Ways of Escape
“Here at last is the long-awaited sequel to the autobiography of Graham Greene,” according to the publisher. The offer is misleading. Ways of Escape is a sequel to A Sort of Life (1971), but neither of them is an autobiography. Greene has been rigidly unforthcoming about his private life. The only information he gives in Ways of Escape about the breakdown of his marriage is that apart from “the separation of war and my own infidelities” he was on Benzedrine for most of the crucial weeks. There is a brief reference to “my mistress.” Also to “a difficult decision in my private life” which had something to do with Greene’s decision to leave England and settle in France in 1966. We gather that his religious belief has waned. The Catholicism to which he converted in 1926 has lost his allegiance, for reasons not disclosed, unless his “small belief in the doctrine of eternal punishment” is a reason. Readers who have been awaiting revelation on such matters are free to persist, but the odds are against it. Greene has been playing Garbo for so long that he would be wretchedly capitulating to give up the performance now.
Not an autobiography, then, but a memoir. In an autobiography, even the most external events are so narrated as to shine upon the narrator. External and internal motives are deemed to be continuous. But a memoir works in favor of the event narrated; it supposes that private life and public life are discontinuous; it allows the narrator to sequester his private life, on the grounds that it is not a matter of general interest, it concerns only himself and a few friends. It is true that A Sort of Life describes Greene’s childhood in Berkhamsted, his school, his games, fear of boredom, his taste for minor writers, Oxford in 1926, Greene’s doomed passion for a governess, and what it was like to be a drunken undergraduate. But these experiences are narrated as if their interest were somehow intrinsic, and not necessarily germane to Greene’s later life. Even the famous essay on Russian roulette, Greene’s derring-do with the derringer, available in “The Saturday Book,” The Lost Childhood, and yet again in A Sort of Life, is treated as a spectacle, and is not supposed to adhere permanently to its narrator.
A Sort of Life dealt with Greene’s life, selected fragments of it, from childhood till 1931, when he was twenty-seven years old. The new book is a sequel in the technical sense that it takes up the story in 1931 and brings it, more or less, up to date. Most of it consists of the introductions Greene wrote for the uniform edition of his novels, stories, and plays, starting with The Man Within and ending, for the moment, with The Human Factor; glancing at the plays and screenplays from The Third Man to Carving a Statue. Occasionally, we are given a few affectionate pages about one of Greene’s …
Network May 28, 1981