Our Man in the Stacks

A new biography of Graham Greene explores the author’s lifelong bibliomania.

Our Man in the Stacks

The Unquiet Englishman by Richard Greene. W. W. Norton & Company. 608 pages.

NEAR THE END of his sympathetic biography of Graham Greene, Richard Greene (no relation) evokes an “odd tableau” from August 1980, when the author met with El Salvadoran rebels in a Panama City hotel room to negotiate the release of a South African hostage:

[W]hile discussing the fate of [kidnapped ambassador] Archibald Dunn, Greene and [rebel leader Salvador] Cayetano sat separated from each other by the bed, on which Greene had earlier laid the page proofs of Mark Amory’s edition of The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. It was the sort of thing that happened in Greene’s life; he had, after all, been handed a Tintin book in the bell tower at Phat Diem.

The scene perfectly captures the whiff of bibliomania that accompanied Greene on his fabled adventures. We may remember how, in 1938 in Mexico (see The Lawless Roads [1939]), he had consoled himself with Trollope; how a few years earlier, in Liberia (see Journey Without Maps [1936]), he had recited Housman in the bush and dreamt of a Milton poem; how, on a flight to Tallinn, Estonia, he had met a spy because they both were reading a Henry James novel; and how he took the title of The Ministry of Fear (1943) from an edition of Wordsworth he had reread while stationed in Sierra Leone for British intelligence.

We often regard Greene’s novels as arising from prescient encounters with some of the world’s trouble spots. Local details, characters, and events are braided into suspenseful tales of moral, spiritual, and political conflict. Yet an unstated thesis in RG’s biography is that Greene’s books and reading were as decisive an influence on his literary creations as were his travels. In “The Lost Childhood,” an essay from 1947, Greene makes explicit the connection between his early reading and an itinerant career. “I remember distinctly the suddenness with which a key turned in a lock and I found I could read,” he says, referring to this as “the dangerous moment.” He likens books on shelves to a staggering range of vocations and “eventually one particular form of death, for surely we choose our death much as we choose our job. It grows out of our acts and our evasions, out of our fears and out of our moments of courage.”

Elsewhere, Greene speculates that, if he had not become a novelist, he would have been a secondhand bookseller. With his younger brother Hugh, who eventually ran the BBC, Greene “would go on long marches across the English countryside in search of bookshops and beer,” RG reports. (Avid collectors of detective stories and thrillers, the brothers co-edited The Spy’s Bedside Book in 1957.) Even if he never became a bookseller, Greene did end up a director at two publishing houses — though not at the same time — and he boosted fellow novelists such as R. K. Narayan (whom he discovered), Muriel Spark, and Brian Moore.

When overt literary allusions surface in Greene’s fiction, they tend to be ironical or darkly humorous. In Our Man in Havana (1958), for example, Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare is used as a codebook for fake messages that Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman who has been recruited by MI6, sends his unwary superiors. In his nonfiction, Greene was far more direct about his literary enthusiasms. As a young man, he wrote dozens of brief but incisive essays on books and film. Even while churning out his novels and “entertainments” — a genre split he later abandoned — Greene produced an erudite biography of the poet John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (this would go unpublished until 1974), and a laconic survey of English playwrights. The latter book, British Dramatists (1942), was completed aboard a cargo ship in the North Atlantic while Greene and his co-passengers took turns manning machine guns and watching for enemy aircraft or U-boats.

Greene’s aptitude for sitting still and carefully absorbing the work of other novelists and poets, while it may seem a prerequisite to any writer’s career, is praiseworthy in a life spent pursuing more active “ways of escape” (the title he gave to a 1980 collection of prefaces, reworked as autobiography). Apart from tracing his reading habits, biographers of Greene must account for his travels — “There is no understanding Graham Greene except in the political and cultural contexts of dozens of countries,” RG declares — but also his agony as the bullied son of a headmaster and his resulting psychoanalysis; his adolescent rounds of Russian Roulette (merely “one campaign” in a perpetual “war against boredom,” as he put it in his 1971 memoir A Sort of Life); his penchant for brothels; his conversion to Catholicism; his frayed marriage; his fraternity with spies and revolutionaries; and his romantic pursuits, ending with Yvonne Cloetta, with whom he spent the last third of his life.

If the outline is all too familiar, we may thank Norman Sherry’s three-volume authorized biography, two unauthorized versions, and a short shelf of memoirs published since the novelist’s death. RG, however, cites recent access to “thousands of pages of new letters and documents pertaining to [Greene’s] life and career […] among them letters to his family, friends, publishers, agents, and close associates” as warranting the new biography. He also signals a fresh emphasis on Greene’s development as a writer: “More than anything, [this book] is the story of a novelist mastering his craft, and exercising it in ways that changed the lives of millions.”

Despite their widely differing approaches, RG and the late Sherry have one thing in common, beyond their choice of subject. Each portrays Greene as a representative no less than a chronicler of his age. In a preface, RG argues that “we fail to understand something about modern times if we ignore Graham Greene. Here is a single life on which much of the history of a century is written.” Sherry, likewise, opened his third volume with a boast: “Because Graham Greene’s wide-ranging activities spanned most of the twentieth century, I found I was writing not only his story, but our history as well. Greene’s life touched, and his work transfixed, as an insect in amber, many major events of our time.” In Sherry’s case, this urge to understand the shifting milieux of Greene’s personal and literary life began to seem obsessive: the biographer took nearly 30 years to complete his opus. He insisted on replicating many of Greene’s travels, contracting serious ailments along the way.

