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Reckless game

Books | A lifetimes’s flirting with danger lay behind the fictions of Graham Greene

Brian McFarlane 11 February 2021 1057 words

Fine hours: Graham Greene (right) with film director Carol Reed in 1951. Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene
By Richard Greene | Little, Brown | $34.99 | 608 pages

From the start, Richard Greene makes clear his approach to writing this monumental biography of Graeme Greene (no relation), undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s most widely read and respected authors. “That well-worn phrase, ‘life and times,’ is actually the essence of this book,” he writes. “There is no understanding Graham Greene except in the political and cultural contexts of dozens of countries.” Travelling to afflicted places “becomes the central narrative of Graham Greene’s life — how politics, faith, betrayal, love, and exile become great fiction.”

Not all readers will necessarily go along with the strictures laid down in the biographer’s introduction, but there is no denying that this book has been massively researched, starting with the days when young Graham was often bullied at school because his contemporaries suspected him of dobbing them in to his father, the headmaster. Russian Roulette recounts how this conflicted childhood gave way to an adulthood constantly torn this way and that by beliefs, relationships, and medical and financial challenges.

From this account, often drawing on the writer’s own correspondence as a key — if not always wholly reliable — source of information, it becomes clear that Greene was never a man who saw clear-cut answers to demanding problems, whether personal or political. He flirted with communism in his early days at Oxford University, mainly in the interest of his own travel plans, but the pull would recur intermittently through the rest of his life, as would his somewhat precarious hold on Catholicism.

The book is not called Russian Roulette for nothing. So much of Greene’s life involved chancy decisions, their precursor perhaps to be found when he “played a reckless game” with a revolver he discovered in the cupboard of the bedroom he shared with his brother Raymond. According to his own account, he “loaded a bullet into the gun and spun the chambers around.” His survival after missing “by one” — the next click would have been fatal — thrilled him, and he felt he had “passed the test of manhood… It was like a young man’s first successful experience of sex.”

Sex and risk would account for a good deal of his ensuing life, and recurring references to Russian roulette remind us of the dangers to which he subjected himself. As Richard Greene sums up one of his subject’s intrepid (or rash) ventures into unreliable territory: “He would have to spend a week in Algiers doing research, and that would be playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded.”

After the conflicts of his early life, Greene seems to have felt lured into dangerous places, or places at dangerous times in their histories. As his biographer records, his visit to Israel “put his life at risk, and over the years his travels to the dangerous places of the world caused enormous worry to his family and friends.” To visit Israel in the fourth month of the six-day war in 1967, the violence continuing long after the official ceasefire, looked like asking for trouble, but the possible outcomes of such a venture (he was writing about the aftermath of the war for a newspaper) never came between him and accepting the challenges.

Greene seemed specially drawn to the fractious politics of countries once under the firm grip of European or American imperial power. Although the grip had been unwillingly loosened in Haiti, Sierra Leone, Cuba, Panama and many other places, it had not led to peace and harmony among the local populations. There, he made numerous contacts, some of them leading to long friendships, others to decidedly tricky relationships.

Richard Greene’s research into political, religious and sometimes military manoeuvres in these diverse locations is extraordinarily thorough, involving innumerable brief character studies as well as a detailed recording of shifts in power. Impressive though these historical investigations are, at times we seem to lose sight of Graham Greene; times, for instance, when we appear to be given more than we actually need to know about the history of Catholicism in Vietnam or working with double agents in Portugal. It’s not that such material is uninteresting; it’s just that it seems to push Greene to one side for longer than is good for biographical material.

Of course, several of Greene’s most highly regarded novels undoubtedly drew on his experiences in these trouble spots. We couldn’t have had The Quiet American — at least as we know it — without his difficult time in Vietnam, or The Comedians if he hadn’t had some experience of the regime of “Papa Doc” in Haiti, or The Honorary Consul without the inspiration of a rebel priest during his time in Paraguay.

This list could go on, but what matters in Russian Roulette is how this courting of volatile territories — and his ongoing fascination with those responsible for the volatility — influenced his writing and his far from orderly personal life. His own political views, as insecurely leftist as his Catholicism was uncertainly committed, do emerge from the biographer’s research, though sometimes the exposition feels like too much of a good thing.

Greene’s longstanding but rickety marriage to Vivien Dayrell-Browning, born in Rhodesia, withstood a number of tangled affairs on his part, affairs that, in a curious way, also acquired their own idiosyncratic versions of fidelity and longevity. Even after break-ups, he seemed unwilling to relinquish the ties that had bound, and he maintained contact with his children by Vivien though he was often distantly apart from them.

Difficult as he often was, Greene acquired plenty of friends along the way, including film director Carol Reed and Evelyn Waugh, whom he’d met at Oxford, where they’d moved in different circles, and with whom he shared literary celebrity in the postwar years. In the later 1940s, Reed and Greene had a widely admired cinematic collaboration on The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, two of the key titles in British cinema’s “finest hour.”

As Richard Greene writes, “No place in Greeneland is truly safe or content.” This comment might equally be applied to the real-life zones of conflict he was so strongly drawn to, and to the emotional, religious and political areas he inhabited in his long and often troubled life. He did, however, achieve a great deal, and the other Greene, Richard, does it more than justice. •