Form and Content
Graham Greene’s autobiography consists of two volumes: A Sort of Life (1971) and Ways of Escape. The first volume covers the period from his birth in 1904 to the publication of the novel Stamboul Train (also known as Orient Express) in 1932. With some overlapping, the second volume traces his growth as a writer from his first published novel, The Man Within (1929), to Doctor Fischer of Geneva: Or, The Bomb Party (1980). Greene developed about half of the material for Ways of Escape from the introductions he had written for the collected edition of his works and from essays that he had published in several British magazines and newspapers.
The autobiographical form of the book is straightforward. Essentially a chronological record of the circumstances in which Greene conceived and wrote his books, Ways of Escape also recounts his travels to various trouble spots throughout the world and his reflections upon the political and literary figures who affected his life and writing. Greene incorporates into his narrative several long passages from his private journals as well as occasional dialogues between himself and other people.
Framed by a brief preface and an epilogue, the book is divided into nine main sections and runs 278 pages. Like the first volume of his autobiography, this book lacks an index.
Ways of Escape
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...
(The entire section is 2,470 words.)