For the past 27 years, Norman Sherry has been involved in an insane quest: to write a "definitive" biography of the famously elusive Graham Greene. It has been suggested that, having authorised the book, Greene derived amusement from watching Sherry climb every mountain and ford every stream in search of material. Readers might have shared this amusement had Sherry decided to write a book like AJA Symons's The Quest for Corvo. Instead, he has produced a vast, sprawling critical biography, the third volume of which arrives for Greene's centenary.
We left Greene at the end of Volume Two in an opium haze. He had just published The Quiet American and his long affair with Catherine Walston was in difficulties. Walston had not only provided Greene with love and intermittent companionship, but was essential to his work. "As long as Catherine was with him," Sherry observes, "he was centred, at peace, so he could write." Although the affair would drag painfully on until the 1960s, Greene was facing the difficulty of writing without Walston at his side. His religious convictions also faltered in her absence. "I'm not even a Catholic properly when I'm away from you," he told her in 1947. "I'm a much better Catholic in mortal sin! Or at least I'm more aware of it."
Part of the attraction of Roman Catholicism for Greene was the Church's belief in the existence of hell. Conor Cruise O'Brien commented that Greene was "looking for Hell all his life and... found it at last in Haiti", where The Comedians is set. Greene had several foretastes, and Sherry tracks him to Cuba during the bloody revolution ( Our Man in Havana) and the leper colonies of the Congo ( A Burnt-Out Case).
In order to follow Sherry's detailed analysis of these novels, it is necessary for the reader to have some idea of their content. Rather than providing a brief synopsis, however, Sherry spends page after page retelling the stories, illustrating them with great chunks of text. Similarly, he appears to reproduce every single instance of the way Greene used material from his diary when writing A Burnt-Out Case. Reading this is like wading through mud.
Sherry has amassed an enormous amount of highly valuable and fascinating primary material, but seems to have no idea of how to deploy it to its best advantage. Any biography - and particularly one as long as this - needs a clear narrative line through the subject's life. Sherry leaves us to flounder. It is not simply that the book lacks forward momentum; it jumps about all over the place, so that it is often impossible to tell where we are or what is going on.
For example, having reached 1961, Sherry suddenly devotes a chapter to the deaths, in 1965, 1966 and 1971, of three people close to Greene. The last of these was a former mistress, Dorothy Glover. Although he has already sensibly provided a brief recapitulation of the contents of his first two volumes at the beginning of this one, Sherry launches into the whole saga of Greene's involvement with Glover, some of which is copied word for word from Volume Two. It is particularly unfortunate that the chapter is titled "Death Is a Mole", and opens: "Greene began losing friends to that little rodent." (Moles are not rodents; they are insectivores.)
Things get even more confusing later. Greene moves to France in January 1966, but some 30 pages later he is expecting rehearsals for a play -- which was dealt with in great detail 140 pages earlier - "to be over by 5 September 1964". This is one example of the chronological chaos into which this book frequently descends.
It does not much help that information that should have been relegated to the source notes keeps erupting into the text. No one will underestimate the enormous lengths to which the author has gone in pursuit of his quarry, but Sherry is unable to resist telling us about his exploits. Yes, yes, the reader thinks: I dare say you have interviewed such-and-such a person three times, travelling to Barbados and staying up past midnight to do so, but what has this to do with Graham Greene? Sherry even reproduces extracts from his interviews as if they were playscripts. Reading a biography, one wants some sense of the author's presence, but it is merely distracting to have him waving his arms about and drawing attention to himself.
Sherry repeatedly does so by ill-advised "literary" flourishes. One chapter ends with a letter in which Greene confesses to Walston that he has got into a romantic muddle because he appears to be in love with two women at the same time. Rather than let Greene have the last word, Sherry adds: "He is cornered, truth dripping slow." (The narrative often lurches into the present tense.) It is not enough in this book for people to die; they become "a victim of that star of death invisibly embroidered on all our foreheads at birth".
Worse still is the portentous commentary Sherry sometimes adds. Describing (in unnecessary detail) incidents of murder and torture in Haiti, he tells us, "Sonny Borges, the child killer who put a cigarette out in little Stephane's eyes, was also shot that night. We will not mourn." When suggesting that Greene may not have loved his last mistress, Yvonne Cloetta, quite as much as she claimed, Sherry solemnly declares: "Was she taking herself in? I suspect to a degree this was so. Lying to one's self [sic] is not entirely unknown to humans."
It seems inevitable that the first photograph in the book's plate section is not of Greene, but of Sherry. The narrative opens with the information that, on the day Greene died, his biographer's telephone never stopped ringing. The sense of loss Sherry felt came as something of a surprise to him. "In the great lecture halls of America," he confesses, "when asked whether I liked Greene, I was somewhat cagey."
That "great" gives fair warning of what is to follow, as does this chapter's epigraph. Elsewhere the words of Cervantes, Petrarch, Donne, Zola and Auden are used. Here, as on other occasions, the quoted author is identified as none other than Sherry himself. But then, as he keeps reminding us, Sherry is someone who likes to keep good company. The book closes with him describing how hard it is, after all this time, to write the final sentence. "Why have I, as Schubert did his symphony, left this biography unfinished?" he asks unblushingly. Given the book's characteristically self-indulgent and self-regarding final paragraph, many readers will be relieved that he has.
Peter Parker's biography of Christopher Isherwood is published by PicadorReuse content