Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1117
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 death become the focus of the narrative. Greene claims as his first memory an incident in which his nurse placed his sister’s dead pug in his baby carriage in order to carry it home, an image he later used in The Ministry of Fear (1943). He recalls stopping with his nurse to watch a desperate man cut his throat at an almshouse window, the horror of his days as a World War II air-raid warden, and the anguish of receiving telegrams that first informed him of his father’s death and then informed him of his father’s illness.
Throughout A Sort of Life, Greene portrays himself as a victim, crushed by loneliness and boredom. As a schoolboy, his position as son of the headmaster alienated him from his mates and forced him into difficult questions of loyalty: “I was surrounded by the forces of the resistance, and yet I couldn’t join them without betraying my father.” His reaction is to rebel or seek escape. The ancestor he most admires is his father’s father, who ran away from the bourgeois comforts of English family life to seek his fortune on the island of Saint Kitts. Greene clearly identifies with his grandfather’s “irrational desire to escape from himself,” and as a young man his rebelliousness often took self-destructive forms. In A Sort of Life he recounts running away from the school and using aspirin and other chemicals in unsuccessful suicide attempts. Most dramatic is his description of experimenting with Russian roulette, a desperate game he would play in solitude at the University of Oxford when the tedium of his existence became too great. His “discovery that it was possible to enjoy again the visible world by risking its total loss” was repeated in later years, when Greene sought to escape depression through travel, sexual exploits, alcohol, drugs, psychoanalysis, and writing.
Greene’s rebelliousness and belief in the elusive nature of truth are demonstrated in the fragmentary style of A Sort of Life. The process of reconstructing his life is compared to “a long broken night. As I write, it is as though I am waking from sleep continually to grasp at an image, which I hope may drag in its wake a whole intact dream, but the fragments remain fragments, the complete story always escapes.” Rather than presenting a chronological account of Greene’s early years, A Sort of Life actually subverts the idea of a sequential narrative. Greene moves freely through time, associating incidents from his early years and events that occur outside the time frame of this autobiography. He employs a range of voices, building his book in an elliptic, enigmatic manner that is at once revealing and evasive. In the book’s final pages, Greene describes an evening spent in Thailand with a literary acquaintance from his college days. The once-promising friend had long since given up writing in favor of opium, but a scene which the reader expects to highlight Greene’s contrasting success focuses instead on the two men’s similarity. The two “analyzed our differing failures without guilt or regret.”
Greene also recounts his youthful offer to serve as a spy for Germany, and the image of the spy, particularly the double agent, illuminates Greene’s approach to autobiography. Like a double agent in one of his novels, Greene refuses to present his readers with a single authoritative account of his life. He wears a series of literary disguises and shrouds his purpose in ambiguity. He tells his reader that his information is acquired indirectly through faulty and fragmentary memories and emphasizes its unreliability. Greene’s approach displays his distrust of authority and easy answers. Like a double agent who manipulates both sides to his own advantage, Greene asserts his literary independence. His autobiography assumes the importance of self-analysis while admitting the impossibility of finally defining that self. The triumph of A Sort of Life is the book’s successful portrait of Greene, not perhaps the historical Greene known by others but the youthful Greene imagined in maturity by the author himself. Greene openly identifies himself as an unreliable narrator, and he refuses to be limited by the specifics of fact because his purpose is to discover the more lasting nature of his being.
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