One of the chief appeals of Graham Greene’s fiction is that it combines adventure and intellectuality, blending the thriller with the psychological and theological novel and thus providing both suspense and substance. Greene’s narratives are fast-paced, his style sharp and clear, but the characters and situations have complex ambiguities. The residents of “Greeneland” usually combat a spiritual malaise in exotic, dangerous settings—West Africa, revolutionary Mexico and Uraguay, Cuba, Vietnam, Haiti, or somewhere en route along the Orient Express. The author himself is the chief resident of “Greeneland,” and in flight from a deadly boredom has sought out danger zones of body and spirit, quite as much as Ernest Hemingway did, as if he were heeding Gerard Manley Hopkins’ injunction that it is dullness, not danger that is to be avoided in the spiritual life. Yet Greene’s novels, while drawing upon his travels and experience, are by no means autobiographical. Thus one turns with keen anticipation to Greene’s two volumes of autobiography, only to find them frustrating as well as rewarding, for Greene is as reticent as he is revealing, telling much but also withholding much.
The first book of autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), ends with Greene at about twenty-seven, shortly after he has had his first novel published. The reader wonders why Greene took a decade to publish the second autobiographical book, but perhaps his reticence got in the way. He did, however, write introductions to the Bodley Head edition of his collected works, and they may have prompted him to continue his life story, for with some revision, they are incorporated into Ways of Escape. In them, Greene does not so much interpret his writings as explain the conditions under which they were created. For more than forty years, he has been one of the most popular as well as esteemed modern writers, but despite the moderate success of The Man Within (1929), he was off to a shaky start as a free lance. His second and third novels were so unsuccessful artistically as well as financially that the author suppressed them; most readers are unaware of them, and they have become collectors’ items. His fourth novel, Orient Express, or Stamboul Train (1932) was a success, but its two successors, It’s a Battlefield (1934) and England Made Me (1935, The Shipwrecked), while containing some of Greene’s best writing, were and are still very little read. Not until This Gun for Hire (1936) did he start his long string of popular as well as critical successes. Shortly thereafter, he began screenwriting, and film versions of his work (adapted both by himself and others) have helped make him one of the most widely known serious writers of the century.
Greene’s life has all the ingredients of his own novels. He observes that his was a generation “brought up on adventure stories who had missed the enormous disillusionment of the First World War, so we went looking for adventure. . . .” One of his favorite boyhood authors had been H. Rider Haggard, so it is no surprise to find that Greene initially sought adventure in Africa, when in 1935 he made a walking tour of the interior of Liberia that resulted in the travel book Journey Without Maps (1936). There, he found no lost cities, immortal princesses, or King Solomon’s mines; instead, there were cockroaches, mud villages, fever, and near death. In Ways of Escape, he adds details omitted from his travel book, including an account by his cousin Barbara, who accompanied him and wrote her own book of the trip, of how he almost died. His own travel book omits her presence, for he was seeking certain effects, one of which was solitude. His near death in Liberia was like a conversion, for Greene “discovered in myself a passionate interest in living. I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable.”
Why, he does not say, except to confess that he has always been a manic-depressive. As a boy, he played Russian roulette. Before writing The Heart of the Matter (1948), he contemplated suicide, from which he was saved by returning to his craft as a writer; it is Scobie in the novel who commits suicide instead. After writing The End of the Affair (1951), Greene tried to have electric-shock treatment. “I hadn’t the courage for suicide, but it became a habit with me to visit 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.” Danger was a way of combating terminal ennui. As a young man, Greene once had a perfectly good tooth extracted just to save himself from boredom. Later, he enjoyed “that feeling of exhilaration which a measure of danger brings to the visitor with a return ticket.” It is this exhilaration that Greene conveys to his readers that in part accounts for his popularity, but the physical dangers are usually matched by spiritual perils and mental stimulation as well.
For a long time, Greene divided his books into “entertainments” (supposedly lightweight escapist fare) and novels, but in recent...