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Unmasking Graham Greene

Graham Greene was the consummate literary professional. But a new biography shows how profound mental instability shaped his chaotic private life. 

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In the early summer of last year, I found myself on the Cote d’Azur – in Antibes, to be precise – with a couple of hours to spare. Spontaneously, I decided to try to find the apartment block in the town where Graham Greene had lived for the last ­decades of his life – the Résidence des Fleurs on the Avenue Pasteur. I found the street and the apartment block without too much difficulty.

Greene moved here in 1966 when he was 62, and it became his permanent residence for the rest of his life (born in 1904, he died in 1991, aged 86, having lived in every decade of the 20th century). I suppose in the 1960s the Résidence des Fleurs was newly built, the very acme of chic, modern living – but when I saw it and wandered around its precincts it was in bad shape: shabby with stained concrete, its orange awnings over its serried balconies were tattered and smirched. The commercial premises on the ground floor looked low-rent and gimcrack. A florist with a few parched ferns in the window, a grimy launderette, a car-hire firm. Curiously, its down-at-heel grubbiness made it seem very Greene-ian. On the wall by the main door was a small granite plaque about a foot square: “Graham Greene vécut ici 1966-1991”. In 2019, the building now perfectly suited the posthumous reputation of its most famous resident, tailor-made for inclusion in that murky, morally dubious, seedy world of his novels – Greeneland.

Greene moved to Antibes for two significant reasons. He was in tax exile, in flight from the Inland Revenue in Britain; and his mistress, the last great love of his life, Yvonne Cloetta, lived nearby in Juan-les-Pins. There were no serene twilight years awaiting him in Antibes, however: more upheavals in his life were poised and waiting in the wings.

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Indeed, when contemplating the broad narrative of Greene’s 86 years, it does seem as if he packed the equivalent of five novelists’ lives into his own. The myths accumulating around him are multitudinous; the list one can draw up is frankly staggering. A tormented childhood, running away from school, psychoanalysis, games of Russian roulette, early marriage and obligatory conversion to Catholicism, early adultery, the writing of “entertainments” fuelled by amphetamines, the war, the Blitz, the destruction of his family home in Clapham, West Africa, MI5, first successes, the libel of Shirley Temple, film writing, The Third Man, the long fraught affair with Catherine Walston, the relationship with Kim Philby, the opium habit, Vietnam, Malaya, Kenya, Cuba, the felonious accountant who almost ruined him, tax exile in France, the final relationship with Yvonne Cloetta, the “J’Accuse” scandal in which he railed against corrupt French officials and was sued for libel, the friendship with President Torrijos in Panama, the great late novels, and so forth. And this is only a partial, sketchy account of a crowded, eventful life. Novelists’ lives are rather dull, on the whole: perhaps only Stendhal or Hemingway can match Greene for such exotic variety.

Consequently, writing the life of such a man is something of a challenge. Norman Sherry, Greene’s first biographer, needed three compendious volumes (each one longer than Richard Greene’s new biography), published between 1989 and 2004, that brought diminishing returns. Richard Greene (no relation – how he must be tired of that epithet!) has done an exemplary job in this new single-volume life in somehow managing to recount pretty much everything in a mere 500 pages.

The result is fascinating. Over a series of 78 short chapters, Richard Greene covers all the ground with studious exactitude and very spare but cogent evaluation. But there are revelations to be had. As someone who has read Graham Greene all my adult life, who is very familiar with the broad outlines of the life and who knows many people who knew and met Greene, I found it was the continuous, perilous instability of Greene’s mental state – almost from childhood on – that was the great unmasking.

***

The first illustration in the book nicely exemplifies this paradox of the man within. It’s a studio portrait of the young Greene, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties (there is no date supplied), the tyro novelist looking smart in a three-piece suit, shirt and tie, hair neatly brushed, the expression on his face solemn and impassive. Richard Greene’s caption reads: “The young Graham Greene, an outsider at school and a manic depressive, attempted suicide, spent six months undergoing psychoanalysis, then tried a form of Russian roulette.” Right. The inescapable conclusion is that here is someone completely in thrall to merciless inner demons, and Richard Greene’s narrative duly bears this out.

Greene’s bipolar disorder, as it might now be described, explains a great deal about the life he led: the restlessness and the unhappiness; the obsessive, tormented love affairs; the relentless travelling to negate the crippling, destructive boredom he suffered from. That he managed to write so much is a special form of triumph, and Richard Greene advances the theory that it was only when writing that Greene was able to calm himself.

For me, and I think for my generation of writers, Greene’s position in the pantheon of English novelists is that of the ultimate professional. He was a literary novelist and also the writer of enduring, noir thrillers; he wrote many films – including perhaps the greatest classic of English cinema in the shape of The Third Man – and most of his novels were adapted for the screen. But he was also a playwright whose work was produced in the West End and on Broadway. He was a film critic and a literary journalist; he was a great booster of writers he admired. He was a publisher and a spy. He had a serendipitous knack of being in the right place at the right time and the articles he wrote – about American subversion in Vietnam, about Castro, about Mafia corruption on the Côte d’Azur – created scandals and shifted political opinions.

