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 friends: Nordahl Grieg, Herbert Read, Robert Scott, Evelyn Waugh, Carol Reed, Alexander Korda. The introductions are extremely interesting; they set out the circumstances in which each book was written, the difficulties, the technical problems of, say, first-person narration. The rest of the book is an account of Greene’s travels in Liberia, Malaya, Hanoi, Saigon, Dien Bien Phu, Kenya, Warsaw, Havana, the Belgian Congo, Haiti, Israel, and Paraguay. The relation between Greene’s imagination and the places that stimulated it is described from time to time, but briefly and unfussily.
Ways of Escape makes one feel, yet again, how much a writer of the Thirties Greene is. The work he did in that decade, from Stamboul Train (1932), England Made Me (1935), A Gun for Sale (1936) to Brighton Rock (1938), The Lawless Roads (1939), and The Power and the Glory (1940), is not his best; much of it is overwritten, besotted with a rhetorical extravagance taken over from Conrad’s The Arrow of Gold. But if not his best work, it is his most typical, producing his major themes, situations, and images.
Greene’s mind, like Auden’s during the same decade, was appeased mainly by lurid occasions. The imagery common to Greene, Auden, Isherwood, MacNeice, and Spender is of frontiers, maps, passports, an atmosphere not of death, Juliet’s tomb, but of terror, mostly sought for its frisson. In Ways of Escape Greene says that he went to troubled places “not to seek material for novels but to regain the sense of insecurity which I had enjoyed in the three blitzes on London.” The enjoyment of insecurity, fear, and terror, sought as an escape from boredom and depression, is one of Greene’s themes in Ways of Escape. When we accept the force of it in him, we find ourselves revising our sense of Auden and his friends; reading Look, Stranger! and Letters from Iceland as rituals against boredom, not merely against the public nightmare, dread, and war.
Greene’s themes in Ways of Escape are also retained from the Thirties. Betrayal, it is true, is perennial, but Greene’s sense of it issues from a set of circumstances, conventions, and assumptions peculiar to the English Thirties; and shared by many bright young men who entered upon their careers with a view of life largely provided by their experience in such institutions as Berkhamsted and Balliol. Such men had their first experience of betrayal in school; a friendship spurned, a secret disclosed. Greene derived his title, The Lost Childhood, from George Russell’s poem “Germinal”:
In the lost boyhood of Judas Christ was betrayed.
The epigraph to The Human Factor, taken from Conrad, is a lesson that could be learned just as painfully at school as in any other dangerous place:
I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.
Or, as Dr. Plarr says in The Honorary Consul, “caring is the only dangerous thing.”
I want to press the matter. Wouldn’t it be convenient, as compensation for the pain of betrayal, to brood upon a morality in which one state merges in another? You could then evade the otherwise stark choice between good and evil, right and wrong. Thomas Hardy wrote, in a passage Greene chose as the epigraph to The Honorary Consul, that “all things merge in one another—good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics.” And in A Sort of Life Greene chose as epigraph for all his novels a passage from Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”:
Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist.
With Browning, Greene said, “I lived in a region of adulteries, of assignations at dark street corners, of lascivious priests and hasty dagger thrusts, and of sexual passion far more heady than romantic love.” Browning found such motifs not only in Shelley but in Jacobean melodrama. Greene found them not only in Browning but in school, classroom, dormitory, playing field, and the neo-Jacobean fiction most compellingly exemplified in Marjorie Bowen’s The Viper of Milan. It is a short distance from that world to Greene’s notion of the novelist as spy, playing a game at once seedy and heroic.
My argument is that Greene, coming of age in the Thirties, defined his art mainly in melodramatic terms, with corresponding themes of betrayal and equivocation. After The Power and the Glory, he put his talent on a thin diet, got rid of Conrad, and took his themes more casually. The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951) are just as serious as the earlier novels, but they don’t proceed upon an assumption of universal menace. And they have moments in which the ironies of The Comedians (1966) and Travels with My Aunt (1969) are anticipated. But they are still derived from gestures which were already habitual to Greene in the Thirties. It has always been the habit of Greene’s intelligence to seek menacing occasions; of his morality to lure temptation; of his body to seek danger; and of his convictions to long to be undermined. Even in his later years, his exploits have often retained a trace of adolescence. In Ways of Escape his account of being deported from Puerto Rico has every sign of being a prank on his part, and, worse still, a Balliol prank. Many of his travels, which could have been serious, sound like mere escapades. Why did he go to Havana?
I came there (“in search of pleasure for my punishment,” Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote) for the sake of the Floridita restaurant (famous for daiquiris and Morro crabs), for the brothel life, the roulette in every hotel, the fruit machines spilling out jackpots of silver dollars, the Shanghai Theatre, where for one dollar and twenty-five cents one could see a nude cabaret of extreme obscenity with the bluest of blue films in the intervals.
