have worked their way through the four, totally diverse, biographies of Graham Greene which originally appeared in the summer and autumn of last year. The biographers are Norman Sherry, Anthony Mockler, Leopoldo Duran and Michael Shelden. The actual information they provide must by now be common knowledge among those who are at all interested in Greene, including those who have simply read the many highly communicative reviews, and in the basic respect of the facts imparted there are relatively few discrepancies.

At this stage the interest can settle almost exclusively on the varying methods and attitudes of the biographers, which, naturally, have been greatly affected by circumstances. Two of the writers were chosen by their subject; two were not. Norman Sherry’s potential as authorised biographer was spotted by Greene in 1971 after he had read Sherry’s second book on Conrad. The appointment was ratified unobtrusively by a handshake in a London street, but there was an upon-this-rock feel about the book which persisted through the first volume and is now sustained in the second.

Father Leopoldo Duran originally met Graham Greene at the London Ritz in 1973. The invitation had been issued by Greene. He already knew a lot about Duran, who had written and lectured about him in both Spain and England, and indeed corresponded with him, over nearly two decades. They met for lunch. By dinner-time, Greene leading the discussion, they had begun to plan the journeys through Spain which were to result in both Monsignor Quixote and Duran’s account of the last years of Greene’s life, subtitled ‘Friend and Brother’.

For many years there seem to have been no serious threats to Sherry’s monopoly, but towards the end of Greene’s life Anthony Mockler, an experienced journalist, made a resourceful attempt to dent it by investigating material over which the novelist had no control, such as the archives of the University of Texas, and by the deployment of his professional skills in general. In this way he composed a substantial book which was to have been published at the same time as Sherry’s first volume. But it was not to be; Greene saw to that. Mockler tells us all about it in his present Preface. ‘Thunderous telegrams were coming from Antibes. Threats of legal action were raining down.’ The publishers’ smiles ‘became full of teeth’. Mockler does not give up but he had to make murderous cuts. This he naturally laments but his generosity with dark hints does much to limit the damage. ‘There are certain episodes of Graham Greene’s early life,’ he confides, ‘that have to be skipped entirely, like, for example, the curious role he played in the General Strike of 1926 when he became, briefly, a Special Constable.’

In 1991 Greene died and Michael Shelden published his authorised biography of George Orwell. Both these events gave Shelden greater freedom to write a book about Greene. There could no longer be thunderous telegrams from Antibes or anywhere else, and now that the albatross of one subject had dropped off his neck he had time, space and energy for another. He had to be careful. He had never been nominated by Greene and he now received a letter from representatives of the estate discouraging him from entering the field. However, while acknowledging with apparent meekness ‘the majesty of the law’, especially with regard to biography, he seems not to have been overawed by it.

The four writers organise their material in very different ways. We can now begin to see the symmetry of Sherry’s three-volume plan. The first instalment took us to the beginning of the Second World War: 35 years. This, the second, covers only 16 years, breaking off in 1955. There are just over thirty-five years to go. Volume II is clearly meant to be pivotal, and what it pivots on is Greene’s affair with Catherine Walston. This is in one way regrettable for though Catherine is seen, in the many photographs supplied, to be beautiful and fascinating, on the printed page her opinions and behaviour get rather tiresome. But she was essential to Greene’s life at that time. Of course, it will upset the whole composition if Yvonne Cloetta turns out to be equally central to Volume III, but I doubt if this will happen.

Anthony Mockler has divided the new version of his original script into two parts. This first one goes up to VE Day, depicting couples on the grass in St James’s Park holding hands, the Royal Family on the balcony semi-waving, and Graham Greene ‘on the edge not only of a great love but of a great literary success’. The book begins with Greene’s death, by way of a prologue relating his dying thoughts. ‘It need hardly be said that this first paragraph is sourceless,’ Mockler assures us in one of his many notes. Indeed it need not. Greene’s supposed reflections are the very opposite of what we know from reliable evidence they were likely to have been. What Mockler will do when the deathbed comes round again, as presumably it will at the end of the second volume, I cannot imagine, but I am sure he can. The deathbed is followed, reasonably, by the Daily Telegraph’s account of the Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral, accompanied by some spirited glosses from Mockler. (‘Who were all these people?’) Where the newspaper quietly remarks, ‘The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster was present,’ Mockler elaborates: ‘Cardinal Hume lurked in the wings, unable totally to condone by presiding, unwilling totally to condemn by being absent.’ He poses some good questions: ‘What recognition does one give to the mistress at the great man’s funeral?’ One has often wondered. It is all very ingenious and entertaining. Eventually we get to the birth, with details about who was king at the time, what political party was in power: everything except the weather, in fact, which, with welcome originality, he leaves out.

