Kitten gets to heart of the matter

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IN SEARCH OF A BEGINNING: MY LIFE WITH GRAHAM GREENE

Yvonne Cloetta

Bloomsbury, 16.99

THE novelist Graham Greene (who died in Vevey, Switzerland, in April 1991) would have been 100 years old on October 2 this year, and Jonathan Cape will be marking his anniversary by publishing the long-delayed third volume of Norman Sherry’s authorised biography. Yvonne Cloetta is the woman who lived with Greene for the last 32 years of his life. Her memoir, which she worked on for nearly a decade, will give admirers of Greene’s writing a good excuse to start celebrating now.

Until her death in 2001, Cloetta collaborated on this project with the journalist Marie-Francoise Allain, who was also the co-author of The Other Man, a book of interviews with Greene himself. Between them, Allain and Cloetta demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of Greene, both as a major internationalist literary writer and as an enigmatic, intensely private man who shunned publicity during his lifetime.

Ten years ago, there was a moment when it seemed that Greene’s reputation was in danger of imploding in a storm-cloud of acrimony and resentful accusations. In 1994 Michael Shelden, a Daily Telegraph journalist, published a hostile 500-page biography, in which he claimed, without any serious evidence, that Greene was a child-molester, a closet homosexual, and the notorious Brighton Trunk Murderer, who deposited the butchered remains of murdered women at the left luggage office at Brighton railway station in the late 1930s. Cloetta was appalled by this speculation.

The same year brought forth three other biographies: Graham Greene: Three Lives by Anthony Mockler, against whom Greene himself took legal action for breach of copyright in the 1980s; a more affectionate personal memoir by Father Leopoldo Duran, a Catholic priest who knew Greene for many years and administered his last rites (and on whom Greene based his fictional Monsignor Quixote); and volume two of Norman Sherry’s vast, scholarly and catastrophically unreadable Life. Although Sherry is clearly an aficionado, his biography disappointed Cloetta because she felt that he had not come close to understanding the real Greene.

Since 1994 there have been other damaging biographies, including The Third Woman, William Cash’s luridly voyeuristic account of Greene’s love affair with Catherine Walston in the 1950s. The purposes of Cloetta’s book are threefold: she aims to correct a large number of factual errors in the existing literature about Greene; to rescue her former lover from under-informed biographers; and to speak for the first time about the intimate details of their life together in Antibes and Switzerland.

Cloetta first met Greene when he visited French Cameroon in 1959, where she was living unhappily with her husband and two children. She was immediately attracted by the texture of his skin ("so soft and delicate that it made you quiver with delight"), and by his "elegant, long, aristocratic" hands, which were later deformed by Dupuytren’s disease. He was 55 years old (18 years older than Cloetta) with a bad marriage and a long string of joyless affairs behind him. After Cloetta had returned to France, the couple saw each other intermittently until Greene left London for good in 1965 and settled in Antibes. For a few years he was still involved with Catherine Walston (the dedicatee of The End of the Affair), but Cloetta insisted that he must choose between them. Greene rejected Walston, who proceeded to drink and smoke her way to an early death.

Cloetta was unwilling to divorce her husband (for the sake of her children, she said), and although Greene had been estranged from his own wife, Vivien, since the early 1940s, he never sought a divorce. There is no doubt that his relationship with Cloetta was socially unconventional - they continued to live in different houses on the Cote d’Azur until a year before his death - and he found it difficult to reconcile the adulterous affair with the spiritual demands of the Roman Catholic church, which he had entered as a convert in 1926.

The nature of his faith was always ambivalent. In 1989 he told a journalist that he believed in Hell, but he was comforted by the Jesuitical idea that it might be totally empty, thanks to the infinite mercy of God.

Nevertheless, his affair with Cloetta brought relief from the suicidal depression that had troubled him for 20 years, and she observes that his discovery of "joy" and "happiness" in love meant that he stopped associating sex in his novels with seedy "torments" and "suffering" (as he had done in the pre-war Brighton Rock, for example). Cloetta writes: "He did go to Mass every Sunday... He did not see how the fact of making love to a woman - with her consent, of course, and thereby making her happy - could be an offence towards God, which is how the sin is actually defined. So from that point of view his conscience was squared."

In the light of this memoir, it is worth asking how Greene’s writing altered during the years when he was involved with Cloetta. The turning point in his work seems to occur in 1967, with the publication of May We Borrow Your Husband? In this collection of stories, and in Travels With My Aunt, which he wrote immediately afterwards, Greene turns away from his old themes and obsessions, such as alcoholism, white men falling apart in remote places, espionage and betrayal. In retrospect, his stylistic self-reinvention as a literary comedian and ironist may be seen to have coincided with the flourishing of his love for Yvonne. He dedicated Travels with My Aunt "To H.H.K." - an abbreviated form of his private nickname for her, "Happy, Healthy Kitten".

Cloetta’s knowledge of Greene’s later writing is impressive - she corrected the proofs of his novels when they were translated into French - and the passages she quotes from her diaries provide a few pointers as to how these books should be interpreted. For example, when she asked Greene which of his characters he most identified with, he replied that he felt closest to Daintry, the hero of The Human Factor (1978), a British secret agent who defects to the Soviet Union and turns out to have been working for the Russians all along. Daintry is probably an amalgam of Greene and his old friend Kim Philby, but Cloetta also makes a useful connection between Greene’s childhood and his recurring interest in the theme of betrayal. At Berkhamsted School, where his father was headmaster, Greene was persecuted by pupils who believed him to be a spy. The names of the boys who bullied him, Carter and Wheeler, are frequently given to despicable characters in Greene’s later fiction.

This illuminating memoir, written with intelligence and dignity, is a necessary corrective to the recent crop of bad or mad commentaries. Cloetta successfully makes the case for Greene as a man of great passion and generosity. Yet we are still waiting for a compact, scholarly biography of his entire life in a single volume.