2005, Books, Non-Fiction

The Life of Graham Greene Volume 3: 1955-1991

Finally, at long last, I am done with this book. If this isn’t the longest English-language biography of a novelist, I don’t want to read the longest one…

On the whole, this is probably about as close to get to perfect as you will get of an actual biography of someone – just about every important moment of Greene’s life and work is contained in these pages and one imagines that, if 1700 pages (or whatever it is) can’t capture a novelist than nothing can. But I’m not sure that we need 1700+ page, 3 volume biographies of anyone.

What did I learn from this?

Sherry’s biography functions in three different ways: as a straight-up biography, as a (positively) critical analysis of Greene’s work and as an annotated version of his letters. It works well in the former senses, but when it comes to dissecting his letters it is extremely tedious. Fortunately, there is less of that in this volume than in Volume 2 (and less of the Catherine Walston obsession). I would have better appreciated a biography or a critical analysis of Greene’s work, or both, and entire chapters of this work could have been omitted, as far as I’m concerned. (Maybe that would have left Greene obsessives wanting more, but it would have been more enjoyable and way easier to get through).

I spent months of my life reading these three books, and all I learned is that, though I loved Greene’s novels when I was younger – it’s been a few years since I’ve read one – and would count him among my favourite English language novelists (and one of the best of the 20th century), I’m pretty glad I never met him: not only was he sex- and love-obsessed, as if he was a teenager his whole life, but he was also shockingly politically naive – for someone so politically astute in his novels and in some of his knowledge of the world – and also incredibly self-righteous – again, something that does not come across in his fiction. So much of what I learned exposed him as a flawed human, and that is biography’s job, in a way, but there are a fair number of flaws here that were… not necessarily disappointing, but frustrating. I feel for all the people he wrote to (and about, in terms of his letters to editors). Bipolarity might help create great art, but it doesn’t make you the best person to read about.

Anyway, this book is, needless to say, for Greene obsessives only. I cannot quite decide whether I found it worth reading. The good parts do out-number the bad parts, but I think this will teach me a lesson about reading multi-volume biographies in the future.


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