Sunday, December 14, 2008

The inner man

Graham Greene was a deeply Catholic writer who may have battled bipolar disorder all his life. His Catholic trilogy, "The Power and the Glory," "The Heart of the Matter" and "The End of the Affair" — serious books that made him proud — is the expression of a writer in full command of his talent. But his private life was less sanguine, as brought out in this excellent collection of his letters from the time he was 17 (in 1921) to his death in 1991.

Few people know that before he found success, Graham worked as a sub-editor at The Times in London. It was around this time that he began corresponding with Vivienne Dayrell-Browning (later Vivien Greene), a deeply religious woman who had taken offense at what she thought were blasphemous remarks Graham had made against the Virgin Mary. Graham wrote back a letter of apology to her, and so began a courtship that would end in Graham's conversion to Catholicism and later marriage to Vivien.

But this alliance was not meant to be. Graham had serial affairs with a number of women and all his life battled the guilt that accompanied his liaisons. After his death, Vivien said in an interview that his lifestyle took a heavy toll on him because his deeply ingrained religiosity equated infidelity with sin. Richard Greene, the author of this collection (no relation to Graham), includes here a cache of letters that Graham wrote to Catherine Walston. Ironically, their affair started after Graham's books inspired her to convert to Catholicism.

There are other aspects to Graham's multifarious personality that these letters reveal. He could be a generous fellow writer, for instance. The assistance he rendered to R.K. Narayan, who had been unable to get a single novel published until Graham intervened, is legendary. The collection includes correspondence with a host of other writers as well, including warm letters to Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh.

An inveterate traveler, Graham sent home dispatches from his journeys in Mexico, Vietnam and Sierra Leone. Much of what he saw in these places became the template for new work, such as "The Lawless Roads" and "The Power and the Glory" (Mexico). He encountered death and destruction, and the very near possibility of annihilation, but he journeyed on, firm in the belief that only through travel, "you get an impression of a world peopled by eccentrics, of odd professions, almost incredible stupidities, and, to balance them, amazing endurances."

Graham Greene was a prolific writer of letters (he is said to have once guessed that he wrote about 2,000 every year), some of which have been revealed only recently. As Richard Greene says in the introduction, every new letter of Graham's takes him further from the set notions that we hold of him. In assembling a complicated, tasteful, diverse portrait of Graham Greene's life, Richard Greene has paid a most sincere tribute to his subject.

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This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

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