The Life of Graham Greene, 1939-1955 Analysis

Norman Sherry

The Life of Graham Greene, 1939-1955

Although this second volume of Norman Sherry’s authorized biography of Graham Greene covers only sixteen years, they were among the most storied in a long and eventful life. Greene produced several of his greatest novels in these years, including THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1940) and THE HEART OF THE MATTER (1948), and collaborated on the immensely successful film versions of his fiction, most notably THE THIRD MAN (1950). Yet despite these accomplishments, Greene was privately tormented by guilt, depression, and a morbid fixation on death.

This period saw the gradual deterioration of his marriage to Vivien Dayrell-Browning and his extramarital affairs with two other women. Separated from Vivien during World War II, Greene began an eight-year liaison with Dorothy Glover. Before that relationship wound down, and while still married to Vivien, he conceived a grand passion for Catherine Walston, a young, beautiful, and rich American married to a British peer, with five small children. Their tempestuous affair would last more than a decade, a situation greatly complicated by their both being Catholics.

Like his relationships with women, Greene’s involvement in espionage was an important source for his writing. As an agent in the Secret Intelligence Service during the war, he served for nearly two years in West Africa. His supervisor was Kim Philby, later to be revealed as a high-ranking Soviet double agent. Sherry speculates that Greene may have exploited his tie to Philby and passed on secret information to MI6 long after his official resignation from the service.

Because of its meticulous research, its objectivity, and its care to include all the many sides of a complex and secretive personality, Sherry’s portrait of Greene is likely to remain definitive.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist. CCCXXXII, September 10, 1994, p. 107.

London Review of Books. XVI, July 20, 1995, p. 21.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 19, 1995, p. 4.

National Review. XLVII, February 6, 1995, p. 67.

The New Republic. CCXIII, December 11, 1995, p. 30.

New Statesman and Society. VII, September 9, 1994, p. 36.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, June 22, 1995, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. C, February 26, 1995, p. 9.

The Observer. November 20, 1994, p. 2.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, December 5, 1994, p. 62.

The Spectator. CCLXXIII, September 3, 1994, p. 33.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 30, 1994, p. 3.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, February 12, 1995, p. 4.

The Life of Graham Greene, 1939-1955

In contrast to A Sort of Life (1971), Graham Greene’s streamlined autobiography, Norman Sherry’s ongoing official biography of Greene has already totaled more than thirteen hundred pages, with a third volume still to come. Volume 2, covering the years 1939-1955, follows its subject through his fifty-first year; Greene would live another thirty-six years. This volume concentrates on by far the narrowest time span of the three. During this period Greene produced several of his most highly regarded novels: The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951). He gained additional fame from the immense critical and popular success of the film The Third Man (British version released in 1949), on which he collaborated with director Carol Reed. He appeared on the cover of Time, and Life commissioned him to write a feature story on the French Indo-China War—an assignment that involved Greene in several journeys to Vietnam and would eventually result in The Quiet American (1955), one of his most powerful and controversial novels. Yet despite such remarkable achievements, these were years of great turbulence and frustration in Greene’s personal life. Thus Sherry’s focus is double-edged. He aims to portray not only the celebrated public figure but also “the tormented private man unadulterated.” More elusive than either of these, however, at least for Sherry, is the distinctive artistic vision embodied in the works of that tormented man, a vision that powerfully invokes “the terror of life.”

Sherry’s dual focus here represents a shift in emphasis from volume 1, which con- centrated on the origins of Greene’s imaginative universe in his childhood, especially the crisis he endured while a student at Berkhamsted School, where his father was the headmaster, and on the first, somewhat halting stages of Greene’s career as a writer. The fact that Greene covered most of the same territory in A Sort of Life meant, among other things, that Sherry could effectively play off Greene’s own version of events, calling into question, for example, the veracity of the notorious Russian roulette incident recounted with startling directness in his autobiography. On the other hand, Sherry could not altogether have avoided a sense of obligation. After all, Greene had chosen him as his official biographer and, over the course of nearly two decades, had offered him direct access to his private papers and to family and friends as well as to himself (even responding to the biographer’s queries on the day before his death on April 3, 1991). The completion of volume 2 after Greene’s death helps to account for its greater detachment and objectivity. In this respect, Sherry’s portrait differs sharply from two other biographical efforts that have appeared since Greene’s death: Michael Shelden’s vitriolic Graham Greene: The Enemy Within (1994), and Leopoldo Duran’s far kinder, gentler Graham Greene: An Intimate Portrait by His Closest Friend and Confidant (1994).

The single most important element of the earlier volume was Sherry’s copiously documented account of Greene’s courtship and early years of marriage to Vivien Dayrell-Browning. While Greene’s references to her in A Sort of Life were highly selective, Sherry made clear what a large role she assumed in Greene’s apprenticeship as a writer. Herself a published poet and a publisher’s reader when they met, she effectively nurtured his gift, and it would not be going too far to say that his idealized love for her was one of the most significant (although ultimately misdirected) influences on his earliest novels, such as The Man Within (1929). She was also a pious Catholic and unfortunately, as Sherry demonstrates, a reluctant sexual partner. As part of his two-and-one-half-year wooing of Vivien, Greene made two strategic moves. First, he converted to the Catholic faith. Second, realizing her frigidity, he offered to enter into a celibate marriage with her—an idea that evidently appealed to her at first. Only six months before their wedding in October, 1927, Vivien was still contemplating the notion of joining a convent. Curiously, her reluctance only spurred Greene on, and his ardor seemed to increase in proportion to the physical distance between them. Although the early years of marriage necessarily brought about some adjustments in their relations (for one thing, the couple had two children together), Sherry persuasively shows that she remained for Greene in some sense a woman on a pedestal—spiritual and remote, as his mother had been in his eyes. It was not long before he began to turn elsewhere to gratify his prodigious sexual appetite.

Obviously this was a poor foundation for a marriage. One of the primary themes of volume 2 is the gradual dissolution of their relationship. As the outbreak of war in Europe loomed, Greene became concerned for his family’s safety and worried about his ability to provide for them should he be conscripted into the military. This uncertainty led to his decision to alter working habits of long standing by writing two books virtually at once: The Confidential Agent (1939), a thriller primarily undertaken to generate income, and The Power and the Glory, a more serious effort. To complete this arduous project before the outbreak of war, Greene resorted to taking amphetamines daily, an addiction that badly affected his nerves and worsened tensions in the household. Before long Vivien and the children were evacuated from London to the countryside, ostensibly for their safety, but their absence also made it easier for Greene to look elsewhere for diversion. He soon began an affair with Dorothy Glover, his landlady and three years his senior. Short, stoutish, bespectacled, she seemed to many of his friends an odd choice as mistress. For his part, he admired her courage and resilience during the London blitz, when they worked together as air raid wardens. She shared his love for children’s literature and detective fiction. Vivien became aware of this relationship and, though hurt by it, kept her own counsel. The destruction of their beautiful old home in Clapham Common in an air raid seemed to Vivien to symbolize the situation all too well. Greene was eventually posted to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1942-1943 as an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service. When he returned to England, it was to live with Dorothy in London while...

(The entire section is 2668 words.)