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A Sort of Life

By Graham Greene Simon and Schuster, 220 pp., $6.95

By Richard Bowker

A Sort of Life is a wonderfully apt title for Graham Greene's autobiography. Its detached, tentative sadness typifies the way Greene has viewed the world in his novels, plays, and essays over the past forty years, and exactly fits the attitude he takes towards the telling of his own story. It's almost too apt: we who do not live as intensely may feel that Greene's style and philosophy, like Lawrence's, verge on self parody; but this is the way Greene understands the universe, and this is the way he must write about it. A Sort of Life shows us that Greene's philosophy is not merely intellectual, it was experienced from the earliest memories of childhood. Greene's life is a powerful corroboration of the fictional world he has created.

We may wish the writer had approached his life differently, had dwelt more on one aspect and less on another, but we have to grant him his right to see his life as he chooses. Greene uses this right in one major way this is extremely typical of him: he chooses to end his autobiography with the years of failure which followed the initial success of his first novel. The Man Within. A Sort of Life isn't a "Volume I: The Early Years": it is, I expect, all we are going to get. Greene writes: "Failure too is a kind of death: the furniture sold, the drawers emptied, the removal van waiting like a hearse to take one to a less expensive destination." In other words, he finds it aesthetically more pleasing to end at the lowest point in his life than to continue to the present replete with critical and popular success.

There are lacunae which are more distressing, however. Greene's account of his conversion to Catholicism is too circumstantial, only skimming the surface of what must have been a tremendous psychological upheaval. His wife is barely mentioned and never characterized. One would think that such crucial elements in his life would deserve lengthier consideration.

Greene's early life (what he does choose to tell of it) was nothing out of the ordinary. He grew up in an intellectual Edwardian family--his father was headmaster of the school which he attended. He went to Oxford, and after Oxford had a series of jobs before becoming a sub-editor of the London Times. After his first novel, he quit the Times and devoted his life to writing. The facts of his life aren't as important, of course, as the way Greene remembers or reacts to them, and the way the young Greene responded to them. For example: 'The first thing I remember is sitting in a pram at the top of a hill with a dead dog lying at my feet." This is the kind of thing Greene remembers and chooses to relate. The very matter-of-factness of its horror changes a dull life into one full of terror and hidden meaning.

The most startling example of Greene's youthful reaction to his existence is the game of Russian roulette he played, an episode also recounted in The Lost Childhood and Other Essays. On six different occasions he pressed a pistol to his temple, pulled the trigger, and nothing happened. He gave it up finally, not from fear, but because the excitement had gone: the game was no longer an effective antidote to the boredom which was the plague of his existence. It is here that we receive one of the few quick glimpses Greene allows us of his later life to let us know that nothing has changed. Boredom remains the great problem of his life:

A kind of Russian roulette remained too a factor in my later life, so that without previous experience of Africa I went on an absurd and reckless trek through Liberia: it was the fear of boredom which took me to Tabasco during the religious persecution, to a leproserle in the Congo, to the Kikutu reserve during the Mau-Mau insurrection, to the emergency in Malaya and to the French war in Vietnam. There, in those last three regions of clandestine war, the fear of ambush served me just as effectively as the revolver from the corner cupboard in the lifelong war against boredom.

Another adolescent antidote to boredom was a flirtation with spying for Germany while still a student at Oxford in 1924. Greene wanted to do it out of an honest pity for the defeated nation, but he soon lost the pity and toyed with the idea of becoming a double agent. Luckily ("the life of the double agent is a precarious one"), international agreements caused his services no longer to be necessary. Greene played Russian roulette at eighteen. He became disillusioned with espionage at nineteen.

Since Greene says so little about his later life, we find almost nothing of his mature theory of art, only his reaction to his immature works. At one point he says:

All that we can easily recognize as our experience in a novel is mere reporting: it has a place, but an unimportant one. It provides an anecdote, it fills in gaps in the narrative. It may legitimately provide a background, and sometimes we have to fall back on it when the imagination falters. Perhaps a novelist has a greater ability to forget than other men--he has to forget or become sterile. What he forgets is the compost of the imagination.

An enormously suggestive remark like this one shows what we are missing. There are only isolated remarks about his great novels: this person turned up as so-and-so in Brighton Rock, that passage in The Power and the Glory seemed effective.

Greene says that his motive in writing this memoir is the same one that has made him a novelist: "a desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order." But even a great novelist cannot reduce his life to the same kind of order that he achieves in his fictional characters. This might be the reason for my slight feeling of dissatisfaction with A Sort of Life. All the ingredients of a Greene novel are there: the Manichean universe, the existential hero never quite in control of his life, the grubby side of espionage. But Greene the novelist would never have ignored his hero's wife. He would never have digressed on his hero's relatives, or on the party games the hero played as a child. That is why The Power and the Glory will remain more important for me than A Sort of Life. What it proves, perhaps, is that fiction is more powerful, more moving, and, yes, stranger than truth.

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