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Russian Roulette: The life and times of Graham Greene, by Richard Greene

27 November 2020

Anthony Phillips reads about the life, loves, and faith of a novelist

TO DESCRIBE this biography of Graham Greene by Richard Greene (no relative) as straightforward may indicate a certain dullness, given what is known of its subject’s extraordinary life. Far from it. The life itself ensures the contrary, which makes this work compulsive reading.

Given Greene’s many liaisons, what the author avoids is letting the reader become a voyeur. Instead, he recounts Greene’s tortured relationships with a succession of women, often overlapping, with sensitivity and understanding, enabling one to continue to respect him.

Nor is the author concerned with literary criticism. The gestation of the novels, plays, films, and articles is described, as well as the identification of those who might serve as models for characters in the works. But it is not the biographer’s task to assess their merit: rather, it is to bring to life the identity of their author, complex in so many different ways.

That Greene lived to 86 is itself a triumph. Traumatised at school, diagnosed as manic depressive, constantly searching for excitement in dangerous parts of the world, promiscuous, hard-drinking, experimenting with drugs, he also had continually to resist the nagging option of suicide. It was as an undergraduate that he had first played Russian roulette with his brother’s pistol, and survived: “It was like a young man’s first successful experience of sex.”

One of the strengths of this biography is the author’s ability to sum up succinctly the political situation in the hotspots that Greene sought out, excitement and risk being central to his life. It can be assumed that throughout he kept in contact with MI6, with whom he had worked in the war under Kim Philby — whom, to the bafflement of some, he would never condemn: “Who among us has not betrayed something or someone more important than his country?”

AlamyGraham Greene (second from left) with his daughter Lucy (left) meet the film producer David Lewis and the star Deborah Kerr on the set of the 1955 film of Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. Kerr played a married woman who gives up her lover be­­cause of a promise to God, who, she be­­lieves, answered her prayer when she pleaded for her lover’s life to be spared in an air raid. She makes regular visits to an atheist polem­icist in an effort to be argued out of her growing faith

Nowhere was Greene more influential in his active commitment to social democracy than in Central America. He was neither naïve nor uncritical, recognising that, sometimes, one had to opt for the lesser of two evils.

It will, though, be Greene’s Catholicism that will most interest readers of the Church Times. Rejecting the idea that he was an apologist, Greene described himself as “not a Catholic writer but a writer who happens to be a Catholic”. But his faith inevitably shaped his novels, particularly on the theme of the mercy of God.

While, in his biographer’s words, Greene felt that “unbelief requires a certainty that cannot be justified,” he none the less struggled with doubt for the whole of his life. Yet, wherever he was in the world, he sought out priests, and welcomed the sacraments.

Throughout his life, he distinguished between belief and faith, and, in a 1940 article in the Saturday Review of Literature, he admitted that only faith kept him from committing suicide. Edith Sitwell, who thought that he would have made a splendid priest, said that he understood sin and redemption in a way that the clergy did not.

Greene’s Catholicism also enabled him to see an authentic religious consciousness in the spiritual practices of the indigenous people of Mexico, the oaths and rituals of the Mau Mau in Kenya, and the voodoo ceremonies in Haiti. Not surprisingly, he trusted mystics more than theologians; for they were on the side of faith, while theologians stood for belief.

Summing up his own position, Greene wrote: “I would call myself at worst a Catholic agnostic.” Not a bad position in which to find oneself, and one in which, through his writings, he has challenged generations of his readers.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Russian Roulette: The life and times of Graham Greene
Richard Greene
Little, Brown £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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