Form and Content

The circumstances surrounding Graham Greene’s publication of his first book-length autobiography, A Sort of Life, illustrate the duality that characterizes the author and his work. Greene once told a meeting of the Leicester University Literary Society that he had begun writing the book as therapy. Suffering from such deep depression that he feared a complete mental breakdown, Greene asked his psychoanalyst to administer electric shock treatments; instead, his analyst told Greene to write down a description of his earliest memories. Undoubtedly, Greene uses A Sort of Life to explore the psychological foundations of his life, but critics have noted that his autobiography appeared in the same year as a collected edition of his writings to which he wrote new introductions. These concurrent publications may have demonstrated Greene’s desire to move beyond popularity and financial success to assume a position in the English tradition of conscious artistry alongside Henry James, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford. It is possible that such contradictory motives were equally true, illustrating Greene’s fastidious distinction between his public self, which he associates with his role as author, and his private self.

A Sort of Life is an example of Freudian self-analysis; it is a work which is founded on Greene’s belief in the importance of formative influences: “The whole future must have lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets.” Nevertheless, in A Sort of Life Greene does not attempt to prove this causality through a sequential exposition of his childhood experience; instead, he distorts the unities of time, place, and action in order to concentrate on an abstract vision of his own developing character. The book is, therefore, at once intimate in Greene’s effort to face the horror of self and evasive in his refusal to account for the factual details of his private life or to discuss the people who affected his early years. Greene tells little of his parents, brothers, sisters, school companions, or the many literary figures he came to know. Even his wife, Vivien, is barely mentioned, although she was the primary cause of his conversion to Catholicism and shared the agonizing years in which he struggled to establish himself as a novelist.

A Sort of Life is an impressionistic text in which Greene strings together arbitrarily related images that hint at the essence of...

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