Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 19, 2021

Russian Roulette, the Life and Times of Graham Greene, by Richard Greene

Devoted to films from childhood, Greene’s fiction always had a cinematic aspect, and the actual writing of scripts intensified this quality. (p.97, underlining mine to indicate the subject of the sentence)

A fairly prolific author, Jerrold’s books were unreadable. (p.158, underlining mine to indicate the plural subject of the sentence)

As a journalist, Graham Greene’s special subject was faith under conditions of oppression. (p.264, underlining mine to indicate the subject of the sentence)

Those hanging clauses, dear readers, are why it took me so long to read this biography of Graham Greene by Richard Greene. It was not Greene’s fiction (the underlined subject of the sentence) which was devoted to films, it was Greene himself.  Jerrold’s books were not a fairly prolific author, that was Jerrold. Graham Greene’s special subject was not a journalist, he was.  Those and other examples of sloppy editing, irritated me so much that I took occasional breaks from the reading because I found myself being distracted from what is otherwise an entertaining biography of a writer I really admire.

The other problem that was exasperating was that in a text of 500+ pages, there were passages which referred to one of the numerous people in Greene’s life without an adequate reminder of who the person was. Nobody reads a biography of a long life like this and commits every name to memory.  In some places, the text helpfully clarifies events and people with a reference to a page number, but not always when it’s needed.  For example, towards the end of the book, on page 493 there is a reference to Hugh taking a turn for the worse, with no surname. I could not remember who Hugh was.  I read back a couple of pages and found on page 490 that Hugh (again, no surname) was his closest male friend and unlikely to recover from cancer, but it was not until I consulted the index that it was clear that Hugh was Graham Greene’s brother (who hadn’t been mentioned for 50+ pages).  And while I was able to correctly guess Hugh’s surname from the reference on page 490 to Greene’s other brother who had just died, there was no help in finding his daughter Caroline Greene’s place in the index, because she is listed under her married name Bourget and not cross-referenced with the other members of the family under Greene.  It was not until Chapter 51 when Caroline marries that her new surname is revealed.  (I wanted to know more about her because I wondered if Richard Greene the biographer was any relation.  He’s not, but I learned that from a newspaper review of the biography).

My other gripe is one shared with the reviewer at the Guardian.  Blake Morrison, in an otherwise very enthusiastic review which I hope you will also read, concludes like this:

For all his claims to be drawing on new material, Richard Greene can’t help but go over old ground, from the Shirley Temple libel case to the tiff with Anthony Burgess. It was an immensely busy life and the telling of it here, in 78 short chapters and 500 brisk pages, feels rushed. The emphasis on Greene as foreign correspondent and emissary is certainly fresh. But the cost is an excess of information on the internal politics of the countries he visited, not always pertinent to the fiction. To spend more time on the history of Panama in the 1970s, for example, than on Greene’s long and complicated affair with Catherine Walston may be a corrective to earlier biographies. But it does little to explain the man and throws more attention on a lesser nonfiction book (Getting to Know the General) than The End of the Affair, his masterpiece. (from ‘Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene review – addicted to danger’, by Blake Morrison, The Guardian, 28/11/20, viewed 18/1/21)

Yes, my interest waned too over pages and pages about the political background behind the novels. Cuba, Panama, Sandanistas, I knew it all already anyway, though it did make me wonder how much my opinions had been shaped as much by Greene as by the media reports that we read at the time.

Still, the biography is definitely well worth reading.  Some of it is gossipy, and some of it is already well-known or accessible via Wikipedia (and possibly in Richard Greene’s other books about Greene) but the insights into Greene’s thinking and beliefs were invaluable.  The novels and other writings of significance are traced from inception to publication, and linked to Greene’s experiences and the people he encountered.

