Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 211
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.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2128
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 years, he has dropped the distinction. He admits that he has always enjoyed reading and writing melodrama, but his is not the melodrama of his boyhood idol John Buchan, for Greene observes that the moral climate has changed and the world become more treacherous and sinister. This melodramatic intrigue becomes a symbol for the tortured times. Greene’s answer to the question of why he sometimes wrote thrillers is that a writer does not choose his subject; it chooses him, and “Our whole planet since the war has swung into the fog-belt of melodrama. . . .”
Greene himself has been involved in that melodrama, for moved by “a restlessness . . . to be a spectator of history,” he got into most of the hot spots of the world during the past forty-five years. A visit to revolutionary Mexico in the late 1930’s resulted in a travel book, Another Mexico (1939, The Lawless Roads) and possibly his finest novel, The Power and the Glory (1940). Greene was in London during the blitz, and Ways of Escape includes a fragment of a journal he kept during that time. He spent several years of World War II with the Secret Service in Sierra Leone and reprints excerpts from his West African notebook, together with the beginning of a novel that he replaced with The Heart of the Matter; later, he served with the Secret Service in Portugal. He was in Prague during the revolution and Communist takeover in 1948; he was a correspondent in Malaya during the Emergency in 1951 and in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising of 1953; he spent four winters in Vietnam between 1951 and 1955 (and reprints excerpts from his Indochina journal); was under fire in Israel during the Six-Day War; and his other journeys include visits to Stalinist Poland, a leper colony in the Congo, François Duvalier’s Haiti, and Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba when it was about to fall to Castro.
Moreover, he was not an idle observer but got into the thick of the action. In Malaya, he accompanied a Gurkha patrol; in Vietnam, he was on patrol with the Foreign Legion outside Phat Diem and was in a dive bomber that attacked a Viet Minh post; he also had tea with Ho Chi Minh.
Yet Greene is reticent about his own life, and instead of giving much autobiographical detail, provides brilliant analyses of such situations as the guerrilla war in Malaya, the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the tensions and terrors in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising. Thus one learns more of what Greene has thought about these places and events than of what he did there.
Greene has been called a Catholic novelist (a label to which he objects) not because he is a Catholic convert but because a number of his works dramatize issues of Catholic faith, discipline, and dogma, and deal with what he calls “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Yet one looks in vain for any detailed account of Greene’s personal religious views. In A Sort of Life, all he says about his conversion is that since he was engaged to marry a Catholic, he thought he should take instruction; he did so and became a Catholic. Clearly, matters could not have been so cut and dried for the author of The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair; but unlike Thomas Merton, Greene reserves matters of faith for the confessional. In Ways of Escape, he reveals just a bit, saying that for more than ten years after being received into the Church, he “ad not been emotionally moved, but only intellectually convinced,” that he “read a good deal of theology—sometimes with fascination, sometimes with repulsion, nearly always with interest,” and that his professional life and religion “were contained in quite separate compartments” until 1937, when the persecution of the Church in Mexico and Franco’s attack on republican Spain caused him to “examine more closely the effect of faith on action.” In Mexico, he “discovered some emotional belief.” Yet The Power and the Glory, one of the most eloquent testaments to the power of the sacraments, was on the Index. Pope Paul VI, however, advised him, “Some parts of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.” Much later, Greene confesses himself “used and exhausted by the victims of religion. The vision of faith as an untroubled sea was lost forever, faith was more like a tempest in which the lucky were engulfed and lost, and the fortunate survived to be flung battered and bleeding on the shore.” Yet Greene was not the model for Querry, the protagonist of A Burnt-Out Case (1961), and had not abandoned the Church. To a Communist paper, he wrote that “as a Catholic I considered myself able to treat loss of faith just as freely as discovery of faith. . . .” At the same time, he found “nothing unsympathetic in atheism.” Elsewhere he says that he increasingly sympathizes with the agnostic reader. Beyond that, Greene discloses very little of his spiritual journeys.
He is even more discreet about his private life, observing, “Those parts of a life most beloved of columnists remain outside the scope of this book.” Thus one learns that he had a wife and two children and that his wife showed “courage and understanding” during his early years of artistic and financial struggle, but one does not even learn her name and no mention is made of her again. Instead, in passing, Greene mentions infidelities but never says with whom or under what circumstances; he says nothing about the fate of his marriage or the nature of his affairs, let alone how adultery related to his religion.
He mentions matter-of-factly that in Havana he enjoyed the brothel life, pornography, and got cheated on a sale of cocaine, but again gives no explanations or details. On the other hand, he does not hesitate to describe in detail his smoking opium in Vietnam, though he does not say why or how long he smoked it or how, aside from the external symptoms, it affected him. Perhaps he wished to experience another variety of the seediness that constitutes much of “Greeneland.”
Sometimes discretion may have been dictated by necessity; as a Secret Service agent, Greene was not free to disclose classified matters. It suffices that his experiences provided authenticity for such novels as The Confidential Agent (1939) and The Human Factor (1978), which show an insider’s intimacy with intelligence operations and international intrigue.
According to Greene, “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” In any event, Greene is nearly the complete man of letters—novelist, essayist, playwright, biographer, screenwriter, travel writer, short-story writer; the only genre missing is poetry. For four and a half years in the 1930’s, he was even a film reviewer, who was once sued for libeling Shirley Temple. Ways of Escape is an artistic autobiography, providing indispensable insights into the writing of his books, as Greene takes the reader behind the scenes to explain problems of construction, characterization, and ambiguity. In addition, he provides affectionate portraits of fellow authors Nordahl Grieg, Evelyn Waugh, Herbert Read, and filmmaker Alexander Korda. Thus Ways of Escape is valuable for the literary critic and historian as much as for the reader interested in knowing the life of one of his favorite authors.
Greene himself may have spent a lifetime trying to escape from ennui, but he is incapable of boring the reader.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 131
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Atkins, John. Graham Greene, 1966 (revised edition).
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Critic. XXXIX, March 1, 1981, p. 2.
DeVitis, A.A. Graham Greene, 1986 (revised edition).
Kelly, Richard. Graham Greene, 1984.
Library Journal. CVI, February 15, 1981, p. 453.
The New Republic. CLXXXIII, December 27, 1980, p. 33.
The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, February 19, 1981, p. 15.
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Newsweek. XCVII, January 5, 1981, p. 56.
Saturday Review. VIII, January, 1981, p. 64.
Stannard, Martin. “In Search of Himselves: The Autobiographical Writings of Graham Greene,” in Prose Studies. VIII (September, 1985), pp. 139-155.
Zabel, Morton Dauwen. “Graham Greene: The Best and the Worst,” in Craft and Character in Modern Fiction, 1957.
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