The Power, the Glory and the Booze : A classic ruin survives his determined efforts at self-destruction. : THE LIFE OF GRAHAM GREENE: Volume II: 1939-1955, By Norman Sherry (Viking: $34.95; 562 pp., with 51 plates)

Thomas Disch is a poet and novelist whose books include "The M.D.: A Horror Story" and "Dark Verses and Light." His latest novel, "The Priest," is forthcoming

Graham Greene had it all. A privileged childhood, a devoted wife, "bestsellerdom," critical acclaim, jobs (when he chose to work) that gave him access to the upper reaches of England's literary and government elites, and, for a fillip, lifelong carte blanche to indulge his favorite vices--adultery, alcohol, prostitutes and drugs--without public reprobation or significant repercussions, except the bad conscience that allowed him to continue writing at high intensity well beyond the age at which most of his peers had fizzled to a stop. The only blessing denied him was the Nobel Prize.

His consolation for that omission will have to be Norman Sherry's authorized biography, which portrays him in just those attitudes and colors he would have approved. No renaissance pope could have commissioned more skilled and persuasive flattery than this portrait, which presents Greene as the Representative Man of his time and place, the last, tragic heir of the British Empire, a classic ruin who somehow survived his most determined efforts at self-destruction.

Volume II begins in 1938 with Greene's return to England from Mexico, with the material for his next two works, "The Lawless Roads," a travel book that reflects his odi-et-amo view of the Third World squalor he could never keep away from ("I hate this country and this people"), and "The Power and the Glory," which Sherry considers Greene's greatest novel. The England Greene returned to was already in a state of war alert. Fueled by war nerves, financial anxiety and Benzadrene, Greene wrote "The Power and the Glory" during the afternoons, while simultaneously turning out his "entertainment," "The Confidential Agent" in the mornings, a job he accomplished in six weeks.

Greene (born in 1904) spent the early war years, including the period of the Blitz, in London, working first as a propagandist for the Orwellian Ministry of Information, then as the literary editor of "The Spectator," for which he also moonlighted as a theater reviewer with a special liking for spicy comedies and music hall revues. Sherry's best chapters are those that show Greene's inebriate response to a London in flames:

Greene appeared to relish destruction and death: indeed, he seemed to believe that the world deserved it. He was at home in the London blitz . . . and to him it was not odd to wake up on a cement floor among strangers in an air-raid shelter. The collapse of a whole way of life was, for Greene, inevitable: "Violence comes to us more easily because it was so long expected--not only by the political sense but by the moral sense. The world we lived in could not have ended any other way."

After the Blitz, he was recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and dispatched to West Africa, which he had already come to know in the course of writing an earlier travel book, "Journey Without Maps (1936)." Stationed in Freetown, Greene's work as a spy was almost comically futile, but his time was not wasted, for he put it to use writing "The Ministry of Fear," with its grim evocations of the Blitz. He returned to England to work at MI6 headquarters under the tutelage of Kim Philby, the Cold War's most renowned double agent. Sherry quotes liberally from Philby's memoirs and from Greene's co-worker at MI6, the critic Malcolm Muggeridge: "(Greene) was tremendously good at dealing with agents and working out cover plans and things like that. . . . He understood what he was about as his novel 'Our Man in Havana' shows. . . . He gives you the whole feeling of it, the ludicrousness of it and yet the way people get caught up in it. You have to take it seriously and yet it's all based on a fantasy."

Much the same can be said for the mega-chapter, 4, "Time of Catherine." Sherry certainly takes Greene's protracted stalemate of an adultery with the society matron Catherine Walston very seriously, as did Greene himself, who mined it for his last really masterful novel, "The End of the Affair" (1951), and for much of "The Heart of the Matter" (1948) as well. But other people's illicit affairs tend to be a bore to everyone but the errant lovers. For chapter after chapter the biography becomes a clutter of daisy petals: She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me. . . . The final score: She loved him not, at least not enough to leave a husband whose wealth dwarfed even Greene's. Greene's amour fou did precipitate the end of his marriage and the sloughing of an earlier mistress, the dowdy and long-suffering Dorothy Glover, who had matched Greene glass for glass all through the war years.

Then, without any government commission, but from a kind of nostalgia for the Blitz, Greene headed off to Malaya and Vietnam to witness firsthand England's and France's colonial Gotterdammerungs-- and to dissipate on a grander scale than he could in Europe. "This was the beginning," Sherry explains, "of Greene's passion for opium. He never let it get out of hand, but as with alcohol he used opium to control his depression."

Sherry, the author of books on the Bronte sisters, Conrad and Jane Austen, never wonders whether in adopting Greene's own classically alcoholic view of his dependency he hasn't reversed cause and effect. Greene's chronic depressions were obviously symptomatic. He drank incessantly--when he worked, when he was in bed with Catherine, when he was feeling unrequited, when he was bored, whenever. A evening's bottle of whiskey was only "rather a night on the tiles." A love note to Catherine begins, "I long for the first drink at No. 5," to which he attaches a note to her husband, "I do want to tell you how much I appreciated yesterday coming out of the storm to your welcome and your whiskey." (Ever the gentleman, he doesn't add "and your wife.") In another billet-doux: "I would love to walk bang into the flat on arrival and find you and a bottle."

Lacking that, the bottle alone served his purpose. It was always in his thoughts, and his metaphor of preference. But Sherry deals with the matter in the classic enabling fashion of the drunkard's spouse. The one time he averts to Greene's drinking problem directly, in a single, discrete paragraph, he excuses his idol so: "Many times he dealt with his depressions and deep sense of ennui by drinking heavily, and he was not the first writer to do so."

Indeed he was not. Four of the American novelists whose Nobel prizes Greene could envy had been alcoholics as well: Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. To Greene's credit it would be said that he handled his liquor better than they did. He crested later in life, writing his best work in his 40s, and his talent did not take quite so steep a decline, though no biographer will envy Sherry's task in bringing his tripartite biography to a close in Volume III, for in the remaining decades of Greene's life the bittersweet reckoning will be paid.

Reading the life, I couldn't resist returning to the works, which renewed the conviction I had gained on first acquaintance with them--that Greene probably was the best British novelist of the mid-century. Surely he was the most compellingly readable and well deserved his huge popularity.

Greene's writerly talent was so large, and his thirst for adventure so consuming, that his life, however reprobate, bears pondering--not simply as a cautionary tale but even, in its ghastly way, as an exemplar. Do you want to be a world-famous novelist? Here's looking at you!

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