Greene explains the way in which this occurs in a letter to the Spanish Monsignor Durán—who influenced Monsignor Quixote (1982).  Books, he says, take on a life of their own:

A novel is a work in which characters interrelate.  It doesn’t need a plot.  The novelist’s own intervention must be very limited.  What happens to the author is rather like the pilot of a plane.  The pilot needs to get the plane off the ground. It takes off with the aid of a pilot.  Once it is in the air, the pilot does virtually nothing.  Once everything has started working, the characters begin to impose themselves on the author, who no longer controls them.  They have a life of their own.  The author has to go on writing.  Sometimes he writes things which appear to have no raison d’être. Only at the end is the reason apparent.  The author intervenes to allow the plane to land.  It is time for the novel to end. (p. 434)

It was also interesting to read (on p. 397) what Greene, in a rare TV interview, said could be an epigram for all his works.  Quoting from Browning’s long poem ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology‘ he said:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demirep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books—
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway…

I haven’t read Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life in which he apparently portrays himself as a world-weary cynic, but this biography suggests that it should not be taken at face value.  There is a core of nostalgia, even sentimentality, in him that he worked to conceal. His journey to Liberia, for instance, was motivated by a desire to see human beings in a state of innocence.  At the same time, the biography notes that it is difficult to fit Greene into standard academic arguments about the colonial impulse in literature because in the same interview he said that he set books in places far from England because he wanted “to see English characters in a setting which is not protective to them”.  Greene was not interested in domestic politics, but rather in the impact of politics on the individual.

The analysis of A Burnt-out Case (1960, see Simon’s review at Tredynas Days) reminded me why I like literary fiction.  The structure of this novel is a story-within-a-story, for the specific purpose of revealing a greater truth about the privileged position of a white man in a developing country where leprosy is a cruel and socially isolating disease:

Querry, his depression, recovery and absurd death are only part of a larger story— it is a ‘farce’ contained within the tragedy of infection and mutilation. The experiences of a white man are at best a play within a play which like ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ in Hamlet, touches the conscience on just a particular point.  His next novel, The Comedians would rely even more on this structural device.  That Querry and his problems are not all that important is seen when he is telling the doctor about his vocation while a little boy awaits treatment.”

The boy waits impatiently and the doctor’s anger grows while Querry’s self-absorption delays what really matters, getting treatment to boy who needs it urgently—a boy who represents a great many more people suffering from this awful disease.

The Comedians (1966), set in the turmoil of Haiti, depicts for the first time what is only implicit in earlier novels, the intelligentsia of a formerly colonial society.  However he wanted to use the ‘voice’ of people that he knew, (i.e. to avoid what we now call appropriation) so he could not write in the voice of Magiot or Philipot.  As the story unfolds, the problems of the four white characters are shown not to be important, compared to what’s going on around them.  This is, IMO, what distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction: stories of domestic and personal life alone are not enough to make a novel significant.

For Greene, [..], remembrance is a political act: the revolutionary work of this novel is to remember the obscure dead and name truthfully what killed them. (p.367)

Graham Greene had a ghastly time at school.  After a sheltered time at home he went to the same school where his father was headmaster, and this appears to have been the catalyst for his ‘personal mythology’ of trust and betrayal, caught between loyalty to his father and the boys.  Always he was interested the problems of good and evil, and he never wavered from the belief that relationships with individuals were more important than than those with countries, or societies or groups.  This is why he defended the notorious traitor Philby, because he was his friend, and it’s also why he used his fame to protest against persecution of dissidents in the USSR and elsewhere.

I really enjoyed reading Richard Greene’s survey of the books I’ve read (and re-read sometimes as audiobooks): The Third Man (1935, see my review), A Gun for Sale (1936, see my review); Brighton Rock (1938); The Confidential Agent (1939, see my review); The Power and the Glory (1940, see my review); The Heart of the Matter (1948); The End of the Affair (1951); The Quiet American (1955); Travels with My Aunt (1969, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums) and his last novel, The Captain and the Enemy (1988), see my review).  I still have some novels on the TBR: his first popular book Stamboul Train (1932); The Human Factor (1978); The Honorary Consul (1973), and Monsignor Quixote (1982), and this biography makes me want to drop everything else and read them.

Which really, despite my quibbles, is a strong endorsement for reading this biography!

Author: Richard Greene
Title: Russian Roulette, The Life and Times of Graham Greene
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2020
ISBN: 9781408713440, pbk., 591 pages
Source: Bayside Library.


Responses

  1. I didn’t know of this book – so thank you for bringing it to my attention – and for reminding me of Bishop B’s Apology.

