Graham Greene

A Sort of Life

“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 from the lines of the hand.”

English novelist Graham Greene (October 2, 1904 – April 3, 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, and a hungry curiosity. We cannot love others, so the theologians teach, unless in some degree we can love ourselves, and curiosity too begins at home.

There is a fashion today among many of my contemporaries to treat the events of their past with irony. It is a legitimate method of self-defense. ‘Look how absurd I was when I was young’ forestalls cruel criticism, but it falsifies history. We were not Eminent Georgians. Those emotions were real when I felt them. Why should we be more ashamed of them than of the indifference of old age?

Quite curious, the childhood of novelists. How does it shape the writer, the writing? These anchors of self that stand in sparse clarity next to the hum of life. Which jump out when we step into the space and shape of memory. Graham is determined to treat it soberly and curiously.

Alice's antique shop in Portobello Road
Alice’s Portobello, a Notting Hill landmark. Collection of curious and antiques that were owned and loved by many. Perhaps by you next? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Greene was born at the turn of the 20th century in the English countryside west of London, within years of American writers Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Unlike these contemporaries, however, Greene never won the Nobel Prize, although he was shortlisted twice. This is neither here nor there but it might explain why his name is not as readily available to your cerebral cortex. Critics pigeonholed Greene as a Catholic novelist, a faith he converted to in adulthood. Although he defined that type of writing in many ways, he objected to the label. It is sadly often how he is known today.

Greene’s fiction is 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 given them as much power as anything inherited.

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. Here in Berkhamsted was the first mould of which the shape was to be endlessly reproduced. For twenty years it was to be almost the only scene of happiness, misery, first love, the attempt to write, and I feel it would be strange if, through the workings of coincidence, through the unconscious sources of action, through folly or wisdom, I were not brought back to die there in the place where everything was born.

Greene stretches his self-awareness to understand what he was, did, and, most of all, knowledge that came from what he felt. “Those emotions were real when we felt them.” Childhood as a means of understanding adulthood.

I grew clever at evasion. Truancy was impressed as the pattern of my life. To avoid fielding-practice I invented extra coaching in mathematics after school; I even named the master who I said was teaching me and curiously enough my story was never investigated. I would slip out of St. John’s with a book in my pocket while others were changing and make my way a little up the hill where a small lane branches off into the countryside. It was one of the most solitary lanes I have ever known. … On one side was a ploughed field: on the other a ditch with a thick hawthorn hedge which was hollow in the centre and in which I could sit concealed and read my book.

"Edge of the Wood, Broadchalke" engraving by British engraver and print maker, Howard Phipps. Featured in Wendell Berry's "Our Only World" in the Examined Life Library.
“Edge of the Wood, Broadchalke” engraving by British engraver and print maker, Howard Phipps. Learn more.

Once in a while, memoirists have the fortitude to dig into the past for answers, to empathize with the child that existed in a younger form. Poet Wislawa Szymborska once wrote that “every memoirist leaves behind a better or worse likeness of the people he knew, alongside two self-portraits.” These self portraits are that which they are, and that which they want us to see.

Photograph of English author Graham Greene.
Graham Greene.

Accompany Greene’s piercing self-reflections in A Sort of Life with Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on memory as consciousness, Joy Harjo’s ruminations on poetry as salvation for a dispossessed being, or Stephen Fry’s eviscerating self-doubt coupled with unblinking self-awareness.