Russian Roulette: The Life and Instances of Graham Greene overview – hooked on hazard | Graham Greene

W.When Gabriel García Márquez asked Graham Greene, in the presence of Fidel Castro, whether it was true that he had played Russian roulette with a loaded revolver, Greene assured him that he had done so several times. Castro, one of several world leaders Greene had audiences with 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 expected to die young (“I would rather die from a bullet in the head than from prostate cancer”) but survived to the age of 86.

The Russian roulette history is controversial; Greene may have played it with spaces or empty chambers. But Richard Greene (no relationship) takes it as the central premise of his biography: the novelist as a risk-taker and adventurer with a history of self-harm and an addiction to danger. An early trip to Liberia to study modern slavery set the tone. Greene knew there were risks – 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 terrifying: “If you find yourself in a sticky place he will be so interested in recording your reactions that he will likely forget to save you.”

Many trips followed: to Mexico, Cuba, Malaya, Vietnam, Chile, China, Haiti, Belize, Nicaragua, Congo and so on. He went to write articles, deliver messages, make diplomatic statements, and gather material for books, sometimes all at the same time. Without exception, his focus was on Catholic priests under conditions of oppression or on “English characters in an environment that does not protect them”. He was suspected of spying: rightly, if only as a writer. During the war he had worked with Kim Philby for MI6. Although he was only a brief member of the Communist Party, he understood its appeal and defended Philby’s betrayal of his country: “He served a cause, not himself.” For Greene, Catholicism served the same purpose – belief in an ideal. He characterized himself as a Catholic agnostic, but one with enough “doubts about my unbelief” to believe an afterlife was likely.

His theologization and preoccupation with holiness now look as old-fashioned as his predilection for brothels. He had many flaws, not least as a parent – one who saw the company of young children as purgatory and had little contact with his son and daughter until they grew up. But he was generous with money: friends, relatives, and ex-lovers were treated with cars, houses, pensions, and other extravagant gifts. And although he is indifferent to British party politics, he was a passionate activist against global injustice. Whether it was pressuring authoritarian regimes to release incarcerated dissidents or attacking the US for its military interventions, he was fun to harass himself.

Richard Greene gently denigrates the previous biographers in his field, Norman Sherry and Michael Sheldon: Reviewers found their approach “prurient and trivial,” he says, and much new material has come to light since then. Instead of a life “limited to sex, books, and depression”, it offers a life of travel, literary activities of all kinds (plays and screenplays, and fiction, editing, publishing, and journalism), and bipolar disorder. He traces Greene’s trauma back to his school days when he was bullied, harassed and put on suicide watch. And he sees bipolarity as the source of Greene’s unrest – his need for constant stimulation, whether in a new country or with a new wife. Only with his last partner, Yvonne Cloetta, in the tax exile in Antibes, did he achieve something like stability. Until then, despite his fame and success, he appears largely unhappy – dependent on alcohol and amphetamines, guilty of his failed marriage to Vivien, disappointed not to win the Nobel Prize for fear of being washed up as a writer.

For all his claims of tapping new material, Richard Greene can’t help but walk old ground, from the libel case at Shirley Temple to the argument with Anthony Burgess. It has been an immensely busy life and it feels rushed to tell it in 78 short chapters and 500 animated pages. The emphasis on Greene as a foreign correspondent and envoy is certainly fresh. However, the cost is an excess of information about the domestic politics of the countries he visits, which is not always relevant to fiction. Spending more time on Panama’s history in the 1970s, for example, than on Greene’s long and complicated affair with Catherine Walston, could be a fix for earlier biographies. But it does little to explain the man and draws more attention to a smaller 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.

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