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    • Hi Carmel, it’s excellent, isn’t it? I read the whole thing and wondered why when we studied Browning, we didn’t encounter that one.

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  2. Oh, I can’t get past those first quotes. That’s terrible. One you could excuse as a slip, but I’m presuming those three are just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sorry but while I’m interested in Greene, I don’t think I’m interested in this book! Thanks though for the link!

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    • PS I’d love to read more Greene too.

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      • Well, as I say, it’s an entertaining and informative bio, and if you like literary bios as I do, it’s well worth reading.
        I think it’s really unfair of his publishers to let these slips go through… all writers make mistakes, and it’s the editors job to find and fix them. I find them in my own writing and I am aghast when I catch them during proof-reading… but as you know because you read my blog all the time, I don’t always see them because it’s hard to proof-read your own writing. (I proof-read this review six times yesterday and still found two mistakes this morning). I am grateful when a reader points out my mistakes so that I can fix them, but I don’t beat myself up over it because I don’t have an editor to work with me and a blog doesn’t have to maintain the same standards as a book.
        OTOH a capable professional editor, who is being paid to usher the book into the world, owes it to the author to fix problems like this. We’ve learned to overlook typos, because that’s just how it is these days, but sentences that disrupt the reading are a different thing entirely.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I know … one of the things about blogging is you can fix your writing a year later! I’m always seeing things in mine. I don’t know why it is that you can preview it and not pick up things you see as soon as you publish. Why is that!!

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          • It’s because the brain predicts the word before the eye sees it; we do not read word-by-word. Especially if you’re a quick reader, the eye merely scampers along, reading what it expects to see.

            Liked by 2 people

            • But then, when you see it properly published rather than previewed you suddenly read it properly!

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              • I hate it when for some reason I revisit one of my older reviews and I find something.

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        • PS I do like literary biographies, but good ones!! Five hundred pages with awkward writing is probably not where I’m at at present. Another time perhaps.

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  3. Greene is one of those authors I feel I need to read but haven’t. I do think you should send this post to the publisher re: the editing. Hanging clauses have often been pet peeves of mine that I find so irritating. Most distracting though I am happy you found the book to be worthwhile overall.

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    • Ah, this reminds me when I was cranky enough to do this with the publisher of Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. (Yes, Julian Barnes, you’d think they’d look after his books better, eh?)
      Anyway I got a lovely letter back from them and they offered to send me a revised edition, but since I’d borrowed the book I didn’t think that was fair so I didn’t take them up on it.
      That, however, was many years ago, and I suspect that a similar crankiness today would be ignored…

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  4. Hi Lisa

    I have most of the major biographies of Graham Greene, and have read almost everything that Greene wrote. He has probably been my favourite 20th century English author for most of my life. However, when I read the Blake Morrison review in the Guardian, I decided not to buy Richard Greene’s biography. Your comments on the sloppy writing/editing have confirmed me in this view. I think I will spend the time re-reading some Graham Greene favourites, particularly The Power and the Glory. A Burnt out Case, The End of the Affair, The Comedians, Monsieur Quixote and the delightful Our Man in Havana.. Also, it must be time to watch The Third Man again.
    Cheers
    Chris

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    • Hi Chris, I forgot to mention in my review that there’s also discussion about the books made into films. GG did his own scripts (all of them? I’m not sure now, I’d have to re-read it to know)… but even so sometimes he was critical of the films.
      I love British films from those days…

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  5. Oh, that bit about having your dad as headmaster and being torn over loyalty to friends or father RESONATES. I am very conscious that my years at primary school shaped my own views on trust and friendship. I did not know this about Greene. I used to love visiting berkhamsted, mainly for the beer, it has to be said, but because it is affectionately known as ‘Greene country’

    Ps. In some places you have left the ‘e’ off Greene 🤭

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    • LOL proving my point about how bad I am at proof-reading.
      I found a couple before publication, and looked for more in case I’d done it again, and even so I did not find them.
      I’m going to try a trick suggested by Kevin from Canada, reading backwards…

      Liked by 1 person

      • PS I found three!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, reading backwards is good for picking up spelling. Reading out loud is good for picking up missing words / grammar mistakes. When I worked in magazines the rule was always MINIMUM of three pairs of eyeballs on copy before it went to press. Proofing your own work is difficult.

