October 17, 2004: Headlines: COS - Malawi: Writing - Malawi: New York Times: Paul Theroux reviews Graham Greene biography

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Paul Theroux reviews Graham Greene biography

Paul Theroux reviews Graham Greene biography

Paul Theroux reviews Graham Greene biography

Damned Old Graham Greene

Published: October 17, 2004.

GRAHAM GREENE lived, and thrived, in an age when writers were powerful, priestlike, remote and elusive. They were risk takers and romantics, lovably disreputable, seldom interviewed but often whispered about. You did not see them at your local bookstore, you did not pluck their sleeves, you had no opportunity to hand them manuscripts, or to ask for tips on travel or to observe, ''What is your problem?''

It is impossible now for any American under the age of 60 or so to comprehend the literary world that existed in the two decades after World War II, and especially the magic that fiction writers exerted upon the public. Hemingway was an occasional item in a gossip column, or a photo in Life. Henry Miller was regarded as an outlaw. Faulkner was an occasional visitor to a college campus but was otherwise invisible; the same went for Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. They are all dead, but some of the writers who enjoyed that sort of fame as conspicuous absentees (Bellow, Styron and other heroic elders) have lived on into this age of intrusion, where publishers conspire with bookstores to bully writers into the open and make them part of the selling mechanism.

This weird and philistine exhibitionism is now the way of the world. Greene was spared.

Until about 30 years ago, writers like Greene were not at all accessible to the reading public; they did not turn up for signings at bookstores or allow themselves to be pimped by publicists or buttonholed by TV producers who promised fame and better sales. They existed in their work, in their biographical notes and in the usually outdated photos on their book jackets. Invisible, they were the more powerful for seeming forever elsewhere. These writers bewitched the imaginations of those of us who grew up in that period of glamour and solitude, and who wished to be writers ourselves.

THE period I am thinking of -- which began to decline in the 1960's, perhaps when publishers became corporate middlebrow monsters -- was also an age of censorship. Greene caused a huge fuss by choosing, in The Sunday Times of London, the Olympia Press edition of ''Lolita'' as one of his books of the year in 1955. His singling out the book got it serious attention and contracts in London and New York, and of course howls of execration. The Vatican took a dim view of Greene's novels, though the adulteries in them kept them on the top shelf. Growing up in an age of literary censorship, I regarded all serious writing as a shady, dodgy and faintly subversive business, which was another attraction to me.

Graham Greene, born in 1904, was just such a subversive hero, self-consciously seeking out (in Browning's words) ''the dangerous edge of things,'' who lived everywhere and nowhere, a man whom few people ever knew. ''One of fate's fugitives,'' in the words of his biographer, Greene published two memoirs, ''A Sort of Life'' (1971) and ''Ways of Escape'' (1980), which are notoriously reticent, not to say misleading. Though he was more hospitable to being interviewed than he admitted, he allowed only the highest standard of interviewer. V. S. Pritchett, Anthony Burgess and V. S. Naipaul all made their way to Greene's home in Antibes to genuflect to the master and subsequently say nice things about him in Sunday newspapers. Greene must have known that such men would not spill the beans about his irregular life or ask awkward questions, though Burgess famously teased him for being a God-botherer and a poseur, and was banished.

Aware that he led a hidden life, Greene developed a habit of evasion, an almost pathological inability to come clean. His secretiveness led him at times to keep a parallel diary, in which he might chronicle two versions of his day, one rather sober and preoccupied, the other perhaps detailing a frolic with a prostitute. Betrayal was one of Greene's obsessive subjects. Reluctant, too weary or too wary to write an exhaustive autobiography, Greene appointed Norman Sherry, an acclaimed biographer and a professor of English, as his official biographer. Greene had read and admired Sherry's books about Joseph Conrad -- and had been impressed by Sherry's stamina in following in Conrad's footsteps to fictional settings and old stomping grounds.

With his customary circumspection, Greene summoned Sherry for drinks and meals in 1974, and after considerable scrutiny offered him unlimited access. (Greene said: ''No lies please. Follow me to the end of my life.'') In 1976, after two years of spadework, Sherry started writing his life of Graham Greene, and in 1989 published the first volume (covering the years 1904-39). Greene lived to read that book, but he had been dead three years by the time the second volume (1939-55) appeared in 1994. After 28 years, with the publication of this long-awaited third volume (1955-91), Sherry's work, a total of 2,251 closely printed pages, is now complete.

For anyone interested in Greene's life and work, this three-volume biography is incomparable; as an intellectual and political history of the 20th century it is invaluable; as a literary journey, as well as a journey across the world, it is masterly; as a source book and rogues' gallery it is fascinating. Sherry is not the stylist Leon Edel was when he wrote his five-volume life of Henry James, but this work can be compared with Edel's achievement. It is as satisfying and as exhaustive, and evokes a much more intimate and physical sense of his subject.

