No writer embodied the existential conflicts and spiritual torments of the post-World War II world more than Graham Greene. In his life and in his work, the English writer and novelist (1904-1991) plunged into the chaos of the planet's worst trouble spots to get his stories, even as he grappled with bipolar depression and his own battered Catholic faith. His portraits of history's misfits, bullies and victims are read and reread today.
It's irresistible material for any biographer, and several have been written, notably Norman Sherry's three-volume biography of Greene, published from 1989 to 1999. Now, in "The Unquiet Englishman," University of Toronto professor Richard Greene (no relation) attempts to cover the same ground in one book.
Richard Greene edited the epistolary anthology "Graham Greene: A Life in Letters," and he displays an authoritative grasp of his subject. In a brisk and transparent style, he covers every chapter of Graham Greene's tumultuous life.
Graham Greene was addicted to risk-taking, he writes: "Just as another person might grow addicted to blackjack or slot machines, Graham Greene wagered his life again and again and just could not lose it. His most ingrained habit was survival."
The author's adventures transpired during extended stays in hornet's nests such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, French Indochina (now Vietnam), Mexico, Haiti and revolutionary Cuba, and his novels such as "The Power and the Glory," "The Quiet American" and "The Comedians" displayed a profound understanding of human nature and a palpable undertow of evil and threat.
The biographer writes that "over his long career, Greene was often struck by the charisma of military and political strongmen," and the author created unforgettable examples of that breed. The biographer provides fascinating accounts of how Greene got his ideas, often from the inner corridors of power — an aristocratic official in Berlin's post-World War II occupied zone "told Greene that there was an illicit trade in penicillin, often diluted or adulterated, and potentially causing great harm to those who received it," and that nugget became the inspiration for Greene's screenplay of the harrowing movie classic "The Third Man."
While Richard Greene covers all the bases, his account is at times light on context. He complains that Graham Greene's life "is sometimes boiled down to sex, books and depression," but women mattered to Graham Greene, and a deeper dive into his marriages, love affairs and betrayals would have enriched the author's psychological portrait.
The biographer writes of Greene's "horrific, sustained depressions of the 1950s," but does not describe them in detail.
Greene's own writings are used sparingly. Richard Greene downplays Sherry's biographical efforts ("the common view … a lost opportunity"), but one pleasure of Sherry's books was their use of extensive passages of Greene's prose to illuminate key periods in the author's life.
This new biography is perhaps best used as a companion to rereading Greene's splendid (and splendidly tormented) novels. Of writers who chronicled the anguished history of the 20th century, Graham Greene's work is central to that account, and essential to understanding the age and its 21st-century aftermath.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a Seattle-based book critic.
The Unquiet Englishman
By: Richard Greene.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 608 pages, $39.49.