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Russian roulette: Graham Greene’s life and times
Richard Greene Richard Greene
Small, Brown, £25
Brian Morton’s analysis
Perhaps the real gun was there. Perhaps the filled chamber still contained it. Some versions of the story say that the bullet may have been a blank, but at close range that hardly matters: “I held the muzzle of the revolver to my right ear and pulled the trigger. There was a tiny click, and as I looked down at the chamber, I could see that the charge had gone into the firing position. I was out with one shot.”
Some things about Graham Greene are known to everyone: sex, depression, troubled and sometimes vague Catholicism, Russian roulette. The latter, the actions of a profoundly depressed college student who drank too much, is commonly taken for granted today.
But there is internal evidence pointing in a different direction, a poem from this time that takes into account “our anxious advances toward death, pulling / the trigger of a revolver we already / know is empty.”
Perhaps it’s best to think of Russian roulette as a metaphor for a life constantly living on the edge. Surviving intense shelling in Israel during the Six-Day War, Greene wrote, “I really thought I’d had my last game of Russian roulette.” He constantly exposed himself to danger. He came under fire in Vietnam and found himself between the lines as the Viet Minh rallied to defeat the French. He did something similar, only more knowingly, when, because of his novel The Comedians, right under Papa Doc’s arms, he crossed the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti as a known enemy of the state.
More than once, he visited the Heart of Darkness, narrowly survived a jungle trip to Liberia, and later visited lepers in Congo, behind the scenes of A Burnt Out Case. He took with him his cousin Barbara, a nurse, on the first journey, who brought him back to skeletal life, so that a deep desire for life, albeit in extremes, could have countered the longing for death. He constantly positioned himself in the story’s action, in the moment, even though he was “out by one.” sometimes.
Richard Greene (no relationship) – nor is he a sensationalist. He is not interested in the “sex, books and depression” litanies of earlier lives, very unlike Greene’s former biographer Norman Sherry, who walked every step in Greene’s shoes and almost died because of it. “a form of therapy.”how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to avoid the madness, melancholy, panic, and anxiety inherent in the human condition.”how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholy, panic, and anxiety inherent in the human condition.”a form of therapy.
In a way, Greene’s work was an effort to capture the very lives of those who, in the form of an existing religion or theology, do not paint or write or know any form of transcendence. His own Catholicism is sufficiently well-trodden territory not to need further exploration. What Richard Greene does instead is to connect Greene more firmly to the historical events in which he participated. In other words, he is attempting to reverse the ‘life and time’ priority.
And this is where it begins with the issues. There are moments – many – when the biographer digresses to point out the aftermath of the many trouble spots Greene knew. The argument is brief and apt occasionally. Greene eventually published a novel, The Human Factor, about his friend and fellow intelligence officer Kim Philby, whom he continued to admire and defend. He indicated in the course of their exchange that the logic of Soviet and post-Soviet history was that the KGB or its successor would take over the country eventually. Greene thought it was a positive thing, a victory of pragmatism over ideology and brinkmanship, and definitely not what happened under the “territorial ambition … Oppression … and greed.” of Vladimir Putin.
His flashbacks seem out of place and too easily imposed elsewhere, as in Congo, as when he speaks of the fateful premiership of Patrice “Lamumba.” It seems careless to distort the name of a man so venerated in Africa and on the left (there was a Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow).
When it comes to the creation of what Greene calls “the doubt of my disbelief.” the book is on far stronger ground.