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Jan/Feb 2005 Book Reviews

The Life of Graham Greene: Volume III, 1955-1991
Norman Sherry
Viking (2004) 906 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin


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David Lodge is a fine critic; he is also the most pedantic curmudgenon at work in English Letters, as his own novels suggest and as his recent review of the present volume in The New York Review of Books indicates. Lodge has had much to say about Graham Greene in his now lengthy career, but his review of Norman Sherry's third and final volume of Greene's life, "The End of the Affair," is so transparent it reeks of bitterness—one sees that Lodge saw himself as the logical choice to be the authorized biographer of Greene, and he is still bitter not to have been so chosen.

Sherry's final book in the series is itself a work of genius worthy of his subject. After his two earlier acclaimed volumes of Greene's life, it may be said it was unneccessary for Sherry to quote as much personal correspondance between himself and Greene, as Lodge suggests—but the period the volume covers, 1955-1991, is the period in which the two men came to know each other, and the personal references are therefore entirely justified. They are not defensive, as Lodge seems to suggest; rather, it is Lodge who is on the defensive. Fot the fact is that for me, Norman Sherry has composed one of the finest literary biographies ever written.

It's certainly engaging. In fact, it's a real page-turner. Greene's suicidal angst in the 1950s and 60s is more important to me, as a reader, than his childhood. His relationships were complex. He was an intensely lonely man who resorted to alcohol in his darkest times and "...was not the first writer to do so," as Sherry points out.

Sherry's writing is impassioned, and as Lodge suggests, strays from the conventions of biography. This is also what makes an enigmatic figure like Greene at least somewhat accessible for the first time. It makes him human. Ever considered suicide? I have. Ever self-medicated with alcohol? I have. And so too, did Graham Greene, who emerges from this brilliant portrait as a flawed human who was not utterly unlike you or me, except for his constant dedication to writing, which in the way Sherry renders it is quite simply inspiring. David Lodge is splitting hairs that everyone balded off before I was born.

Norman Sherry's writing and the content therein is so impassioned and informed that it's almost shocking. I have, in my life, read at least 500 literary biographies cover-to-cover, and suffice to say that even given the heft of the current book, it was, so far, the finest of the works written about authors who have changed my life. Norman Sherry's work on Graham Greene has changed mine, and for the better. I am glad to have read this book, and I thank Viking for the copy. I thank Norman Sherry. I thank Graham Greene. I thank God.

 

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