End Notes: All in Love Went My Greene Riding

Many recent biographers of writers put the reader in the place of the psychiatrist. Norman Sherry’s life of Graham Greene, particularly the recently published second volume, puts the reader in the uncomfortable role of confessor. We are made privy to Greene’s infidelities, to the crumbling of his marriage and his eerie disinterest in his children, to his adolescent passion for a married woman with five children with whom he carried on an intermittent affair for decades.

In Rogerson at Bay I depicted a character who, poised to leave wife and children for a younger woman, insists that God is directing him to do it. However self-deceptive, there is something charming, perhaps inevitable, in such efforts to construe one’s erring ways as somehow God’s will. That they are part of the plan of Providence is certain, but this is scarcely an exculpating fact. And it is exculpation that is wanted, the patina of the supernatural, a blessing on one’s sins. It is saddening to watch Graham Greene’s attempts to fit his beliefs into the steamy procrustean bed of his sexual behavior.

Sherry, who has learned how to write English since volume one, is a good narrator of these sad events. The manic depressive Greene of the first volume is in full force in the years covered here — 1933-1955: the man with a death wish, with constant allusions to suicide, the repeated hope that a bullet or plane crash will put an end to his misery. Whatever his psychological problems, it seems clear that most of Greene’s misery came from a conscience he could not completely fool.

These were the years of Greene’s triumph as a Catholic novelist. The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair — these supreme achievements of one of the century’s most artful novelists bring substance and form into a deathless relationship. In the second rank of Greene’s works we would doubtless put Brighton Rock and A Burnt-Out Case. I myself find that the descent begins with The Honorary Consul, when Greene’s quirky politics and increasingly bizarre theology sap the energy of the story.

A feature that Sherry’s life has in common with many other recent literary biographies is the effort to reduce the novels back into the life of the author. At first this seems strained, but with The Heart of the Matter and even more with The End of the Affair, a strong case is made that Greene is working out his own troubled affairs in his creative work. Sherry is convincing in the claim that in The Quiet American only the names have been changed, if not to protect the innocent, to avoid libel. This is a far cry from The Power and the Glory, in which Greene imagined his way into the mind of a whisky priest in Mexico during the persecutions, a supreme artistic achievement.

In that novel, Greene gave expression to the strange ways in which grace and nature meld. His weak, vinous priest is the first of his heroes whose supernatural strength is allied with natural weakness, and the frightening affinity of saint and sinner is put vividly before us. This is a delicate balance, of course. It seems that not even Greene quite knew what he meant the spiritual state of Major Scobie to be. But Greene, in his golden years, was the master of an Augustinian spirituality, so to say, of the heart longing for God but wanting to put off for the nonce surrender of his will.

Sherry’s Greene is depressed, suicidal, and constantly menaced by boredom. One has to remind oneself that these were the years of Greene’s arrival as a writer, triumph following triumph, best-selling novels complemented by smash films. The Third Man, Sherry tells us, is still shown daily in Vienna. To the degree that Greene alludes to his success — fame, wealth, influential friends — it is with an unconvincing whine. There is a good deal of radical chic in our author. The villa on Anacapri, the house on the Riviera, the apartment in Paris — this is a lot for an aspiring anchorite to tote about.

The sins of the flesh are often billed as less serious than others, meanness and treachery, for example. This truth is equally often taken to mean that somehow the sins of the flesh are not real sins. That they do not leave the rest of us untouched is one of the perhaps unintended messages of Sherry’s biography. The faithless husband who longs to be a husband to his married mistress, who tries to see in this effort something salvific, is a man whose heart and mind become encoiled in the carnal. An odd theology is the ultimate result. In the meantime, out of his anguish, Greene wrote the masterpieces that give him an ineradicable claim to being the supreme Catholic novelist writing in English.

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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