A burnt-out case. The story of a vain sexual adventurer told by an assassin of language - George Walden on why Graham Greene got the biographer he deserved

The Life of Graham Greene: volume three (1955-1991)

Norman Sherry <em>Jonathan Cape, 906pp, £25</e

The question this book raises is not how many prostitutes Graham Greene bought in a lifetime, or the state of his soul, but his choice of biographer. No one wants his life probed too acutely, still less by someone whose prose might rival the master's, but Greene played it ultra-safe: his official biographer cannot write, period, though he intrudes himself on page after page. "I was, we all are, a close witness of death's perpetual annihilation of the womb-born." Sherry is no mere tormentor of the language: he is its assassin, and not only in his higher flights. The simplest sentences mix pretension with vernacular, leaving them groggy on their feet. "Greene desired to have a go at the United States." Worse, his biography is as plumped up with reverence (Greene "is not easily caught in the act of greatness") as it is bloated with self-regard. Sherry, too, has become touched by greatness: "Why have I, as Schubert did his symphony, left this biography unfinished?"

The difference is that we are glad Schubert began. Biography is a question of trust. How can you trust a modern McGonagall - Sherry, the Mitchell Distinguished Professor of Literature at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, is a poetaster whose verses adorn several chapter headings - to sift and interpret information that he alone has been privileged to see or hear? And what does his appointment tell us about Greene? Something about vanity, surely, unless our Catholic was as unconcerned about his hereafter in this world as his spiritual pride and sexual egotism suggest he was about the next. Given Greene's prickliness about his reputation, this seems unlikely.

Adept at shirking responsibility towards his family, his mistresses, his conscience and his country, Greene cannot avoid it here. Yet in a sense his choice of biographer was fitting. There is a more than fortuitous connection between Sherry's wordy enterprise and the inflation of the Greene industry, an organic link between the vapidity of Sherry's high style and Greene's metaphysical posturing. Nothing in these 900 pages persuades us that Greene ever suffered much from the notions of guilt, sin and redemption that hang like an incense of profundity over his novels. There is much about his endlessly suffering soul, certainly, but nothing to persuade us.

Greene converted to Catholicism to get his girl. Having married her, he dumped her for Lady Catherine Walston, the wife of a liberal-minded peer, so liberal that he failed to notice Greene having it off with his wife in the back of a car while he drove. It's enough to make a saint smirk. Socially, aesthetically and intellectually, Catherine was an excellent catch, as was Catholicism. To paraphrase H L Mencken on chastity: a reputation for religious feeling is a fine and wonderful thing, religion itself sometimes useful. It certainly did duty in the novels.

We get a lot about Greene's Jesuitical justification of inverted values. Today, his anti-authority stance and rationalisation of disloyalty seem callow. Just as Han van Meegeren's fake Ver-meers were pronounced genuine because they fitted prevailing artistic theories, so "The Virtue of Disloyalty", Greene's anti-Shakespeare lecture arguing that the poet was a creature of the ruling powers, sounds phoney now. And though you might have thought that disloyalty to the disloyal would be doubly justified, Greene remained ostentatiously loyal to the traitor Kim Philby, under whom he had worked in the secret service, while Philby worked for Stalin. Well, one must be loyal to one's friends. And after all, who in the end suffered, apart from the agents whom Philby destroyed? But then, they weren't one's friends.

Sherry doesn't get it, but Joseph Brodsky does. In On Grief and Reason, Philby's love for Russia is seen as an up-down, patrician affair: "He doesn't want Russia to go American . . . No nylons, and please no pantyhose. It is his equivalent of rough trade, of the working-class lads for whom his old Cambridge pals will be prowling London pubs for the rest of their lives. He is straight, though, and it's Russia for him, if it is not Germany or Austria." Or Cuba for Greene?

One's other friends included Castro ("Fidel gave me a lovely flower painting" - but did Greene use their three-hour conversation to put in a word for jailed intellectuals?) and General Omar Torrijos of Panama ("They gave me the real red carpet"). And he was friendly towards Soviet Russia. "If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States of America," he wrote in his infamous letter to the Times, a brief gesture of support for Soviet writers, made advisable by the trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, "I would certainly choose the Soviet Union." It is pointless to object that in Moscow he would not have been able to protest about the writers; Greene was not concerned with them, but with scandalising authority. Intellectual mendacity? Adolescent narcissism? Sure, but this was 1967. Talk about low, dishonest decades. Even Sherry ventures a squeak of protest.

"A near-socialist" is how Sherry describes the Albany-living, tax-and-death-duty-dodging, third world brothel aficionado who once called the lowly Anthony Burgess an "upstart". The brothel-going is of scant consequence: better writers than Greene did it, notably Flaubert, but then the Frenchman never sought exculpation by suggesting that the girls were a bunch of Mary Magdalenes, ethically superior to our western bourgeoisie - though not to haut bourgeois sexual adventurers.

It would, of course, be bourgeois to confuse Greene the political moralist and serial betrayer (notably of women) with Greene the artist. An author's indulgence in acts of gross moral turpitude in his public and private life while flaunting his religion does not of itself invalidate his novels. Sherry's book groans with extracts, so we can reread him as we go and see how they stand up. The answer, on the level of plot, is pretty well; it is the passages tricked out with spiritual pseudo-concerns that have faded, like cheap cloth. Sherry, who toiled around the world in his hero's footsteps, insists on the authenticity of Greene's effects. Yet Greeneland frequently appears a pinched, parochial place, a travelling production complete with English props and characters to make readers feel cosily at home.

Sherry thinks we need persuading of the horrors of Papa Doc or of various African and Central and South American regimes, but we know, Norman, we know. "Greene's feeling for victims was an obsession," he writes, always ratcheting up. "Christlike" is what he really means, though Christian charity appears to have stopped at East Germany; the suffering of tens of millions of souls in Chinese communes or Soviet camps pretty much passed Greene by. Plenty of scope for anti-authority attitudes there, one might have thought, though not much glamour, little Catholicism, no brothels - and anyway, they loved his books.

A master of sonorous, unintentional humour, Sherry entitles his last section "1991: Our Man Dead". So recent and yet so distant. In literary terms, the book has a reactionary feel to it, in the strict sense of seeking a return to a former state of affairs. It certainly takes you back: to Greene's friend Evelyn Waugh, with his religio-squirarchical strivings, who wanted to go back even further; to Anthony Powell, with his flyweight social comedies and petit bourgeois fascination with lineage; and to Greene himself, with his patrician antinomianism and self-indulgence. Three different levels of achievement, with Waugh on top and Powell at the bottom, yet how similar they feel to us, how snug their world was, how much they tell us about themselves and how little - except inadvertently - about England. And how closely we cling to them, for all their bogus and self-serving ethical codes.

Still, they could make you smile, as can Sherry. Reminding us that Graham's brother Hugh was director general of the BBC, no less, he concludes a chapter: "Death, and death alone, defeated one of the great families of the 20th century." So yes, Greene got the right biographer.

George Walden's most recent book is Who's a Dandy?: dandyism and Beau Brummell (Gibson Square)

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, America - God, gays and guns