Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006

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.

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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 the multiple Greenes hidden in his early years. The dreamlike memories he recounts, and frequently discounts by questioning their accuracy, serve as an escape from the depressing reality of his contemporary life, yet his book is not escapist, for it is through his intuitive use of dreams that Greene seeks to confront the grim realities of his own character. As Greene points out, he has always used autobiographical material in his fiction, and he approaches the writing of his autobiography in much the same way as he would approach the writing of a novel. Believing that any attempt to present a factually complete account would be lifeless and inaccurate, Greene accepts the necessary role of the imagination. He argues that a writer must have “a greater ability to forget than other men—he has to forget or become sterile. What he forgets is the compost of the imagination.” He says that his motives for writing an autobiography are similar to his motives for writing novels: “a desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order, and a hungry curiosity.”

The book’s title underscores the limitations that Greene believes are inherent in autobiography, primarily the limitations of the author’s memory, which “begins later [than a biographer’s] and . . . ends prematurely.” Although A Sort of Life was published in 1971, Greene chose to narrate his life only as far as what he calls the “years of failure which followed the acceptance of my first novel.” Because “failure too is a kind of death,” this temporal limitation provides Greene with a novelistic sense of closure. His decision to conclude on a note of uncertainty fits Greene’s vision of himself as a victim, an author who maintains that “for a writer, . . . success is only a delayed failure.” In actuality, A Sort of Life concludes with the publication of Stamboul Train (1932)—published in the United States as Orient Express—the novel which established Greene as a popular and successful author. Nevertheless, Greene’s decision to end the autobiography at this point may be psychologically appropriate, for by 1932 Greene’s character was set; indeed, despite superficial differences of setting and event, his subsequent work displays a remarkable consistency.

In A Sort of Life, Greene recounts events of his childhood in Berkhamsted, highlighting incidents that collectively portray a childhood of alienation and desperate rebellion, a dark portrait of Greene’s inner state that contrasts with the objective perception of the secure and privileged life of an English headmaster’s son. Greene’s impressionistic narrative builds toward his adolescent breakdown, suicide attempts, and his parents’ surprising decision to send him into psychoanalysis with Kenneth Richmond. Greene describes his treatment with Richmond, which initiated his lifelong interest in psychoanalysis and dreams, as “the happiest six months of my life.” Greene goes on to recount his college years at Balliol College, in Oxford, his early years as a journalist, his conversion to Catholicism, his marriage, the disappointment that followed the initial success of his first novel, The Man Within (1929), and the failure of his two subsequent novels, The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931); he concludes with the renewed promise of his fourth novel, Stamboul Train. Although the book contains useful commentary on the events of Greene’s early life and the relation of these events to his later writings, politics, and travel, the autobiography is circumspect. Greene focuses on revelatory images of loneliness, violence, boredom, alienation, and despair. The book is particularly effective in its evocation of the unhappiness of Greene’s school days— “weeks of monotony, humiliation and mental pain”—portraying him as torn between a desperate fear of rejection and an equally desperate need for isolation.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

DeVitis, A.A. Graham Greene, 1986 (revised edition).

Kelly, Richard. Graham Greene, 1984.

Lamba, B.P. Graham Greene: His Mind and Art, 1987.

Spurling, John. Graham Greene, 1983.

Stannard, Martin. “In Search of Himself: The Autobiographical Writings of Graham Greene,” in Prose Studies. VIII (September, 1985), pp. 139-155.

Wolfe, Peter, ed. Essays in Graham Greene: An Annual Review, 1987.

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