In A Sort of Life Greene suggests that an appropriate epigraph for all of his novels would be some lines from Robert Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”:
Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.The honest thief, the tender murderer,The superstitious atheist, demi-repThat loves and saves her soul in new French books—We watch while these in equilibrium keepThe giddy line midway.
The quotation underscores Greene’s love of paradox, his rebellious sympathy for the nonconformist, his persistent disbelief in the capacity of words to capture in some final form the truth of existence, and his implicit belief that any honest search for meaning is a dangerous balancing act. Yet Greene is neither an absurdist who celebrates chaos nor a relativist who rejects the significance of moral meaning. Although recognizing that any search for meaning is unfinished, Greene sees such quests as essential to full human existence. Because the central concern of his writing is salvation, theological, societal, and personal, the question of truth is dangerous—a matter of life or death.
Just as Greene compares his writing to a high-wire act in which he carefully balances between moral opposites, he emphasizes separation as well. In A Sort of Life, barriers and borders are important symbols of alienation and the obstacles to knowledge. After his exile to the dormitory, where he suffered miserably from the public life he had to endure, the green baize door that stood between the school quarters and his family’s rooms came to represent his irreparable separation from the security and innocence of his early childhood. More graphic is Greene’s description of the flower border that separated the school grounds from an adjacent, ancient cemetery. He notes that the boundary was ill defined; each spring, when the school’s gardener would replant the border, he would uncover bits of bone. Greene’s dark memoir of his childhood is marked by many similar warnings to be mindful of death.
The settings of Greene’s novels are so consistently sordid that critics have coined the term “Greeneland” to refer to his literary environment. In A Sort of Life, the Berkhamsted of Greene’s childhood becomes another part of Greeneland, a habitat devoid of beauty and scarred by incidents of banal violence and cruelty. The crude sounds and smells of the dormitory, the stifling bourgeois conformism, the lack of privacy, and images of irrational and unpredictable violence and...
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Graham Greene’s literary reputation has been limited by his own unfortunate subdivision of his fiction into “novels” and “entertainments.” He based this distinction on several factors: the entertainments were written with great speed during manic periods, and the novels were written more slowly during depressive periods; the entertainments focus on crime, and the novels treat larger subjects; the entertainments are seen as lay works, and the novels are viewed as Catholic. Many of these distinctions are accurate, but the unfortunate result of this too easy classification has been to encourage critical neglect of Greene’s entertainments. The concurrent publication of A Sort of Life and a collected edition of his works, in which, for the first time, all of his works were labeled novels, marked an invitation for critics to reexamine the body of his work. It cannot, however, be said that his invitation has resulted in a great resurgence of critical interest in Greene’s work.
A Sort of Life is complemented by other autobiographical writings, including essays such as “The Lost Childhood” and “The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard”; travel books such as In Search of a Character: Two African Journals (1961); and Greene’s second book-length autobiography, Ways of Escape (1980), which roughly continues his life from the point in the 1930’s at which A Sort of Life ends. In addition, Greene collaborated with Marie-Francoise Allain to produce L’Autre et son double: Entretiens avec Marie-Francoise Allain (1981; The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene, 1983). The relative wealth of autobiographical material and the fact that Greene’s fiction has revealed so much of his character may have discouraged the production of a full-length biography.