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University of Toronto Quarterly 75.4 (2006) 957-970

Owning Graham Greene:
The Norman Sherry Project
Richard Greene 1
Associate Professor of English, University of Toronto
The Life of Graham Greene. Volume 3, 1955–1991; London: Jonathan Cape, 2004

Dissatisfied with Christopher Sykes's biography of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene determined that no well-meaning friend should write such a book on him. Having dodged and debunked his hagiographers for a quarter of a century, he especially did not want his story told by a Catholic. In the early 1970s he received several letters from Norman Sherry, 2 whose biography of Joseph Conrad Greene admired. In 1973, Greene's friend William Igoe interceded for Sherry, urging the novelist to appoint him as his biographer. After some hesitation, Greene agreed.

Not all of Greene's friends approved his choice. Perhaps the most important dissenter was A.S. Frere, who had been his publisher at Heinemann's and was probably his most trusted literary advisor. Another friend, the Italian film-director and novelist Mario Soldati, came away from an interview with Sherry convinced that Greene had botched the selection. He wrote on 7 July 1977: 'I am afraid he is not intelligent enough to make up for a deep core of vulgarity which is in him ... Certainly, Sherry devotes himself earnestly to the study of Conrad, but Conrad remains a giant whose feet are the only thing that Sherry likes to look at. That is the way he proceeds in his literary investigations: attending only to small things, small facts, small ideas, small feelings, everything small.' 3 [End Page 957]

The book Sherry proposed to Greene was very different from the trilogy he produced. His plan was to concentrate on Greene's travels in the dangerous places of the world and to set the works within local political contexts. For his part, the novelist had no desire to have his private relationships and his sex life held up for public examination. On 3 July 1975 Sherry wrote: 'Understanding your fears, I will try to keep away from the personal, where this is irrelevant to my work. I will try to work in the manner of my Conrad but if the work begins to move in a biographical direction you will be free to censor it ... If I seem to be moving into the more private sphere I'll consult with you hurriedly.' On the basis of this undertaking, Greene gave him access to his papers and introductions to his family and friends. The novelist wrote to his estranged wife Vivien on 3 March 1977: 'As with Conrad he does not want to research into the private life – he is more geographically minded – he proposes to follow in one's footsteps in Mexico, Haiti and Cuba. ... he has asked whether he may approach you – not for details of the private life but to talk about the period and the financial problems.'

The first volume came out in 1989, covering the years 1904–39. Sherry had contrived to devote a quarter of the book to the years 1925–27 by merely paraphrasing at humiliating length Greene's obsessive courtship letters to Vivien. Having publicized his research junkets in newspapers and on television, Sherry provided what are little more than lengthy paraphrases of Greene's travel books, Journey without Maps and The Lawless Roads, so that the biography assumed bulk without achieving depth. Indeed, some of Greene's early journeys were ignored: his trip to Estonia in 1934, which directly influenced the writing of Our Man in Havana, is described in the memoir Ways of Escape (see 12, 205–6), but Sherry, fascinated with the marriage and Greene's sex life, omitted all mention of it. 4

Greene wrote wearily to George Russo: 'Sherry has been receiving on the whole good reviews over here and in America, but I can't say that I care very much for his book which is far too long and full of irrelevant detail.' 5 In an unsent letter in response to a review...


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