Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene by Richard Greene (734pp. Little, Brown, £25) is the most objective biography of Greene to date, says Quentin Falk
Graham Greene was such an unreliable narrator of his own remarkable life that, nearly 30 years after his death in 1991, biographers continue to be drawn to the challenge. What is the unvarnished truth about one of the 20th century’s greatest writers?
Professor Richard Greene’s (no relation) effort follows Norman Sherry’s three authorised volumes and Michael Shelden’s weighty The Man Within. But unlike Sherry’s tiresome search into every nook and cranny of the author’s globe-trotting life and times, and Shelden’s readable but shamelessly prosecutorial account, this latest biography is, whatever else, easily the most objective version to date.
“Graham Greene continues to speak to an unquiet world,” Prof Greene declares, adding, more importantly, that he is “one of the very few modern writers in English who can be valued for a whole body of work”. All those varying elements of Greene’s entire writing life – his journalism, screenplays, short stories, and film reviewing – inform and often gloriously embroider his enduring reputation.
Here, I should perhaps declare an interest. I was, nearly 40 years ago, desperate to write a book, and as a film journalist fascinated by the art and craft of book-to-screen adaptation decided, rather presumptuously, to approach Greene. His huge filmography seemed, even to the layman, rather more interesting and varied than the likes of, say, an Alistair Maclean, Steinbeck, or Somerset Maugham. Whether it was because he was beguiled by my confession that I wasn’t a “student of his writing”, becoming increasingly irked with Sherry’s investigation of his past, or just simply bored (his default mode), Greene invited me down to his modest Antibes exile home. There he offered a couple of recording tapes’ worth of marvellous film-related anecdotes and memories which, 18 months later, were published as part of a sort of cinematic biography on the cusp of his 80th birthday.
Evelyn Waugh, a fellow Catholic convert, noted his friend’s “cinema eye”, and film clearly played a significant part in Greene’s life: he recalled from his youth, the “green Moorish dome” of Berkhamsted’s high street cinema, and later had stints as a perceptive critic for the Spectator and Night and Day magazines, before a long involvement with filmmaking itself. Prof Greene has admitted that pressure of space simply didn’t allow for coverage of the whole filmography, which apart from his own adaptations – notably Brighton Rock, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man – he mostly reviled or else rejected.
Prof Greene, who had the perfect audition for this tome when he edited Greene’s A Life in Letters in 2007, dwells fascinatingly on the context for his novels. Many arose out of his journalism, which found Greene travelling in some of the world’s hottest spots such as Indo-China, the Caribbean and Central America, yielding titles such as The Quiet American, The Comedians and The Power and the Glory.
He also doesn’t shirk from discussing in this biography, divided readably into 78 short, sharp chapters, Greene’s human failings, many of which can be detected in what are surely thinly disguised self-portraits within many of his greatest works – the adulterer, the drinker, drug-taker, the brothel-goer – regularly spiced with the agonised theology of the convert, be it a Bendrix in The End of the Affair or Scobie in The Heart of the Matter.
The term “Catholic writer” has, of course, been regularly appended to Greene’s novels, much to his annoyance. He always, despite some of their content, denied ever wishing to use literature for political or religious ends.
Guy Elmes, an old screenwriter friend of Greene’s, told me that he once asked the novelist why he became a Catholic: “Greene replied, ‘Well, I looked at them all and the only one that measured up to my evil was the Catholic faith.’”
The title of Russian Roulette is derived from Greene’s supposed flirtation with the game during his troubled teenage years, exacerbated by the fact he was at a school where his father was headmaster. It also, as some reviewers have noted, might serve as a useful metaphor for a man endlessly chancing his arm as he ventured within often violently troubled borders. Russian Roulette very skilfully captures the light and shade of a life that was often stranger than fiction.
Quentin Falk is the author of Travels in Greeneland: The Cinema of Graham Greene. His book about the British filmmaker Charles Crichton will be published by Manchester University Press in 2021