New Biography of Graham Greene

A new biography of Graham Greene has been published. The UK edition is entitled Russian Roulette and is written by Richard Greene (no relation but editor of a collection of Graham’s letters). The book is reviewed in the Sunday Times by John Walsh who opens with a description of how Greene in 1948 introduced a teenage Michael Korda to drink, spying and sex on a single yachting trip:

It’s easy to see why Greene’s wicked-uncle sophistication, his familiarity with both yachting film stars and hookers on shore, persuaded the awestruck Korda to become a writer. But it’s puzzling to read, eight pages later in this new biography, Evelyn Waugh’s diary entry that describes a quite different figure. “Mass at 12 at Farm Street where I met the shambling, unshaven and … penniless figure of Graham Greene. He had been suddenly moved by love of Africa and emptied the contents of his pockets into the box for African missions.”

Walsh then continues with a a discussion of the contradictions exhibited in both Greene’s life and his writings. The review concludes:

The book, elegantly sliced into 78 chapters, bounds along with fluency, clarity and wry humour. It doesn’t deliver startling revelations to eclipse Norman Sherry’s three-volume authorised life, but its agenda is clear. Greene concentrates on his namesake’s emotional involvement with victims of oppression in the world’s poorest countries and the Cold War […]  He rescues Greene from seediness and coldness. And he lets you hear an echo of the character in The Quiet American who says: “Sooner or later one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.”

The diary entry is for 11 January 1948 (Diaries, p. 694).

The Greene biography is also reviewed in the Evening Standard. This is by Ian Thomson who begins by noting the high bar set for biographer’s by Norman Sherry’s 30-year effort written during Greene’s lifetime:

Several biographers have tried but failed to topple Sherry’s monopoly. Michael Shelden, publishing his life in the mid-Nineties, sought to arraign Greene on charges of sadism, anti-Semitism and alcoholism. Anthony Mockler offered a Boy’s Own hagiography and fancifully imagined Greene on his Lake Geneva deathbed: “Graham looked out of the antiseptic room over the sterile Swiss sky. No vultures gazed back…” Thank goodness for Richard Greene, whose splendid one-volume biography offers a succinct counterbalance to Sherry’s inedible trifle and conjures the man Evelyn Waugh nicknamed “Grisjambon Vert” (French for “grey ham green”) in all his perplexing variety. Where Sherry is tactless and indecorous, Richard Greene (no relation) is respectful and considered. Crisply written, Russian Roulette takes its title from Greene’s vaunted flirtation with suicide as a teenager in Berkhamsted outside London, where his father was a school headmaster. Prone to bouts of self-loathing, he drank heavily, smoked opium and patronised brothels.

Waugh’s nickname was applied in a 1961 letter to Christopher Sykes referring to Greene’s recently published “very sorrowful” novel A Burnt-Out Case (Letters, p. 556). The new biography has already appeared in the UK and will be published in the USA early next year under the title The Unquiet Englishman.

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