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“Splinter of Ice”

ISSUE:  Summer 1990
The Life of Graham Greene. Volume I: 1904—1939. By Norman Sherry. Viking. $29.95.

Graham Greene is the oldest and most distinguished English novelist. He published his first book, Babbling April, in 1925 and his most recent, The Captain and the Enemy, in 1988. Though he has been a public figure for the last 60 years, and has written two memoirs, he has managed to protect his privacy. Surprisingly little has been known about his mental breakdown, suicide attempts and psychoanalysis, his conversion to Catholicism, marriage and children, his habits and tastes, personal friendships, and sexual life.

About 15 years ago Greene appointed Norman Sherry, an Englishman who teaches in Texas and is a leading authority on Conrad, as his official biographer. Greene submitted to interviews, introduced Sherry to his family and friends, handed over his diaries, and allowed his biographer to quote freely from his letters. Sherry has done exhaustive research, found excellent photographs, followed (at some risk to his health) Greene’s path through the Liberian bush and the Mexican jungle, and tracked down many figures from Greene’s past and the originals of his fictional characters. Since Greene is an intensely autobiographical writer whose experience is closely connected to his imaginative work, Sherry has been able to pin the fictional to the factual events of his life. Sherry’s style is lively, but his massive, 783-page first volume is overlong, repetitive, and cumbered with excessive and often superfluous detail: “He kept working during January, February and March.” After obtaining access to a massive amount of material, Sherry sacrificed his dramatic narrative by including almost everything he had discovered about Greene.

Like many modern writers, Greene was hurt into art by oppression, unhappiness, and poor health during childhood. His mother was unusually tall, cold, and remote. His father— a mildly eccentric muscular Christian, obsessed with the evils of homosexuality—inspired humor, affection, and respect in his pupils at Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire. Greene, the fourth of six children, was a cousin of both Robert Louis Stevenson and Christopher Isherwood.

Greene claimed his first, characteristic memory was of a dead dog in his pram. Sherry repeats that Greene’s sister’s pug had been run over by a horse and “been thrown into his baby carriage by the nurse who “thought it convenient to bring the cadaver home this way.”” But it is inconceivable that a responsible nurse would put into the restricted space of a pram the mangled, filthy, smelly corpse of a dog, which would not only terrify the infant, but also bleed all over his blankets, sheets, and clothes. Sherry seems naïve in accepting the symbolic for the actual. Following the putative dead dog trauma, Sherry interprets Greene’s habit of taking a multitude of soft animals to bed with him as “an indication of fear and insecurity.” In fact, as any parent knows, it is perfectly normal and natural for a small child to want the comfort of a furry and familiar toy.

Sherry describes Greene as a “child who was imaginative, fearful of many things, complex, often withdrawn, but with an early developed sense of justice and independence.” Yet at school the sensitive, intellectual youth was considered a rather feeble nonentity, vaguely recalled by his contemporaries. Greene had a horror of the school’s sexual promiscuity, lack of privacy, and unrestrained cruelty. His loneliness, sense of failure in academic and athletic life (especially when compared to his successful older brother), divided loyalties to father and the classmates, and sadistic victimization by a boy who jabbed him with a compass, led, when Greene had left home and become a boarder in 1918, to a nervous breakdown.

Unable to confide in his imperceptive parents and fearful of betraying his tormentors, he tried various means of self-mutilation and suicide. He sawed his knee with a blunt knife, drank a quantity of hypo, drained a bottle of hay-fever drops, ate a bunch of harmless deadly nightshade, swallowed 20 aspirin and devoured a tin of hair pomade. When all this failed to produce the desired oblivion, he ran away from home, hid among the gorse of the Common, and was ingloriously discovered by his eldest sister. From these experiences, which were mitigated by a sympathetic psychoanalyst, came Greene’s lifelong interest in hardship, secrecy, and disguise, his compassion for the hunted and the oppressed, his nose for cowardly betrayal and spiritual decay. Yet, true to his class, he sent his own son to a private school.

The journalist Claud Cockburn, Greene’s friend at Balliol College, Oxford, considered him a severe “case of arrested development.” Besieged by Baudelairean boredom, he had an aimless academic career, did some amateur spying in Germany, and fell hopelessly in love with the family governess, Gwen Howell, who was ten years older than Greene and engaged to be married. He also distracted himself and tested his courage by playing Russian roulette. Sherry observes: “For him it was always a gamble with a five to one chance of failure.” But the danger was actually quite minimal. When a single bullet is spun in the chamber, it will (because of its weight) always rest at the bottom rather than in the barrel of a revolver.

