Norman Sherry obituary

Writer best known for his three-volume biography of Graham Greene

Norman Sherry, who has died aged 91, was a tireless literary sleuth whose three-volume biography of Graham Greene consumed him for 30 years. After naming Sherry as his official biographer in 1974, Greene followed the slow progress of the project with a mixture of amusement and exasperation, warning his devoted chronicler: “I will live to see your first volume, but not your second. And you will not live to see the third.”

Instead of laughing this off as another example of his subject’s dark humour, Sherry became haunted by the threat. After Greene did indeed live to see the first volume in 1989, but not the second five years later – dying in 1991 – Sherry worried that his own doom was sealed. Yet so much was his book the great passion of his life that he couldn’t bear the thought of dying before all volumes were published. Just before submitting his third and final volume in 2004, he came up with an extraordinary trick to undercut Greene’s prophecy.

“I have out of fear,” he confessed to bewildered interviewers, “left the last sentence incomplete.”

This superstitious ploy couldn’t protect the biographer from the critics, however, many of whom had grown weary of his obsession after generally heaping praise on the first two volumes. “Too much Sherry,” one complained, objecting to his increasing tendency to put himself at the forefront of Greene’s story as he pursued the novelist’s literary trail from Asia to Africa. “This book is not about Graham Greene,” charged the novelist’s son and literary executor, Francis, “but about Sherry.”

Defiant, the biographer responded: “I was the nearest thing to being a son to him as could possibly be.”

In truth, they were polar opposites. A Balliol graduate, Greene was tall and worldly, a polished, literary man who moved with ease and confidence from the exclusive heights of the rich and well connected to the sordid depths of opium parlours and brothels. By contrast, Sherry was short and full of nervous energy, an earnest academic whose periodic excursions into Greeneland left him bruised and battered from a series of afflictions, including gangrene, tropical diabetes and temporary blindness.

Graham Greene in 1975.
Graham Greene in 1975. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

What drew Greene to Sherry was the scholar’s early work on Joseph Conrad. No matter how obscure the reference in Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness, Sherry tracked it down and shed light on Conrad’s original sources for these novels and others. “Follow me to the end of my life,” Greene commanded his biographer after they met at the Savile Club in London, in 1974, and from that moment Sherry devoted himself to Greene’s life and work with the same intensity he had shown with Conrad.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Norman was the son of Michael and Sarah Sherry. He studied English at King’s College Durham (then part of Durham University, now Newcastle University) and spent a long career teaching literature at the University of Lancaster before moving to Trinity University of San Antonio, Texas, in 1983, where he was a distinguished professor until his retirement in 2010. Like most things in his life after Greene came into it, his move to the US was prompted by his research interests, with an eye towards exploring Mexico and the literary archives of the University of Texas at Austin.

Visiting Greene in 1985, the author David Lodge found that the older novelist enjoyed hearing stories of Sherry’s travels and took a “mischievous glee” from knowing that the biographer was dutifully pursuing leads in even the most obscure parts of Liberia and Haiti. Of course, it was next to impossible to find much evidence of Greene’s time in these places long after the novelist had visited them, but nothing could keep Sherry off the trail.

One story begins with the researcher arriving at a hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and announcing in the local paper that: “Professor Sherry will be happy to entertain at breakfast anyone having knowledge of Graham Greene’s stay in Freetown during the second world war.” The next morning the professor was startled to learn that dozens of locals were waiting in the lobby for breakfast with him, many with dubious stories to tell of a time before they were born.

Sherry did indeed uncover a great deal of new information about his subject, but usually it was discovered not in exotic places but in the quiet halls of academic libraries, where Greene’s letters, diaries and other papers have ended up over the years. Sherry first ran afoul of Greene’s family when he faithfully reported some of the sensational revelations in these documents in his second and third volumes.

Even one of Greene’s mistresses, Yvonne Cloetta, thought that the biographer had delved too deeply into sexual matters, and wrote angrily to him in 1997: “You have betrayed Graham. You have betrayed me. You have betrayed your craft. We have nothing more to say to each other.” But nothing could deter Sherry. He claimed that Greene himself had given him the exclusive rights to his story, citing a one-sentence agreement the novelist signed on his deathbed.

In 1994, as Greene’s unauthorised biographer, I debated with Sherry at a couple of events, and with his typical fondness for exaggeration he attacked me as a “literary terrorist” for daring to offer a critical portrait of his hero. Ten years later, despite his best efforts to serve that hero, he found that Greene’s circle had turned on him as they had turned on me, the family and others insisting that no portrait of the novelist was acceptable until all the warts were safely airbrushed away.

In the end I’m not sure whether Sherry understood that his great obsession had blighted his life more than it had graced it. When he died in San Antonio, he had endured countless illnesses, and had been married three times (his last wife, Pat Villalon, died in 2012; the former two marriages, to the novelist Sylvia Sherry (nee Blunt), and Carmen Flores, a former student at Trinity, ended in divorce). And, perhaps most dismaying from Sherry’s point of view, a scholar on good terms with Greene’s family had recently announced that he was completing a “new authorised biography” meant to supersede his three volumes.

He is survived by two children from his marriage to Carmen, John Michael and Ileana, and by his twin brother, Alan.

• Norman Sherry, biographer, born 6 July 1925; died 19 October 2016

Contributor

Michael Shelden

The GuardianTramp

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