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BOOK REVIEW

A new biography untangles Graham Greene

Author Graham Greene in 1975.
Author Graham Greene in 1975.EVENING STANDARD/GETTY IMAGES

Was Graham Greene one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers in English? John le Carre and Shirley Hazzard thought so. And William Faulkner pronounced Greene’s “The End of the Affair” “one of the best, most true and moving novels of my time.”

In his new biography “The Unquiet Englishman,” Richard Greene, no relation and a professor at the University of Toronto, has no hesitation about placing Greene (1904-1991) among the century’s most august. Without making comparative assessments of others, he suggests that the author of “The Power and the Glory, “The Honorary Consul,” “The Heart of the Matter,” and “The Quiet American” had few peers.

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There’s no doubt that Greene was one of the era’s most controversial figures, continually making headlines because of his left-wing politics and his ambivalent relationship to Roman Catholicism. He played footsie with Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, and never disavowed his friendship with Kim Philby, the Soviet mole in British intelligence. Despite the author’s religion, “The Heart of the Matter” was banned in Catholic Ireland, and “The Power and the Glory” denounced by the Vatican’s Holy Office.

Though married for many years, Greene carried on long-term affairs with four women, often simultaneously. A victim of bipolar disorder, he struggled to keep suicide at bay. Prodded by wanderlust, he was unable to remain in one place for long, roaming across the globe in search of adventure and material for fiction. He wrote not only novels, but stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs, journalism, and a bit of poetry.

Larger than life, in the contemptible retro-macho Hemingway-Mailer mode, he was also continually wrestling with his demons, his biographer assures us, and thus oddly pitiable and deserving of sympathy.

All this is terrific fodder for a biographer. This one opts to steer a middle course between two earlier chroniclers, the lapdog approach of Norman Sherry and the harshly critical tone of Michael Shelden. His eye is on the nuances. “The Unquiet Englishman” is authoritative and thoroughly researched, while being superbly readable. It ably tracks the works from inspiration to publication, sometimes followed by transformation into movies.

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Greene began life in an English village, the son of a headmaster. His father’s status could not shield this bookish boy from bullies and suicidal thoughts. He later recalled the brief interlude when he was whisked away from his tormentors to live with a psychiatrist and his family in London as the happiest days of his life. His longer lasting misfortune, though, was to have a family history of depression that would plague him all his days.

Greene’s first love was Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a secretary whose “tumultuous childhood” — the biographer writes in words that make her seem exactly wrong for this man — “had predisposed her to be conservative and otherworldly.” A devout Catholic, she persuaded Greene to convert to the faith when they married. But he was more committed to sexual wandering than to fidelity. He consorted with sex workers, and soon lived apart from his family. Though his marriage disintegrated into “little more than a shell,” his financial support to wife and children remained steadfast.

A succession of lovers provided as much melodrama and heartbreak as ballast to his life. Dorothy Glover, a designer and children’s book illustrator, was the first. Later he found himself simultaneously married to Vivien, living with Dorothy, and besotted with Catherine Walston, who was very beautiful and very married. Catherine would prove to be his life-long love. But that fervor did not rule out later liaisons with Swedish actress Anita Bjork and another married woman, Yvonne Cloetta. Commitment to one woman was never an option.

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Greene’s relationship with the religion he inherited from Vivien, and never disavowed, was also fraught. Though he cherished the mystery of the Mass and befriended many priests, he was never a conventional Catholic, nor were the flawed protagonists of his novels, like the “whiskey priest” of “The Power and the Glory.” The biographer puts it well: “Greene found it easiest to believe when in the company of fervent Catholics … Deprived of their witness, he inclined to doubt.” Near the end of his life, Greene’s self-description as “a Catholic agnostic” seems particularly apt.

The book has some flaws. While it’s true that explaining historical context is an essential element of solid biography, Richard Greene in this realm becomes excessive. This defect often crops up when he delves into the politics of Vietnam or Central America, say, to clarify what Greene was up to in his forays into those conflict-riddled regions. In self-defense, readers are likely to skim these sections, their eyes glazing over.

And when taking the measure of Greene’s relationship with Kim Philby, the biographer is far too generous. The two men had met while undergraduates at Oxford, where both shared a playful wit. Like Philby, Greene briefly joined the Communist Party, to his later regret. During World War II, Philby supervised Greene’s counterintelligence activities in Portugal.

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Even after Philby fled to Moscow, Greene declined to denounce him, believing loyalty to a friend trumped loyalty to a nation-state, and he visited him several times there in the 1980s. A vociferous opponent of what he considered US imperialism, Greene once declared that, if forced to choose between living in the Soviet Union versus living in the States, he would choose the USSR. Of course, had he done so, he would have been persecuted just as the Soviet dissidents he championed were.

Still, “The Unquiet Englishman” is a very solid work, and should long serve as the standard biography.

Dan Cryer is author of the biography “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church” and the memoir “Forgetting My Mother: A Blues from the Heartland.”

The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene

Richard Greene

Norton, 592 pages, $40