Michael Shelden’s biography is the only one of the four to cover the whole of Greene’s life. This would put him in a strong position if the structure of his book was not quite so spasmodic. It is, for example, difficult to appreciate his reasons for starting with a discussion of Lord Rochester’s Monkey, a biography which Greene began in his early thirties but could not, because of its obscenity, publish till 1974, by which time it was not obscene enough. But in spite of any deficiencies in Shelden’s literary skills he seems to have been established as an obvious equal, a potential rival indeed, to Sherry, reviewed beside him, linked with him in newspaper gossip and confronted by him in bookshop disputations. (By comparison, Mockler and Duran have been treated like loose cannon.) As a biographer Shelden has a double aim: he wants to set Greene up simultaneously as a bad man and a good writer, both objectives being bound to affect the design and tone of his book.

The organisation of Leopoldo Duran’s biography is minimal. In his benevolence and charm he in no way resembles a cannon but he is loose in the sense that he rolls with the ship. As the first sentence makes clear, ‘this is not a book of investigation but rather a living book.’ Apparently Greene himself suggested several times that Duran should write an amusing book based on their travels and conversation, but that book did not emerge; this one did. Duran asserted his right to be lively but not to be deliberately humorous. Having recorded in the course of their friendship enough material to fill 16 diaries, each consisting of nearly two hundred pages, what he aimed at producing was a meaningful if unconventional synthesis.

In the 20th century, as we well know, what readers have come to demand from biography is not information but revelation, the favourite disclosures being in the field of sexual malpractice, with espionage running a close second; and Greene qualifies on both counts. In three of these books such matters are presented calmly, with no intention to electrify or distress anybody. Shelden is the odd man out, seemingly bent on electrifying and distressing us. He begins firmly: ‘Young Graham Greene acquired a diverse experience of sin. He drank to excess, chased prostitutes, flirted with suicide, investigated whipping establishments and volunteered to spy against his own country.’ After which, nudging and winking, he makes the most of every vagary and peccadillo on Greene’s part, seeing sin everywhere and inventing it if necessary.

One example of his powers of invention is enough. In 1934 Greene invited his cousin Barbara to accompany him on an expedition to Liberia. She was a pretty girl in her twenties, Shelden hurries to tell us, and after only a few paragraphs he is hinting at the ‘real’ nature of her relationship with Greene. She was wearing shorts, naturally, and ‘with her tall legs constantly visible to him, Greene became increasingly unnerved.’ As Greene habitually headed the procession while Barbara nearly always walked or was carried at the back this must have involved a great deal of contortion, but Shelden happily guesses that ‘he and Barbara occasionally took emergency measures to alleviate the strain.’ There is no evidence that this happened and plenty, including remarks in Greene’s and Barbara’s journals, to indicate that it did not. There is no corroboration from the other three biographers. In his extensive account of the journey Sherry says nothing of the possibility, and the newspapers from which he quotes are less than helpful: the News Chronicle’s headlines, before they set out, did not mention the gender of Greene’s ‘companion’ and its hints were more on the lines of cannibals and dysentery than romance, while the local African paper, on their arrival, identified Miss Greene as the typist of the expedition. Mockler entertains the idea momentarily then robustly dismisses it. It was before Duran’s involvement and he is not one for flashbacks.

There is no doubt that Shelden is one of the arch-denigrators of all time. There are not many biographers who take it on themselves to declare categorically that their subjects had not got, and never would get, to Heaven. Shelden does; he quotes with a sneer the opinion of Father Duran, delivered at Greene’s funeral. ‘My faith tells me he is now with God, or on his way there.’ Shelden, who was not present at the deathbed, of course knows better: ‘Everything in his life seems alien to the concept of Heaven.’ The attitude of Greene’s other three chroniclers is as different as could be from Shelden’s. This is not to imply that their respect and liking for Greene lead them into hagiography. It is just that if they know anything which some people, if not necessarily themselves, might consider discreditable to their hero, they present it coolly, without glee, and with apparent sensitivity to the feelings of such readers as those, for example, who, on hearing recently of the lesbianism of Daphne du Maurier, were as upset as if the cat had died.