After Greene’s death, Sherry clashed with other scholars, and with the novelist’s family, by claiming sole rights to quote from unpublished material. Once most restrictions were lifted, and with the blessing of Greene’s estate, RG brought out a neat volume of correspondence, Graham Greene: A Life in Letters (2007). The book’s final entry is a letter Greene wrote to Sherry two weeks before dying, in which he discusses the strategic importance of Freetown, Sierra Leone, in World War II. But in The Unquiet Englishman, RG makes short work of his predecessor. Explaining that dementia had overtaken Sherry near the end of his project, he calls the third volume “strangely incoherent” and casts his view as a critical consensus: Sherry’s series had been “a lost opportunity.”

Surely it is uncharitable not to list one or two redeeming factors of Sherry’s lifework, given the time, pages, and personal health that Sherry (who died in 2016) expended on his subject. One might think that the pace at which RG trots through Greene’s century permits no such niceties. On the other hand, the chief merit of The Unquiet Englishman is how the reader does not feel rushed: short chapters distill key episodes from the life, each examining the relationships, locales, and literary work that occupied Greene at the time. The chapter headings are pithy and evocative (my favorite: the Monty Python–inspired “No One Expects the Inquisition,” in which Greene is summoned by the Archbishop of Westminster to learn that his 1940 classic The Power and the Glory is under scrutiny at the Holy Office). RG’s abrupt jokes succeed, mainly, as does his cold open to one chapter: “It was 1974, and the dentists were getting their revenge for all that Graham Greene had written about them.”

In a word, RG’s prose is economical. This was a virtue dear to Greene, who, in A Sort of Life, credited his subeditor stint at The Times with teaching him the power of compression. “A writer with a sprawling style is unlikely to emerge from such an apprenticeship,” he states. “It is the opposite training to the penny-a-liner.” In Ways of Escape, Greene celebrated Evelyn Waugh for the same quality. Referencing a section from Brideshead Revisited, Greene says he once admired it as “the best part of the book,” but when he went back to reread it, he saw that it was only three pages. “This, I’m inclined to think, is genius.”

RG would have enriched his narrative (though perhaps also lengthened it) by attending even more closely to the evolution of Greene’s craft. In A Sort of Life, Greene tells how, when he began novel-writing, he would consult Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921) about Henry James’s treatment of “point of view.” The approach hardly sounds promising. Indeed, after Greene’s first novel arrived to some praise, its two follow-ups failed, never to see print again. “At twenty-five,” RG observes, “he did not yet realize how much care was needed to write a good book.” Yet just a decade later, a few sentences into Brighton Rock (1938), we find this:

They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

This passage doesn’t showcase the plotting, the characters, or the thematic concerns by which most of us know Greene, but it does transmit an equally memorable aspect of his writing. Critics and literary journalists talk of “Greeneland,” and though this fictive terrain is marked by seediness and betrayal, the label attests more broadly to Greene’s renown for conjuring atmosphere and a sense of place.

In the sentence just quoted — and it is a single sentence — the author takes a panoramic view, pausing at a colon before unspooling serial images, parted by commas. The method is characteristic. Along with his scene cuts, his briskly paced dialogue, and his shifts in vantage point, the technique must have appealed to Greene’s early readers as cinematic. As RG notes, Greene’s foray as a scriptwriter for The Third Man (1949) and other films only “intensified this quality.” In interviews, Greene complained that eyestrain — not staring at the page but staring at characters as they came into being and thence into their own — caused him to stop writing after he had reached his 500-word daily quota (250 in later years). But Greene’s lyrical compression may also be connected to his youthful aspirations as a poet (he had published a volume while still an undergraduate at Oxford).

RG does turn to poetry when considering another trick of Greene’s — “comparing concrete objects to abstractions” or, alternatively, “comparing an abstraction to an unlikely physical object, just flirting with bathos, for an effect that can be startling, amusing, or ironic.” (Kingsley Amis mocks the latter device in his 1954 novel, Lucky Jim: “He remembered a character in a modern novel Beesley had lent him who was always feeling pity moving in him like sickness, or some such jargon.”) It seems that Greene was aware of the first tendency, wondering if it came of reading Joseph Conrad. RG correctly calls it a “a stylistic mannerism he shares with W. H. Auden, whom he admired more than any living poet apart from Robert Frost.”

Collections by Frost can be found in Greene’s personal library, now at Boston College (interested parties may skim more than 2,500 titles online). The two writers met in England in 1957, and though the incident is not in RG’s book, Greene is said to have commented wryly on the line “Good fences make good neighbors,” from Frost’s “Mending Wall.” They make a restless pair, each hopping over the border and back again, unwilling to be caught defending one proposition for too long. In a 1969 address, “The Virtue of Disloyalty,” Greene said that “the writer should always be ready to change sides at the drop of a hat. He stands for the victims, and the victims change.”

As with so much in Greene, the statement, while reductive, holds the momentary thrill of liberation. Thom Gunn’s poem “On the Move” expresses the same Heraclitan impulse we may associate with Greene’s life and work after reading RG’s biography:

At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.

The poem appears in Gunn’s second collection, The Sense of Movement (1957). The book, which also is in Greene’s personal library, furnishes a title for RG’s final chapter. Here, the biographer quotes Greene’s ideal of the afterlife as containing not “just passive bliss” but “movement and change.” RG then narrates Greene’s final journey — to a hospital in Vevey, Switzerland, at the age of 86. In his hands? A volume of Ezra Pound’s letters.


Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He works in Washington, DC, as an arts research director.

LARB Contributor

Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He works in Washington, DC, as an arts research director.


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