Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene, by Richard Greene

A new biography of the great writer.
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Detailed yet pacy, insightful and informative, Richard Greene (no relation) has written a thoroughly enjoyable one-volume biography of Graham Greene. The novelist has attracted plenty of labels over the years: Catholic, communist, womaniser, depressive, genius. What Russian Roulette highlights is that Greene can be considered all of these, to varying degrees. But he was so much more. There are plenty of complexities and contradictions when it comes to the character of Graham Greene. He could, quite literally, visit a brothel after visiting a monastery. This may make the biographer’s job more difficult, but it can also prove rewarding too.

Greene grew up in an Edwardian household and died after Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. It was a long life – and a successful life, albeit Greene might have argued otherwise. He travelled extensively, wrote prolifically and his love life could be more complicated than the plot of any of his novels. There is much to admire about the character and life of Greene. Writers should take note of his work rate, as well as his prose style. Yet Russian Roulette is, quite justly, no hagiography. I do not believe I will be the only reader to raise an eyebrow in response to the novelist’s support of Fidel Castro and Kim Philby. Greene the Catholic – and Greene the drinker – was far preferable company to Greene the communist, I imagine.

Richard Greene has been able to mine new sources to write this biography and his familiarity with his subject’s correspondence creates an even greater air of accuracy and intimacy. As a result, Richard Greene unpicks some of the myths surrounding the novelist (some of which the novelist, who valued his privacy, propagated himself). The biographer has an eye for detail too. Who knew that, as a child actor, Dennis Waterman performed in one of Greene’s plays?

Both Greenes exhibit a dry sense of humour, which makes this biography an often entertaining as well as intelligent read. The greatest gift that this book can bestow however, is that it will compel a host of readers to want to re-visit Greeneland. After gaining additional background on the novelist’s travels – and what he was going through when composing his great works – I intend to re-read the likes of The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-out Case and The End of the Affair. So, my Christmas reading may be depressing this year, but it will be enjoyable too.