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BOOK REVIEW

Graham Greene, in every tiny detail

The Life of Graham Greene Volume III: 1955-1991 Norman Sherry Viking: 906 pp., $39.95

October 02, 2004|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

For anyone who may not have noticed, gargantuan biographies are back with a vengeance. More than a few contemporary biographers seem to share the Victorian belief that a Great Man deserves a Great Book, a thick book, a very, very, very long book. Thus, we've had tomes like Joseph Blotner's interminable biography of William Faulkner or Herschel Parker's more recent effort in honor of Herman Melville, so choked with trivial document and detail that it renders almost invisible his otherwise insightful portrait of the fascinating and enigmatic author of "Moby-Dick."

Norman Sherry met Graham Greene in 1974 and two years later gained his permission to write the authorized biography. Greene, who was born 100 years ago today and lived to the age of 86, left a trail long enough to keep any biographer busy, and Sherry has been working on this undertaking for nearly three decades. He came to know Greene quite well, and his firsthand impressions enhance his portrait. It seems clear, from what he tells us and from the sacerdotal tone in which he speaks of it, that this project has been a labor of love. With the publication of the third and final volume, Sherry brings to a close his ambitious attempt to account for the many aspects of Greene's life and work.

The biography he has written is almost unsettlingly intense: subjective, engaged and then some. Sherry suffers from being the man who knows too much, plunging himself (and us) into all manner of conflicts and controversies, romantic and political, religious and literary, large and small, that were such a constant feature of Greene's life. Mistaking literary detective work for literary criticism, he goes to unnecessary lengths to track down real-life "originals" for Greene's fictional characters. For those who are less obsessed with Greene, there are too many trees -- and not just trees, but countless tiny leaves, vines and tendrils -- that prevent our forming a clear picture of the forest.

Sherry is enthralled by Greene's elusive character, by his paradoxical nature as doubt-tormented Roman Catholic, sinful saint or saintly sinner. But the story behind all the Sturm und Drang is, if anything, smaller than life.

As a young man, Greene had converted to Catholicism to win the hand of his wife, Vivien, whom he had also been prepared to offer a sexless marriage. Reading Greene was evidently what made a wealthy married woman named Catherine Walston decide to become a Catholic: She wrote Greene a letter, they met and became lovers. By the time this final volume opens in 1955, their affair has more or less ended, but as Sherry shows us, Greene is still obsessed with her. Unable to persuade her to leave her husband, he eventually finds solace, first with a Swedish actress, then with Yvonne Cloeta, the Frenchwoman who becomes the last love of his life.

In the years covered here, 1955 to 1991, Greene travels to pre-revolutionary Cuba, the Belgian Congo, China, Haiti and Panama, where he befriends the military dictator Torrijos. He defends Nabokov's "Lolita" against charges of pornography, speaks out against the U.S. war in Vietnam and maintains his friendship with the spy Kim Philby. Sherry has a hard time trying to account for his embrace of the dictator and his loyalty to the perfidious Philby, rather lamely excusing Greene's persistent strain of anti-Americanism as sympathy with the underdog. Although his best novels ("The Power and the Glory," "The Heart of the Matter" and "The End of the Affair") are behind him, he is still as productive as ever, writing books like "The Quiet American," "Our Man in Havana," "The Comedians" and "The Human Factor."

Greene's standing is debatable. An overrated writer of slick thrillers with religious undertones and a political twist? Or a worthy heir to Joseph Conrad? Although Greene's best work may highlight the moral complexities of the human condition, too much of what he wrote exudes a slight whiff of hokey. Psychological realism sometimes takes a back seat to dubious psychodrama.

Indignant that Greene was never awarded the Nobel Prize, Sherry includes comments written by one judge who thought very little of his work. Sherry doubtless intends this to serve as evidence of judicial density, yet surely there is some justice in what this judge had to say about "The Power and the Glory": "If the summary of the story that has been given seems a bit dry and colorless, then the same can be said of the story.... What throws the reader off is that he or she does not feel any real emotion ... sooner in the story. The author is

Greene's character, his works, his life and the people in it were filled with paradoxes and contradictions. The degree to which you may find them compelling is a good indication of how enthralling you may find Sherry's blow-by-blow account.

Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

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