Right of Reply : Michael Shelden defends his biography of Graham Greene, The Man Within

Michael Shelden
Wednesday 14 September 1994 23:02

Published last month, Michael Shelden's biography of Graham Greene, The Man Within, was immediately pilloried for taking a prurient interest in the author's sex life, for its lack of research and overt animosity to its subject. 'The sheer hostility of his biography makes one wonder whether he has told the whole story' (Observer). 'Why he should have whipped himself up to such a fury of indignation in this book is a puzzle' (Irish Times). 'He is a locker-room snoop, digging and hustling for sleaze.' (Independent). 'Unfair', claims the American biographer . . .

'What surprised me so much about the critical reaction was that no attention was given to my view of Greene's work. Critics gave examples of all the sexual turmoil in his life and then took the high ground, saying 'How dare he reveal all this?'. They won't say a word about the 20 pages I've got on either Brighton Rock or The Power and the Glory, which are wonderful works.

'I'm fully prepared to recognise his genius but it's odd that people insist on accepting Greene at face value. Throughout his life he was involved in some sort of deception. They accept that he was strictly heterosexual and yet he wrote three plays with strong homosexual themes.

'I'm not condemning him at all. To me the biographer's job is to talk about the life in all dimensions, including the sexual life. The tone is irreverent rather than hostile. I'm hostile to some of his acts and I would like to know who wouldn't be when Greene puts in print lines like 'little Jewish bitches' on the eve of the Second World War?

'I disagree that the book is under-sourced. The fact that I don't always reveal my sources has more to do with what is legally and diplomatically correct.

''If Greene is going to survive as a novelist it will depend upon him being taken seriously as a literary voice. I took the cue from Orwell, who argued that you could condemn the actions of a man and still admire his work. That's all I'm doing. What I think is going on here is a massive denial, a fear that if you admit something, then you somehow discredit Greene. He made some serious mistakes in his life and I want to acknowledge those. Isn't it, in fact, dishonest to suppress them?'

'Graham Greene: The Man Within', Heinemann (pounds 20)

Michael Shelden is currently Professor of English at Indiana State University. He was talking to Dominic Cavendish

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