In Volume 3 we encounter Greene the playwright and the traveler to Cuba, a trip that resulted in ''Our Man in Havana''; the journey to the Congo, which produced ''A Burnt-Out Case''; the Haiti trips and ''The Comedians''; the South American trips and ''The Honorary Consul''; as well as ''Travels With My Aunt'' and ''The Human Factor.'' Even financially destroyed, Greene becomes venerable in his last decades, is awarded prizes, endures a fuss over the Nobel Prize, which seems little more than the Swedish lottery; he turns down a knighthood but receives the bigger gong, Companion of Honor. He becomes involved in a French scandal and writes ''J'Accuse.'' He teams up with a Spanish priest and writes ''Monsignor Quixote.'' He is befriended by Omar Torrijos and writes ''Getting to Know the General.'' One great love affair ends, another runs its course, and he finally finds a companion, a devoted (but married) woman in whose arms he dies. His last words as he lies in pain: ''Oh why does it take so long to come?''

In this period he wrote ''May We Borrow Your Husband?'' His biographer somewhat undervalues the story, yet it remains one of my favorites. It contains this observation: ''At the end of what is called 'the sexual life' the only love which has lasted is the love that has accepted everything, every disappointment, every failure and every betrayal, which has accepted even the sad fact that in the end there is no desire so deep as the simple desire for companionship.''

GREENE was a restless traveler, a committed writer, a terrible husband, an appalling father and an admitted manic-depressive; he was relentlessly sexual, ardently priapic. ''I think his sexual appetites are voracious, frightening,'' one of his close friends remarked, though the man was English and so the word ''frightening'' must be taken with a grain of salt. But certainly Greene was a tireless sensualist. Like many other sexually obsessed men he tended to be noncommittal, evasive, given to unexplained vanishings and sentimental utterances, but forever feverishly on the prowl. He often complained of writer's block, but where women were concerned he was hypergraphic. He had the lecher's bouts of romanticism and fits of fantasy; these he set down on paper.

Much of Volume 1 was given over to his pursuit of a suitable wife, and when the young Greene had settled on Vivien Dayrell-Browning he wrote her 2,000 letters before finally persuading her to marry him. But not long after his wedding he resumed frequenting prostitutes. His marriage faltered with the arrival of children. He was so lacking in the paternal instinct, he seriously considered putting at least one of them up for adoption. ''How I dislike children,'' he wrote to one of his lovers, and he continued to complain about his children, their selfishness and their demands, long after he left home after 20 years with Vivien, some of which were spent traveling in Liberia and Mexico, writing masterpieces, philandering or simply avoiding her.

Though he talked of dumping Vivien, he never divorced her. His marriage kept him from ever having to commit himself entirely to his mistresses -- Dorothy Glover, whom we meet early in Volume 2 and whom he was seeing as his marriage ended, and others, notably Catherine Walston, with whom he had a passionate affair (much of Volume 2), and finally a friendship that lasted until her death. This Walston affair is recounted in many hundreds more letters. A passionate affair for Greene might inspire a 15-page letter but did not imply fidelity. For one thing, many if not most of his affairs were conducted with married women, whose cuckolded husbands could do little except sigh or issue meaningless ultimatums. He had his own reasons for choosing married women and constantly being involved in menages a trois -- or quatre, or cinq for that matter. On her conversion to Roman Catholicism, Catherine Walston developed a thing for priests -- and, as she was madly attractive, the priests eagerly returned her attentions. By way of response Catherine's husband, Harry, just shrugged and took up with the cast-off Dorothy Glover, and while Greene objected to the priests, he himself was involved (we are now in Volume 3) with Anita Bjork, a Swedish actress, and then with Yvonne Cloetta, the wife of a diplomat in Cameroon, whose husband did not have a clue. Is it any wonder that Greene's books are full of adulteries? ''Greene's truth is in his fiction,'' Sherry says, and demonstrates this again and again. One might also add that since childhood looms large in Greene's work, there is something in the very nature of a Greene adultery -- and perhaps adultery in general -- that can make it seem as thrilling as a child's game: the hiding, the secrets, the lies, the playacting, the giggling satisfaction, the guilt; even the furtive sex itself.

An illustrative moment of Greene's childish perversity occurs in Jamaica in 1959, when on vacation with Catherine he writes to a friend: ''In spite of the pleasant life here (& my 500 words a day) my mind strays an awful lot to Douala [Yvonne] -- not to speak of Stockholm [Anita]. Perhaps the Dutch widow is the real solution!'' Since he is still married to Vivien, he has five women in his life at this point (and is working on ''A Burnt-Out Case''). A month later, he is traveling in the Pacific with a friend, Michael Meyer. Though a previous biographer, Michael Shelden, suggested Greene had spells of homosexual behavior, Sherry disputes the claim. Sherry takes the line that Greene preferred married women because they asked so little of him. ''Married women are the easiest,'' as Querry says in ''A Burnt-Out Case.''