It is natural that Leopoldo Duran, professionally committed to both charity and truth, and with a much profounder personal knowledge of Greene than the others had, should come out of the situation so very well. He acknowledges his friend’s sulky bad moods as though the great man was a loveable child, and gives a mild account of his sexual irregularities that is in no way censorious except insofar as he calmly remarks, as if for the record, that he does not condone adultery. In fact he takes a much stronger line against arrogance, but it is his educated judgment that Greene was entirely free of this vice.

Given the inevitable ignorance of literary biographers about many aspects of their subjects’ lives, it is strange that on the whole they make so little of what they can be sure of – that is, the works themselves. The apparent lack of interest in Greene’s literary techniques which three of these present writers display is downright bizarre. Sherry’s account of The Heart of the Matter, for example, consists mostly of a discussion of what various representative Catholics have thought of the moral of the novel, a point which, though interesting in itself, tells us more about them than about Greene the writer or his book.

Mockler seems to be going the same way at first. He disapproves of The Man Within and damns it comprehensively on grounds of plot, characterisation and dialogue, but his real concentration is directed at the reactions of Greene’s wife to the book and the probable domestic consequences of her feelings. His approach to The Man of Action is comparable in that what really excites him is the appearance for the first time of Jews in a Graham Greene novel. He does not, however, go on entirely as he begins. Speaking of later books he quite often makes good comments about Greene’s experimental use of different methods, such as the stream of consciousness.

The case of Shelden is most difficult to understand. In pursuing, as he unswervingly does, his twofold theme, he has no success in either part of his message. He cannot convince many readers, if any at all, that Greene was an irredeemable villain; this is hardly surprising, but it is very surprising that he does not speak of the work he wishes to promote in a way which would add to the enjoyment of those who are already admirers of Greene, let alone convert those who are not. How could he extol Greene as ‘a highly imaginative novelist’ and then present us with, for example, such an uninspiring précis of The Power and the Glory?

Once again, Leopoldo Duran is in a stronger position than the rest, having already – even before contemplating his present book – provided scholars and general readers with the specific literary criticism from which the other biographers under discussion seem to shy away. He assumes, no doubt rightly, that people proposing to read Friend and Brother will be familiar to some extent with existing work on Greene so that he can now devote himself to material that only he commands.

Any account of Greene’s life would show that, in England, when it came to matters of status and renown, he did much better than most writers do. But only Duran, in the course of his travels with Greene in Spain and his visits to him in France and Switzerland, has witnessed (and straightforwardly enjoyed and recorded) the full extent of his friend’s prestige outside his native land: from the pointings-out and excited whisperings in streets and cafés to the miraculous discovery of rooms in hotels alleged to be full and the opportune vacating of episcopal suites in the best monasteries. Even his failure to win the Nobel Prize brought him nothing worse than the heated partisanship which must have been almost as pleasant as the prize – which in any case he said he did not want – would have been. After so many descriptions in other chronicles of his adulterous progresses it makes a nice change to see him going about surrounded only by the glamour of a famous writer.

More important, Duran is able to give us a unique eyewitness commentary on the making of a novel; and, even more instructively, it is a novel in which, as he knew from the start, the hero is to an extent modelled on himself. There are references to Monsignor Quixote throughout the book, and a whole chapter is entitled ‘Monsignor Quixote Step by Step’. Never was a title more accurate, the first step being the original moment of inspiration in the cemetery at Salamanca and the last the dinner held in London to celebrate publication. Against the odds – details about scripts, proofs, editions – tension, even excitement, builds up. The conversations of the two men during these years were mostly about ‘the ever-present Monsignor Quixote’ but when they were not together Greene kept the momentum going with such bulletins as this postcard from Anacapri: ‘Father Quixote has nearly doubled in length. The travels have begun.’ Somehow there is interest too in the details about which Greene naturally consults Duran: could he have more information about tonsures? Would Quixote have worn a cross on the lapel of his coat while travelling? But far more valuable are such announcements, elaborated elsewhere in the biography, as: ‘Our travels during the summer of 1981 were enormously important to the book. We discussed many doctrinal points with the result that Greene changed the entire ending of the novel.’

The current British vogue for literary biography shows no signs of dying down and it is only reasonable to speculate what it will do for or to Graham Greene now that he has been treated to four lives in one season. We can confidently expect one more volume each from Sherry and Mockler; they have promised. Michael Shelden has shot his bolt but he has done his best to encourage others to shoot theirs. ‘There are unrestricted materials available in a number of places, including some which are still in private hands, and there are many surviving friends and associates who have more than one story to tell.’ He makes this encouragement sound like an act of principle. ‘It is not a good idea to have only one biography of Greene.’ I feel sure he need not worry. The Zeitgeist has blown and is blowing in the right direction.