Greene doesn’t strike me as the sort of man who could treat these joys as lightly as they deserve: even in books which seem particularly accomplished, his style broods upon matters which a mind of a different cast would brush aside. But the brooding has little moral force, it calls attention to a merely picturesque array of experiences which Greene reports in much the same spirit as a schoolboy produces his clutch of nudes. Greene may feel that his relation to experience is, and should always be, experimental: something useful may turn up if you give yourself a chance of finding it. But he doesn’t distinguish between an experiment that is justified by its results and an ostensibly experimental habit which has no difficulty accommodating itself to sleaziness. The alternative to Greene’s procedure is not that a novelist should stay at home and, when he travels, confine his attention to museums, but that he should judge his experiences and discriminate between the qualities they entail. The sentence I have quoted has not been required to judge anything.
One of the many interests of Ways of Escape is the question of character. Greene has always been more concerned with character than with action or plot. He has referred to “the abiding temptation to tell a good story,” and has often yielded to it, but only to give a character room to move. In the same spirit, he remarked in The Lost Childhood that “we are saved or damned by our thoughts, not by our actions.” The distinction between thoughts and actions is not as easy as Greene makes it sound. Never mind. It is good enough to show that he has maintained a corresponding distinction between what a person is and what he has done; and he has taken a more committed interest in the former than in the latter. In Search of a Character (1961) describes how Greene came to write A Burnt-Out Case (also 1961), a book that started from the notion that a man turned up one day in a leper colony. “The novel is an unknown man,” Greene said, “and I have to find him.”
In all his novels, Greene’s procedure, he tells us, is to begin with a hunch, an intuition of a person, a character. The book then goes in search of him. The object is to achieve virtually complete knowledge of this character. Greene explains in Ways of Escape that few of his characters were based upon people he knew; the reason being that, even in the case of an old friend, he knew him only well enough to realize that complete knowledge of him was impossible. With an invented character, complete knowledge is, at least in theory, possible. When he imagined the sinister Doctor Percival in The Human Factor, he knew that such a man would admire Ben Nicholson’s paintings. When he imagined Colonel Daintry for the same book, he knew that the Colonel would open a tin of sardines on his return from the funeral of his colleague.
Greene’s assumption of complete knowledge of his invented characters may explain, incidentally, one irritating feature of his novels, his relation to a character called God. Greene has often written as if he had complete knowledge of God, knew what he would forgive, and so forth; since God is by definition an invented or imaginary character, the assumption doesn’t seem preposterous, though its reiteration is tiresome. Anyway, when the novelist has achieved complete knowledge of his character, he is in a position to lavish his sympathy upon him, even if to more disinterested eyes he seems, like Kim Philby, a liar and a scoundrel. In an essay on Henry James, Greene wrote that “it is in the final justice of his pity, the completeness of an analysis which enabled him to pity the most shabby, the most corrupt, of his human actors, that he ranks with the greatest of creative writers.”
Greene would not now use these terms; in Ways of Escape he refers to “the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion.” Complete knowledge makes possible complete compassion. The purpose of the novel, I infer from Greene’s account of more immediate issues, is to enable the novelist and his readers to practice complete compassion, an impossible task in real life, since we can never know enough. In The Heart of the Matter Scobie, referring to West Africa, says, “Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst.”
But even if a novelist knows the worst and the best and everything in between, he is not obliged to make his disclosures as full as his compassion. There is more to Colonel Daintry than sardines. Greene’s way is to seek complete knowledge of a character, and then to disclose enough about him to keep his secret, while convincing the reader that the character has one. Opening a tin of sardines implies all the other things Greene knows of Colonel Daintry: it is the novelist’s privilege to keep most of them to himself. A novelist’s style depends on the relation he maintains between disclosure and secrecy. In The Genesis of Secrecy Frank Kermode proposes a distinction between carnal and spiritual readings of a novel: the carnal reading is what everybody agrees on, but spiritual readings are all different. There is no dispute about what the novelist gives us; there is nothing but dispute about what each reader divines thereafter. A carnal reading of The Human Factor opens the tin of sardines, an act unlikely to be opaque. Spiritual readings differ because each reader divines differently the relation between the tin of sardines and all the other things that together would constitute the complete knowledge of Daintry which Greene alone has in his keeping.