My own feeling is that there is something ambiguously homoerotic in a man's conducting a lengthy affair with a married woman who remains at home and continues to sleep with her husband. This was a habit of Greene's. And there is the twisted logic of Greene's proclaiming his fidelity to his mistress while cheating on his wife, and also of course seeing hookers, for whom he had a hopeless penchant.

''I could never understand the attraction of having a prostitute,'' his friend Michael Meyer said with amused disapproval, ''which seems to me like paying someone to let you beat them at tennis.''

This is funny but wide of the mark, for Greene was not a Casanova, not vain in his conquests, not a scorekeeper (though he kept a detailed list of his 47 favorite prostitutes -- given here in an appendix). Greene was insecure, needy, insatiable, interested in variation and always willing to have a go. He preferred his women to be waiflike, boyish, petite -- he himself was well over six feet tall. The women in his novels tend to match that description, but of course they are based on women he had loved.

''He has a definite quirk for brothels,'' a woman friend remarked. Sherry straps on his brothel creepers to prove it. Way back in Volume 1, Otto Preminger is quoted: ''Though he gives a first impression of being controlled, correct and British, he is actually mad about women. Sex is on his mind all the time.''

You could say, So what? But this compulsive sexuality seemed to shape the pattern of his life, his travel, his fictional subjects and his faith. Obsessive and easily bored, he was incapable of being sexually faithful to any woman. He reveled in being a wanderer, an eavesdropper, a stranger. His sexuality both depressed him and relieved his gloom. It damned him in his own faith, made him a sinner and filled him with remorse, made him say things such as ''I've been a bloody fool'' and ''I've betrayed very many people in my life'' and ''I wish I didn't have so much to be remorseful about.''

He converted to Catholicism to win over Vivien, but it seemed as though he remained a Catholic in order to strengthen his control over his sexual appetite. All his faith did was to make him feel guiltier; he tied himself in knots to reconcile his belief with his sinning, but at least, as a believer, he could obtain absolution and sanctifying grace. In ''The Heart of the Matter,'' ''The Power and the Glory,'' ''The End of the Affair'' and many other books, he struggled to portray sinners as ultimately virtuous. Charles Peguy's observation, ''Le pecheur est au coeur meme de chretiente'' -- the sinner is at the very heart of Christianity -- is part of the epigraph of ''The Heart of the Matter.'' The conundrum went on tormenting him and made him a moralist.

While there is something humdrum about being bad, and an irritating banality in the act of doing wrong, high drama can be achieved with the words ''sinning'' and ''evil.'' Greene indulged himself by casting his actions in these terms. Right and wrong did not much interest him, but good and evil did. He was a sucker for diablerie. Orwell remarked that Greene seemed to share the idea, ''which has been floating around since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingue in being damned.''

Greene travels to Haiti in Volume 3. Haiti summed up just about everything he required in a foreign destination, especially one that he intended as the setting for a novel. It was distressed, tropical, ramshackle, overcrowded, poor and on the brink of civil war. It was governed by a boogeyman. It was famous for its brothels and its slums and its weird expressions of religious faith -- Catholicism and a mishmash of African ritual. Its women, especially its prostitutes, were celebrated for their beauty. Its ornate hotels were in a state of decay, yet there was enough alcohol available for a guest to tie one on. The only expatriates in the place were shady businessmen and foreign ambassadors, with the requisite number of bored wives. Add to this voodoo, political tyranny, rum punch and sunshine, and the result is the colorful horror-show we see in ''The Comedians.''

Greene wrote in an essay on Haiti, ''A reign of terror has often about it the atmosphere of farce,'' and you guess at once that it is farce -- the absurdity of evil -- that appeals to Greene. He portrays the president, Papa Doc, as a tyrant, a torturer, an embezzler, a practitioner of voodoo and a part-time goblin: ''Baron Samedi, in his top hat and tails, who haunts the cemeteries smoking a cigar and wearing dark glasses, spends his days, so some believe, in the Presidential Palace, and his other name is Dr. Duvalier.'' It seemed to suit Greene to portray this tyrant as the devil incarnate. Call Papa Doc a shabby little torturer and it is not quite the same. God-fearing writers are so often unhelpfully hyperbolic.

