Jeffrey Meyers

Gangreene: The Dangerous Edge

Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene
, Richard Greene, 2020, pp. 591, £25 (hardcover)

Depression is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.
– Philip Larkin

Biographers have three ways of dealing with their predecessors. They can generously thank them, ignore their achievement, or viciously attack them. Richard Greene (no relation to Graham) misleadingly links Michael Shelden’s deeply flawed book (l994) with Norman Sherry’s impressive three-volume 2,250-page work (1989-2004). Sherry conducted many interviews with Graham from 1904-91, and his first two volumes were perceptive and convincing. Richard calls Sherry’s biography a ‘lost opportunity’ but relies heavily on it, and dubiously claims that his own 591-page book is more thorough than Sherry’s. He criticises Sherry’s descriptions of Graham’s sexual life, but gives a full account of it himself. Richard says that Sherry had dementia toward the end of his life. If so, Sherry’s completion of his third volume was a titanic achievement and accounts for the serious flaws in that book, which his incompetent editors did not correct.

Sherry’s biography presents special problems. Reviewers should not call extremely long books ‘monumental’ when they are actually too long, nor praise a writer for taking fifteen years on a book when he’s wasted a lot of that time and dug out a mass of trivial details that should not have been included. The crucial but rarely mentioned element is how many efficient work hours he’s spent per day. Sherry dedicated his third and certainly last volume to a crowd of eleven friends and relations. A writer should be forbidden to unctuously court favor by dedicating a book to more than two people.

Richard Greene is good on the political background of Graham’s involvement with dangerous wars in many countries. But he tends to summarise the plots rather than analyse the meaning of the novels, and emphasises the often trivial connection between Graham’s real-life models and his fictional characters. His virtue signaling is irritating. He calls Land Benighted, the accurate title of Barbara Greene’s book on Liberia, ‘cringe-inducing,’ but approves of ‘The Nightmare Republic,’ the title of Graham’s essay on Duvalier’s Haiti. It would have been helpful to include running heads with page numbers for the numerous notes of the short chapters.

Richard’s overkill introduction is self-defeating. He claims that Graham was politically involved in ‘dozens of countries,’ but names only twelve: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mexico, Malaya, Vietnam, Kenya, Cuba, the Congo, Haiti, Paraguay, Panama and Nicaragua, to which he could have added Israel and El Salvador. Contra Richard, Graham is not unique. All great writers are valued for their entire work and all writers create from curiosity, observation, and involvement. He also states that Graham’s novels ‘changed the lives of millions’ of people. I’ve been publishing chapters and essays on Graham since 1973, but he hasn’t changed my life at all. Shorter than Sherry and much better than Shelden, Richard adds many new details from the Letters he edited in 2008, but doesn’t change the overall view of Graham’s public and private life. Despite its minor flaws, his biography is solid, competent, and well written.

Richard’s perception as a biographer is challenged by the first sentence of his book when he quotes but doesn’t question Graham’s startling assertion: ‘The first thing I remember is sitting in a pram on the top of a hill with a dead dog lying at my feet.’ But it’s inconceivable that a responsible nurse would put into the confined space of a pram the corpse of a dog, mangled by a car, which would not only terrify the infant but also bleed on his clothes. Graham, who does not mention the nurse’s negligence and guilt about the dead dog, emphasised his own traumatic contact with violence and death.

Graham called his prep school, where his father was headmaster and he was bullied and tormented, punishment for the young. Depressed and suicidal, he was treated by a quack psychoanalyst. Influenced by the deadly combo of spiritualism, Carl Jung and George Gurdjieff, the quack asked Graham to free-associate on breasts and got the enigmatic ‘tube train.’ He also arranged for Graham to be diagnosed as epileptic, which must have intensified his anxiety. Richard calls Graham manic-depressive and cites Dr Kay Jamison who, without medical evidence, specialises in diagnosing troubled writers. Graham was depressive but not manic. Unlike Robert Lowell, he was always in control of himself and never became violent and dangerous. Richard unhelpfully states that ‘excessive irritability is a common symptom of manic depression.’ It is also a common symptom of a great many other things.

There is no evidence, apart from Graham’s word, that he ever tried to kill himself by playing Russian roulette. Like Evelyn Waugh’s false claim that he was attacked by jellyfish that prevented his youthful suicide attempt, it was merely part of Graham’s self-created daredevil myth. His brother, with whom he shared a bedroom, said the revolver had no bullets. Most likely, Graham played the potentially fatal game with blanks or empty chambers. Richard deflates this fantasy, but gives his biography the sensational but misleading title Russian Roulette.

