Graham Greene’s Soul

By Jason Berry | Commonweal Magazine

Across a span of fifty years, Michael Mewshaw has published twenty-two books, evenly divided between novels and nonfiction, with a lot of journalism fueling the mix. An American writer who has lived for long stretches in Rome, he befriended such writers as Gore Vidal and Pat Conroy, each the subject of his recent memoirs, and Graham Greene, the focus of his new one.

Greene is a tough task for any writer, no matter how seasoned, as we’ve learned from Norman Sherry’s hefty biographies, among other books that explore the paradox of a Catholic convert who as a young man left his wife but never divorced her, and who remained in a Church whose standards of sin he flouted with a roaming sex life that included affairs with other men’s wives. As Walker Percy once said to his biographer, Jay Tolson: “Graham Greene, Catholic. What about that?”

Another book on the what-about-that Catholic. What’s new to say? Quite a lot, actually. Mewshaw traces his own spiritual coming of age under the allure of Greene’s fiction. On becoming a writer, and ultimately friends with Greene, the memoirist’s trail opens into a well-textured character study.

Mewshaw dutifully nods to the biographical literature on the maddening riddle of Greene’s life and religious affiliation. The appeal of this book begins with an early event that serves as the author’s touchstone in seeking faith. “After their divorce I teetered as if on a tightrope between my parents. Each of them poisoned me against the other,” he writes of his rough upbringing in a blue-collar Maryland suburb of Washington D.C. As a junior at St. John DeMatha Catholic High School, he discovered The Power and the Glory.

“A nameless Mexican priest flees persecution by a government dedicated to stamping out the Church,” writes Mewshaw.

He’s an alcoholic who has violated his vow of chastity and had a child. Although there is no priest to forgive him, he retains the power to offer absolution to others…. In the ultimate irony, when the whisky priest is captured and executed, he becomes a martyr, which according to Catholic doctrine, means he’s miraculously assumed into heaven.

The novel drives Mewshaw to “feel responsible not just for saving my own soul, but also for bringing my divorced parents and my stepfather back to the sacraments. Greene’s novel gave me hope that if the whisky priest could be redeemed, so could they.” That hope soon sank, but faith anchored Mewshaw as he got older. “A conscientious, rule-abiding Catholic myself, I nevertheless admired Greene’s struggle with disbelief and respected his intellectual jiu jitsu in becoming both a writer and a Catholic.”

“Hypersexuality was one aspect of Greene’s life that I had no desire to emulate,” he continues. “I yearned for a loving faithful partner.”

As a University of Virginia graduate student in literature, he meets his soulmate, Linda Kirby. They marry; he earns a Fulbright that supports a year in France. In the early 1970s, with his first novel accepted for publication, they enjoy the genteel poverty of expatriates. Mewshaw’s obsession leads to his writing Greene, yielding an invitation to visit Greene’s apartment in Antibes. “He was then sixty-eight and a world historical figure. I was twenty-nine, and my initial impression was of a very old man, fragile, stoop-shouldered, with oysterish blue eyes that avoided mine.”

Graham Greene, Catholic. What about that?

Over Scotch, Greene regales them on his meetings with Castro and Ho Chi Minh, on smoking opium in Vietnam as a quasi-religious rite, on falling in love with his French paramour, Yvonne Cloetta, thirty-six, who left her own husband in Cameroon, moving to a town near Antibes with her two children, seeing Greene daily for lunch and a siesta. The young writer is surprised by Greene’s free-wheeling talk of his private life in front of a couple he has only just met.

“He sounded less like a buttoned-up British novelist with an Oxbridge accent than an over-sharing Californian,” Mewshaw muses. “Greene suggested that Jacques [Cloetta] was either unaware or didn’t care that his wife was sleeping with another man. He showed not the slightest twinge of sympathy for Jacques, nor any sign of this famous Catholic guilt and remorse.”

When a University of Texas professorship draws Mewshaw back to America, the friendship continues in letters and periodic meetings in trips to Europe. Eventually, Mewshaw leaves academia, and with Linda and their two young sons moves to Italy. The details of domestic life as expats in Rome suggest a harmonious odyssey and buffer the scenes when Greene reappears, irascible if ever-fascinating. Of Yvonne, Mewshaw writes: “I soon learned how crucial she was to him both personally and professionally. She was his companion, his cook, and his go-between with French editors and the French press. Unlike Greene, she also spoke Italian, which came in handy on Capri.” He credits her for keeping a diary, noting “Greene’s moods and troubled emotions” as rare source material for biographers.

Greene died in 1991; details of his personal life began proliferating. Mewshaw draws on two decades of encounters and correspondence for an intriguing analysis:

Moving from one mistress to another, he gave the impression of being cold, even heartless. But examined more closely, his attempts to protect himself turned him into a prisoner. Moves he made to liberate himself marooned him in his own misery. Every path he chose had its pitfalls. Every effort to guard his privacy added to his loneliness.

His love life in all its intricacies demonstrated how difficult Greene found it to set boundaries. He often stayed emotionally and financially attached to his former mistresses. When he left Dorothy Glover for Catherine Walston, he set up a pension for her and helped her buy a house in the country. After Dorothy’s death, he arranged for her funeral and provided for her aged mother. Yvonne noted in her memoir that Greene cried only twice in her presence; the first time was when Dorothy Glover died.

Mewshaw captures a deep irony about the tortured soul behind the writer’s persona of the global traveler, friend of rebels and priests, who found in beleaguered countries a church that nurtured hope. His novels mine the complexities of characters caught by sin, seeking love in dangerous places. Yet as both Mewshaw and Greene’s biographers have found, the true stories behind the great storyteller add up to an immense enigma, by turns baffling, appalling, and endearing.

Mewshaw, who traveled widely in Europe and Asia for articles and books, draws his bead from a place of settled faith.

Being Graham Greene, as rich a prize as that had once seemed to me, entails a cost too great to be borne by anybody except the man himself. For all his frailty, he had incomparable courage and strength. Despite his occasional querulousness and quickness to anger, he had a forgiving soul. Whether he finally received forgiveness himself, God alone knows. Although he was often despondent I like to remember him laughing.

My Man in Antibes
Getting to Know Graham Greene 

Michael Mewshaw
$28.95 | 235 pp.