Obits  (and notes) ~~From around the globe and around the block~~

                                 Damned Old Graham Greene 
                                                (The New York Times)

October 17, 2004

GRAHAM GREENE lived, and thrived, in an age when writers
were powerful, priestlike, remote and elusive. They were
risk takers and romantics, lovably disreputable, seldom
interviewed but often whispered about. You did not see them
at your local bookstore, you did not pluck their sleeves,
you had no opportunity to hand them manuscripts, or to ask
for tips on travel or to observe, ''What is your problem?''

It is impossible now for any American under the age of 60
or so to comprehend the literary world that existed in the
two decades after World War II, and especially the magic
that fiction writers exerted upon the public. Hemingway was
an occasional item in a gossip column, or a photo in Life.
Henry Miller was regarded as an outlaw. Faulkner was an
occasional visitor to a college campus but was otherwise
invisible; the same went for Carson McCullers and Flannery
O'Connor. They are all dead, but some of the writers who
enjoyed that sort of fame as conspicuous absentees (Bellow,
Styron and other heroic elders) have lived on into this age
of intrusion, where publishers conspire with bookstores to
bully writers into the open and make them part of the
selling mechanism.

This weird and philistine exhibitionism is now the way of
the world. Greene was spared.

Until about 30 years ago, writers like Greene were not at
all accessible to the reading public; they did not turn up
for signings at bookstores or allow themselves to be pimped
by publicists or buttonholed by TV producers who promised
fame and better sales. They existed in their work, in their
biographical notes and in the usually outdated photos on
their book jackets. Invisible, they were the more powerful
for seeming forever elsewhere. These writers bewitched the
imaginations of those of us who grew up in that period of
glamour and solitude, and who wished to be writers

THE period I am thinking of -- which began to decline in
the 1960's, perhaps when publishers became corporate
middlebrow monsters -- was also an age of censorship.
Greene caused a huge fuss by choosing, in The Sunday Times
of London, the Olympia Press edition of ''Lolita'' as one
of his books of the year in 1955. His singling out the book
got it serious attention and contracts in London and New
York, and of course howls of execration. The Vatican took a
dim view of Greene's novels, though the adulteries in them
kept them on the top shelf. Growing up in an age of
literary censorship, I regarded all serious writing as a
shady, dodgy and faintly subversive business, which was
another attraction to me.

Graham Greene, born in 1904, was just such a subversive
hero, self-consciously seeking out (in Browning's words)
''the dangerous edge of things,'' who lived everywhere and
nowhere, a man whom few people ever knew. ''One of fate's
fugitives,'' in the words of his biographer, Greene
published two memoirs, ''A Sort of Life'' (1971) and ''Ways
of Escape'' (1980), which are notoriously reticent, not to
say misleading. Though he was more hospitable to being
interviewed than he admitted, he allowed only the highest
standard of interviewer. V. S. Pritchett, Anthony Burgess
and V. S. Naipaul all made their way to Greene's home in
Antibes to genuflect to the master and subsequently say
nice things about him in Sunday newspapers. Greene must
have known that such men would not spill the beans about
his irregular life or ask awkward questions, though Burgess
famously teased him for being a God-botherer and a poseur,
and was banished.

Aware that he led a hidden life, Greene developed a habit
of evasion, an almost pathological inability to come clean.
His secretiveness led him at times to keep a parallel
diary, in which he might chronicle two versions of his day,
one rather sober and preoccupied, the other perhaps
detailing a frolic with a prostitute. Betrayal was one of
Greene's obsessive subjects. Reluctant, too weary or too
wary to write an exhaustive autobiography, Greene appointed
Norman Sherry, an acclaimed biographer and a professor of
English, as his official biographer. Greene had read and
admired Sherry's books about Joseph Conrad -- and had been
impressed by Sherry's stamina in following in Conrad's
footsteps to fictional settings and old stomping grounds.

With his customary circumspection, Greene summoned Sherry
for drinks and meals in 1974, and after considerable
scrutiny offered him unlimited access. (Greene said: ''No
lies please. Follow me to the end of my life.'') In 1976,
after two years of spadework, Sherry started writing his
life of Graham Greene, and in 1989 published the first
volume (covering the years 1904-39). Greene lived to read
that book, but he had been dead three years by the time the
second volume (1939-55) appeared in 1994. After 28 years,
with the publication of this long-awaited third volume
(1955-91), Sherry's work, a total of 2,251 closely printed
pages, is now complete.

For anyone interested in Greene's life and work, this
three-volume biography is incomparable; as an intellectual
and political history of the 20th century it is invaluable;
as a literary journey, as well as a journey across the
world, it is masterly; as a source book and rogues' gallery
it is fascinating. Sherry is not the stylist Leon Edel was
when he wrote his five-volume life of Henry James, but this
work can be compared with Edel's achievement. It is as
satisfying and as exhaustive, and evokes a much more
intimate and physical sense of his subject.

