Russian Roulette is the first biography of Graham Greene in a generation. “At last Graham Greene as the biographer he deserves.” The Evening Standard. Richard Greene (no relation) was born in Newfoundland, educated at Oxford, and is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.
Interview by Richard Foreman.
What first provoked your interest in Graham Greene? Was it a particular novel? Also, what attracted you to writing about the man rather than just the novelist?
Oddly enough, I disliked Graham Greene when I first encountered his work – I was about 16 and did not like The Heart of the Matter at all. But then I read The Power and the Glory and from then on I was an addict. As for writing about him, that happened by an odd accident. I had edited a volume of the poet Edith Sitwell’s letters and around 2003 was working on a biography of her. I contacted Greene’s son Francis about getting access to some embargoed letters Greene had written to her at Georgetown University: when he heard that I had experience of editing letters, he invited me to compile a selection of his father’s. I laid the biography of Edith Sitwell aside and got to work on Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, which came out in 2007. I then returned to my project on Edith Sitwell, completed in 2011, and afterwards decided to try a full literary biography of Graham Greene. I expected it to take three years — it actually took eight, but I loved the work. In Russian Roulette, I wanted to put more emphasis on political issues than other biographers had done. I hope I was successful.
The biography, as well as the title of the book of course, deal with Greene’s relationship with suicide. Can you explain a little about the title, Russian Roulette? Also, ironically perhaps, it seems that it was only after Greene’s near-death experience, whilst travelling through Africa with his cousin, that his fixation with suicide was nullified (though not completely) and he began to find some extra purpose in his life. Would you agree?
Greene claimed that as a young man he played Russian Roulette on six occasions. I regard the story, for various reasons, as more myth than fact. There is evidence that whatever he was doing, there were no bullets in the chambers. However, the story is helpful for understanding a pattern in his life. He often did things every bit as dangerous as Russian Roulette, such as visiting battlefields, in order to relieve boredom and depression arising from his bipolar illness. At several points he was very close to suicide, both before and after the Liberian trek. His mental health improved from the early 1960s and, although he had times of depression, he was far less tempted to take his own life.
One of the great strengths and rewards of reading Russian Roulette is that it will prompt many people to read or re-read Greene’s novels. The biography highlights just how much Greene borrowed his plots and characters from real life – but also how much his fiction was a product of his imagination. Is there a work of Greene’s that you have often returned to over the years and gleaned different things from? And, for those who have not travelled to Greeneland before, could you recommend a good starting place?
I think The Power and the Glory is a great place to start, or perhaps The Quiet American. Both are splendid narratives. If one would like to start with an entertainment, Our Man in Havana is one of the funniest books you will ever read.
It is said that journalists provide us with the first draft of history. How do you rate Greene as a journalist, as opposed to novelist? For much of his life it seems that Greene treated his travels as raw material for writing books. Yet, in his later years, he inserted himself more into the story and was, to some extent, an activist rather than impartial reporter. I am thinking of his relationship with Omar Torrijos and Panama – and his campaign linked to J’Accuse.
In the course of writing the biography, I became much more aware of Greene as a journalist than I had been before. While still a university student he made his first visit to a trouble spot – Ireland, just after the Civil War, and wrote about it. And so it went on through his life. But you are right to observe the element of advocacy in his journalism. He declared openly that he was ‘on the side of the victims’. The conflict between detachment and commitment is addressed specifically in The Quiet American, where the journalist Fowler has to make a such a choice: another character says to him ‘Sooner or later, one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.’ The J’Accuse pamphlet is, to my mind, not really journalism, however, but political and legal agitation on behalf of a friend who was being abused by her husband and his cronies.
Related to Greene inserting himself into events and the lives of others, do you think that Greene’s anti-Americanism and the make-up of his own character compromised his judgement in his dealings with Fidel Castro and Kim Philby? The biography is particularly insightful in charting the latter’s involvement with Greene. What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you think Greene made an error in leaping to Philby’s defence too quickly and too ardently?
Greene’s anti-Americanism seems to have been present in embryo at the time of his journey to Mexico in 1938, but hardened while he was in Vietnam in the early 1950s and witnessed American meddling in that country. As he grew older, he seemed to distrust both East and West in the Cold War and turn his attention and sympathy to the troubled and impoverished countries of Africa and Latin America.
By his third visit to revolutionary Cuba, Greene could see flaws in Fidel’s regime and privately protested about the detention of gays and dissidents in labour camps. He did find Fidel fascinating but was not uncritical. He wanted Cuba to evolve towards democratic socialism, and Fidel failed notably in the area of human rights. As for Kim Philby, yes, I think Greene’s defence of Philby was incoherent. Perhaps his attitude went back to his school days when he was believed to be betraying his friends in the dormitory to his father, the headmaster – he sometimes, in later life, over-performed loyalty as if to shake off this old accusation. Of course, Greene was contrary and defended Philby as if from schoolyard bullies – but Philby was not his innocent schoolmate, and many brave people died because of his revelations to the Soviets. There is a separate possibility: Greene may have had permission from SIS to maintain a bridge with Philby – be someone to whom he could eventually reach out. There was always the hope that in time Philby might reveal the names of other moles in British intelligence. However, based on the information currently available, I think Greene’s defence of Philby, animated by his anti-Americanism, was entirely misguided.
Tim Butcher, in his book Chasing the Devil, famously retraced Greene’s steps in Journey Without Maps. If you could retrace Greene’s steps for a similar adventure, or be a fly on the wall for one of the moments in his life, what would it be and why?
I would love to have been with him in Vietnam, especially for his meeting with Ho Chi Minh in 1955. He presented a secret letter, presumably from British officials, the contents of which were never revealed. It may have related to the relief of Vietnamese Catholics uprooted by the war and the partition of the country, but that is only a guess. That would have been an extraordinary conversation to have overheard. Another fascinating occasion occurred thirty years later at a peace forum in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev shook his hand and said ‘I have known you for some years, Mr. Greene’ – whatever did he mean? That he was a reader of the novels, or that Greene had figured in intelligence reports, perhaps related to Latin America? It was a very strange remark.
Are you currently working on any other projects?
Not yet! I am writing a little poetry. There was little room for rhyming couplets in Russian Roulette.
Richard Foreman is an author and publisher. His books include Warsaw, Spies of Rome and Crusaders.