Shelden's ``Greene': Secrecy as a way of life

June 04, 1995|By Neil Baldwin | Neil Baldwin,Special to The Sun

"Graham Greene: The Enemy Within," by Michael Shelden. 454 pages. New York: Random House. $27.50

William Butler Yeats asked it well: "Who can say where the work begins and the life ends?" Although Graham Greene (1904-1991) has attracted more than his share of biographers determined to reveal every nook and cranny of his perverse quotidian existence, he remains, above all inquiry, the consummate literary modernist.

Greene cited Henry James and Joseph Conrad as his two most important models. At least in this singular respect, he shows an honest streak. On the one hand, we have the stylistic master, champion of the veneer, the well-turned phrase; the portraitist of social ritual masking an intolerable, repressed tension. On the other hand, we have the chronicler of obsessed souls, men driven to seek their inner selves by pushing the limits of wanderlust.

The Jamesian hero (and heroine) is turbulence masked; Conrad's protagonist relentlessly explores both inner and outer terrains. Armed securely with these analogies, Michael Shelden tries to crack the hard nut of Graham Greene's personality. For the most part, he succeeds in crafting a classic literary biography.

Educated at public school (where he had the unfortunate circumstance of being the headmaster's son) and Oxford, Greene married young - a devout Catholic, Vivien Dayrell-Browning. He converted to his wife's religion, and then spent the rest of his career avoiding her, his home, and his family, preferring to view sin from the inside, enjoying a succession of ever more erotic and exploratory affairs.

Greene's reputation was made in 1928 with his first novel, "The Man Within," and he never looked back. He wrote travel essays, plays, film reviews, screenplays, literary criticism, memoirs - but is best known for his bifurcated oeuvre as a novelist. There are the "Entertainments," gangster stories of trust and betrayal: "Stamboul Train" (published in America as "Orient Express"); "A Gun for Sale" (we know it as "This Gun for Hire"); and "Brighton Rock." And then, after the Great War, begin the beautifully wrought sagas of tortured souls "hopelessly trapped between their ideals and their passions," as author Mr. Shelden so well puts it, the classics "The Power and the Glory," "The Heart of the Matter" and "The End of the Affair."

During the Great War, and after, Graham Greene was a spy, a full-fledged member of the intelligence community. For this segment of his subject's life, Mr. Shelden produces his most powerful overlays of life and work, revealing the novelist's fascination with secrecy as a way of life.

Mr. Shelden, author of previous books on Cyril Connolly and George Orwell, shuttles adeptly back and forth between literary and actual situations. Unlike Norman Sherry, Greene's authorized biographer, he makes no pretense at approaching reverence. If anything, Mr. Shelden revels in the sheer perversity of Greene's sex life - his affection for public lovemaking, his assiduous surveys of brothels in every country he visited, his flirtation with sado-masochism.

But to his credit, Mr. Shelden is equally comfortable sketching Greene's aesthetic resonances with Baudelaire, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot, doing so readably, and without the slightest highbrow trace. He reminds us that Graham Greene had distinguished fellow-travelers in his "Journey Without Maps."

* Neil Baldwin is the author of several biographies, most recently,"Edison: Inventing the Century." He has written artilcles for Art In America, Redbook, Glamour, House and Garden and the American Poetry Review, among others.

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