‘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, without irony,’ wrote Graham Greene in the foreword to his memoir of his early years. And for an admirer like myself, A Sort of Life, written with the transparent simplicity that makes his prose so intensely his own, is seminal in understanding the early experiences that shaped Greene’s character and writing.
On the surface, the book is an absorbing and often highly entertaining account of an Edwardian childhood, and the undergraduate years of one of the Brideshead generation. It ends with its author married, and on the bottom rungs of a distinguished writing career. But students of Greene will know that he never gives information, in however guileless a tone, without a secondary purpose. The real function of this memoir is to tell us how he became a writer, and why he became a Catholic, an absent husband and a spy.
Greene was born in 1904 and his childhood home was Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire where his father became headmaster. A secure middle-class setting, yet his comment: ‘Everything one was to become must have been there, for better or worse’ strikes an ominous note. The Greenes were a formidable clan, immensely fertile and conspicuously tall. Accustomed to marrying their first
cousins, their genetic inheritance included brilliance but also madness, manic depression and (less obviously) a pronounced interest in spying. One spy in a family might be considered ample, yet in Greene’s case, his eldest brother, younger sister, cousin and uncle all became involved in some form of espionage, and this was before Greene himself joined SIS (later MI6) in 1941.
But though duality may have been a family trait, the book makes it clear that it was his circumstances – as a boarder in his father’s school – that provided the most powerful stimulus to live a double l
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