Matters maketh man

A Sort of Life

As an author, Graham Greene shows a definite tough love towards his characters. The starkness of many of their novelized lives is belied by some divinity shaping their ends, or at least affording them a degree of salvation or condemnation. In this way Greeneland is similar in structure to the rigid, pitiless universe of Dante's Divine Comedy. Once we accept that Greene's early conversion to Roman Catholicism has informed these moral sensibilities---in ways that your average born-again would scarcely conscience---it follows that we will ask: what else in his life found its way into his work?

Greene's autobiography ought to provide the ideal environment in which to interrogate him. There's refreshingly little evidence that A Sort of Life constitutes a land-grab by Greene, an attempt to stake out territory that biographers might otherwise camp on to reveal the nastier features thereof. The tone is gentle and neutral: he claims in the preface to have written the book in good faith, both to his readers and to his younger self, and this faith shines from the book far more than the religious sort. While one can always argue for subconscious layers of misdirection, there is a warts-and-all honesty evident in these ramblings about his early life.

Dull yet interesting, is probably the neatest summary of his first twenty-odd years presented here. His cloistered, upper-middle-class upbringing is claustrophobic and privileged; he is surrounded by the extended Greene family and attends the school his father owned and headmastered. Unintentionally funny childhood games and a marked precocity on the part of young Graham strengthen the usual stereotypes of his class; there's also implied, passive but unceasing encouragement from his parents, effortlessly brought to bear on their child. Greene's formative years are clearly micromanaged to an extent, the size of which he barely acknowledges.

Therein lies the major flaw in A Sort of Life. While Greene is scrupulously honest about his mundane conversion, his fears of destitution following early, devastating failure, and his own gradual gendering---when he remembers, almost as an afterthought, to mention it---he is simply rattling the details off with the minimum of analysis or reflection. One is simultaneously encouraged by the glut of information and irritated by the lack of preparation and consideration of it.

If this were fiction, Greene would have written it as a grey, ambiguous story with hints of deep principles at work. As it is, this factual splurge is better thought of as rough notes, that a professional biographer would be able to take up as a promising starting point, not a finished book. His time in juvenile therapy, the brief mentioning of sexual frissons, his isolation and nervousness, the discovery of faith through his wish to marry... all of these stories have depth, and beg questions as much as they provide answers, but here the questions are not even considered. There exists the possibility of a discussion of Graham Greene's sort of life that illuminates both the man and his work, but Greene himself was never the man to write it.