BOOKS / Our man in trouble: How far can a biographer go? As three new books about Graham Greene offer up their revelations, is there anything left to admire in the man once called our greatest writer?

Phillip Knightley
Saturday 27 August 1994 23:02


Volume Two 1939-55

by Norman Sherry, Cape pounds 20


by Michael Shelden, Heinemann pounds 20


Three Lives 1904-45 by

Anthony Mockler, Hunter Mackay pounds 14.95

ONE OF Graham Greene's friends, the minor novelist Norman Douglas, was a child abuser, a sexual imperialist who shamelessly bought favours from young Italian boys and girls. After his death, his sexual obsession with children was openly discussed in a memoir by Richard Aldington. Greene's reaction is very revealing - he did everything he could to kill Aldington's book, calling it the work of a coward and a liar, and writing a review so grossly defamatory that no one would publish it.

Clearly what worried Greene was not so much the loss of his friend's reputation - he did not have one to lose - but the fact that a writer's intimate secrets could be revealed with impunity once he or she was dead. Greene's official biographer, Norman Sherry, confirms this conclusion by recalling a moment when Greene repeated rumours that his wife intended to write a book about their marriage. Sherry says that with a look of total dismay on his face, Greene sang a line from an old music hall favourite, 'Shovel the dust on the old man's coffin and take up your pen and write.'

Greene's fears have, of course, been amply justified. The second volume of Sherry's biographical trilogy has just come out, along with a large book by Michael Shelden, described by his publishers as 'the most exciting literary biographer at work today'. And then we have Anthony Mockler, who opens the first of a two- volume life with a plea to Greene's executors not to sue him. Mockler is the loose cannon of this genre. He refuses telephone interviews 'owing to possible legal complications' and, according to one reviewer, 'threatened to behead me and pulp the remainder'.

Rarely can literary biographies have caused such a surge of passion, and we do not have to read any of them very far before understanding why. Norman Sherry's position is clear. He is the official biographer; he has access to all the papers and copyright permission to quote from them. Greene appointed him in 1975, gave him introductions and opened doors for him, and was helping him up to the day before he died. He expected Sherry to tell his story with some sympathy, admiration and restraint.

But Sherry has turned out to be his own man. He points out the difficulties of writing about someone whose whole life was a mystery even to those closest to him, who kept two versions of his diary, and who asked friends to send telegrams signed by him so it would appear that he was where, in reality, he was not. He quotes Greene himself: 'If anybody ever tries to write a biography of me, how complicated they are going to find it and how misled they are going to be.'

He sets out his strategy, to answer the paradox in Greene's life: 'that this author, thought by many to be the greatest novelist of his generation, and also the most successful (his books have sold more than 20 million copies and have been translated into over 40 languages) should yet suffer from a despair that seemed beyond success, beyond money'.

And two-thirds of the way through his task, Sherry, in his quiet conventional way, is doing just that. This volume covers the years 1939 to 1955, and one puts it down heavy with Greene's melancholia, sad that an author of such talent could find no peace. He has another 36 years to go, but Sherry leaves him, and us, with this evocative line: 'Turgenev said that the heart of another is a dark forest, and as the twilight ebbed fast, I watched him walk silently away, becoming a dark speck, until finally I lost him.'

The Shelden and Mockler books are another matter. Greene stopped Mockler's book five years ago by threatening his publishers with legal action. The publication of Sherry's first volume in the meantime forced Mockler to rewrite his own version of Greene's life, and to cut from it every quotation that Greene had originally given him permission to use.

Mockler is bitter, and although he misses nothing important the book shows signs of haste, being peppered with requests to readers for further information on Greene. It also contains curious generalisations, such as 'Every man who has not been a soldier despises himself.' At the end I am not certain what Mockler really thinks of Greene. He writes: 'Not an ordinary man, not a comfortable man, not a reliable man - but an adventurer, with all the vices and virtues of an adventurer', which seems a trite conclusion for a book that has suffered such vicissitudes.

I am in no such doubt about Shelden. As much as he may admire Greene the author, he hates Greene the man. Many great artists, composers, authors have been absolute shits in their private lives and their biographers have every right to hate them. But the work transcends the life. Or does it?

Shelden castigates those of Greene's readers who refuse to look at Greene's record. 'They cherish the author's works as noble political and religious statements; they recommend him for Catholic literary awards, the Jerusalem Prize, the Nobel Prize. They eagerly accept his stories of playing Russian roulette or his claim that a long-forgotten novel has suddenly turned up . . . They do not hear - or do not want to hear - the anti-Semitism, the anti-Catholicism, the misogyny, or the many jokes made at their expense.'