In Volume 3 we encounter Greene the playwright and the
traveler to Cuba, a trip that resulted in ''Our Man in
Havana''; the journey to the Congo, which produced ''A
Burnt-Out Case''; the Haiti trips and ''The Comedians'';
the South American trips and ''The Honorary Consul''; as
well as ''Travels With My Aunt'' and ''The Human Factor.''
Even financially destroyed, Greene becomes venerable in his
last decades, is awarded prizes, endures a fuss over the
Nobel Prize, which seems little more than the Swedish
lottery; he turns down a knighthood but receives the bigger
gong, Companion of Honor. He becomes involved in a French
scandal and writes ''J'Accuse.'' He teams up with a Spanish
priest and writes ''Monsignor Quixote.'' He is befriended
by Omar Torrijos and writes ''Getting to Know the
General.'' One great love affair ends, another runs its
course, and he finally finds a companion, a devoted (but
married) woman in whose arms he dies. His last words as he
lies in pain: ''Oh why does it take so long to come?''

In this period he wrote ''May We Borrow Your Husband?'' His
biographer somewhat undervalues the story, yet it remains
one of my favorites. It contains this observation: ''At the
end of what is called 'the sexual life' the only love which
has lasted is the love that has accepted everything, every
disappointment, every failure and every betrayal, which has
accepted even the sad fact that in the end there is no
desire so deep as the simple desire for companionship.''

GREENE was a restless traveler, a committed writer, a
terrible husband, an appalling father and an admitted
manic-depressive; he was relentlessly sexual, ardently
priapic. ''I think his sexual appetites are voracious,
frightening,'' one of his close friends remarked, though
the man was English and so the word ''frightening'' must be
taken with a grain of salt. But certainly Greene was a
tireless sensualist. Like many other sexually obsessed men
he tended to be noncommittal, evasive, given to unexplained
vanishings and sentimental utterances, but forever
feverishly on the prowl. He often complained of writer's
block, but where women were concerned he was hypergraphic.
He had the lecher's bouts of romanticism and fits of
fantasy; these he set down on paper.

Much of Volume 1 was given over to his pursuit of a
suitable wife, and when the young Greene had settled on
Vivien Dayrell-Browning he wrote her 2,000 letters before
finally persuading her to marry him. But not long after his
wedding he resumed frequenting prostitutes. His marriage
faltered with the arrival of children. He was so lacking in
the paternal instinct, he seriously considered putting at
least one of them up for adoption. ''How I dislike
children,'' he wrote to one of his lovers, and he continued
to complain about his children, their selfishness and their
demands, long after he left home after 20 years with
Vivien, some of which were spent traveling in Liberia and
Mexico, writing masterpieces, philandering or simply
avoiding her.

Though he talked of dumping Vivien, he never divorced her.
His marriage kept him from ever having to commit himself
entirely to his mistresses -- Dorothy Glover, whom we meet
early in Volume 2 and whom he was seeing as his marriage
ended, and others, notably Catherine Walston, with whom he
had a passionate affair (much of Volume 2), and finally a
friendship that lasted until her death. This Walston affair
is recounted in many hundreds more letters. A passionate
affair for Greene might inspire a 15-page letter but did
not imply fidelity. For one thing, many if not most of his
affairs were conducted with married women, whose cuckolded
husbands could do little except sigh or issue meaningless
ultimatums. He had his own reasons for choosing married
women and constantly being involved in menages a trois --
or quatre, or cinq for that matter. On her conversion to
Roman Catholicism, Catherine Walston developed a thing for
priests -- and, as she was madly attractive, the priests
eagerly returned her attentions. By way of response
Catherine's husband, Harry, just shrugged and took up with
the cast-off Dorothy Glover, and while Greene objected to
the priests, he himself was involved (we are now in Volume
3) with Anita Bjork, a Swedish actress, and then with
Yvonne Cloetta, the wife of a diplomat in Cameroon, whose
husband did not have a clue. Is it any wonder that Greene's
books are full of adulteries? ''Greene's truth is in his
fiction,'' Sherry says, and demonstrates this again and
again. One might also add that since childhood looms large
in Greene's work, there is something in the very nature of
a Greene adultery -- and perhaps adultery in general --
that can make it seem as thrilling as a child's game: the
hiding, the secrets, the lies, the playacting, the giggling
satisfaction, the guilt; even the furtive sex itself.

