Graham Greene has been one of my five favorite writers since tenth grade or so. I always wanted to know more about him but as his biographers discovered he only rarely took personal questions. His two autobiographies proved even more frustrating and elusive. They spoke little of himself.
There was always great debate about why he was never awarded a Nobel Prize especially given some of the lesser lights the prize went to so often. I think I'm correct in saying that it was William Goldman (another great admirer of Greene's) who wondered if it was Greene's Catholicism (heretical as it was) that kept him from getting it. But Catholics have won many times. Nathan Perkins wondered if it was Greene's left-wing politics. But the prize has been given to many writers more left than Greene. Other theories have been put forth over the years but none of those seemed to address the real possible reason--
In some circles Greene had a rather seedy reputation. He spent a lot of time in whorehouses, he was not known to refuse a drink, he stole one of his best friend's wife (though hardly against her will) and his general behavior often contradicted the impression readers got from his novels and stories and screenplays and he (correctly) predicted that in Central America priests would someday pick up arms to overthrow their fascist governments.
We'll never know.
Richard Greene (no relation) has edited a volume of Greene's Uncollected Letters. Michelle Orange reviews the volume in the new issue of The Nation. Talk about your man of parts.
"Richard Greene warns, `"The sum of all these discoveries is to make Graham Greene a stranger to us again."'
A stranger with no shortage of calling cards: devout Catholic, lifelong adulterer, pulpy hack, canonical novelist; self-destructive, meticulously disciplined, deliriously romantic, bitterly cynical; moral relativist, strict theologian, salon communist, closet monarchist; civilized to a stuffy fault and louche to drugged-out distraction, anti-imperialist crusader and postcolonial parasite, self-excoriating and self-aggrandizing, to name just a few. "But who are you, Mr. Greene?" Yvonne Cloetta, his last mistress, remembered Greene being asked throughout his career. "I am my books," he insisted, a problematic deflection for several reasons, the most obvious being that the Greene oeuvre and its secondary materials support any number of conclusions about who their creator was and what he believed. Indeed, in Greene's two memoirs he manages--resolutely, annoyingly--to reveal little of his emotional life. Considered as a literary trope, Greene's contradictions hold the appeal of universality: in him, we can all locate some part of ourselves. As a man, he may be too like us for adulatory comfort. Even among his fans, abiding love for Greene is rare; for a man who considered disloyalty to be a privilege of the faithful, the hair shirt fits.
Ed here: I'd challenge Orange on one thing. Greene's essay "On The Virtues of Disloyalty" is one of the most valuable insights into human behavior I've ever read. It taught me to distrust all groups, even those whose principles I generally agree with. All groups, no exceptions, expect you to march in lock-step and if you refuse for a principle of your own you are banished and despised. Disloyalty is in fact and in deed a virtue.