Greene was a compulsive letter writer and a sometime poet. He enjoyed entering literary competitions, often parodying his own work. In 1949 he entered a contest held by the New Statesman – where the demand was to write the notional opening of a Graham Greene novel – and didn’t win outright: he shared the six-guinea prize with five others. However, Greene’s opening paragraphs were so intriguing that a friend who was a film producer asked him to expand on them.

The storyline was eventually adapted into one of the best films based on Greene’s work, The Stranger’s Hand (1954) starring Trevor Howard and Alida Valli. Greene made many thousands of pounds from the adaptation – such are the serendipitous reimbursements from entering literary competitions. Richard Greene ranks the film highly, almost up there with The Third Man.

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Another near-contemporary and equivalent polymath with energy to spare was Anthony Burgess. Burgess and Greene had a somewhat combative relationship. Burgess lived in Monte Carlo while Greene lived in Antibes. Burgess, born a Catholic in working-class Manchester, had the cradle-Catholic’s sardonic suspicion of the zeal and devotion of the convert. It’s a matter of some note that three of our greatest 20th century novelists – Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark – all converted to Catholicism.

Waugh was genuinely devout – his faith was his safety net, his life-raft. But I’ve long struggled with Greene and Spark’s declared belief in a supernatural being. It has always struck me as both conveniently useful to them as writers and fundamentally bogus. However, the other revelation of Richard Greene’s biography is that, having converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, Vivien, Greene’s faith, while it wavered from time to time – he made a nice distinction between “faith” and “belief” – was a remarkable constant in the ups and downs of his life. He went to mass, he received the sacrament, Roman Catholic priests were close friends. On his deathbed he had a Catholic priest read him the last rites.

Anton Chekhov once declared that he could never understand how an intelligent person could believe in a god – an opinion I share. Greene’s agonised personal life, however, was not noticeably inhibited by the injunctions of his faith. Richard Greene recounts one particularly complicated situation in 1952. Greene’s relationship with the wealthy American beauty Catherine Walston – the second longest love affair of his life – was going through one of its regular rough patches.

Both Walston and Greene were married, and both spouses were fully aware of their partners’ long-term infidelity. Greene, moreover, was having another affair simultaneously and so was Walston. Greene found out who her lover was – it happened to be a close friend of his called Thomas Gilbey, who also happened to be a Dominican priest, sworn to celibacy, of course. If one’s faith can survive this kind of devastating train-wreck of competing emotional and moral values then it is indeed enduring.

***

Such is the mass of material thrown up by a full account of Graham Greene’s intensely complicated, seemingly non-stop life, that occasionally one is aware of Richard Greene’s mild desperation as he has to rather gallop through the narrative. There is a wonderful throwaway line about Greene’s 1938 visit to Mexico, a visit that produced not only The Lawless Roads, his non-fiction account of the religious repression in the country, but also The ­Power and The Glory, his famous novel about a “whisky” priest. Richard Greene relates how, when arriving in Mexico City, Greene “made visits to a brothel and a monastery”. That’s all the information we are supplied with but, in a singular way, the juxtaposition is a potent summation of Greene’s life and, indeed, of his work. As Greene once said, quoting Robert Browning’s poem “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”, our “interest’s on the dangerous edge of things/The ­honest thief, the tender murderer… We watch while these in equilibrium keep/The ­giddy line midway”. It is precisely this seeming antipathy, this ­apparently ­irresolvable ­disequilibrium ­between the earthy and the sublime, between the flesh and the spirit, that makes his novels so controversially appealing.

***

I once gave a paper at a Graham Greene conference called “An Atheist Reads The Heart of the Matter”. The novel is one of my all-time favourites, and a great novel of Africa, but its denouement and climax are near-incomprehensible to me. At the end of the novel, the troubled policeman Scobie feels he has to commit suicide – and duly does so – because he has gone to church and taken the sacrament without receiving ­absolution and is, as a result, committing a mortal sin. Therefore he would go to hell. Committing suicide, also a mortal sin, would send him to hell as well – but, as it’s ­already his destination, it doesn’t matter if he kills himself.

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True catharsis is only available, I argued, to someone who actually believes in this mumbo-jumbo. The non-believing reader is left disappointed and baffled. Yet the ­novel triumphantly survives its tacked-on religiosity as so many of Greene’s great ­novels do. The brothel/monastery juxtaposition, as we might term it, somehow allows both categories to coexist, however uneasily, and each category avoids cancelling the other out in both the life and the work. Greene is allowed his cake and the eating of it.

Yvonne Cloetta perhaps came to know Greene better than anyone. Their relationship lasted over 25 years until his death – she was married, herself, and Greene’s wife, Vivien, always refused to divorce him – so they were never able formally to become husband and wife. Cloetta had this to say about Greene: “People often called him ‘The hunted man’, but he was only hunted by himself, a victim of the traps that, unconsciously or not, he had set up around himself.” It seems a fitting epitaph for this most mysterious of men. 

William Boyd’s new novel, “Trio”, is published by Viking

Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene
Richard Greene
Little, Brown, 608pp, £25

This article appears in the 11 December 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special