BOOK REVIEW / Some red-hot gossip and disgusting beds: Fingered as a pervert or followed with doglike devotion: Ian Thomson on the Graham Greene industry
Saturday 03 September 1994
The Greene industry has sprouted wildly since the novelist died in 1991. A frantic race for biographies has left the public groaning: enough is enough. Sex, drugs and leper houses, however, are good for sales. Papa Doc would probably have commended Michael Shelden's prurient biography The Man Within (Heinemann pounds 20) and invited the author to join his government: he is a locker room snoop, digging and hustling for sleaze. In his desperation to expose a darker shade of Greene, he fingers the writer as a homosexual boozer who frequented whipping shops, and relished the pain of cigarette burns and the thrill of adulterous copulation upon high church altars. At least Shelden admits to a 'shameless devotion to voyeurism'. He even suggests that Graham Greene was complicit in the Thirties Brighton murder, to this day unsolved, of a pregnant woman whose dismembered body was found in two suitcases.
Papa Doc had wanted to discredit Greene because of his Haitian novel The Comedians. What is Shelden's game? Three years ago when Greene died, he was persuaded to make a sudden change from a book on Virginia Woolf for a rumoured pounds 200,000. Shelden was in hot- foot competition with Greene's authorised biographer, Norman Sherry, to be first off the presses. He romped home before Sherry by a fortnight. The Life of Graham Greene: Volume Two (Jonathan Cape pounds 20) brings us to 1955. It has taken Sherry over 20 years to get this far; and the mammoth project may not be completed before the 21st century. Greene himself was relieved that Sherry was so steady on the case: 'I can hope to be dead by the time he finishes it'. The first 800-page volume was published in 1989. Greene complained: 'Why does Sherry waste so much time talking about me?'
Sherry's spaniel-like devotion to Greene is somewhat excessive. In return for an initial advance of only pounds 7,000, he went blind for six months, fought off fever in Africa and gangrene in Panama: all in the name of research. Here Sherry guides us through Indo-China where French architecture has survived communist rule. 'In the Majestic Hotel the colonial trademark of the Lyons manufacturer is still visible in the lavatory bowl', he says, with barmy attention to detail. Shelden, on the other hand, has been no further afield than Capri in his three-year stampede through Greene's life. Greene kept a villa on this Italian island where he befriended the louche novelist Norman Douglas. Apparently, Greene shared Norman's taste in Mediterranean boys. As evidence, Shelden has extracted some red-hot gossip from a Capri postman called Mr Scoppa. This source could be suspect: the name sounds like a variation on the vulgar Italian 'scopari', meaning 'to fuck'.
Professor Shelden goes to puritanical lengths in these 500 pages to condemn Greene's alleged fondness for anal sex. A Jamaican chambermaid who cleaned a room after Greene had shared it with a mistress is said to have grumbled: 'Such disgusting beds'. This is presented as kinky, big-time deviation; but the greater turn-off is Shelden's high moral tone. An academic at Indiana University, Shelden writes with middle American prudery. Even Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in The Third Man) is arraigned on a charge of suspected buggery. Much of this is wild surmise. Shelden tries to ridicule Greene by claiming that he travelled everywhere with a childhood teddy bear. Where does this information come from? We are unable to tell because the biography is so poorly sourced. It is all he-said-she-said.
In the race to make money and trounce Norman Sherry, such oversights were inevitable. Shelden is not the only biographer to have challenged Sherry's monopoly. There is a third Greene man: Anthony Mockler. Graham Greene: Three Lives (Hunter Mackay pounds 14.95) is the loopiest biography to have crashed in Greeneland so far. The cover proclaims; 'Novelist] Explorer] Spy]' (though not 'Bugger]').
A sensational description of Greene on his deathbed justifies the exclamation marks: 'He looked out of the antiseptic room over the sterile Swiss sky. No vultures gazed back . . .' Since when have vultures gazed anywhere in Vevey? Mockler is clearly cuckoo over Greene; this 230-page biography, originally four times longer, was due to come out with Sherry's first fat tome. It was withdrawn at the last moment when Greene took legal action; he referred to Mockler as 'unspeakable'.
Like Shelden, Mockler was forbidden to quote from all works by Greene. His opening address to the literary executors quivers with anger and wounded pride: 'Gentlemen, you have in one sense the advantage of me. I do not know who you are . . .' They would be well advised to preserve their anonymity. Christopher Hawtree, custodian of Greene's letters, recently received a death-threat from Mockler which read: 'I will knock off your block and pulp the remainder.' The police inspector who studied the menacing documents apparently remarked of Mockler: 'If this is typical of his prose style, it's a wonder he's had anything published.' Mockler's book is bungled; it bristles with printing errors and fusty locutions like 'wind-baggery', and 'namby-pamby'.
Still, this is preferable to Shelden's prose, which is like processed cheese. When Shelden drops his hard-boiled sneer, however, and looks at the books rather than the man, he reveals details overlooked by the authorised Sherry. Echoes of TS Eliot in Brighton Rock have not been widely observed, neither has the early influence on Greene of Ezra Pound. This is good scholarship.
Greene made no secret that he did not want a biography. He exercised a powerful censorship on his life and Sherry himself must have felt nervous sometimes about what he was able to say. He never questioned Greene's legendary flirtations with Russian roulette, whereas Shelden shows that the teenaged Greene had in reality tried to hang himself in a garden shed. Here an unauthorised version has the edge. A botched suicide with a thin cord has none of the dark glamour of a revolver held to the head. Greene was good at re-inventing himself.
In a letter to Greene's mistress Yvonne Cloetta in December 1991, Shelden promises to do justice to the writer's complicated genius and produce a 'sympathetic biography'. While not treating Greene as a saint, he wants to bring out his virtues and flaws as an 'appealing' human being. There was scant hope of that. Shelden's admiration is for Greene the writer, not the man: even then it is grudging, sour, and ungracious.
What more? A forthcoming memoir by Father Leopoldo Duran, Graham Greene: Friend and Brother (HarperCollins pounds 25), praises the extra-fine Japanese ball-pens the writer used in his later years. Leopoldo was the priest who administered the last rites to Greene in Switzerland. Here he confesses to rummaging through the writer's waste-paper basket in search of interesting letters. Greene was probably amused by this strange Sancho Panza. Motoring across Spain with bottles of Galician wine in the boot, the pair of them were often squiffy from tots of Cutty Sark.
Perhaps Greene had wanted to turn Leopoldo into a whisky priest? There was a streak of the cruel jester in Greene. Visiting the august old man in 1985, David Lodge found that he 'seemed to derive a mischievous glee from the tribulations that poor Norman Sherry had suffered in trying to retrace his every step'.
Sherry is hopelessly in awe of Greene; but his dogged research has paid off. This second 550-page volume is very readable. With bewitching accumulation of detail, it takes us through Sierra Leone, Malaya and Saigon. Graham Greene is by now an acclaimed writer, mixing travel with murky activity for M16. 'A new shade for knickers and nightdresses has been named Brighton Rock by Peter Jones', he writes to his brother Hugh in 1939, 'Is this fame?' With any luck, we shall still be around for the third and final volume.
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