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Sunday, October 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Adam Woog
Oct. 2 marked the centenary of the birth of Graham Greene, one of the 20th century's most prominent novelists. One could argue that Greene was the 20th-century novelist. He certainly lived through enough of it, as Norman Sherry notes in this final installment of his masterful biography, "The Life of Graham Greene: Volume III, 1955-1991":
"Because Graham Greene's wide-ranging activities spanned most of the 20th century, I found I was writing not only his story, but our history as well." This may be a gentle apologia for the book's daunting size nearly 800 pages of text. (Volumes I and II were in almost the same weight class. Any one of them would make a handy weapon.) But Sherry need not apologize; this book rarely drags and never bores. It is, in fact, as compulsively readable as any Graham Greene novel, "The Heart of the Matter," "The Quiet American" and "The Third Man" among them.
But is such a gargantuan task justified? Could anyone's life be worth such scrutiny?
Well, yes. Greene hated publicity, and he went along with biographical efforts grudgingly at best. But the heart of the matter (at least for those of us who are not Greene) is that he led an astonishing life, one well worth studying in detail.
First of all, of course, the work: brilliant and perceptive, funny and heartbreaking. (It was also subtle. Greene's friend Shirley Hazzard described his humor as "the snowball that conceals the stone.") Greene's personal life was equally compelling. He was quirky, secretive, steely, charming and restless. He was kind and cruel, deeply compassionate and monstrously egotistical.
Sherry had Greene's blessing and access to his archives. His lengthy interviews with the subject's family, friends and the novelist himself illuminate the facts. In some cases, Sherry replicated Greene's famously varied travels. Always, he cogently connects the work with the private life and remains even-handed.
The present volume begins with a brief chapter getting us up to speed, then plunges us into the mid-1950s. Greene is already world-famous and at the height of his powers. He's just back from spending time with the Mau Mau in Kenya and Communist rebels in French Indochina. In the decades to come, Greene spends time in (among other places) an African leper colony, Cuba, and the murderous Haiti of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. (Not, however, in the U.S. Greene was always ready to annoy those he considered politically foolish, and was unwelcome here during the McCarthy years and beyond.)
His restless travels always served as pungent material for novels. In these years, he produces some of his best, including "A Burnt-Out Case," "The Comedians," "Our Man in Havana" and "The Honorary Consul." Greene also abandons England, making his home (partially for tax reasons) in the south of France. The actual writing 500 words a day, rain or shine happens all over, especially in Greene's beloved Capri.
Greene led a complicated and not always admirable love life. He was besotted with Catherine Walston, who was both married and Catholic. (Greene was famously a Catholic also, though a tortured one who more and more questioned the faith.)
Even while passionately involved with Lady Walston, he was dealing with his own failed marriage, countless one-night stands, an extended affair with a glamorous Swedish actress and his relationship with Yvonne Cloetta, the devoted companion of his later years. There's much more here as well, including the shocking refusal of the Nobel Prize committee to give Greene its award. There are also some funny, fascinating bits of trivia.
For instance, Greene smuggled material to Castro's revolutionary band, hidden in Cuba's mountains. What did they really need? Socks and sweaters, which the writer obligingly stuffed into his suitcase.
Or the private name his friend Evelyn Waugh, another brilliant writer, invented for Greene: "Grisjambon Vert." First translate it (Gray Ham Green) and then say it out loud.
This book ends, inevitably, with the writer's declining health and death in 1991. Sherry adds a personal grace note, describing his own poignant reaction to the news. It's a fitting end to a profound study of a profound man.
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