Confrontation and Escape: Mysteries of Graham Greene

by Peter S. Hawkins

Peter S. Hawkins taught religion and literature at Yale Divinity School, and is now professor of religion at Boston University. professor of religion at Boston University, where he also directs the Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts. He is the author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford University Press). He and Paula Carlson are editors of the series Listening for God: Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 18, 1989, p. 934. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at . This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Book review of a biography of Graham Greene. The book tells us something about the man who has given us one notion of what it may mean to be a citizen fighting for a city that is no longer home.

Book Review:

The Life of Graham Greene (Vol. One) : 1904-1932, by Norman Sherry. Viking, 783 pp., $29.95.

If there is a virtue implicit in the vocation of the biographer, it is surely the willingness to pay serious attention to another person’s life. Throughout the often lengthy years of research and writing, the pressing demands of what Iris Murdoch has called the "fat relentless ego" are perforce suspended, and the intimate details of someone else’s personal history -- the family albums, dreams, first drafts, travel itineraries -- in effect become as significant and vivid as one’s own affairs. For most of us this transcendence of self-centeredness is either a matter of hard work or the happy result of falling in love. But for the biographer such attention is nothing less than a career: the "other" is one’s life work.

Norman Sherry has earned his rest after much labor. Having paid attention to the lives of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Joseph Conrad (the latter scrutiny a "ten-year stint") , he has spent more than a decade on Graham Greene. The result is over 700 pages of text and roughly 1,700 footnotes, all devoted to the first 35 years of an author who is still going strong. It is possible that a second volume will not be Sherry’s last word but only the mid-point of a continuing (not to say daunting) project.

Sherry’s competition in his chosen field is, alas for the biographer, the subject himself. Greene has written fairly extensively about his own experience, including a memoir of his first 30 years, A Sort of Life (1971) . The subject’s personal look backward is invariably more interesting than Sherry’s; it is also written in prose that has a power and glory beyond the command of most academic writers. Greene’s self-recall is remarkable for its choice of significant detail, its deftness of touch, a gift for self-dramatization, while the professional examination tends to accumulate a dizzying amount of information and interpret its data with a heavy hand.

The latter trait is especially noticeable in Sherry’s treatment of Greene’s first memory: the author’s recollection of a dead dog placed at the foot of his baby carriage by a nurse who (to quote A Sort of Life) "thought it convenient to bring the cadaver home this way." Green’s account is brief, funny, sardonic ("the cadaver") and understated. Sherry’s version, on the other hand, takes up where the subject leaves off: "However young he was he must have had an instinctive awareness of death from the carcass, the smell, perhaps blood, perhaps the mouth pulled back over the teeth in the snarl of death. Wouldn’t there be a growing sense of panic, even nausea on finding himself shut in, irrevocably committed to sharing the limited confines of a pram with a dead dog?" The biographer concludes, "Knowledge of death came early to Graham Greene." Perhaps. In his autobiography Greene may indeed have been hiding his primal horror behind a screen of cool; after all, his first spoken words, a few months after this event, were supposedly "poor dog." Nonetheless, Sherry has a tendency to connect too many dots, to overread Greene’s life in an attempt to get it straight.

Not that one should blame the biographer for trying to rise to the task he has set himself. He intends to provide not only a study of a major writer’s early development but an attempt "to penetrate the mystery of his character and personality." This entails a closer look at major events already presented by Greene and now fleshed out with the accounts of other people: his life in and around the Berkhamstead School, where his father was headmaster; the more or less serious attempts at teenage suicide; the startling decision of the family to respond to this crisis by sending the boy to board with a psychoanalyst in London; later games of Russian roulette played all alone in an effort to beat boredom and make existence seem precious; and his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

New doors are also opened. Whereas A Sort of Life is content to report, "I married and I was happy," the biographer tells the extraordinary story of courtship, wedding and early marriage, as well as suggesting what would undo that union in the end. There is also a brief but hilarious study of Greene’s career as an acerbic film critic, whose characterizations of Mae West’s walk ("the seductive and reeling motions reminiscent of an overfed python") and Jean Harlow’s charm ("she toted a breast like a man totes a gun") read like compliments compared to the witty venom spilled on Shirley Temple ("In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry") . It is small wonder Greene’s attack on Temple’s "dimpled depravity" cost him a libel suit from Twentieth Century -- Fox.

Sherry has not only read extensively in the scattered Greene archives, talked with everyone available (including, perhaps most interestingly, Greene’s former wife, Vivien) , and thought long and hard about the connections between the life and the work; he also traveled all over the world retracing his subject’s footsteps in order to share his experiences -- including the dysentery Greene contracted in a certain Mexican boarding house 40 years earlier. "Risking disease and death as he had done, I went to those places and in most cases found people Greene had met and put into his novels." The biographer is at his best on location, whether in reconstructing the fantastic and precipitous trip to Liberia that Greene shared with his cousin Barbara (and later described in Journey Without Maps) or providing clues to the persons behind the characters in The Power and the Glory.

