When Gabriel García Márquez, in the presence of Fidel Castro, asked Graham Greene if it was true that he’d played Russian roulette with a loaded revolver, Greene assured him he had, several times. Castro, one of several world leaders with whom Greene had audiences over the years (Gorbachev, Ho Chi Minh and Pope Paul VI were others), calculated the odds and said he shouldn’t be alive. Greene thought the same. He’d expected to die young (“I’d rather die of a bullet in the head than a cancer of the prostate”) but survived to the age of 86.
The Russian roulette story has been disputed; Greene may have played it with blanks or empty chambers. But Richard Greene (no relation) takes it as the central premise of his biography: the novelist as risk-taker and adventurer, with a history of self-harm and an addiction to danger. An early trip to Liberia, to investigate modern slavery, set the tone. Greene knew there were risks – being shot at by soldiers, bitten by snakes or infected by lassa or yellow fever – but they only spurred him on. He was accompanied by his cousin Dorothy, who found him frightening: “If you are in a sticky place he will be so interested in noting your reactions that he will probably forget to rescue you.”
Many journeys followed: to Mexico, Cuba, Malaya, Vietnam, Chile, China, Haiti, Belize, Nicaragua, the Congo and so on. He went to write articles, deliver messages, make diplomatic representations and gather material for books, sometimes all at the same time. His focus was invariably on Catholic priests under conditions of oppression, or on “English characters in a setting which is not protective of them”. He was suspected of spying: rightly so, if only as a novelist. During the war he had worked for MI6, with Kim Philby. Though only briefly a member of the Communist party, he understood its appeal and defended Philby’s betrayal of his country: “He was serving a cause and not himself.” For Greene, Catholicism served the same purpose – faith in an ideal. He characterised himself as a Catholic agnostic, but one with sufficient “doubt in my disbelief” to think a life after death more likely than not.
His theologising and preoccupation with sainthood now look as old-fashioned as his fondness for brothels. He had many failings, not least as a parent – one who found the company of small children purgatorial and had little contact with his son and daughter until they grew up. But he was generous with money: friends, relations and ex-lovers were treated to cars, houses, pensions and other extravagant gifts. And, though indifferent to UK party politics, he was a passionate campaigner against global injustice. Whether it was urging authoritarian regimes to release imprisoned dissidents or attacking the US for its military interventions, he enjoyed making a nuisance of himself.
Richard Greene gently disparages his subject’s previous biographers, Norman Sherry and Michael Sheldon: reviewers found their approach “prurient and trivial”, he says, and much new material has since come to light. In place of a life “boiled down to sex, books and depression”, he offers a life of travel, literary activity of all kinds (plays and screenplay, as well as fiction, editing, publishing and journalism) and a bipolar disorder. He traces Greene’s traumas back to his school days, when he was bullied, victimised and put on suicide watch. And he sees bipolarity as the source of Greene’s restlessness – his need for constant stimulation, whether in a new country or with a new woman. Only with his last partner, Yvonne Cloetta, in tax exile in Antibes, did he achieve something like stability. Till then, despite fame and success, he comes across as largely unhappy – dependent on booze and Benzedrine, guilty about his failed marriage to Vivien, fearful that he was washed up as a writer, disappointed not to win the Nobel.
For all his claims to be drawing on new material, Richard Greene can’t help but go over old ground, from the Shirley Temple libel case to the tiff with Anthony Burgess. It was an immensely busy life and the telling of it here, in 78 short chapters and 500 brisk pages, feels rushed. The emphasis on Greene as foreign correspondent and emissary is certainly fresh. But the cost is an excess of information on the internal politics of the countries he visited, not always pertinent to the fiction. To spend more time on the history of Panama in the 1970s, for example, than on the Greene’s long and complicated affair with Catherine Walston may be a corrective to earlier biographies. But it does little to explain the man and throws more attention on a lesser nonfiction book (Getting to Know the General) than The End of the Affair, his masterpiece.
• Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene by Richard Greene is published by Little, Brown (RRP £25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.