Shades Of Greene: One Generation Of An English Family, by Jeremy Lewis (Jonathan Cape)

In the 1970s a selection of Graham Greene’s short stories was televised under the title Shades of Greene. So this book, which is a kind of group biography of the writer and his distinguished siblings and cousins, deserves no prizes for originality in its choice of title. It is original, though, in its treatment of its subject.

Previous biographies of Greene have taken the scholarly-critical-cum-high-literary-gossip route. The assumption behind this well-worn approach is that the life will illuminate the art, and vice versa: Greene’s troubled conversion to Catholicism, for instance, revealing itself variously in The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory.

Such amateur psychologizing has given biography a bad name, the poor relation of history and the novel. Jeremy Lewis’s approach is different. He announces at the outset that he won’t “indulge in any form of literary criticism”; nor is his book “intended to be a family history”. His interest is more sociological: the lives of one generation of Greenes, in their hey-day of the 1920s to the 1940s, “illuminate and embody many of the political, cultural, literary and social complexities of the times they lived in.”

One reason the novel is viewed as a superior art is that biographers often have no idea about what makes for a good story. Lewis begins, rather apologetically, several generations back, and over the first two chapters he inches his narrative forward through enterprising Victorian forebears, coffee merchants and civil servants, go-getters, enablers of Empire. This is tedious and unnecessary – the detailed family tree at the back of the book would suffice. But when he does get to Graham Greene’s generation, he hits his stride. The Greenes were one of those families that, like the Waughs, the Huxleys, the Mitfords and the Sitwells, comprised a literary dynasty: Graham’s sister,  Barbara, wrote an account of their travels in Liberia that outshone his own better-known book; his brother, Raymond, an endocrinologist and mountaineer (who didn’t, as the Guardian claims, usurp Hillary in 1933 as the first climber of Everest, but who came close); another brother, Hugh, who became a prescient Director-General of the BBC; sister Elizabeth, who was a spy for MI6; cousin Felix, who had a successful career as a radio journalist before becoming a proto-hippie and joining Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood at a commune in California… The black sheep of the family was Graham’s eldest brother, Herbert, who like Elizabeth and Graham himself was a spy, offering his services to the Japanese, the Americans, and anyone else who would purchase his services. (Herbert, a particularly slimy individual, proffered evidence that led to cousin Felix’s internment along with Oswald Mosley during World War II.)

Lewis’s decision to eschew literary criticism is a sensible one – there are more than enough studies of Graham Greene’s corpus already – but at a stroke he also eliminates the primary reason for his own narrative. Take the writer out of Graham Greene, and you’re left with a cold, deeply unpleasant, manipulative, morally and politically muddled man. And in this he is very much akin to the other Greenes. They flirted with the right, cosying up to Hitler; they flirted with the left, cosying up to Stalin and Mao. They inhabited that bleak, shabby, morally ambiguous world that has come to be known as Greeneland.

Though interesting, talented individuals, these Greenes don’t merit a study apart from their genetic association with Graham. And in his refusal to engage with Graham’s literary work, Lewis blurs the shades of Greene heralded in his title: one is much like another, and none is admirable. His focus on a generation rather than an individual has the narrative cutting from one family member to another, and though this is generally managed adroitly, the effect is breadth rather than depth. For instance, we never learn why Herbert is such a revolting character – he appears to have been so from the beginning. Not that the other family members emerge a lot more creditably. The besetting quality of Graham Greene’s novels and stories is misery, a misery that terminates in coldness, stasis, turbid morality: the lives of the Greenes represented here, for all their various achievements, manifest but don’t illuminate this theme.

Dominion

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Tim Tweets