The Man Without
EVEN THE TITLE is pure Greene: low-key, self-deprecating, perfectly descriptive. Indeed, readers hoping for massive disclosures about the author's marriage, love life, experience of miracles, abortive World War II spy career, trip to a leper colony, et al., had best go back again to the novels. This brief autobiographical fragment ends in 1931. Greene was 27 years old at the time, and about to face a decade of relative failure following his early hit with a book called The Man Within. As he writes somewhat archly in the preface, more or less explaining why he stops where he does: "Failure, too, is a kind of death."
Few writers have been so successfully failure-haunted as Greene himself. No novelist, either, has grown so rich or so critically secure by dramatizing spiritual insecurity. A Sort of Life has considerable shortcomings. Yet it makes overwhelmingly clear how Greene the child became creative father to Greene the writer - and to that tortured crew of characters whose rueful collective motto might well read: "With God for a friend, you don't need an enemy."
"The first thing I remember," Greene begins, "is sitting in a pram at the top of a hill with a dead dog lying at my feet." He soon progresses from such minishocks to a brief near-caricature of the English literary boyhood - that beautiful, remote mother, for instance, not to mention the wretched loneliness and the usual hatred of the cruel school. In Greene's case, the problem was quadrupled because his Church of England father was headmaster of the Berkhamsted School, where Greene went, and that, he recalls, made him feel like a perpetual "Quisling." By his own account he was surrounded by a busy, broad-gauged, reasonably happy upper-middle-class family life. Yet he seems to have been born - and long remained - constitutionally terrified of a remarkable number of things: of bleeding, drowning and burning, even of moths and horses. Disarmingly, he later also admits that even now he never starts any book without acute fear that he will be unable to finish it.
It is but a step to another sad preoccupation. "Successful suicide," Greene writes, "is often a cry for help that has not been heard in time." With some slight prurience, he describes his schoolboy attempts to cut a vein in his leg, swallow deadly nightshade berries, handfuls of aspirin and, finally, a draft of darkroom hypo - all with no serious results. But when he ran away from school at age 16, his father sent him down to London in 1920 to be psychoanalyzed. The six-month period of analysis, Greene revealingly admits, was the most peacefully pleasant time of his life, along with a brief, comfortable, post-Oxford stint as a subeditor of the London Times. (When he left the Times in 1929 to try a full-time career in fiction, the editors were deeply distressed, not only because of Greene's quality, but because he was the only subeditor within memory who had ever left the paper voluntarily.)
After describing how he was psychiatrically shriven of fear, at least for the time being, Greene quotes Dr. Freud: "Much is won if we succeed in transforming hysterical misery into common unhappiness." Alas, the post-couch Greene found himself afflicted with what he describes as a lifelong case of crushing boredom. Antidotes have included staying more or less drunk during his whole first year at Oxford, as well as a famous incident - described in an earlier literary collection and incorporated almost verbatim into this book - about playing Russian roulette with his brother's revolver. After six attempts, Greene insists he gave up the game, all passion spent. Yet the need to take revolving risks, he adds, was to send him on repeated world travels.
Greene's first published novel, The Man Within, created an archetypal Greene character, the divided man, naturally weak and self-dramatizing, whose other self heavily corrects toward courage and understatement. In A Sort of Life, Greene suggests that this split personality runs through his whole family. It certainly shows in the book. But what provides fascinating ambiguity in fiction is merely troublesome in personal autobiography. Despite his deliberately quiet voice, there is something unconvincingly stagy about Greene's spiritual hypochondria, and about his insistence on the personal angst and failure that he has endured. It is almost as if, like many of his characters, he believes that worldly failure is a sign of God's grace and is trying to impress Someone other than the reader.
Paradoxically, as an autobiographer Greene is better at emotional reticence than at revelation. Without much discussion he mentions that he has been deeply influenced by dreams. He keeps a dream diary and simply asserts that on several occasions in dreams he has witnessed events - including a specific ship sinking in the Irish Sea - which, he later learned, occurred at the moment he was dreaming them. He barely mentions his marriage to a Catholic girl named Vivien Dayrell-Browning, except as the events affected his need to find both work and religion. Greene's conversion to Catholicism began at age 22. In discussing it he is the soul of brevity. To begin with, he did not believe in God at all. He took instruction from a former actor turned priest - part of whose penance was abstinence from theatrical productions. Philosophic proofs and arguments had little effect on him, but suddenly he found himself able to believe. After that Greene says, saying it all, nothing in the world "could seem impossible."
Tunes for Bears
Except perhaps for writing, a craft and a calling at which Greene is past and present master. His brief notes and perceptions about his own literary influences and evolutions are among the best things in the book. Greene presents again those perfectly precise and unkittenish notations about the influence of Charlotte M. Yonge on The Ministry of Fear, those traces of Beatrix Potter's Tale of Tom Kitten on Brighton Rock. He gets closest to the heart of the matter when he describes how, briefly confined to a hospital for an appendectomy, his young writer's curiosity overcame both a gentleman's squeamishness and a man's compassion, as he eavesdropped on the agonies of a woman whose child has just died in a nearby bed. "There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer," comments Greene, also noting that the mother's genuine grief came out only in women's magazine cliches. Then he quotes Flaubert: "Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity."
It is only against that kind of aspiration that Graham Greene's sense of his own failure seems acceptable.