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Book Review: Ways Of Escape by Graham Greene

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Ways Of Escape is one of the most rewarding and, surprisingly, surprising reads one might encounter. On the face of it, the book is Graham Greene’s artistic, literary autobiography. A second half and companion volume for A Sort Of Life, Ways Of Escape deals chronologically with Graham Greene’s works, his inspiration and his development as an author. All of this, we may believe as we start this book, is well known, well documented, even public knowledge. Ways Of Escape reveals, however, that much of Greene’s inspiration was quite personal, often very private, and it is through this that surprise emerges.

The book catalogues brilliantly the sometimes direct, sometimes loose relationship between experience and inspiration. Graham Greene is apparently candid about the nature of his invention. Whether it is achieved via amalgamation, imitation or juxtaposition, for the author it appears to be eventually rooted in experienced reality. What Ways Of Escape communicates above all is how much Graham Greene was occupied with his writing alongside a life that seemed already utterly packed with travel, journalism, various employment and risk, so packed that people encountered along the way could never have suspected that they were being analysed for their potential as future fictional characters.

Graham Greene is self-deprecating throughout, appearing to belittle his own work, thus showing little respect for the critical acclaim of others which, by the end of the period in question, was considerable. Many of the scenes from his work that he values seem to relate strongly to, perhaps clarify his own experience. And, for Graham Greene, experience was usually vivid and sought out to be so. He samples local prostitutes freely, drinks whatever is at hand and chemically alters the reality to which he otherwise seems to remain encountered as a participant rather than as an observer.

There are indicators to Greene’s ambivalence towards religion. He expresses respect for a simple, unquestioning faith. But he despises a middle class, “suburban” Catholicism that seems to assume an ownership of God. Greene, of course, belonged to that latter group by virtue of class, education, and marriage, but one feels he yearned for a simple, stated and genuflecting responsibility to an omnipotent God. One also feels that this might be Romanticism, a desire to become an ideal to which he feels he may only aspire as a result of the mired filth of the life he perceives he lives.

He relates some of his contact with the press, as well as with film. There are brushes with the law in the form of libel actions. Throughout, one feels his respect for his fellow professionals is at best limited. He even describes the word “media” as applicable to bad journalism, clearly placing himself above the label.

But above all it is experienced reality that provides the gems. His description of bombardment in Sinai rings both true and vivid. “I remembered the blitz, but the blitz had one great advantage – the pubs remained open.” Such attention to detail alongside direct experience is what brings Graham Greene’s prose to life, and it is this rooting in the reality of experience that prods the reader into reaction. This is a masterwork by a master technician.

But it is the book’s epilogue that, for me, provided a supremely apt and yet provocative coda. Here is a man who has imagined others, given them life in print and film, a man who seems to have little confidence in his own ability or thought for his consequence. And, we learn, he is a man who might even be someone else, someone who claims to be him, an Other. The juxtaposition of this idea with a life lived is both thought-provoking and disturbing – a masterstroke by a master of his craft, even his art.

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