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        • Yikes, three pairs of eyeballs… that’s just not do-able for a blogger unless we all send our copy to each other first… and then when would we have time to read and write anything?!

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          • Well, the great thing about a blog is you can go and edit it at any point. When you send something to print you only have one chance to get it right. I will never forget the time I sent a page to press that said “headline needed here” 😱

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            • ROTFL!

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              • Some wisecracking reader sent a letter (this was days before email), saying “don’t you mean, new EDITOR needed here?”🤣

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  6. I haven’t read as many of his novels as you have, but I _have_ read The Human Factor, and I re-read it recently. It’s a very fine novel and I would strongly recommend it.

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    • Thanks, Paul, I’ll take your advice and read it first out of the ones I’ve got on the TBR.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. GG is always a rewarding read, even in his lesser work, so it’s disappointing to see this sloppy writing about him. Enjoyed the discussion in comments about proof reading- I’m also mortified when I see some of my own slips in the blog. I think Burnt Out Case is the only one I’ve posted on – most were read years before the blog. That last sentence should have gone after the first.

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    • Ah, it seems we’re all kindred souls when it comes to proof-reading our blogs…
      I’ve added your link to The Burnt-out Case above, that’s one I need to get a copy of. I’ve realised… the ones I don’t have are mostly those that came out while I was doing my degrees and all my money and reading time went on prescribed texts. I studied almost continuously, full and then part time from 1975 to 1987 (Education, Arts, Law), took a break for a few years and then did another stint of part time from 1993 – 1996 (Asian Studies, Indonesian & Methodology). It’s no coincidence that I started my reading journal in 1997 when I had time to do it!

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      • Tried to ‘like’ your reply, but it doesn’t seem to register. Thanks for adding the link to my post, Lisa. I recall when doing A levels pre-university there was a rugby-playing bloke (I suppose what Americans call a jock) who raved about GG, and this put me off for some years. I know, doesn’t reflect very well on me. Then I kind of fell into G’s work, not systematically, but bit by bit. There’s a lot of depth and intelligence, despite the superficial resemblance to genre thrillers. I think my favourite is The End of the Affair – perhaps because it’s the least exotic.
        My academic career was similar to yours, but I started as an undergrad in 1972; it went on for a couple of decades, as I had some spells of teacher training and then teaching in between courses. I’ve kept a reading journal since I think the early 90s. Studying literature does rather limit the amount of reading one can do off curriculum. Especially when your postgrad research is in medieval studies. Seemed a good idea at the time…

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        • You know what they say about teachers? Research shows that they spend more of their own time and money upgrading their skills with further study than any other professional group.
          Though, to be truthful… the law degree was supposed to help me escape from teaching when I was working in a rather tiresome school. I loved studying law, but I realised that I really didn’t want to be a lawyer (or spend my working hours with other lawyers) so I chucked it in, changed schools and the rest is history as they say…

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          • I embarked on my PG research as an escape route from teaching – didn’t work out that way. But I enjoyed teaching in colleges, and latterly (until redundancy two years ago) at degree level, so it turned out ok. Just back from my daily walk during lockdown, and listened to the latest podcast on CBC’s Writers and Company: an hour-long interview with R Greene on this book. Thought you might enjoy it – and this link to the website (and broadcast) has some useful material to supplement what you’ve said; here’s the link:
            https://www.cbc.ca/radio/writersandcompany/travels-with-graham-greene-the-remarkable-life-and-times-of-a-master-storyteller-1.5874862

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            • Thanks, Simon… I’m amused by the comment at the bottom that says (without having read any of GG’s novels) that he’s ‘way too lefto’ for his taste. Goodness, if we only ever read people we agree with, what kind of world would we have?
              Oh, wait, that’s what we have with Trumpism…

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            • PS That interview is really, really good! I’ve just finished listening to it:)

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  8. Graham Greene has been a favourite author of mine for as long as I can remember! Our library does have this biography and i read the Guardian review and wondered if it was worth reading. You’ve made me decide to reserve it – sounds like a book you need to dip into and out of? I can skim over the less interesting parts!