An illustrative moment of Greene's childish perversity
occurs in Jamaica in 1959, when on vacation with Catherine
he writes to a friend: ''In spite of the pleasant life here
(& my 500 words a day) my mind strays an awful lot to
Douala [Yvonne] -- not to speak of Stockholm [Anita].
Perhaps the Dutch widow is the real solution!'' Since he is
still married to Vivien, he has five women in his life at
this point (and is working on ''A Burnt-Out Case''). A
month later, he is traveling in the Pacific with a friend,
Michael Meyer. Though a previous biographer, Michael
Shelden, suggested Greene had spells of homosexual
behavior, Sherry disputes the claim. Sherry takes the line
that Greene preferred married women because they asked so
little of him. ''Married women are the easiest,'' as Querry
says in ''A Burnt-Out Case.''

My own feeling is that there is something ambiguously
homoerotic in a man's conducting a lengthy affair with a
married woman who remains at home and continues to sleep
with her husband. This was a habit of Greene's. And there
is the twisted logic of Greene's proclaiming his fidelity
to his mistress while cheating on his wife, and also of
course seeing hookers, for whom he had a hopeless penchant.

''I could never understand the attraction of having a
prostitute,'' his friend Michael Meyer said with amused
disapproval, ''which seems to me like paying someone to let
you beat them at tennis.''

This is funny but wide of the mark, for Greene was not a
Casanova, not vain in his conquests, not a scorekeeper
(though he kept a detailed list of his 47 favorite
prostitutes -- given here in an appendix). Greene was
insecure, needy, insatiable, interested in variation and
always willing to have a go. He preferred his women to be
waiflike, boyish, petite -- he himself was well over six
feet tall. The women in his novels tend to match that
description, but of course they are based on women he had

''He has a definite quirk for brothels,'' a woman friend
remarked. Sherry straps on his brothel creepers to prove
it. Way back in Volume 1, Otto Preminger is quoted:
''Though he gives a first impression of being controlled,
correct and British, he is actually mad about women. Sex is
on his mind all the time.''

You could say, So what? But this compulsive sexuality
seemed to shape the pattern of his life, his travel, his
fictional subjects and his faith. Obsessive and easily
bored, he was incapable of being sexually faithful to any
woman. He reveled in being a wanderer, an eavesdropper, a
stranger. His sexuality both depressed him and relieved his
gloom. It damned him in his own faith, made him a sinner
and filled him with remorse, made him say things such as
''I've been a bloody fool'' and ''I've betrayed very many
people in my life'' and ''I wish I didn't have so much to
be remorseful about.''

He converted to Catholicism to win over Vivien, but it
seemed as though he remained a Catholic in order to
strengthen his control over his sexual appetite. All his
faith did was to make him feel guiltier; he tied himself in
knots to reconcile his belief with his sinning, but at
least, as a believer, he could obtain absolution and
sanctifying grace. In ''The Heart of the Matter,'' ''The
Power and the Glory,'' ''The End of the Affair'' and many
other books, he struggled to portray sinners as ultimately
virtuous. Charles Peguy's observation, ''Le pecheur est au
coeur meme de chretiente'' -- the sinner is at the very
heart of Christianity -- is part of the epigraph of ''The
Heart of the Matter.'' The conundrum went on tormenting him
and made him a moralist.

While there is something humdrum about being bad, and an
irritating banality in the act of doing wrong, high drama
can be achieved with the words ''sinning'' and ''evil.''
Greene indulged himself by casting his actions in these
terms. Right and wrong did not much interest him, but good
and evil did. He was a sucker for diablerie. Orwell
remarked that Greene seemed to share the idea, ''which has
been floating around since Baudelaire, that there is
something rather distingue in being damned.''

Greene travels to Haiti in Volume 3. Haiti summed up just
about everything he required in a foreign destination,
especially one that he intended as the setting for a novel.
It was distressed, tropical, ramshackle, overcrowded, poor
and on the brink of civil war. It was governed by a
boogeyman. It was famous for its brothels and its slums and
its weird expressions of religious faith -- Catholicism and
a mishmash of African ritual. Its women, especially its
prostitutes, were celebrated for their beauty. Its ornate
hotels were in a state of decay, yet there was enough
alcohol available for a guest to tie one on. The only
expatriates in the place were shady businessmen and foreign
ambassadors, with the requisite number of bored wives. Add
to this voodoo, political tyranny, rum punch and sunshine,
and the result is the colorful horror-show we see in ''The

Greene wrote in an essay on Haiti, ''A reign of terror has
often about it the atmosphere of farce,'' and you guess at
once that it is farce -- the absurdity of evil -- that
appeals to Greene. He portrays the president, Papa Doc, as
a tyrant, a torturer, an embezzler, a practitioner of
voodoo and a part-time goblin: ''Baron Samedi, in his top
hat and tails, who haunts the cemeteries smoking a cigar
and wearing dark glasses, spends his days, so some believe,
in the Presidential Palace, and his other name is Dr.
Duvalier.'' It seemed to suit Greene to portray this tyrant
as the devil incarnate. Call Papa Doc a shabby little
torturer and it is not quite the same. God-fearing writers
are so often unhelpfully hyperbolic.