In 1925, shortly after he published his first book, an unimpressive volume of poems, Greene met his future wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning. Sherry provides a tedious, sometimes hour-by-hour account of their protracted courtship, based on Greene’s voluminous (often four per day), commonplace, and extremely dull letters: “Vivien, Dear one, Darling, darling heart, marvellous wonderful, adorable one, Angel, Loveliest in the world, Sweetest Heart, Dear only love for ever, sweet one, old thing, dear desire.”

Vivien’s father was an adulterous cattle farmer in Rhodesia; her mother, who left her husband and forced her daughter to sever relations with him, was once governess to the children of Rudyard Kipling. Sherry does not say nearly enough about the background and character of Vivien, a conventional, middle-class Catholic convert, of limited education and experience, who began work as secretary to Basil Blackwell when she was 15, had a deep-rooted fear of sex, and thought seriously of entering a convent. The highly-sexed, sex-starved Greene, who was granted his first kiss after three months of intense wooing, idealized and worshipped the curiously blank girl—and even promised her a celibate marriage. They had separate bedrooms on their honeymoon, and Greene seemed to feel that he had degraded her spirituality by subjecting her to carnal relations. Despite his passion, she found him tense and unresponsive. Torn between love and lust, he consorted with prostitutes both before and after his marriage in October 1927.

Greene’s unrealistic infatuation with Vivien led him to sacrifice a promising job with the British-American Tobacco Company in China and, though a former atheist, to follow her into the Catholic Church in February 1926. Claud Cockburn emphasized Greene’s cynicism as well as his devotion when he exclaimed: “Take instruction or whatever balderdash they want you to go through, if you need this for your fuck. We both know the whole thing is bloody nonsense.” The marriage, which produced a girl in 1933 and a boy in 1937 (Sherry says very little about them), broke up in the 1940’s, partly because Greene had ruthlessly described his marital problems in fiction. Vivien later said that Greene’s restless wanderings—his dangerous, irresponsible trips to Liberia and Mexico—made him unsuited to marriage. Though Greene eventually abandoned confession and communion because of continual failure to keep his promises and is no longer a Catholic (be believes in hell—not after death, but as a condition of life), he never remarried.

While taking religious instruction from the hermaphroditic-looking Father Trollope, Greene worked for several months as a night sub-editor of the Journal in dreary, provincial Nottingham. The town, he said, “makes one want a mental and physical bath every quarter of an hour.” In March 1926 he moved to the same job on The Times, which he liked because his colleagues were from his own class and background. He became a strike-breaker during the General Strike that year, had an appendix operation, and was falsely diagnosed as epileptic. Though Greene felt this would be an impediment to marriage (“if I were epileptic, I must avoid having children”), it would also have solved a problem since neither of them wanted to have children.

Greene began his first novel, The Man Within (1929), while working on The Times. His fictional method was to follow the initial incident or situation that sparked his imagination by a careful, personal exploration of the setting. On location, he took sparse but accurate notes and met people who suggested his characters. The key to his technique is what Greene, describing his observation of a mother screaming for her dead child, called the “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. This was something which one day I might need.” As Barbara Greene, his cousin who accompanied him to Africa, perceived: most “of humanity was to him like a heap of insects that he liked to examine, as a scientist might examine his specimens, coldly and clearly.”

The Man Within was an immediate critical and commercial success. It sold 8,000 copies, was translated into five languages, and led to introductions to Kipling, Wells, Bennett, and Cunninghame Graham. When Heinemann offered an advance of royalties on his next two novels of £650 a year for two years, Greene left the security of The Times. But when his next two novels—fatally influenced by Conrad’s romance, Arrow of Gold (1919), and never reprinted—failed, and his quite respectable biography of the Earl of Rochester was rejected (it eventually appeared in 1974), his yearly advance was reduced to £400 and then to £300, and he realized that he might have to write two more novels without receiving any payment at all. He recovered from precarious penury when Stamboul Train (1932) was accepted by the Book Society and film rights were sold for $7,500.

Green’s financial insecurity put an end to his lingering Conservatism, and during the 1920’s and early 1930’s his political progress was as eccentric and inconsistent as his religious beliefs. “He had canvassed for the Conservatives in Oxford in 1923; was close to the Liberals in 1924; [playfully] joined the Communists in 1925 . . .had been a special constable during the General Strike, and [in 1933] became a member of the Independent Labour Party.”

The journey to Liberia in 1935 (with expenses paid in advance by his publisher and moral support from the Anti-Slavery Society) was his first adventurous expedition to a remote place. Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which had inspired the trip, Greene’s travel book, Journey Without Maps (1936), was both an exorcism and a journey into self. Greene probably chose Liberia, “the deadest of all ends,” because it was the only African country (apart from Abyssinia) that was independent, and was the most diseased and dangerous place he could find. Greene later said the trip had altered his life: “it started a love of Africa which has never quite left me and that led to [the secret service] in Freetown in the war, and Kenya and the Mau Mau afterwards, and the Congo and the Cameroons when I stumbled on Yvonne”— his current companion.