Besides collecting (and often correcting) the facts of Greenes history, Sherry functions as a mythographer: he constructs the mystery of a character and personality. In some cases this means continuing the author’s lead in A Sort of Life, which, for instance, presents the horrors of boarding school (on the other side of the "green baize door" from his family quarters) as a season in hell, replete with demonic adversaries among the student body. Sherry not only reveals the names and identities of Greene’s youthful tormentors, but argues that the suffering he experienced at their hands -- and that in part led him to attempt suicide -- yielded artistic material throughout his career, and perhaps most richly so in The Power and the Glory: "Into the lieutenant, the priest and the Judas went some of the insight into human nature gained from his experience with Carter and Wheeler, which had involved him in persecution, self-doubt, feelings of cowardice and the fear of betraying."

Sherry also enriches our sense of the Greene family myth. the extended (and extensive) clan’s own sense of itself. In A Sort of Life Greene attempted to see where he came from by looking past the "loving folly" of his parents’ apparently very happy marriage to the legacy of the two "manic- depressive" grandfathers he never knew except within himself: "the guilt-ridden clergyman and the melancholic sugar planter dead of yellow fever in St. Kitts." Sherry, however, is far more interested in the parents: an abstracted, eccentric father obsessed with the evils of masturbation in his school and the treachery of politicians in Europe; a beautiful but remote mother who was seen almost exclusively during her "state visits" to the nursery. And yet, as the biographer’s documentation bears witness, both father and mother showed themselves surprisingly accepting and indeed generous parents, people aware of their son’s gifts and (as seen in their decision to send him into psychoanalysis) able to go outside their world to offer him help. They seemed invariably willing to protect him as best they could, to send money when it was needed, to bow before his choices, including that momentous decision not only to marry a Roman Catholic but, after years of ardent atheism, to become one himself.

As is often the case in conversion, the church entered his life, in 1925, through a person. A throwaway line in an Oxford Outlook article about the worship of the Virgin Mary provoked a response from Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a 19-year-old secretary at Blackwell’s. She reproved him for confusing worship with veneration ("hyperdulia") and in so doing unwittingly opened a door he would not allow her to close. A meeting led to letters -- hundreds of them, sometimes three a day -- and thereby to an obsessive, monomaniacal love that pursue its end like an army with banners. "You glorious, marvelous, most beautiful, most adorable person in the world. You are simply the symbol of the Absolute."

Because the "symbol" was a Roman Catholic (and herself a convert) , Greene set about to investigate her demanding church at least in part to get her to take him more seriously. Sherry recapitulates Greene’s own accounts of what came of that investigation in Journey Without Maps and A Sort of Life, with important supplementary material from correspondence with Vivien. Instruction was provided by a Father Trollope, a former actor whose "careful avoidance of the slightest emotion or sentiment" appealed to Greene, as did the thorough and businesslike quality of the church’s formidable rules. Doctrines and sacraments were discussed week by week -- even hell at the time seemed "hard, non-sentimental and exciting"-- but the major stumbling block was, quite simply, God. "If I were ever to be convinced in even the remote possibility of a supreme, omnipotent and omniscient power," he wrote in A Sort of Life, "I realized that nothing afterwards could seem impossible."

Arguments for the existence of God did not seem to move him toward that impossibility. There was only Vivien -- his purchase on the Absolute -- and then, in January 1926, a decision to say Yes: "I became convinced of the probable existence of something we call God." The general confession he had to make before his conditional baptism turned out to be a humiliating ordeal ("It was like a life photographed as it came to mind, without any order, full of gaps, giving at best a general impression," he recalls in Journey Without Maps) . The baptism itself was a somewhat anticlimactic affair which Greene chose not to share with Vivien or anyone else, the only witness being a woman who had been dusting the chairs. (Here Sherry corrects Greene’s memory, as is often his wont, with the needless truth of the matter: "The witness of his baptism was not a woman dusting the chairs but Stewart Wallis, an unofficial verger who helped around the cathedral.")

