A Sort Of Life, by Graham Greene
There is something both interesting as well as untrustworthy about the memoirs of writers. On at least some level, this is due to the Heisenburg effect, in that the mere act of reflecting on something changes it, whether that is inside of us or outside of us. Memories are unreliable, and even the most attentive person is not always a fair judge of their own motivations or achievements. Even so, this is a generally enjoyable book to read as someone who shares a certain Greenean approach to writing and reading “sort of” or “of sort” works . While there is something cringy about the way that this book serves a very personal look into the life of Greene, especially his youth, it is certainly a great deal more lively and more enjoyable than many of his works, even if it demonstrates the sort of cynicism that one would expect directed at himself. Even so, if you are a reader and you want to read a life of a writer and get some sense as to the precariousness of the even the most successful writers’ lives, there is much insight to be found here.
The book itself is a bit more than 200 pages and looks at the period of Greene’s life from birth (including a look at his family history a couple of generations) to the period after his surprise success with the novel “The Man Within,” which led to a couple of unsuccessful follow-ups until finding success again with Stamboul Train. The book does include some rich details of the sort that readers of Greene’s life will appreciate, including the importance of his schooling, his struggle with bipolar disorder that led him to play Russian Roulette several times with his brother’s pistol, his hopeless crush on his younger siblings’ engaged governess that led him to write some truly dreadful poetry that publicly embarrassed her because it was read on the radio, and his years of bullying at the hands of a classmate. The author also talks about his ineffectual attempts to find suitable work as a journalist and his courtship that led to his conversion to Catholicism. In general, one thinks of the author as not being all that unlike many other writers in terms of the raw material of his life. I must say that if I took to writing a memoir of the same kind as the author did, that there would be a great deal of overlap, and I suspect many readers will feel the same.
This leads, of course, to some very natural conclusions. Is it that people who become well-regarded writers have a great deal worse experiences than others, or is it simply that the tragedies of hopeless love, of mental illness, of bullying and abuse, of philosophical and religious crises, and of a struggle to find an honorable place in this earth are common and that only a few are able to turn that into something worthwhile and lasting. I suppose that is a question for the reader to ponder and muse about, because it is clear that the late author mused about these matters as well, obsessed with failure, immensely critical about the quality of his own work and resolute in his need to write with an authentic personal voice, and sure that his writings would not be remembered as so many previous authors had been forgotten after their own bestsellers. This book is no romanticized look at the life and upbringing of an author, but given the writings of Graham Greene, should we expect anything like that from him?
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