Richard Greene’s biography Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene is published today in the UK. Last month, Richard was interviewed by A Sort of Newsletter Editor and former Festival Director Michael Hill. Here is a transcript of the interview to mark this important event:
AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD GREENE
Your first book on Graham Greene was a superb collection of his letters. How did you first getting involved in researching Greene?
Thank you! I am glad you liked that book. Around 2002, I was writing a biography of Edith Sitwell and hoped to get access to letters she wrote to Graham Greene, which were then embargoed at Georgetown University for the sole use of the biographer Norman Sherry. I appealed to Francis Greene, as literary executor, for help, and then our discussions became such that I laid aside my Sitwell book for a few years and got to work on Graham Greene’s letters.
There have been biographies of Graham Greene before. Why a new one now?
There are two completed biographies, but scholars and reviewers found many problems with them – not least the problem of the forest and the trees – so much sex that we lost sight of why Graham Greene mattered at all. The common opinion was that another needed to be written.
In any event, so much fresh and compelling archival material had surfaced that a new biography was imperative. Bear in mind that thirty years have passed since the first volume of Sherry’s biography appeared. Through those years, large and revealing collections of papers have become available. The story looks very different now.
Putting all authorial modesty aside, what is the Unique Selling Point of your biography?
Ha! At the end of writing a book authorial modesty is very strong – you are awaiting the reviews. I think the book is readable, humane, affirming, funny, and sceptical at appropriate moments. I suppose it really puts Graham Greene into his political contexts – that is, in dozens of countries and in dozens of cultures. Whether I succeeded is something others will judge.
Does your book cover any areas neglected or ignored in previous biographies?
I often think of Francis Bacon’s epigram, ‘What is truth, said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ I think many of the broad topics have been raised by other biographies, but not pursued to the end – so, I think, this book tries to pursue evidence about any issue it raises fairly to the end. What was Graham Greene’s attitude towards Jews? What was going on between himself and Kim Philby? What was his view of the Soviet Union? How did he relate to his wife and children? How did he make his money? How did he wind up in Panama and what was he doing there? The approach is to put everything on the table, and even as the reader may object occasionally to his opinions or his conduct, one is left – certainly I was left – with a sense of Graham Greene having done great good in the world.
Have any new archives or material been available to you that weren’t on offer to previous biographers?
Oh yes, I can only offer a brief summary. The introduction to the book devotes several pages to this matter. When I edited Graham Greene: A Life in Letters I was overwhelmed by the amount of family correspondence and letters to friends and business associates that had recently come to light – that is, after Sherry and Shelden had completed their research. Since then, Yvonne Cloetta’s memoir has been published; Father Leopoldo Duran’s papers have gone to Georgetown; Bernard Diederich has written a memoir, which, alone, necessitated a general re-examination of Graham Greene’s life and career. Caroline Bourget has made herself available for lengthy interviews, allowing for a perspective on the family life, which is nowhere to be found in earlier studies; Oliver Walston has written a memoir of his mother, Catherine Walston, providing reliable detail about a very complicated life; the senior MI6 officer Tim Milne has written a memoir of Kim Philby which turned on its head much of what we thought we knew about Graham Greene’s activities in MI6. Moreover, and this is terrifically important, there are many scholars at work now on aspects of Graham Greene’s life and career, and their discoveries are referred to in my work. I am so thankful for what they have done. A biography of Graham Greene is no longer a one-man show. It is a largely collaborative business, and as the citations to my book will show, I owe a huge amount to other scholars. I hope I have expressed my gratitude to them sufficiently.
One of Greene’s earlier biographers, Norman Sherry, famously travelled the world in Greene’s footsteps as part of his research. Have you done anything similar?
I agree with Michael Shelden that the best part of Sherry’s research was done in archives. I did go, for example, to Haiti, and made a few other journeys, but not on the scale of Sherry’s travels. It is an expensive, time-consuming enterprise, for modest rewards, and in any event, most of the witnesses to Greene’s visits have now died.
Did you have difficulties covering such a long and varied life in one volume? How did you deal with that problem?
I wanted the book to be a little shorter, but the challenge came in accounting for the political and cultural situations of so many countries. The list is long: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mexico, Malaya, Vietnam, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Kenya, Congo, Haiti, Spain, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Panama, El Salvador, Belize, and Nicaragua. I did my best to give the necessary information as concisely as I could without over-simplification. It was not easy. And again, others will have to judge whether I got it right.
