Many said that Greene would have made an excellent priest, the poet Edith Sitwell among them: she felt he understood sin and redemption in a way the clergy didn’t. But there wasn’t much danger of Greene ever donning a cassock: as he said himself, ‘Chastity would have been beyond my powers.’ That must be one of the understatements of the century. In Mexico City once, he visited both a monastery and a brothel, a fairly regular pairing, as this brilliant new biography from Canadian academic Richard Greene (no relation) dryly informs us.
Consequently, writing the life of such a man is something of a challenge. Norman Sherry, Greene’s first biographer, needed three compendious volumes (each one longer than Richard Greene’s new biography), published between 1989 and 2004, that brought diminishing returns. Richard Greene (no relation – how he must be tired of that epithet!) has done an exemplary job in this new single-volume life in somehow managing to recount pretty much everything in a mere 500 pages.
It was an immensely busy life and the telling of it here, in 78 short chapters and 500 brisk pages, feels rushed. The emphasis on Greene as foreign correspondent and emissary is certainly fresh. But the cost is an excess of information on the internal politics of the countries he visited, not always pertinent to the fiction. To spend more time on the history of Panama in the 1970s, for example, than on the Greene’s long and complicated affair with Catherine Walston may be a corrective to earlier biographies. But it does little to explain the man and throws more attention on a lesser nonfiction book (Getting to Know the General) than The End of the Affair, his masterpiece.
Richard Greene argues that Greene the novelist and Greene the wartime spy were of a piece. “He watches, he overhears, he is unscrupulous.” He was also vain, selfish, prickly, silly. As a person, he was not tremendously admirable. He walked out on his family. His notoriously untoward description of the child star Shirley Temple’s “desirable little body” brings one up short, and then there is his virulent anti-Americanism: “Better a bad man against the USA in Central America than a good man for it.” I was never won over, either, by his Catholicism, drinking whisky with priests and debating the difference between faith and belief, or the way religion allowed Greene to behave badly, then he’d pop into the confessional and emerge in a state of grace.
Richard Greene has mastered a tremendous amount of material. Greene’s travels and friendships spanned a world undergoing unusual political upheaval. His published works encompass journalism (including 600 film reviews for this magazine), plays, biographies and 26 novels. The result is a pared-down portrait that keeps to the track, but knows when to race ahead to tell us information to which we need not return — although, in his declared intention to avoid the salaciousness of his predecessors, Richard Greene walks sometimes too far down the plank of discretion.
Thank goodness for Richard Greene, whose splendid one-volume biography offers a succinct counterbalance to Sherry’s inedible trifle and conjures the man Evelyn Waugh nicknamed “Grisjambon Vert” (French for “grey ham green”) in all his perplexing variety. Where Sherry is tactless and indecorous, Richard Greene (no relation) is respectful and considered. Crisply written, Russian Roulette takes its title from Greene’s vaunted flirtation with suicide as a teenager in Berkhamsted outside London, where his father was a school headmaster. Prone to bouts of self-loathing, he drank heavily, smoked opium and patronised brothels... Cogently argued and happily free of jargon, Russian Roulette offers a long-needed antidote to “dirty linen” biographers who have sought to expose a darker shade of Greene and, in consequence, lost sight of the books. At last Graham Greene has the biographer he deserves.
The book, elegantly sliced into 78 chapters, bounds along with fluency, clarity and wry humour. It doesn’t deliver startling revelations to eclipse Norman Sherry’s three-volume authorised life, but its agenda is clear. Greene concentrates on his namesake’s emotional involvement with victims of oppression in the world’s poorest countries and the Cold War, celebrating his vigorous defence of dissidents, from his old boss Kim Philby to his friend Chuchu Martinez, who ran arms to Nicaraguan rebels. He rescues Greene from seediness and coldness. And he lets you hear an echo of the character in The Quiet American who says: “Sooner or later one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.”
Anybody who has read Norman Sherry’s official biography of Greene, a train-wreck in three volumes, will be delighted by the concision and sanity of Richard Greene’s book. He writes briskly and engagingly, with a wry wit and an endearing fondness for trivia and puns. He is also less giddy, and less of a hero-worshipper, than most of the previous biographers. Unlike some of them, he is able to accept that Greene was so unperceptive as not to realise that his MI6 colleague Kim Philby was a traitor, and does not waste his time scouring Greene’s novels for coded signs that he knew the truth.