WAYS OF ESCAPE by Graham Greene
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An Autobiography
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In no sense an autobiography--"Those parts of a life most beloved of columnists remain outside the scope of this book"--this is a suavely arranged, roughly chronological group of personal essays, most of them previously published: the introductions to the British collected edition of Greene's oeuvre; reportage from international trouble spots (Greene has sought peril as one "way of escape" from a vaguely defined angst); salutes to two or three friends; plus a few anecdotes and reflections. A book, then, largely for longtime, passionate readers of Greene's novels--who will learn here how he now rates each book, what real-life circumstances did (or didn't) lie behind the fiction, how Greene differs with his critics, which books came easy and which were all torture. (The Confidential Agent was written in six weeks on Benzedrine, "as though I were ghosting for another man.") He is often self-deprecating, especially about the early novels: "Here are examples of my style in those days and my terrible misuse of simile and metaphor." He tells how, in the mid-1930s, his writing changed with his "desire to be a spectator of history" (specifically, then, the theo-political crises in Spain and Mexico). He bridles at the critics' characterization of all Greene locales as "Greeneland": "'This is Indochina,' I want to exclaim, 'this is Mexico, this is Sierra Leone carefully and accurately described.'" He wearyingly shakes off the label of "Catholic writer" ("detestable term!"), having found himself "used and exhausted by the victims of religion" who looked to him for spiritual guidance: "I was like a man without medical knowledge in a village struck with plague." (A moving, convincing appreciation of Evelyn Waugh centers on devout EW's pain over Greene's openness to doubt and sympathy for atheism: we "inhabited different wastelands.") And, along with the often-eloquent record of each novel's evolution, there are brief comments on short stories, playwrighting, screenwriting (a mini-sketch of chum Alexander Korda, whose work Greene didn't admire), touchstones (Ford's The Good Soldier), and fame ("A reputation is like a death mask"). But, while all of this hangs together nicely enough as a purely writer's-eye view of a life's work, the pieces which take Greene abroad and sometimes into action--in Malaya, 1950s Vietnam (the French war), Kenya, Haiti--are less satisfying: fragmentary, digressive, politically opinionated, these vignettes often tease without then delivering (a mere passing reference to tea with Ho Chi Minh); and Greene himself pops up in personal situations (smoking opium, frequenting brothels) that hardly jibe with the self-concealing tenor of most of the book. Overall, in fact, the problem here is that this is a consideration of "ways of escape" with no real sense of what is being escaped from--just the tip of an intriguing, elusive iceberg. Still--the Greene prose is as deceptively clean-cut and subtly ironic as ever; and his own commentaries on the fiction are of course an invaluable complement to the widely divergent opinions of the Marxists, Catholics, and others. So: not the memoir some might hope for--even less a sort of life than A Sort of Life (1971)--but, on its own terms, sufficiently alluring.
Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1980


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