The Life of Graham Greene, 1904-1939 (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Norman Sherry is the first to attempt a full-scale biography of Graham Greene. Heretofore those seriously interested in locating information about Greene’s life have had to wade patiently through a host of fragmentary sources: Greene’s own essays (notably “The Lost Childhood,” “The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard,” and his introductions to the Collected Edition of his writings, gathered in 1980 as Ways of Escape); his travel books such as Journey Without Maps: A Travel Book (1936), The Lawless Roads: A Mexican Journal (1939), In Search of a Character: Two African Journals (1961), and Getting to Know the General (1984); and scattered chapters from the memoirs of his friends and fellow writers including Peter Quennell, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Evelyn Waugh. Even Greene’s autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), covers only his first twenty- seven years. While it is a brilliantly evocative account, it tends to be impressionistic and elliptical, concealing nearly as much as it reveals about the formation of Greene’s character and genius. Indeed, it is in that volume that Greene concludes: “Perhaps a novelist has a greater ability to forget than other men—he has to forget or become sterile. What he forgets is the compost of the imagination.”
The biographer’s task is roughly to reverse this process of “forgetting,” unearthing the buried sources of the novelist’s imaginative undertakings, sorting facts from fictions, filling in the quotidian details that the artist had to overcome in order to create something of lasting value. Too often the products of these “archaeological” labors are merely vast quantities of inert data, of interest only to specialized scholars. Fortunately, Sherry’s exhaustive digging—this is only the first volume of what promises to be a prodigious work—turns up valuable insights. Sherry is a veteran biographer, having published copiously documented investigations into the various sources of Joseph Conrad’s art, among others. In fact, in 1974 Greene chose Sherry to do this biography as a result of his admiration for Sherry’s work on Conrad (whom Greene regards as one of his literary mentors). He approved of Sherry’s objective approach and his willingness to ground his research in personal explorations of those exotic parts of the world to which his subject had traveled and about which he wrote. Greene exacted from Sherry a promise to follow in Greene’s footsteps—a daunting commitment, considering the numerous far-flung regions to which Greene has journeyed during the last half-century—and in return Greene gave Sherry access to himself and his family as well as to his letters, journals, and other unpublished manuscripts.
The extent of the biographer’s indebtedness to his subject makes one approach the book wondering whether Sherry has managed to maintain his objectivity, his autonomous judgment, especially in dealing with sensitive matters. The initial answer is mixed. On one hand, Sherry says that Greene “promised not to interfere with what I made of all this material so generously given, and he has been as good as his word, correcting only a few small errors of fact that crept into the proofs of my book.” On the other hand, Sherry at times is only too willing to accept Greene’s forceful but evasive interpretations of key events as given in A Sort of Life. Thus, for example, Sherry reprises the notorious episode of Greene’s experiments with Russian roulette at age twenty, which Greene himself attributed to the chronic boredom with which he was afflicted as a result of six months of psychoanalysis he had undertaken four years earlier, after a crisis at Berkhamsted School had caused him to make several attempts on his life and to run away from home. In A Sort of Life, Greene uses the Russian roulette experience as a metaphor for a pattern governing his adult life, a conflict between boredom and the desire to escape from boredom through taking risks: exposing himself to unfamiliar and often dangerous situations that at once stimulate the imagination and test his mettle. Travel, writing, love affairs, opium, revolutionary politics—all are sooner or later seen by Greene as “ways of escape,” recurring skirmishes in his “lifelong war against boredom.” This explanation is given so regularly that it begins to seem something of a smokescreen obscuring more complex, perhaps less melodramatic motives. At one point Sherry rightly questions Greene’s explanation but offers, without elaboration, alternatives that are no more satisfactory: “There is in Greene a strong streak of perversity”; he has a “death-wish”; his problem is “not only boredom but depression.” Perhaps it is such moments of vagueness and uncertainty that Sherry has in mind when he despairs in his preface that “this book is an imperfect report—how can one enter into the life of another person and re-create the intimate sensations of his experience? There are mysteries in every life.”
Nevertheless, such a confession—accompanying a volume of nearly eight hundred pages full of meticulously researched facts—underlines one of the book’s great strengths, which emerges only gradually. Its copiousness of detail and incident permits the biographer room to pursue anomalies and nuances that lie outside the streamlined narrative of A Sort of Life. Hence he is able not only to describe, as Greene does, the suffering that the latter experienced as an adolescent boarding student at Berkhamsted School, where his father, Charles...
(The entire section is 2280 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
The Christian Century. CVI, October 18, 1989, p.934.
Commonweal. CXVI, October 6, 1989, p.531.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 18, 1989, p.3.
National Review. XLI, September 29, 1989, p.55.
The New York Times Book Review. XCI V, June 18, 1989, p.1.
Newsweek. CXIII, June 26, 1989, p.66.
Smithsonian. XX, October, 1989, p.225.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 26, 1989, p.575.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, June 25, 1989, p.3.