After returning from Africa, Greene became the literary editor of a sophisticated new weekly, Night and Day, launched in June 1937. He was sued for libel by Twentieth Century Fox for a review of the Kipling film, Wee Willie Winkie, in which he described the “dimpled depravity” of Shirley Temple: “Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep.” The studio was awarded £3,500 damages (of which Greene had to pay £500) and legal costs amounted to another £1,500. The magazine went bankrupt and was forced to suspend publication. Sherry does not explain why a distinguished barrister thought the review was not libelous, what defense was argued in court, and how the court construed Greene’s article to mean that he “had accused Twentieth Century Fox of “procuring” Miss Temple “for immoral purposes.”” When I spoke to Shirley Temple about this in 1986, she was still angry about the review and felt the magazine deserved what it got.

During the trial, Greene was investigating the persecution of the Catholic Church in the wild regions of Chiapas and Tabasco, which were even more morbid, diseased, and violent than Liberia. Though he specialized in squalor, he soon developed a pathological hatred of both the country and the people. Law was nonexistent, corruption rampant, human life cheap. Idealism soon degenerated into brutality, which seemed to emanate (as D.H. Lawrence had suggested) from the evil soil of the Aztecs. The first volume of this monumental biography ends with an account of The Power and the Glory (1940), though Sherry has not explained why Greene began to write Catholic novels, beginning with Brighton Rock (1938), 12 years after his conversion.

Though Sherry is generally thorough and accurate, there are numerous errors in the text that ought to be corrected in later editions. Ruling Passions should be in italics; there are no accents in Luis and Pyrenees; Huebsch (pp. 568—9), Laurence Pollinger (576), Matamoros (666) and Cardenas’s (705) are misspelled; index entries are missing for Auden (654), Conrad (311), Hemingway (565) and Swinnerton (466). The number “132” is incorrect (57); the proper titles of Maclaren-Ross’s book and Clemence Dane’s play are Memoirs of the Forties (762) and Will Shakespeare (142); “Herbert was a drunk and often had to be carried home every night” makes no sense (496); Hugh Greene is said to be in New York and in Berlin at the same time (657); Frank Swinnerton’s harsh but salutary review of Rumor at Nightfall (1931), which “opened Greene’s eyes to his fool’s progress” (396), is later called a “hatchet job” (466); and the complexity of the Spanish Civil War is reduced to “Basically a conflict between Catholicism and atheism” (610). Several facts are also wrong. Edmund Campion was a 17th- (not 16th) century Jesuit martyr (699); the young Kipling lived in Southsea in the house of a retired merchant captain (not naval officer) (67); and Auden, who did some brief propaganda work during the Spanish Civil War, did not “join the International Brigade against Franco” (611).

Sherry has also missed many significant allusions that illuminate Greene’s life and work. Hilfe, the ironic name of the villain in The Ministry of Fear (1943), means “help” in German (80). The “Uncrowned King of Arabia” was Lowell Thomas’ name for T.E. Lawrence (230). “Our old friend from the coal fields” alludes to the fact that Time and Tide was owned by the Welsh coal magnate, Lady Rhondda (580). Vivien and Greene’s pet names, Pussy and Tiger (359), imitated the pet names of Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murry (models for Mr. and Mrs. Surrogate in It’s a Battlefield, 1934) and were recorded in Murry’s edition of Mansfield’s Letters (1928). Greene’s essay, “The Poetry of Modern Life” (1921), echoes the title of Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life” (81). In Brighton Rock, the bottle of vitriol that Pinkie always carries (648) derives from the bomb the Professor always carries in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, just as “poor little Rose left alone with that awful gramophone record” (649) derives from the gramophone record of the woman who stoops to folly in The Waste Land. And the original “uninspired title” of The Name of Action, “Falls the Shadow” (382), was taken from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

Sherry does not provide sufficient information about certain minor characters in Greene’s life, like the “Professor Gordon” (431) who helped choose Stamboul Train for the Book Society. André Raffalovitch, who shared some traits with Greene’s hero, Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo), and whom Greene met in Chipping Camden in 1932 (426), was an ugly, notorious homosexual, who defended his tastes in Uranisme et Unisexualité (1896). Mary Borden (1886—1968), whose flat Greene borrowed in 1932 (442) was an American heiress, amateur painter, and popular writer. She had been the prewar mistress of Wyndham Lewis and became Lady Spears after her third marriage, to a major-general, in 1918. Despite these minor flaws, Sherry’s research, style, and structure make his biography convincing and impressive.


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