So Shelden sets out to enlighten them. He has his justification for his intrusion into Greene's private life already prepared. 'As Greene well knew, he did not have a copyright to his life. He gave that up when he chose to make a public spectacle of himself, which is exactly what he did each time that he published a new book.' Yes, this is a valid argument. The author can simply display his wares and leave it at that. But Greene made a media event of publication, and put himself forward as an integral part of that event. This entitles me, says Shelden, to ask: Who is this author? What is he like? And, above all, how much of his own life and its influence can we find in his work?

Shelden concludes that Greene was a vicious and contemptuous anti-Semite, a manic depressive, a political hypocrite who only posed as a friend of socialism, an author who hated people in general and his readers in particular, an alcoholic and a drug addict, a treacherous man cruel in word and deed, a liar, a spy who liked spying for spying's sake, a masochist with a strong homosexual streak who used prostitutes and sexually abused boys at his villa in Anacapri, a malicious and deceitful man who wanted to destroy everything good that come into his world.

Shelden's minute examination of Greene's sex life could, at a pinch, be justified on the grounds that it spills over into his work - in the belief that the female, no matter how young, is capable of sexual corruption (the seven-year-old seductress in The Power and the Glory), and in homosexual themes (his male characters are forever searching for some elusive bond with another male). But how far should this go? Consider these paragraphs:

'One reason for his (Greene's) strong interest in Annette was that she did not mind satisfying his passion for anal sex . . . Apparently, his fondness for anal sex was so great that he could become rather too exuberant, as one maid discovered after cleaning the room he had shared with a woman in Jamaica. 'Such disgusting beds,' she complained to her employer.' Not surprisingly, Shelden gives no source for this revelation.

'Scoppa (the postman in Anacapri) . . . was surprised to find that Greene often had Italian boys staying with him, and that the same boy was never there more than once. Most appeared to be between the ages of 14 and 16. Not knowing about Greene, Scoppa could only guess why these young visitors came and went, but other people in the town told him that the boys came for sex.'

And finally: 'She (Catherine Walston, Greene's lover) was happy to make love on the floors, in the fields, or in forbidden places. During her relationship with Greene, she joined him in a unique endeavour which one friend later described as 'committing adultery behind every high altar in Italy'. Always prepared for love she kept a drawer full of condoms in various sizes.'

This is the stuff of pub gossip, and surely irrelevant in a serious biography of a novelist. The Lord Chancellor's office is currently circulating a consultation document about a proposed privacy law which would outlaw 'spying, prying, watching, or besetting' and suggests that if publication causes 'substantial distress' or 'nervous shock' to surviving relatives or descendants, then the author would be liable to punishment. No matter how much one regrets this proposed restriction on freedom of expression, it would be hard not to say that if it ever happened Shelden, with his tasteless prying, had brought it on himself.

To my mind, a far more important revelation, and one that is completely justified, has to do with Greene's activities on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Greene had that absolute lack of normal ethics that is an essential part of the make-up of all spies, and that delight in deception and double-dealing for their own sake. In 1924 he wanted to go to the Rhine for the German government to spy on the pro-French separatists there. While he was waiting for the Germans to finalise the arrangements he approached the French embassy about also spying in the Rhine for France; in short, to become a double agent.

He served in SIS during the war and then went on to be a freelance for the service for 40 years, reporting on what he saw on his many trips abroad, and suggesting the names of likely agents, in return for his travelling expenses. On his trips to Moscow, where he met his old friend and colleague Kim Philby, and where he was treated by the Russians as a hero - thousands of Moscow University students turned out to hear him speak - Shelden says he was working on each occasion for SIS.

One must be cautious, since Shelden's source is a briefing from SIS - which may have decided to denigrate Greene as he denigrated it in Our Man in Havana and The Heart of the Matter. But if it is true, then what happens to our image of Graham Greene as the trusted friend of international socialism, the champion of the underdog, the scourge of colonialism, the man who brought those Moscow university students to their feet in rapturous applause when he said he would live to see the day in Latin America when the Catholic Church and the Communist Party marched shoulder to shoulder against the oppressors? Was it all just cover for yet another ageing British spy acting out his fantasies at the expense of others? How he must have been laughing at those he fooled.

If it is true - and I await Sherry's word on it - then I forgive Shelden his prying into Greene's sexual peccadilloes. He more than makes up for it with the service he has rendered Greene's readers by exposing his political treachery and moral bankruptcy. And although it should be possible to separate the man from his art, I will not be able to read Graham Greene's books with the same enjoyment as before. I suspect I will not be alone.

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