A kind of warped Catholicism was at the core of Graham’s life and art. The young atheist was madly attracted to Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Catholic convert with a deep-rooted fear of sex. He converted to Catholicism solely to please Vivien and had a disastrous but legally permanent marriage. She was an authority on doll’s houses, and he was, like Henrik Ibsen’s Nora, trapped in her doll’s house. Neither wanted children, but they had a daughter and son while Graham remained a distant father. He felt guilty about not being a good Catholic, but continued to lead a perpetually sinful life of fornication and adultery. Sinning both intensified his misery and fired his imagination. The conflict between his ostensible faith and deep doubts both tormented him and provided the most serious material for his books. His art was the poetry of departure, the fiction of flight, the quest for Hell.

Graham desperately searched for something firm, hard and certain in a world of flux, and sought (but did not find) comfort in the strange unknowable mercy of God. Egoistically interpreting the wishes of the Deity, he assured one lover that their immoral relationship was all ‘part of God’s plan.’ He made superficial gestures of worship and comforted himself with the blasphemous belief that ‘the only possible basis for faith is trauma.’ Infinitely corruptible, he became the victim of religion. Neither Graham nor anyone else could account for the overwhelming evil in the world. He believed that ‘neither free will nor Original Sin offered a serious explanation for the way an omnipotent God had placed human beings in unbearable circumstances.’ His friend and fellow-convert Evelyn Waugh said only Catholicism kept him from being a complete monster. Fearing damnation, Graham declared, ‘only faith kept him from committing suicide.’

Richard writes, ‘as a journalist, Graham’s special subject was faith under conditions of oppression.’ A lost soul in both senses, he always sought out and was welcomed by priests for their revelations in remote and difficult places. His observations inevitably led him to oppose the orthodox Catholic views on birth control, ecumenism, social justice, and papal infallibility. He paradoxically called the pro-Hitler Pope Pius XII a ‘saint,’ and condemned the more liberal Pope John Paul II as a ‘vastly over-rated bully.’ He finally and uneasily defined himself as a Catholic agnostic.

In December 1941 Graham sailed from Liverpool to West Africa to become a wartime spy in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was a perilous voyage, and it’s worth noting that in January 1941 the travel writer Robert Byron, sailing from the same port to the same destination, drowned when his ship was torpedoed. Graham could not make up his mind about colonialism. He despised the expatriate English and was opposed to British exploitation of Africa. But he did not think Africans were ready to govern themselves and ‘had no idea how self-rule could be brought about without turmoil and long delay.’ All contemporary African writers who routinely condemn colonialism (Chinua Achebe completely misunderstood Heart of Darkness) were all well-educated by colonial teachers. In 1964, two years after independence in Uganda, I visited a leprosarium like the one Graham described in A Burnt-Out Case. I found the lepers who’d received medical treatment under British rule much better off than the disfigured beggars abandoned by the new government on the streets of Kampala.

Graham’s opinions of his contemporaries, like those of the popes, are interesting and often surprising. He called Alfred Hitchcock a ‘harmless clown,’ thought Virginia Woolf’s characters were ‘nothing more than the sum of their drifting perceptions,’ criticized André Malraux’s rhetoric and mythomania, dismissed Carlos Fuentes as unreadable, and bitterly remarked after his quarrel with Anthony Burgess: ‘Earthly Powers was terrible. He writes far too much.’ But Graham was also guilty of telling lies, writing unreadable books and graphomania.

But he could also be generous. He admired the poetry of Robert Frost and W. H. Auden; praised the Indian novelist R. K. Narayan and the minor Catholic writers Muriel Spark and Brian Moore. His fulsome adulation of Evelyn Waugh, ‘In the Mediterranean you can see a pebble fifteen feet down. His style was like that,’ echoes Ford Madox Ford’s aquatic praise of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, ‘one of his pages has the effect of a brook bottom into which you look down through the flowing water.’

One reckless opinion got him into trouble. After he described the young Shirley Temple’s ‘dimpled depravity’ and suggested that Twentieth Century Fox was exploiting the child’s sexuality, the studio sued his film magazine and shut down Night and Day. When I spoke to Shirley Temple about this in 1986, she was still angry about his demeaning review and felt the magazine deserved to be suppressed.

Graham’s marriage effectively ended in October 1940 when their house on Clapham Common was destroyed by German bombs and Vivien moved the family to the Cotswolds. They formally separated in 1947 as Graham guiltily wrote her: ‘by my nature, my selfishness, even in some degree by my profession, I should always, & with anyone, have been a bad husband . . . . My restlessness, moods, melancholia . . . lie in a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life.’

