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The Perfect Spy

‘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 life. It is never easy being the headmaster’s son. The problem is exacerbated when your father is weak, ineffectual and embarrassingly obsessed with unnatural practices. Greene Senior’s method of control was to keep the boys under constant surveillance, encouraging them to inform on one another for real or imaginary acts of impurity. For even something as innocent as the Sunday walk, they had to write down in advance with whom they would be walking. Twos were discouraged – they might become partners in crime. But a singleton was even more suspect – he might have his hands in his pockets for entirely the wrong reasons. A trio was deemed ideal because that meant that one could spy on the other two.

The only hope of survival was to become a double agent, running with the hounds while ingratiating yourself with the fox. But Greene found he was good at it. He admits that, from the beginning, he ‘loved spying for spying’s sake’. For those of us who have the utmost difficulty in remembering what we did yesterday, the strain of holding two or three ‘legends’, as John le Carré would put it, in our heads at the same time would lead to a breakdown. Yet to Greene, there was a kind of ‘craftsman’s pride at spinning the plots and counter plots . . . something akin to the novelist’s skill’. Being a double agent enabled him to feel powerful, to be in control, to be able to get things past other people.

But the cost could be very high. Some of the most affecting pages of this memoir describe the intense misery of his boarding-school life. There was bullying, an emotional attachment that went  wrong, and possibly a botched but serious attempt at suicide. All this, including the celebrated story of how he became addicted to playing Russian roulette with his brother’s revolver, is told in Greene’s breeziest tones – a clear sign that he may be attempting to get something past us. The truth is that the consequences were so real and so worrying that Greene was taken out of school for nearly a year. He moved into the home of a London psychoanalyst, though the treatment as he describes it – breakfast in bed followed by a short chat about the night’s dreams, then off to Hyde Park with a novel – was not rigorous. But it enabled him to put space between himself and his tormentors, and he rejoined the school in the sixth form.

The reader is left with the distinct impression that something fundamentally painful and damaging happened during those teenage years. As a result, even half a century later, Greene can only bear to give us a coded account.

Greene’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church is one of the most interesting – and mystifying – parts of this story. He had fallen in love with Vivien, his future wife, herself a Catholic convert, and for her sake he undertook instruction from the splendidly named Father Trollope. An immensely tall and fat man, Trollope had enjoyed a successful career on the West End stage before renouncing all for the Church. The two of them met twice a week and enjoyed discussions, often on the top deck of a jolting tram, about the precise dating of the Gospels. The result was that ‘In January 1926 I became convinced of the probable existence of something we call God.’ As an endorsement of his new faith it falls several miles short of rapture. But a year later he was married.

However, the duality of his highly sexed nature inevitably meant that Greene’s approach to marriage – indeed to his faith – would not be conventional. Vivien was soon keeping house in the country while Greene worked in London, pursuing the same adventures he had enjoyed before his marriage. One section edited out of the final text of A Sort of Life records his sexual dalliance before and after marriage. Forty-seven prostitutes can be clearly remembered, though, striving for accuracy, he adds there may have been others he has simply forgotten.

But Catholicism provided him with one vital aspect – an unyielding moral framework against which his characters could struggle and rail. ‘Why have you become a Catholic?’ asked a friend. ‘I had to find a religion to measure my evil against,’ he replied, his tongue only half in his cheek.

Greene made it clear that A Sort of Life, published when he was 66, is a restricted glimpse, as much of his life as he is prepared to share. Yet in its most compelling aspect – how he became a writer – he does not short-change us or leave us wanting more. This is a detailed and wholly absorbing account of a writing apprenticeship. A boy who could cite Robert Louis Stevenson as a distant relative might hope for inherited talent, but the application, the sheer persistence had to come from the boy himself. Nothing tells us more about Greene than the dogged way in which, in adolescence, he began to experiment with different literary forms – sometimes with farcical results.

While still at school, he sent a play to a Sunday night theatre club. He was thrilled to receive a flattering reply and an invitation for interview in St John’s Wood. The door was duly opened by a lady in a dressing-gown and it would be hard to say who was more surprised. Greene was taken aback to meet a lady who was clearly expecting a gullible amateur dramatist who could be persuaded to part with money. As for the lady herself, we can be sure she was not expecting a schoolboy in a blazer and school cap. The scheme did not advance.

But university was to provide a more fertile ground for his ambitions. His Brideshead days at Oxford involved no teddy bears, Bright Young Things or endless parties. In every sense Greene kept his head down and during those three years, in spite of long periods of drunkenness, he managed to publish over sixty articles and poems. He was determined to succeed. He completed his first novel and began looking for day jobs to provide for himself, and soon a wife and child.

The success of this first novel, The Man Within, was not, as he makes clear, entirely helpful. It led him into producing more sub-Conradian quasi-romantic fiction, and it encouraged him to leave a perfectly good job as a sub-editor on The Times, the job he describes nostalgically as ‘the perfect job for a young novelist’. He deliberately wrote an entertainment in the style of Eric Ambler to restore his fortunes, but the lesson he learned from this early writing experience was that it was time to avoid romantic adventure stories set in far-flung lands and different periods, and draw on the material of his own life. He recognized that though he had a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life, unfortunately ‘the disease is also one’s material’.

In the autobiography of any great writer, the childhood influences that shaped his or her work are what at first absorb. But the core of the book is the journey to the point where the crucial question can be put: what should I be writing about – what is my real subject matter? In this small masterpiece Greene generously takes us through the false starts, the griefs that fired the engine of his desire to write. It is a great act of intimacy. Furthermore, often somewhat slyly, and always on his own terms, he lays out the issues and themes which would dominate his later great novels. I return to A Sort of Life again and again. In its own small way, it is as fine a piece of prose as he ever wrote.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © Frances Donnelly 2010
This article also appears as a preface to Plain Foxed Edition: Graham Greene, A Sort of Life

About the contributor

Frances Donnelly is a writer and broadcaster and lives in Suffolk.

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