    I had a chuckle about the poor editing! It seems to be happening too often these days and I’m wondering about how well we are teaching English including spelling and grammar these days.

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    • I’m glad I haven’t put you off! As I say, despite its flaws, it’s enjoyable reading especially if you know the books quite well.
      *pause*
      Hmm, yes, teaching of what we called ‘conventions of language’: From what I remember of the national curriculum, primary teachers only have to teach the basics: nouns, verbs, conjunctions, adjectives and adverbs. Parsing; clauses and phrases; voice, tense, prepositions and articles &c must be in the secondary curriculum.
      The problem is that the people teaching now mostly have only a rudimentary knowledge of grammar. That’s because when I was at teachers’ college in the 1970s (i.e. before they became universities) we were taught UK and US theories of language and class. We learned that grammar of the sort that I knew, plus the whole notion of ‘correct’ English, was discriminatory against the working class—and in America, against African Americans whose way of speaking English was as good as anybody else’s. So grammar was out for those years, and by the time this nonsense was over, a whole generation or two had gone through school without any grammar at all.

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      • Yes I remember when the teaching of English grammar went out of fashion – and I worked with a young woman who couldn’t spell as she said they had never been taught spelling at school – and that was a long time ago. I wonder if they are teaching these things now? I do remember we had regular spelling classes right through the first two years of high school!

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        • *chuckle* I think it’s highly unlikely she was never taught spelling at all. Methods come and go, and the best teachers tailor the method to the learner not the other way round, but spelling has always been taught, at least in my years of teaching.
          There is a method which works for some kids which doesn’t look like a spelling lesson: the teacher finds words in the child’s writing which are wrong, and shows the child other words with the same pattern that they already know. If they are kids who learn kinaesthetically they might make plasticine words with these letters so that they are combining all their senses to learn them. Work like this doesn’t end up looking like a spelling list.

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  9. Great post Lisa, and I’m intrigued by the book, certainly (though those grammatical slips are inexcusable). I love Greene’s writing and find it very interesting that he was wanting to write with voices he knew – quite forward-thinking of him. From what you say, though, I’m not sure this would be the best biog to start with…

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    • I think if you’re interested in GG’s books and want to get a sense of his thinking and ideas, then this is well worth reading. And yes, I think he was very forward-thinking…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. He was a marvellous writer, wasn’t he? I must get a couple more of his books.. you’ve made me realize I should read several of them again Lisa!

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    • LOL I’ve got my little pile of five sitting on the desk as I type this, and I know I’m going to read one of them *soon*!

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  11. In addition to yours, there is so much enthusiasm about Greene’s writing that I sincerely feel the gap in not having read more of his work (just the odd short thing over the years, randomly, not concertedly), but I just never make it there. Even so, I can see where a bio like this would be rewarding.

    On another note, I love to see that you still have Kevin’s blog in your blogroll. That makes me smile.

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    • I miss Kevin. My mentor, my friend. It’s one of the mysteries of modern life that I feel the loss so acutely even though I never met him.

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  12. “Stories of domestic and personal life alone are not enough to make a novel significant.” I’m afraid I don’t agree with that. I’m sure novels that deal with ‘outside’ stuff are interesting but it’s only the personal that makes them significant.
    I’ve read some Greene, The Quiet American a few times, but he doesn’t stand out from the pack for me.

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    • We’ve had this discussion before. I like books that bring important matters to my attention.

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  13. I tend to find Greene situational – ie I read The Quiet American whilst travelling in Vietnam and Our Man in Havana in Cuba which was informative, but like Bill, he’s not a stand out for me. All that Catholic guilt gets tiring!

    I double checked through your post (& may have still issed it) but are the 2 Greene’s related in any way?

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  14. Given the fluidity and ease of Greene’s writing it was so frustrating to read your opening quotes! Good to know the biography was still worth it – my take-away is that my copies of the original novels are due a re-read :-)

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    • Yes indeed. It would be nice to find a review of them on your blog!

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  15. […] the book.  It’s a novel about character, and it is a perfect example of something I read in Russian Roulette, Richard Greene’s bio in which GG cited a snippet from Browning’s long poem ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology‘ as an […]

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