THE travel, the sex, the writing, the romances, were -- so
Sherry suggests -- all attempts by Greene to relieve his
depression. He was an authentic melancholic. He attempted
or threatened suicide several times and spoke often of
ending his life. His untrusting nature kept him from
revealing his gloom to anyone except Catherine Walston, who
was capable of lifting his spirits. It was she who said,
''Graham's misery is as real as an illness.'' Another
(male) friend spoke of how Greene ''was only happy when he
was being unhappy.'' Greene the novelist created central
characters who were notoriously gloomy and Greene the
traveler was hardly cheery either. ''I loathe Mexico,'' he
said in ''The Lawless Roads.''

Money was often on his mind. The quest for solvency is a
subtheme in the three volumes, for he never stopped sending
money to his wife and went on supporting his children long
after they were adults. Greene was an unusual English
writer of his time in having held a number of different
full-time jobs -- at least four editorial jobs on
newspapers and magazines, regular film reviewing (at which
he excelled; see his collection ''The Pleasure Dome'') and
two important and active positions in London publishing
houses. Volume 3 describes his theater work, his great
success (''The Potting Shed'') and ultimate failure
(''Carving a Statue''), as well as his scriptwriting, not
just ''Our Man in Havana'' and ''The Comedians,'' but
offers from Hollywood, such as the feeler for him to work
on ''Ben Hur.'' (''I might help if there's a lot of money &
if my name was kept out.'') In his early 60's he discovered
that his accountant was a crook, and had cheated him. Faced
with financial ruin, Greene moved to France for tax reasons
and regained his solvency through scriptwriting. His
celebrated trips to Panama, where he became involved in the
canal imbroglio, were paid for by General Torrijos, who
sent him free air tickets. On his death all his money (it
was a modest estate) went to his wife, whom he had not
lived with for over 40 years, and her two children.

There is in most literary biography a simple detail that
speaks volumes about its subject. Thoreau almost never left
home, Henry Miller was henpecked, Borges lived in fear of
his mother, James Joyce was afraid of thunderstorms, Freud
was angst-ridden on railway platforms, Wittgenstein was
addicted to cowboy movies, Wallace Stevens to candy, Jack
Kerouac had copies of National Review by his bed when he

Many such equally curious details occur in this Greene
biography. Greene's dislike of children seems predictable
enough; it is a characteristic of many writers of
children's books (Greene wrote four). He also disliked
adverbs, though you can find them in his books. It seems he
did not ever fire a gun -- although he did, when young,
play Russian roulette on more than one occasion -- yet his
novels are full of gunplay. Living amid the great cuisine
of Provence, he said how he sorely missed English sausages.

He was the least domesticated of men. After he left his
marital household in 1947 he did not share a house with any
woman -- and he died in 1991. His ultimate lover, Yvonne
Cloetta, visited him at his Antibes apartment, cooked his
evening meal, consoled him and then went home to her
husband. Greene could not cook, he was incapable of using a
typewriter, he did not wield a mop; he was a naturally
dependent not to say helpless man. Add to this the
astonishing fact that, though a traveler, a seeker of
danger, a deeply curious wanderer who was seldom home, he
could not drive a car. I think we can easily understand his
need for a lover. But it is bewildering to reflect how he
was lost without a lift, a cook, a cleaner, a typist; all
his life he needed someone to look after him. Is it any
wonder that in all the thousands of (handwritten) letters
Sherry includes, so many of them have the tone of a lost

I knew Greene -- though not the complex Greene of Sherry's
biography. As Sherry says, no one knew this man. He was
very generous to me, and to many other writers. A name not
mentioned here is that of Etienne Leroux, the late South
African writer whose brilliant novels (''Seven Days at the
Silbersteins'' and others) Greene championed. And whenever
I feel undervalued, unread or misunderstood, I remember a
story (not recounted here) that Greene told me of an
evening he spent in Paris with some film people. A famous
French director, and an admirer, praised Greene's epic walk
through the Liberian bush, described in his masterpiece
''Journey Without Maps'' (1936). The director said: ''This
is Graham Greene. He has traveled through West Africa!''

The actress said, ''How did you do this?'' She stuck out
her thumb and said, in French, ''Hitchhiking?''


Paul Theroux's most recent book is ''The Stranger at the
Palazzo d'Oro,'' a collection of stories. His new novel,
''Blinding Light,'' will be published early next year.