Book review: A Sort of Life by Graham Greene

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Dear Dad

To Graham Greene, an autobiography must be A Sort of Life — for want of nothing else, it has to end before the author’s death. Here, it begins from Greene’s first memory and ends with the years of failure that ensued the success of his first published book.

Besides, in the course of his 66 years — the age at which he wrote this book — his “imaginary characters” have been as much a part of his life as “real men and women”.

Nevertheless, as the reader comes to see, it is really Greene’s selective amnesia for events that makes this work A Sort of Life. He variously reminds us, like a motif with which he weaves, that his narrative consists of fragments that “remain fragments, the complete story always escapes”.

Born into a family of Greenes — his father and his mother shared the same surname — Graham grew up in idyllic Berkhamsted. There, he languished in boarding school (in spite, and probably because, his father was at the helm as headmaster), flirted ineptly with suicide and engineered his own disappearance. This prompted his father to send him for psychoanalysis in London. Graham was only 16 years of age.

Greene describes his early love of books and his enduring fascination with Literature. With limpid honesty and self-deprecating humour, he reveals his pubescent pains and sexual fantasies. Battling inexplicable “crises of boredom”, he sought refuge in distractions — of adolescent lust, alcohol and infatuations. When his first love — the house nanny, 10 years older than he — was due to be married, Greene poured out his emotions in schmaltzy verse and sentimental poetry, gambling away his manic depression with six lucky counts of Russian Roulette.

Far from the halcyon days one might imagine, Greene’s time as an Oxford undergraduate is curiously recollected as insipid — apart from one term of round-the-clock inebriation, completion of a first novel that was never published and dalliance with German espionage. He tells of his struggles with unemployment after graduation and a spate of unfulfilling jobs. It was his career with The Times as sub-editor that he recalls with the fondest memories: the work — the writer is “learning lessons valuable to his craft”; the company —  “intelligent and agreeable men of greater experience than his own”; and the cosy milieu — of “coal settling in the crate”.

Greene’s conversion from an atheist — and a stubborn one, to boot — to a Catholic started out with no more than duty and respect for his wife-to-be and her religion. Sessions with the priest convinced him of  “the probable existence of something we call God”. While his conviction at baptism was sacrosanct, he is to allude to his disillusionment with “Catholic journalism and Catholic humanity” later in life.

His departure from The Times, encouraged by euphoria following acceptance of The Man Within, marked the beginning of an abysmal spiral in the young writer’s life. As a full-time novelist, failure and success were locked in a perilous dance. And he was drowning in debt. Indeed, Greene was on the brink of leaving it all behind to join his friend as a teacher in Bangkok when he was pulled back once again to be toyed about between the breathless waltz.

While some elisions can be ascribed to forgetfulness, others are clearly driven by conscious discretion. Although he may not remember the first time he kissed the nanny of his passion, Greene has devoted little, by way of narrative, to his wife or their relationship. He may have quite forgotten the fainting episode in which he was (erroneously) diagnosed with epilepsy, but any mention of depression — cured or not — is conspicuously absent after he starts employment with The Times.

Memorably, he notes, “a novelist has a greater ability to forget than other men — he has to forget or become sterile. What he forgets is the compost of his imagination.”

Still, Greene’s glass-like lucidity and delightful prose take one on an insightful journey through a most celebrated life — well, A Sort of Life.