God in the Details; Books

By Franklin, Ruth | The New Yorker, October 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

God in the Details; Books


Franklin, Ruth, The New Yorker


Borges, in one of his enigmatic parables, imagined an empire in which the art of cartography had "attained such perfection" that a map was exactly the same size as the area it covered. At well over two thousand pages, Norman Sherry's authorized biography of Graham Greene, a writer whose slender novels are distinguished by a near-phobia of the extraneous, occasionally seems in danger of reaching a similar condition. The third volume of "The Life of Graham Greene" (Viking; $39.95) has at last arrived, fifteen years after the publication of Volume I, and thirty years after Greene designated Sherry his biographer.

Sherry's sluggish pace owes something to the difficulty of summing up the career of this stunningly prodigious writer. During a writing life of more than sixty years, Greene published twentysix novels, in an almost unseemly variety of genres, ranging from early thrillers and "entertainments" such as "Brighton Rock" and "This Gun for Hire," through the famous "Catholic trilogy" of his middle years, to a more experimental later phase that includes such uncategorizable works as "Travels with My Aunt" and "Monsignor Quixote." He also produced short stories, plays, film scripts, memoirs, and travel books, plus a vast quantity of correspondence, to much of which Sherry has had exclusive access. (Because of an ambiguous comma in a document Greene signed on his deathbed, other scholars were forbidden to quote from unpublished material until Sherry's project was complete.)

The mention of Graham Greene inevitably evokes "Greeneland," reviewers' shorthand for the fictional terrain where all of Greene's novels seem to be set--a desolate colonial outpost with unforgiving weather, which is inhabited by mid-level civil servants, simple-hearted locals, and adulterous wives. Greene was always annoyed by this trope, insisting that his books "carefully and accurately described" the world as he experienced it. As if to prove his point, he extracted from Sherry a promise to "follow in his footsteps" to wherever he had set a major work--Mexico, Liberia, Cuba, Vietnam, Haiti, the Congo, and numerous other inhospitable locations. In the course of fulfilling this promise, Sherry contracted gangrene, which required the removal of part of his intestines. His relief at bringing the project to completion is written all over this third volume; in eight pages of acknowledgments, he thanks his Buick dealer, his periodontist, his postman, and "Nellie the night janitoress, who nearly always caught me in the late hours working."

Operating under the assumption that every place Greene went and every person he met is significant, Sherry has inevitably become bogged down in the most minute details. But he did discover that Greene had based a number of his characters on real people, the most important of whom, Sherry argues, was himself. This presents a particular problem. Greene lived his life to extremes: he had serious affairs, sometimes simultaneously, with at least three women, amid a host of more casual liaisons; he spied for MI6, smoked opium, visited prostitutes. However, he displayed a remarkable equanimity in the midst of chaos, maintaining a matutinal regimen of five hundred words regardless of the circumstances. Combine this with a delight in secrecy--Greene was given to writing two versions of a diary entry to conceal a visit to a prostitute, to using the names of his characters as aliases on his business cards, and to sending two postcards to his mistress, a chaste version addressed to her and her husband at home, and a more intimate one for her to collect elsewhere--and he is a difficult subject indeed. He once wrote to Catherine Walston, one of his longtime lovers, "If anybody ever tries to write a biography of me, how complicated they are going to find it and how misled they are going to be."

The fourth of six children, Henry Graham Greene was born October 2, 1904, in Berkhamsted, England. The family lived at Berkhamsted School, where Greene's father worked his way up to headmaster, and later in life Greene recalled the "green baize door" that separated the safety of the family's living quarters from the alien world of the school. …

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