In the biographer’s judgment Greene turned to Catholicism for the "wrong reason," that is, for Vivien. Certainly it seems that the church would not have occurred to him without her, although it has to be said that the euphoria and hyperbole that characterize his premarital letters to her – "Dear love, dear only love forever, dear heart’s desire"-- are notably lacking in his restrained statements of faith. When he talks about the church itself (as opposed to the guardian angel that brought him forward) it is with respect for its rules, a grudging acceptance of its "unnatural" impositions on human life, in short the "unyielding façade" of the Rock of Peter that (as in the case of Evelyn Waugh) attracted many another English convert disgusted with modernity. Greene may well have fallen in love with a woman fantasized beyond human recognition, and then gotten God in the bargain -- for the "wrong reason." But the point is, as Sherry acknowledges, that both Vivien and her religion offered Greene an anchor, a way to channel energy and excitement, an excuse for hope in the face of a congenital predisposition to despair.

Neither anchor turns out to have held; or, rather, it seems to be in the nature of Greene to have to move on, out of safe harbor and into dangerous waters. The need to escape may be the heart of his matter. This was not at first the case in his marriage. Greene’s literary agent observed of the newlyweds at home that there was "a bit too much effusive affection in that flat." The sense of cuddly claustrophobia is suggested by the notes the couple sent to one another via their pet Pekinese ("Lovely and adored Pussina Love-Cat . . .") and the elaborate code they developed for public communication of private feelings. They made a thatched (if rat-infested) cottage in Chipping Camden their retreat from the world and, despite Catholic convictions, felt that the gift of children would be an absolute intrusion into their privacy. (Before the birth of their first child they actually considered giving up the baby for adoption and referred to the unborn as "the amoeba." Sherry says nothing about the two children born within the purview of this volume, giving the impression, however unjustly, that neither daughter nor son meant very much to "the life of Graham Greene," except as dependents to be provided for.)

If part of Greene needed this domestication, another force of greater magnitude wanted out. There were trips abroad, such as the wild jungle trek through Liberia in 1935 (roughly a year after the birth of his first child) , that while ostensibly undertaken as field work for publication were also ways of running away from home. Apparently there were also sexual infidelities: the chaste suitor willing to enter a monastic marriage of brother and sister -- one of Sherry’s revelations -- could not sustain the daily reality of the marriage bed. The inability to maintain his vows may indeed have led Greene to become skeptical about himself and finally unable to remain in the church. This seems in fact to be the gist of his confession in A Sort of Life, where Greene contrasts his state of resolve at the time of his conversion with his condition more than 20 years later, at a point (which Sherry suggests remains characteristic of the present) when "continual failure or the circumstances of our private life finally make it impossible to make any promises at all and many of us abandon Confession and Communion to join the Foreign Legion of the Church and fight for a city of which we are no longer full citizens."

To join the Foreign Legion of the Church, no longer able to be full citizens at home within it: this seems to define what has come to be called, more on the basis of the fiction than on knowledge of the author himself, a "Graham Greene Catholic." One thinks of the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, at once faithless to his vows and utterly faithful to his vocation. But there is also Pinkie in Brighton Rock, who (in Sherry’s characterization) "seeks with religious passion his own damnation," cursed by a religious sensibility and able only to choose the demonic. And then there is the atheist Bendrix, who, at the conclusion of The End of the Affair, allows that he would not take it amiss if the Hound of Heaven were at his heels: "I hope so. I hope so. I hope He is still dogging my footsteps."

Sherry begins his study with the recollection of an interview in 1983, when he visited Greene at his home in Antibes and spoke with him about religion. He opened the interview with questions about an event of which we will no doubt read in volume two: a 1949 trip to Rome in order to visit the reputed stigmatic, Padre Pio. Greene described with awe his memories of Pio at mass, the intensity of his celebration, and the clear signs of the stigmata on his hands. Although Greene had been granted a meeting with the priest, he decided against it: "I said, ‘No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to change my life by meeting a saint.’ And I felt that there was a good chance that he was one. He had a great peace about him."

So much of Greene’s predicament is expressed in that refusal: his obvious awe in the presence of holiness, his fear that exposure to it would transform his own life, his sense that "great peace" is at once the mark of the true saint and a condition not to be borne by himself. Confrontation and escape are the two impulses that drive him: the desire to see for himself and the need to avoid being "placed" by that vision. Guilt comes from the knowledge that one has betrayed what is worth dying for, but that -- short of the firing squad’s enforced moment of truth -- one cannot live for very long, or perhaps even at all, in the bright light of vision. It is better to hear the shots in the dark and hope (against so much experience) for the best.

In 1971 Greene wrote, "With the approach of death I care less and less about religious truth. One hasn’t long to wait for revelation or darkness." Almost two decades later, and now with his early life so extensively anatomized, the waiting time for insight or blindness must seem very short indeed. Norman Sherry’s Life tells us something about the man who has given us one notion of what it may mean to be a citizen fighting for a city that is no longer home. If Sherry does not penetrate the mystery of Greene’s character and personality, it may be because (no matter how diligently studied, no matter how much attention lavished) the life of anyone remains an enigma, a secret that cannot be disclosed.