For some, he was the great Catholic novelist, for others, a peddler of theological paradox for sensationalist effect. A new biography convincingly argues that ambivalence and paradox run through both the writer and the man
There have been some pretty galumphing attempts to write the life of Graham Greene, in which his complicated sex life seemed more important to the prolix authors than his novels. What was needed was what Richard Greene – a Canadian professor who is no relation – has now given us: a one-volume, well-balanced biography that never loses hold of why we might want to read a book about Graham Greene: namely, that he wrote six or seven truly brilliant books, and was responsible, with Carol Reed, for what is surely one of the best films ever made, The Third Man.
A biography of such a man needs to take into account his large family, his headmaster father, his many (quite rum) siblings – one a fascist, one a director general of the BBC – his unhappy marriage, his compulsive disloyalty as a husband, his alcohol – and barbiturates – dependency, his addiction to the seedy, his string of mistresses, his sympathy for his old chum the traitor Philby, his fondness for Castro, his claim that he’d rather live in the Soviet Union than in the United States. Above all, the biographer, and the reader of such a book, would need to be aware of Greene’s consummate skill at arranging the material of his own life; his genius for self-promotion disguised as a quest for privacy; self-dramatisation portrayed as a spiritual quest.
All this Richard Greene competently, unpretentiously and briskly achieves. But he never loses sight of the central thing about Graham Greene, namely that he was first and foremost a novelist; surely one of the best novelists, in any language, of his generation. The sheer technical brilliance with which the stories unfold in The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock make them object lessons in how to frame a narrative.