Tittle-tattle

The Third Woman. The secret passion that inspired The End of The Affair

William Cash <em>Little, B

Graham Greene was a remarkably economical and unprolix writer. So what is it about him that inspires students and biographers to literary elephantiasis? Norman Sherry is still wading through a mammoth three-volume life, while here William Cash fills more than 300 pages tracing the interplay between the art as in The End of the Affair (featuring an adulterous relationship between the fictional Sarah Miles and Maurice Bendrix) and the real-life liaison between Greene and Catherine Walston. Given Greene's prolific output, such detailed treatment for each of the master's books would entail a literary biography several million words long.

When the Greene-Walston affair began in late 1947 (it lasted off and on until 1959), Greene was 43 and Catherine 30. Greene's peculiar erotic tastes meant that sex was truly enjoyable only if it was adulterous; in his rationalising mode, Greene claimed that orgasmic frenzy with a woman was a way of getting closer to God. As for Walston, an American sexual adventuress married to an extremely rich but complaisant husband, she was notorious for sleeping with other women's husbands, and later with Catholic priests. Cash gives us virtually a week-by-week rerun of the affair, mainly in exotic locations such as Capri and Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland.

While jibing extensively at Greene's rival biographers Norman Sherry and Michael Shelden (respectively hagiographer and debunker), Cash takes up what might be called the middle position on Greene. But his judgement is often suspect. He makes the mistake that so many Greene-watchers make, which is to assume that an intense interest in the numinous - which Greene certainly had - automatically makes one a sincere Catholic. In fact, Greene always had a pick'n'mix attitude to Catholicism. It is highly revealing that, when he went to confession in Westminster Cathedral and did not hear the "sinner nearer to God than the saint" version of his adultery that he wanted to hear, he left angrily, saying: "I'm sorry, Father, I must find another confessor."

At certain points when reading this volume, one shares the exasperation of those early Victorian reviewers of Wuthering Heights who could not discern a single sympathetic character in the book. Walston, who was not prepared to give up the wealth and privilege of living with her husband in the splendid pile of Newton Hall, even as she cuckolded him daily, eventually tired of Greene, as she tired of all her lovers, and declined into an early end from alcoholism. Her husband seems to have been an impotent (in all senses) buffoon, and Greene a libertine with a pronounced taste for brothels, pornography, voyeurism and the dominatrix-type of woman.

This is a flawed book whose principal drawback is that Cash was unable to quote from Walston's letters, preventing us from hearing her true voice. That there is a confusion right at the heart of The Third Woman is, I think, indicated by the title, a facile reference to the Carol Reed/Orson Welles movie scripted by Greene. Yet since the only other woman involved at the time was Greene's wife, Vivien, whom he deserted callously for the idyll with Walston, in what sense was she "the third woman"?

True, other mistresses - Jocelyn Rickards, Yvonne Cloetta, Anita Bjork - appear in the narrative, but no kind of convoluted arithmetic can make Walston the third of any series. This is characteristic of Cash's general sloppiness. Those interested in sexual tittle-tattle may find all this rather absorbing; but there is nothing here to detain the serious student of Greene.