The Life of Graham Greene, 1955-1991 Summary

Norman Sherry


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When Graham Greene selected Norman Sherry to be his official biographer in 1976, Sherry could not have known what difficulties lay ahead of him. Greene had admired Sherry's meticulously detailed accounts of Joseph Conrad's career, and he pointedly exacted from the biographer a promise to travel to all the places where the novelist had set a major novel: a truly daunting task, as it turned out. In upholding his end of the bargain, Sherry went seriously into debt, suffered several tropical illnesses—including a bad case of dysentery contracted in the same rural Mexican village where Greene had been struck by that malady some forty years earlier—endured divorce, and devoted no less than twenty-eight years of his life to complete the task.

The first volume, focusing on the years 1904 through 1939, appeared in 1989. Covering the shortest span but perhaps the most momentous years of Greene's career (1939-1955), when the works for which he is best known were published, volume 2 appeared in 1994. It took a decade for the third volume, covering 1955 through 1991, to appear, in what would be the centennial year of Greene's birth. Altogether, the biography runs to nearly twenty-three hundred pages. “I confess,” writes Sherry, “I had no idea the height of the mountain that Greene's life would force me to climb, or how long it would take me overall.” In return, Sherry was given exclusive access to Greene's private papers, to his friends and family, and to Greene himself during the remaining twenty-five years of his life. Judging from the copious scholarly sources cited as well as from the lengthy travel itinerary, the research effort involved in this biography was truly massive. One can only imagine the full toll all this took on Sherry, and his ultimate completion of such a job seems little short of heroic.

Like volume 2, this final installment dwells on Greene's unconventional love life. His long and tempestuous affair with Catherine Walston, the stunningly beautiful American-born wife of a British peer, is the centerpiece of both volumes. The two met in 1946 when Greene was still living with Dorothy Glover, his mistress during World War II. Ironically, it was his estranged wife, Vivien, who initially brought Walston to Greene's attention, for she had learned of this wealthy young woman who had converted to Catholicism partly under the influence of his novels.

Walston's wealth, her beauty, and her irrepressible spirit of adventure, however, even more than her conversion, were what attracted Greene to her. Eventually they holidayed together in Ireland, Paris, Rome, and Capri. He shared his manuscripts with her, dedicated to her several of his works—including one of his major novels, The End of the Affair(1951), whose heroine, Sarah Miles, bears many similarities to Walston—and even proposed marriage despite the fact that both were already married. That they were both Catholics provided a ready excuse for them not to pursue divorce and remarriage. Among other impediments, Walston had five small children, and as his rather desultory performance with his own two children demonstrated, Greene had neither the talent for nor the inclination toward fatherhood. Sherry aptly questions whether he would actually have married Walston even if Vivien had granted him a divorce, for he was temperamentally ill-suited for matrimony. Clearly, his priorities lay elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Sherry persists in emphasizing the centrality of Walston not only as Greene's foremost lover but also as his muse: “No one can doubt that Catherine was the single most important person to his writing. What a harvest of work she oversaw.” According to Sherry, Greene, a self-confessed manic-depressive, revealed his “dark side” only to Walston. She was his “ministering angel” who for at least thirteen years—notwithstanding the various affairs that both had with others during this time—“touched and temporarily healed …Greene's fractured psyche.” Her lively and engaging spirit, and the intense passion they shared, provided him with a kind of anchor amid the chaos of his peripatetic life. Sherry offers her many tributes such as the following:

Greene made the world his workplace, any strange hotel his study, and as long as Catherine was with him he was centered, at peace, so he could write. In Catherine's company he could draw on the unknown measure of himself, find his own secret amplitude. She was his constant; she galvanized his genius.

Recounting their many bitter quarrels and heartaches as well as their moments of bliss, Sherry goes so far as to assert without qualification that she saved Greene's life. “Without her, in the 1950's, he would have committed suicide,” he writes. The fact that Greene struggled mightily with A Burnt-Out Case (1961), perhaps his darkest and most self-searching novel, is attributed essentially to her absence. Their affair had gradually wound down by the time of Greene's trip to the Congo for this novel, and it was there that he met and, in time, became romantically involved with yet another married woman, Yvonne Cloetta.

Curiously, Sherry resists assigning a similar “galvanizing” role to Cloetta, despite the fact that her affair with Greene lasted some...

(The entire section is 2140 words.)