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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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