Norman Sherry

b. 1935 – d. 2016

Norman Sherry was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1985.

Norman Sherry remembered – by Ian Thomson

With more than 30 novels to his name, Graham Greene was our most singular and prolific chronicler of damaged faith and human wretchedness. A writer of his stature would need a very good biographer and, at first, it looked as though Greene had found him in Norman Sherry. Though Sherry had never written a formal biography, he had made a name for himself at the University of Lancaster (where he was head of English) with books on Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Brontë and, notably, Joseph Conrad. Greene, a devotee of Conrad, admired the diligence with which Sherry investigated the people and places that inspired the Polish-born novelist. ‘Follow me to the end of my life,’ the Catholic convert commanded his biographer after they met at the Savile Club in London in 1974. Greene promptly handed Sherry a map of the world with red dots marking his travels and suggested he start by retracing his steps. Sherry, a lapsed Catholic, set to work immediately.

His first (800-page) volume appeared in 1989. While Sherry had much to say about Greene’s fiction and inner life, he examined his every depression, love affair and alcoholic spree in excessive detail. ‘Oh why does Sherry waste so much time talking about me?’ Greene grumbled. In the course of further researches, Sherry went temporarily blind in Africa, endured gangrene in Mexico (as Greene had done before) and succumbed to tropical diabetes in Liberia. Though Sherry was unlikely to find much trace of Greene in these places long after the event, he was not deterred. In Sierra Leone he placed an advert in a local newspaper: ‘Professor Sherry will be happy to entertain at breakfast anyone having knowledge of Graham Greene’s stay in Freetown during the Second World War.’ Next morning he was surprised to find a queue of young-looking men waiting in the lobby with stories to tell of a time before they were born. 

Sherry, the youngest of five children of an Irish Catholic father from Cork and an English mother, was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1925. He won a scholarship to King’s College, Durham (then part of Durham University, now Newcastle University), where he studied English. At university he met and later married Sylvia Blunt who, as Sylvia Sherry, became a successful children’s writer. In 1983 Sherry took up a professorship at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, remarried, and continued to travel extensively in search of his quarry. Worried that Sherry might turn into his doppelgänger, Greene tried to persuade him from visiting the leper colony which features in A Burnt-Out Case, for fear that he might contract leprosy. 

Visiting Greene in 1985, however, the novelist David Lodge found that Greene enjoyed hearing stories of his biographer’s spaniel-like devotion to the task. ‘I do hope I am not going to be the death of Sherry,’ Greene said darkly. He may even have appreciated the vinous associations of Sherry’s surname. (‘Let’s go to Sherry’s,’ says Pinkie of a drinking club in Brighton Rock, adding quickly: ‘I can’t stand the place.’) During his 30-odd years of sleuthing into Greene, Sherry appeared to identify strongly with his subject – and this was in many ways his undoing. The third and final volume of his biography (2004), covering the years 1955–91, contained startling flights of hagiography.

Indeed, Sherry’s descriptions of Greene were at times Boy’s Own in tone and suggested an adolescent crush. ‘I see his eyes so clearly with their light fiery blue of a Siberian husky’s.’ (Elsewhere, Greene’s eyes were merely ‘sea blue’.) In the final chapter, when Greene is gratefully dead and buried, Sherry indulged some of the most unusual writing in the history of biography. ‘Worms breed, and the handsome man with his stunning blue eyes is host to a thousand sliding lascivious creatures, eating our flesh, turning us gradually into a sort of human jam.’ This and other notable lapses of taste possibly had to do with Sherry’s advancing Alzheimer’s. At one point Greene is improbably involved with five women at the same time. (Little wonder that his philandering was ‘slowly devouring him – tortuously slow like a boa eating a goat’.) Fortunately, Sherry had an excellent chapter on Greene’s troubled sense of religion, and argued convincingly that he retained his faith, if not his belief, in Catholicism all his life.

By the time Sherry died in Texas at the age of 91, he had been married three times. In his last months he retired to a Catholic nursing home, and the rosary was said at his wake. It is hard not to conclude that the man Evelyn Waugh nicknamed ‘Grisjambon Vert’ (French for ‘grey ham green’) might have been better served by his biographer. Sherry’s three-volume Life of Graham Greene, brilliant in parts, stands as a warning to biographers: keep a proper distance from your subject.