Russian Roulette: The Life And Times Of Graham Greene

Richard Greene

Little, Brown, £25

Review by Brian Morton

Perhaps there was a real gun. Perhaps it even contained one loaded chamber. Some versions of the story suggest the bullet might have been a blank, but that matters little at close range: “I put the muzzle of the revolver into my right ear and pulled the trigger. There was a minute click and looking down at the chamber I could see that the charge had moved into the firing position. I was out by one.”

Everyone knows a few things about Graham Greene: the sex, the depression, the troubled and often ambiguous Catholicism, the Russian roulette. The last is now usually taken as a matter of fact, the behaviour of a deeply depressed student who was drinking too much.

But there is internal evidence that points another way, a poem of the time that considers “our timorous advances to death, by / pulling the trigger of a revolver, which we already / know to be empty”.

Perhaps it is best to think of the Russian roulette as a metaphor for a life lived constantly on the brink. When he survived intense fire during the Six Day War in Israel, Greene wrote: “I really thought I’d had my last game of Russian roulette.” He constantly exposed himself to danger. He came under fire in Vietnam, and as the Vietminh gathered to overcome the French, found himself between the lines. He did something similar, more deliberately, where, as a known enemy of the state because of his novel The Comedians, he stepped over the border between the Dominican Republic and Haïti, right under Papa Doc’s guns.

He visited the heart of darkness more than once, barely surviving a jungle trip in Liberia and later visiting leproseries in the Congo, background to A Burnt-Out Case. On the first trip, he took along his cousin Barbara, a nurse, who brought him back to skeletal life, so perhaps the death-urge was matched by a profound desire to live, but at extremes. He constantly put himself where history was happening, in the moment, even if he was sometimes “out by one”.

Richard Greene (no relation) – is no sensationalist, either. In sharp contrast to Greene’s earlier biographer Norman Sherry, who walked every step in Greene’s shoes and nearly died as a result, he isn’t interested in the “sex, books and depression” litanies of previous lives. He takes it as read that the entire body of work is, as Greene himself said in 1980, “a form of therapy”. In the same interview, Greene wondered “how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in the human situation”.

In a sense Greene’s work was an attempt to capture precisely the lives of those who did not paint or compose, or know some form of transcendence in the form of established religion or spirituality. His own Catholicism is sufficiently well-trodden territory to need no further investigation. What Richard Greene does instead is to link Greene more solidly to the historical events he participated in. In other words, he attempts to reverse the priority of “life and times”.

This is where problems set in. There are moments – many – when the biographer digresses to point out the after-histories of the many trouble-spots Greene knew. Sometimes, the point is briefly apposite. Greene eventually published a novel, The Human Factor, about his friend and fellow intelligence agent Kim Philby, who he continued to admire and defend. In the course of their exchanges he suggested that the logic of Soviet and post-Soviet history was that the KGB or its successor would eventually take over the country. Greene thought this would be a good thing, a triumph of pragmatism over ideology and brinkmanship, and certainly not what has fallen out under Vladimir Putin’s “territorial ambition … repression … and greed”.

Elsewhere, as in the Congo, his flash-forwards seem out of place and too quickly mugged-up, as when he talks about the fated prime ministership of Patrice “Lamumba”. To get wrong the name of a figure so widely honoured in Africa and on the left (there was a Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow) seems careless.

The book is on much stronger ground when dealing with the evolution of what Greene referred to as “the doubt in my disbelief”. This shouldn’t be taken to refer exclusively to Catholicism – Greene oscillated between a kind of blank atheism and belief in stigmata and other miracles – but says more about his alternating faith and disbelief in humanity. Greene never won the Nobel Prize, perhaps because the committee could never clearly judge whether the work unambiguously reflects the affirmative values its charter calls for.

Richard Greene does a very useful job in suspending the irrelevant distinction between “novels” and “entertainments”, which Greene himself came to regret. When the work is considered all of a piece, instead of putting the dark and serious stuff – Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter – over here, and the lighter stuff – Stamboul Train, A Gun For Sale, Travels With My Aunt – over there, the work and the life begin to cohere more satisfactorily.

A more meaningful distinction might be between novels and reportage, which many of them were in disguise. We forget now what a formidable journalist Greene was. He was also almost unique in enjoying success on stage and screen as well as in serious fiction. He disliked many of the films adapted or maladapted from his work, but he did brilliant screen work of his own: The Third Man is one of his major works.

In short, punchy chapters, Richard Greene delivers a remarkably whole and believable Greene, stripping away some of the mystique and “doubleness”. Greene was unique in attracting a platoon of doppelgängers, tall, rangy men who turned up at lectures and signings insisting they were Graham Greene.

It was a phenomenon Greene himself actively encouraged, one of his great jokes. Identity, he seemed to be saying, was a matter of confidence and confidence was by definition a trick. He did retain a double view of humanity. It’s worth recognising that “the power and the glory” itself, the formula behind his greatest work, is a Manichean rather than Catholic concept. Greene lived in a world at war with itself. Good and evil grappled in the ring and sometimes there was fun to be had between rounds.