A second challenge was in dealing with Greene’s bipolar illness – I had the advice of three psychiatrists as I worked on the matter, but I am not one myself, and we no longer have his medical files. It was an issue I needed to acknowledge in the text without claiming an expertise I do not possess. There is no way around this issue in Greene’s life, but you cannot let it take over the book. I began to think of how in the life of Lord Nelson, one would have to write of the wind without being a meteorologist. Bipolar illness was the prevailing wind in Greene’s life and I had to account for it.
A third challenge was to address the variety of his writing and the differences in craft. He was a novelist, poet, dramatist, journalist, memoirist, diarist, and letter-writer. At the moment, I think there are about 48 of his books in print. I hope I have done justice to what he wrote.
I think you once said that in writing this biography you would have ‘a joke on every page’, or similar. What was the thought behind that, and did you follow through on it?
I said that to my publisher with regard to my biography of the hilarious Edith Sitwell – it was a matter of pacing as I tried to make a long book readable and entertaining. Graham Greene was an incredibly funny man – wisecracks, practical jokes, whimsical anecdotes, bogus outfits like the Anglo-Texan Society, sheer shenanigans. Yes, Greene was subject to terrible depressions, but his friends knew him as a wit and an entertainer. I hope I have captured that side of him.
You previously wrote a very well-received biography of Edith Sitwell. Did you apply any lessons learnt in writing that to the Greene biography, and how do the two research and writing tasks compare?
Edith Sitwell’s life was rather quieter than Graham Greene’s – I think that that book is important though for its illumination of the lot of the accomplished woman writer in a world run by men. Because her life was sedentary, I often portrayed her as a story teller rather than as always the central actor in a complex plot. I found that in Graham Greene’s life there was much more action and movement. Accordingly, I found myself moving to shorter chapters to make the work more readable. In a strange way, I found it much more an “outward” book – so many bombs and battlefields. At the same time, I made a stylistic choice – the sentences shorter and more declarative. One grows as a writer, and my friend Jeremy Lewis urged me to apply “narrative glue” to the events of Sitwell’s life – I tried to do it, but I think I did a better a job in this book. It truly tells a story.
Of course, all the politics, all the military history, all the cultural details are not meant solely as background. In a sense, they are also foreground – I am not rehearsing twentieth century history just to explain a single life; I am also treating that single life as a lens to examine the urgencies of the twentieth century as they are manifested in dozens of contexts, particularly as they give birth to great writing. It was immensely interesting, and I am glad to have been given the opportunity to do it.
Did you come across any details of Greene’s life that surprised you?
Very many and perhaps a surprising number emerged from unlikely sources – business letters and film contracts. Certainly, a film contract largely explains his departure from MI6 in 1944, but I don’t want to give spoilers.
Your book is being published with two different titles: Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene in the UK, The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene in North America. Have you any thoughts on the differences between the two titles?
‘Russian Roulette’ was one of several titles I proposed to the British publisher, Little, Brown. They chose it as suited to British readers. ‘The Unquiet Englishman’ was proposed by W. W. Norton as suited to the North American market. I am happy with both titles, but would actually have preferred to call the book, ‘Appalling Strangeness: The Life and Times of Graham Greene’.
You are an award-winning poet as well as a biographer. How do the two roles compare, and what do you think of Greene’s own poetry?
I find that the writing style of a biography is necessarily more reserved than what I would attempt in poetry, but I decided at a certain point to start taking risks. Let’s be honest – literary biography can be a lethal genre, largely because authors have turned to it after failing as poets or novelists – being a dull writer has always been okay for a biographer. What serious reader does not have on the shelf various literary biographies too tedious to finish? Well, I think that is a disaster for the genre. I hope the risks I took were justified.
As for Graham Greene’s mature poetry, I think very highly of it. If he had not been a novelist, he would have deserved a solid reputation as a poet, rather in the mode of W. H. Auden.
Where do you think Greene’s reputation stands now, among readers and in the academic world?
Graham Greene has about the most durable and robust reputation of any British novelist of the twentieth century. You can do comparisons of the numbers of present-day references to him turned up by search engines, say, in the archives of major newspapers. He is a point of reference for modern writers, even as some wonderful writers, such as E. M. Forster, are not. Woolf and Waugh continue to be part of present-day literary discussions, but to a lesser degree. Time passes, new writers emerge. Even so, Graham Greene continues to be read.
Do you have a favourite work by Greene?
Several: The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, The Comedians, and The Honorary Consul.
What’s next for you now the Greene biography is published?
I honestly don’t know. Perhaps I will write some fiction. Since a biography involves a decade of labour, I am not sure that I will attempt one again. But at 59, I have time. We will see.