Graham Greene was cold and clear Credit: Wikimedia commons

The true cost of Graham Greene's life on the run

Some of his writing thrills today but too much is second-rate
September 2, 2020

Richard Greene—no relation—says ruefully of Graham Greene that his life is “sometimes boiled down to sex, books and depression” by critics. In his exhaustive, engaging study of Greene, his biographer attempts to reclaim him as a writer who speaks to our “unquiet world” rather than being mired in “Greeneland,” a place where betrayal and guilt trudge glumly on together.

He acknowledges the influence of Greene’s authorised biographer Norman Sherry and the more prurient Michael Shelden, but this is a fresh reappraisal. Russian Roulette avoids the “obscure details of [Greene’s] sexual life,” but Richard Greene also correctly notes that the new material that has subsequently emerged, including access to a memoir written by the son of Greene’s mistress Catherine Walston, has allowed him to write this partisan biography. “This book takes a very high view of Greene’s accomplishments… it is hard to think of a recent writer in English who comes as close to greatness as he does.”

But in fact, Greene emerges from Russian Roulette as a shiftily contradictory figure. His best writing still thrills today but he also produced a lot of second-rate and unengaging work. His drama, surprisingly given his accomplished writing for film, is especially weak. He was generous to friends, but his private life was a lecherous disaster, made miserable through Catholic guilt. His cousin Barbara summed him up: “apart from three or four people he was really fond of, I felt that the rest of humanity was to him like a heap of insects that he liked to examine… coldly and clearly.”

From his miserable schooldays to his extensive travels, the key motif in Greene’s life seems to have been escape, as much from himself as from others. Close to death, he said, “at last I shall know what lies on the other side of the fence.” This thoughtful book clearly shows the cost of a life lived on the run.

Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene by Richard Greene (Little, Brown, £25)