Graham had a long series of simultaneous lovers both during and after his marriage. He entertained them in his flats in London, Paris and Antibes, and in his house on Anacapri. A main contender for his elusive affections was the unattractive book illustrator Dorothy Glover, whose photo does not appear in this book. The most important woman was Catherine Walston, another Catholic convert, who liked to sleep with priests. One of Graham’s male friends called her ‘a destructive character, a lion hunter & fundamentally tough as an army boot.’ Also in the running were the stage designer Jocelyn Rickards; the Eurasian wild-animal trapper (not lion hunter) Mercia Ryhiner; the French author Allegra Sander; the Swedish actress Anita Björk; and finally, his old-age companion, the nondescript Yvonne Cloetta. He had furtive sex with Rickards in a train compartment and with Walston behind a church altar. Among the rejects was the half-Spanish, hyper-Catholic Jeanne Stoner, of whom Graham ungallantly remarked, ‘I could no more go to bed with her than with her husband.’ Pride of place was the list of his 47 favourite whores. Graham’s marriage conveniently prevented his own commitment. His mostly married mistresses were easy to offload when cuckolded husbands – with whom he bonded by sharing the same women – patiently waited in the wings to take them back.

Driven by the demon of self-destruction, Graham was a voyeur of violence who repeatedly risked his life and repeated his contact with violence and death. He specialised in squalor and had a lifelong obsession with secrecy and disguise, compassion for the hunted and oppressed, fascination with cowardly betrayal and spiritual decay. Liberia, Mexico and Haiti were the most diseased and dangerous places he could find. With an infallible instinct for violence, he turned up in Cuba, the Congo and Panama just as they were about to explode. He never fought in a war or held political office, but was even more politically committed, engaged and influential than Hemingway, Malraux and Arthur Koestler. Graham was drawn to danger to alleviate his boredom and depression, test his courage, gratify his death wish, get close to the action, and acquire precious experience for his reportage and fiction. But attracted to power and courted by dictators – he called the Panamanian Omar Torrijos a ‘great man’ – he was blind to Communist atrocities in Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua. His lifelong anti-Americanism, intensified during his four trips to wartime Vietnam, provoked his perverse declaration, ‘better a bad man against the USA in Central America than a good man for it.’

Graham also escaped boredom by the stimulation of drugs. In the Orient he was happiest when smoking opium. Limiting himself to five pipes a day, when a true addict required 100, he kept to his limit but consumed 144 pipes in 35 days. He pumped himself up with Benzedrine for frantic spurts of writing and found sleep with the barbiturate Nembutal, which also, paradoxically, was able to shut down his unquenchable urge to write.

Writing was a milder form of therapy, and Graham wondered ‘how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.’ He wrote, like the equally productive Thomas Mann, a strict 500 words a day, and even stopped in the middle of a sentence. Hemingway, more logically, stopped when he knew what he was going to write the next day. Graham also believed that when dealing with horrors, as he often did, ‘one should write very coldly.’ He drew telling parallels between his two great vocations: ‘every novelist has something in common with a spy: he watches, he overhears, he seeks motives and analyses character, and in his attempt to serve literature he is unscrupulous.’

Graham liked fights, and always sympathised with the outcasts and underdogs. He was attracted to crumbling hotels, comforting whorehouses and seedy settings, which he felt were ‘nearer the beginning of things or–nearer the end.’ His dominant themes were loneliness, suspicion, betrayal and pain, doomed love and religious doubts. John le Carré justly noted that Graham was written out in his last decade when he published Dr Fischer of Geneva, Monsignor Quixote and The Tenth Man.

When discussing The Heart of the Matter (1948), considered a major novel, Richard ignores George Orwell’s devastating criticism, which ruined the theological foundations of the book: ‘If Scobie believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women.’ By contrast, The Third Man film (1949) directed by Carol Reed is perfect. It has a timely postwar Viennese setting, excellent Austrian stage actors and resonant zither music as well as a tight plot, innovative cinematography, memorable dialogue, and Orson Welles’s surprising and shadowy resurrection.

Graham clashed with le Carré about the English spy Kim Philby, who exposed many Western agents and sent them to their death. He admired Philby’s ‘secret sacrifice’; le Carré thought it was pathologically evil. Graham believed that personal loyalty was more important than patriotism; le Carré was loyal to his country and to the secret service. Graham’s reasoning was perverse, his tone cool; le Carré’s arguments were convincing and incandescent with anger. But Graham’s terse summary of his own career was perceptive: ‘I’ve had an odd life when I come to think of it. Useless and sometimes miserable, but bizarre and on the whole not boring.’


Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has had 33 of his 54 books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. He’s recently published Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love (2015) and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy (2018).

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