“You shouldn’t be alive,” Fidel Castro declared to Graham Greene when the elderly novelist told him how many times he had played Russian Roulette with a revolver as an adolescent. It’s a phrase that readers of this new biography of Greene will find themselves shouting every few chapters.

Although Greene gave up his revolver, he spent his life trying to recreate the same thrill by travelling to the world’s trouble spots, popping up with the inevitability of a vulture in Mexico, Sierra Leone (as part of his Second World War service with MI6), Malaya, Vietnam, Kenya, Batista’s Cuba, Haiti, Paraguay and Panama when they were at their most explosive.

Aged 63, he found himself crouching behind a sand dune near Ismailia to escape being shelled after deciding to take a look at the Six-Day War: “I do seem to have a nose because I stumbled on the worst point of the worst incident in two months... I really thought I’d had my last game of roulette.”

His biographer Richard Greene (a Canadian poet and academic best known for his life of Edith Sitwell, and no relation) is a little sceptical about Greene’s claim that his life was one long dice with death. He suggests, to start with, that one of Greene’s early poems implies that the teenage Graham never actually loaded the revolver.

Later on, Greene adopted the pose of a thrill-seeker, but his biographer identifies nobler motives behind his ceaseless globetrotting: the desire to alert the world to things it should know about, such as America’s low-key involvement in Vietnam in the Fifties; the wish, as a Catholic novelist whose great theme was faith, to scour the world’s trouble spots for “the most authentic believers... the ones who had no comfort to deceive them”.

The light Greene’s life throws on geopolitics is one of his biographer’s main interests, and he has little time for the “prurient and trivial” obsession with the minutiae of Greene’s sex life that has characterised previous biographies. Although his novels drew on his own romantic life, none of his heroes ever experienced anything quite so knotty; only Iris Murdoch could really have done him justice.

Anybody who has read Norman Sherry’s official biography of Greene, a train-wreck in three volumes, will be delighted by the concision and sanity of Richard Greene’s book. He writes briskly and engagingly, with a wry wit and an endearing fondness for trivia and puns.

He is also less giddy, and less of a hero-worshipper, than most of the previous biographers.

I’m not sure, nevertheless, that this biography quite does justice to Greene’s writing. Richard Greene has a lot of ground to cover in 500 pages, offering potted histories of several regimes and conflicts and often carrying their stories several decades past Greene’s involvement, and the books sometimes get sidelined.

Still, we badly needed a sympathetic but clear-headed life of Greene, and this book fills the gap admirably.

The Sunday Telegraph

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