THE travel, the sex, the writing, the romances, were -- so Sherry suggests -- all attempts by Greene to relieve his depression. He was an authentic melancholic. He attempted or threatened suicide several times and spoke often of ending his life. His untrusting nature kept him from revealing his gloom to anyone except Catherine Walston, who was capable of lifting his spirits. It was she who said, ''Graham's misery is as real as an illness.'' Another (male) friend spoke of how Greene ''was only happy when he was being unhappy.'' Greene the novelist created central characters who were notoriously gloomy and Greene the traveler was hardly cheery either. ''I loathe Mexico,'' he said in ''The Lawless Roads.''

Money was often on his mind. The quest for solvency is a subtheme in the three volumes, for he never stopped sending money to his wife and went on supporting his children long after they were adults. Greene was an unusual English writer of his time in having held a number of different full-time jobs -- at least four editorial jobs on newspapers and magazines, regular film reviewing (at which he excelled; see his collection ''The Pleasure Dome'') and two important and active positions in London publishing houses. Volume 3 describes his theater work, his great success (''The Potting Shed'') and ultimate failure (''Carving a Statue''), as well as his scriptwriting, not just ''Our Man in Havana'' and ''The Comedians,'' but offers from Hollywood, such as the feeler for him to work on ''Ben Hur.'' (''I might help if there's a lot of money & if my name was kept out.'') In his early 60's he discovered that his accountant was a crook, and had cheated him. Faced with financial ruin, Greene moved to France for tax reasons and regained his solvency through scriptwriting. His celebrated trips to Panama, where he became involved in the canal imbroglio, were paid for by General Torrijos, who sent him free air tickets. On his death all his money (it was a modest estate) went to his wife, whom he had not lived with for over 40 years, and her two children.

There is in most literary biography a simple detail that speaks volumes about its subject. Thoreau almost never left home, Henry Miller was henpecked, Borges lived in fear of his mother, James Joyce was afraid of thunderstorms, Freud was angst-ridden on railway platforms, Wittgenstein was addicted to cowboy movies, Wallace Stevens to candy, Jack Kerouac had copies of National Review by his bed when he died.

Many such equally curious details occur in this Greene biography. Greene's dislike of children seems predictable enough; it is a characteristic of many writers of children's books (Greene wrote four). He also disliked adverbs, though you can find them in his books. It seems he did not ever fire a gun -- although he did, when young, play Russian roulette on more than one occasion -- yet his novels are full of gunplay. Living amid the great cuisine of Provence, he said how he sorely missed English sausages.

He was the least domesticated of men. After he left his marital household in 1947 he did not share a house with any woman -- and he died in 1991. His ultimate lover, Yvonne Cloetta, visited him at his Antibes apartment, cooked his evening meal, consoled him and then went home to her husband. Greene could not cook, he was incapable of using a typewriter, he did not wield a mop; he was a naturally dependent not to say helpless man. Add to this the astonishing fact that, though a traveler, a seeker of danger, a deeply curious wanderer who was seldom home, he could not drive a car. I think we can easily understand his need for a lover. But it is bewildering to reflect how he was lost without a lift, a cook, a cleaner, a typist; all his life he needed someone to look after him. Is it any wonder that in all the thousands of (handwritten) letters Sherry includes, so many of them have the tone of a lost boy?

I knew Greene -- though not the complex Greene of Sherry's biography. As Sherry says, no one knew this man. He was very generous to me, and to many other writers. A name not mentioned here is that of Etienne Leroux, the late South African writer whose brilliant novels (''Seven Days at the Silbersteins'' and others) Greene championed. And whenever I feel undervalued, unread or misunderstood, I remember a story (not recounted here) that Greene told me of an evening he spent in Paris with some film people. A famous French director, and an admirer, praised Greene's epic walk through the Liberian bush, described in his masterpiece ''Journey Without Maps'' (1936). The director said: ''This is Graham Greene. He has traveled through West Africa!''

The actress said, ''How did you do this?'' She stuck out her thumb and said, in French, ''Hitchhiking?''

Paul Theroux's most recent book is ''The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro,'' a collection of stories. His new novel, ''Blinding Light,'' will be published early next year.

When this story was posted in October 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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The Kerry campaign wants the RPCV vote. Read our interview with Dave Magnani, Massachusetts State Senator and Founder of "RPCVs for Kerry," and his answers to our questions about Kerry's plan to triple the size of the Peace Corps, should the next PC Director be an RPCV, and Safety and Security issues. Then read the "RPCVs for Kerry" statement of support and statements by Dr. Robert Pastor, Ambassador Parker Borg, and Paul Oostburg Sanz made at the "RPCVs for Kerry" Press Conference.

RPCV Carl Pope says the key to winning this election is not swaying undecided voters, but persuading those already willing to vote for your candidate to actually go to the polls.

Take our poll and tell us what you are doing to support your candidate.

Finally read our wrap-up of the eight RPCVs in Senate and House races around the country and where the candidates are in their races.

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Story Source: New York Times

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