Even though this book is only about Green’s first twenty-two years, it gives the impression of being exceedingly pessimistic about the success of humans of all ages in managing their words, finding happiness in any activities, and, in fact, even surviving the approaching war that Green feared would take his own life and perhaps even mark the end of the world as he knew it. Green (probably by nature a pessimist) knows that he conveys an impression of almost overwhelming pessimism. So he stops his narrative from time to time to advise his reader that he does not really mean to sound as hopeless as he naturally is. Green almost seems to tell the reader not to take the pessimism as seriously as Green himself must take it. For example, coming to the end of his account of life at the boarding school, Green urges the reader not to think “that there was persecution or even prolonged unhappiness at our school,” even though the author has provided several accounts of both. Green’s questionable explanation for the dominance of unhappy events in his book is that humans generally remember happiness only when it is attached to some particular action or person. Because the lives of the boys in the school were so busy, so communal, so totally arranged by the headmaster, Green could not actually experience individualistic events that, alone, might have brought sufficient happiness to be remembered.
Later in the book, now writing about his period at Eton, Green stops himself again to write, “But I should give an altogether false idea of my time at school by describing it as one long moaning and groaning.” He continues, observing that there were “things anyone could do,” and he recounts a few. Still, the more consistent impression is of the unhappy times.
At another point, writing about his own compositional method of bringing events back from the past, Green writes that it is an error “to try to recreate days that are done.” What he does rather than to re-create the past is to search out a time and to write it down as nearly as possible to capture what it seems to him to be like at the time of writing, not at the time of occurrence. Here is a primary clue both to Green’s impressionistic style and to his pessimistic outlook. He has a present impression of the way things once were, and it is that current impression that he wants to convey, rather than to try to discover through memory what his impression might have been earlier. Even if Green was not inherently pessimistic, the reader can certainly see that in the 1938-1939 period just prior to World War II, he was filled with despair. Surely that hopelessness colored, as Green almost admits, not only the actual nature of his past but also the feelings that he may or may not have had during the occurrences in the past.
Like almost everyone who writes about British social and educational life, Green must deal with the class system. Particularly interesting is his reaction to the officers who were convalescing in his family home during World War I. Writing of the differences in expectations and manners between his family and the wounded officers, Green remarks that the effect “on a child of my class” was to expose him to social gulfs that were both narrow and deep. They were narrow because these men were, after all, officers, but the chasms were simultaneously deep because the men had “to come over that rope bridge over that gorge across which intercourse is had on the one side by saying ‘sir’ and on the other ‘my good man.’” Of the effect on him of his exposure to these men, Green maintains that he probably did not immediately learn about the fine distinctions in class, because he was too young to absorb such a lesson, but that he saw enough to recognize the echoes when he heard them in later situations. According to Green, manners were what he and his family had and these wounded men did not have; he contends that the differences between the classes are accidental, primarily the result of money. The presence of money means that leisure time is available for the...
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Autobiographies of fiction writers regularly seem to inherit a secondary role of supplying background material helpful in appreciation of the fiction; yet Green’s book can stand on its own merits. It does so not so much because it is a fascinating look at English school life early in the twentieth century, but more because it is such an objective and impressionistic look at that life. Green indulges in self-defense so rarely and stands back from himself so often that the book has many of the narrative appeals of a good first-person novel, in which the author and the narrator must be seen as two separate persons.
At the same time, it does provide insights into the nature and sources of Green’s pessimism and his resigned, wry sense of humor, which also dominate his novels. This book reveals some of the sources of two closely related subjects that occur frequently in the novels: the class system and feelings of being an outsider. Green’s experiences in his own home with many officers of different social classes came at an impressionable age and helped give him his dubious attitude toward strict social separations. Certainly his own experiences as a leper, what he also called an “albino,” in his not being acceptable within school circles, particularly the dominant athletic one, had a bearing on his many fictional depictions of persons unable to make meaningful contact with others.
Green’s autobiography should be read alongside other literary memoirs by his contemporaries. In particular, the reader will gain added insight into Pack My Bag from Anthony Powell’s four-volume memoir To Keep the Ball Rolling (1976-1982). Powell and Green were schoolmates at Eton, and the first volume of To Keep the Ball Rolling, Infants of the Spring, includes Powell’s recollections of Green both as a youth and as a fellow writer, with an assessment of Green’s achievements as a novelist.