Magazine article The Spectator

Going Back to the Books

Magazine article The Spectator

Going Back to the Books

Article excerpt

A STUDY IN GREENE by Bernard Bergonzi OUP, £16.99, pp. 208, ISBN 0199291020

With almost 30 novels to his name, Graham Greene was a prolific chronicler of human faith and wretchedness. A writer of his stature requires a very good biographer and, at first, it looked as though Greene had found him in Norman Sherry, a Joseph Conrad expert based in Texas. Sherry set to work in 1976, digging for information like a locker-room snoop. His first, 700-page volume up to 1939 scrutinised Greene's every depression, love affair and alcoholic spree. 'Oh why does Sherry waste so much time talking about me?' Greene grumbled, though secretly, perhaps, he was amused by Sherry's dedication to the task. He may even have enjoyed the vinous associations of his surname. ('Let's go to Sherry's, ' by chance a gangster recommends a drinking club in Brighton Rock, adding, 'I can't stand the place'. ) By the time Sherry's third and final volume appeared in 2004, it was clear how ill-served Greene had been. Running to a combined total of almost 2,500 pages, Professor Sherry's Life of Graham Greene consisted of vulgar hagiography as well as endless, dim critiques of the novels.

Greene's death, as described in the closing chapters, provoked the most awful writing:

Worms breed, and the handsome man with stunning blue eyes is host to a thousand sliding lascivious creatures, eating our flesh, turning us gradually into a sort of human jam.

Why this passage, and others like it, were allowed through is a mystery. Sherry's imprecise use of language ('sort of human jam') was especially ill-suited to Greene, whose books are concisely written.

Bernard Bergonzi is another who finds Sherry (as he puts it) 'tactless and indecorous'. While Bergonzi concedes that Sherry has something to say about Greene's fiction and inner life, he 'deplores' Sherry's readiness to conflate Greene with his fictional protagonists and projections. ('Greene is Bendrix; Greene is Brown...') A Study in Greene, however, is a work of elegant literary enquiry and intended in part as a riposte to Sherry.

Greene's personal life has been raked over enough, says Bergonzi; it is time to go back to the books.

Greene's masterpiece, according to Bergonzi, was Brighton Rock. Published in 1938, the novel describes a betrayal of loyalties in gangland Britain and remains a disquieting, theological parable of conscience. Greene had converted to Catholicism 13 years earlier. …

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