Graham Greene

A Sort of Life

“I have tried, however unsuccessfully, to live again the follies and sentimentalities and exaggerations of the distant time, and to feel them, as I felt them then.”

English novelist Graham Greene (1904 – 1991) was restless, at times greatly uneasy. This feeling is in his novels and thickens these memoirs, A Sort of Life. He admits a great fear of boredom, of a mind contained.

And the motive for recording these scraps of the past? It is much the same motive that has made me a novelist: a desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order.

Greene was born at the turn of the 20th century within years of American writers Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Unlike them, however, he never won a Nobel Prize, although he was shortlisted twice. Critics pigeonholed Greene as a Catholic novelist. Although he defined that type of writing in many ways, he objected to the label.

I find Greene’s fiction exceptional. Flush with self-examination without self-obsession. On his particular youthful need for “revenge,” he writes:

For many years after leaving school, when I thought back to that period, I found the desire for revenge alive like a creature under a stone. The only change was that I looked under the stone less and less often. I began to write and the path lost some of its power.

“A Remembrance of Things Past,” woodcutting by Jonathan Gibbs.

In A Sort of Life, Greene circles childhood memories restlessly, pulling himself back to the streets where he was formed and forged.

Everything one was to become must have been there, for better or worse. One’s future might have been prophesied from the shape of the houses as far from the lines of the hand; one’s evasions and deceits took their form from those other sly faces and from the hiding places in the garden, on the Common, in the hedgerows.

Greene stretches his self-awareness to understand what he was, did, and, most of all, felt. “Those emotions were real when we felt them.” Of his mother’s remoteness, his suppressed love for his father, he makes amends best he can, finding order in chaos.

Once in a while, memoirists have the fortitude to dig into the past for answers, to empathize with the child that existed rather than simply narrate for the sake of a book.1 Comedian John Cleese’s So, Anyway and certainly Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are excellent examples.

Accompany Greene’s piercingly clear thoughts with Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on memory as consciousness, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, or this collection of thoughts on memory, The Shape and Space of Memory.