A character begins to form when the novelist senses that he is being solicited by a person, a figment as yet, a phantasm. For the reader of Ways of Escape and A Sort of Life, the character is one Graham Greene. There is reason to suppose that the novelist Greene was solicited by the character eventually named Greene. The novelist has a novelist’s interest in this person. He seeks complete knowledge of him, and sends him into several remote corners of the world partly to try him out, make him disclose himself: more exploits, more knowledge. The process is one by which a something vague becomes a something more definite, comes from mere potentiality into being. Or comes from one phase or mode of existence into another. A type becomes a character.
It seems feasible to think that the novelist Graham Greene saw himself as a type, to begin with, and that the particular type was the spy, the confidential agent so congenial to the English Thirties. Notoriously, he has defended the type, especially when one of them has been caught. I recall being incensed upon some such occasion: didn’t Greene publicly lift his glass in honor of Philby, or was it Burgess, or Maclean? But it’s clear that, like any schoolboy worth his class’s approval, he was defending himself; or rather, the role, the type common to Greene and his friends. The fact that Philby, Burgess, Maclean, and now Blunt have turned their types into “character parts” and continued to play them after Greene has given his farewell performance is merely a matter of history. Nonsense, of course, but entirely compatible with the Balliol Thirties.
The purpose of Ways of Escape, as of A Sort of Life, is to transform a type, the spy, into a character continuous with the type, the novelist as spy. Greene’s travels become secret missions, carried out ostensibly for The Sunday Times but in truth for himself, to acquire complete knowledge of himself. Haiti differs from Cuba in many respects, but mostly—so far as the narrative is in question—in the different relations each place offered its visitor, Graham Greene.
But Greene is also real, if a distinction is allowed to persist between the real and the imaginary. He is real, and he is also imaginary; a function of some other imagination, God’s, for instance, as much as a function of his own. I interpret Greene’s secretiveness in this way. Of course he has kept quiet about many things lest he hurt people dear to him. But he has also used Ways of Escape, A Sort of Life, and a few other essays to maintain, in relation to himself, the distinction between the real and the imaginary. In these personal writings, he could have gone the whole way and turned himself into a character. But he has retained a scruple about doing so; there is a real person, too, not his invention. The comparison with Garbo is only partially correct: she has gone further than Greene in turning herself into a character, a fiction. The problem is given back to the reader. The bearing of Greene’s secrecy upon his disclosures must be apprehended with whatever consequences, in the act of reading. Beyond a certain point, the novelist can’t prescribe the form these spiritual readings are to take: that is what makes them spiritual. Each reader does his own work of divination. The agent, after all, may be a double agent; the novelist is telling an uncertain mixture of lies and truths.
Ways of Escape ends with a bizarre Epilogue called “The Other,” about another man called Graham Greene, or at least a man who has been using various names, including John Skinner, Meredith de Varg, and Graham Greene. Our man in Antibes, our Graham Greene, proposed to Picture Post that they send him to find and interview the other joker, then in jail, apparently, in Assam. The plan didn’t work out, because the Other had by then jumped bail, and there was a risk that our man might be arrested in his place. The story has more plot than novels by Graham Greene tend to have; and the characterization is thinner than usual. I take “The Other” as Greene’s version of Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer.” And I do in part believe it.
The book, then, is interesting, enjoyable, and informative. But it does little to remove one’s misgivings about Greene’s entire work, misgivings which I have suggested by describing him as very much a novelist of the English Thirties. My implication is that he settled for themes all too congenial to that decade, and for a melodramatic assumption of their significance. The later novels toned down the portentousness and assimilated their style to a more accomplished urbanity, but they did not question, in any radical way, the melodramatic privilege. Greene’s fiction is, at the very least, memorable: to advert to the novels is to recall scenes, characters, atmospheres, and to renew one’s sense of having felt their force, mostly as incrimination and conspiracy. But I find a residual feeling in myself of dissatisfaction, reflecting an achievement on Greene’s part limited to the possibilities indicated by my reference to melodrama. His novels have always had an insecure sense of how seriously they should take themselves; an insecurity not at all stabilized by Greene’s tactical division of his fiction into “novels” and “entertainments.”
A case in point: several pages of Ways of Escape deal with Greene’s experience of smoking opium in Hanoi. These pages are related to Fowler’s opium-smoking in The Quiet American. But neither in the novel nor in the memoir is there an indication of what the experience comes to, or what value the reader is invited to give it. Does it stand for the “luxe et volupté” to which Greene refers in Ways of Escape, with a claim for significance lodged by further reference to Baudelaire’s “L’Invitation au Voyage“? Or is it to be read as merely exotic, part of the wisdom of the Orient which the reader is not required to receive? In the novel, as in the memoir, it seems to veer between triviality and ominousness. In the memoir, these pages have an air of significance, but only the air is conveyed, not the significance. Greene’s novels, too, leave it open to question whether, in his relation to his perceptions, he is a native or a tourist.
Network May 28, 1981