Wednesday 25 April 2018

Obituary: Norman Sherry

Academic who spent 30 years researching life of Graham Greene

PASSIONATE: Norman Sherry with the first volume of his autobiography of the novelist Graham Greene
PASSIONATE: Norman Sherry with the first volume of his autobiography of the novelist Graham Greene newsdesk

Norman Sherry, who has died aged 91, was the official biographer of Graham Greene and spent almost a third of his life unravelling the web of obfuscation which the secretive author spun to protect his private life.

Sherry was an unlikely candidate to chronicle Greene's life, a prize which many better known writers were vying to win. Head of English at the University of Lancaster, Sherry had never written a formal biography but was making a name for himself in literary circles with books on Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and Joseph Conrad.

It was his critical work on Conrad that caught the eye of Greene, a keen admirer of the Polish-born novelist. While teaching in Singapore Sherry had investigated some of the people and places that had inspired Conrad as a seaman in southeast Asia in the 1880s. A second volume, Conrad's Western World, which involved travel to the Congo in search of "Mr Kurtz", the central figure of the novella Heart of Darkness received a double tick in Greene's list of books he had read.

Under pressure to appoint a biographer, Greene travelled from his home in Antibes in 1974 to meet Sherry at the Savile Club. The interview did not begin well, with the author saying he distrusted academics - he hated journalists even more - and did not want anyone "crawling all over my life". He also did not want his biographer to be a Catholic. Sherry, whose father was Irish, said he was lapsed.

Greene took Sherry for a walk to show him where he used to drink with Kim Philby, the Soviet agent he worked under at MI6. Greene ran into the traffic to cross a road and was knocked down by a sharply braking taxi. Miraculously unhurt, Greene said: "You almost lost your subject." To which Sherry replied, "That's not half as bad, Mr Greene, as losing your biographer."

That sealed the deal, though the impression of male bonding through a near-death experience is misleading. They were not on first-name terms for many years and Greene never dropped his guard, detesting Sherry's "inquisitions". This was hardly surprising: Greene had been so keen to cover his tracks that he sometimes wrote alternative diary entries for the same day, one filled with sober observation and the other chronicling a visit to a prostitute.

He handed Sherry a map of the world with a thick pattern of red dots marking his travels - he never spent more than a few weeks in any one place - and suggested the biographer start by retracing his steps. Clearly Greene hoped that Sherry would conduct an inquiry into the sources of literary creation rather than excavate his rampant sex life.

If that was what Greene intended, he misjudged Sherry, a passionate and combative man. After seven years of travel and two decades of writing, he produced three volumes, totalling 2,251 pages, finally completed in 2004. Throughout, he had to battle against Greene's reticence and then, after his death in 1991, the resistance of his heirs.

Norman Sherry was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on July 6, 1925, 11 minutes after his twin brother Alan. He was the youngest of five children of a father from Cork and an English mother who was surprised to be pregnant at the age of 45 and, at the birth, even more surprised to deliver twins. Both boys won scholarships to King's College Durham. Norman read English and Alan studied Engineering,

At university Sherry met and married Sylvia Blunt who, as Sylvia Sherry, became a successful writer of children's novels, including A Pair of Jesus Boots. In 1983 he took up a professorship at Trinity University, a liberal arts college in San Antonio, Texas, where Sylvia joined him.

The marriage failed, however, and Sylvia returned to England. He later married Carmen Flores, a former student who had helped him with Greene's archive.

The enormity of his task was by this time swallowing up his own life. He spent seven years travelling the world, at great harm to his health.

Greene hated to be interviewed by the man he called his "doppelganger". When the first volume came out in 1989 to widespread praise, Greene asked Sherry how he had unearthed so much detail. He had tracked down 36 school friends, two of whom kept diaries.

When Greene died in 1991, his family demanded the right to approve his chapters in advance to put an end to amorous revelations - at one stage Greene was involved with five women at the same time. Sherry stood his ground and the second volume, published in 1994, contained the story of Greene's affair with the vivacious Catherine Walston, wife of Harry Walston, the Labour Party politician.

It took another 10 years for the third and final volume to appear. By that time the British literary establishment was tired of waiting, and angered at Sherry's insisting on his exclusive right to quote from the Greene archive until his work was complete. In Britain, reviewers swooped for the kill, decrying Sherry for including his own travails in the book and for swamping the subject with detail.

In America, the reviews were more supportive, understanding the enormity of the task and viewing it as a unique resource.

Sherry's third wife, Pat Villalon, died in 2012. He is survived by his twin brother, Alan, and by a son and a daughter from his second marriage.

Norman Sherry died on October 19.


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