Book Reviews Non-Fiction
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Ways of Escape
By AlidŽ Kohlhaas
Ways of Escape is a wonderful memoir by the late Graham Greene that gives the reader considerable insight not only into Greene's past, but also into his psyche. But, best of all, we become privilege to his personal creative process, a process which is different for every artist. Way of Escape is not, however, an autobiography. He supplied us with one in 1971 called A Sort of Life, which digs a little deeper into his early personal life and the lives of those with whom he was associated or entangled. One uses the latter term because Greene turned out to be an unfaithful husband many times over through association with prostitutes and several affairs with married women, one of which led him to write the fictional End of the Affair, one of his more acclaimed books.
In his preface to Ways of Escape, Greene writes, "Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation." These are the words of a troubled soul, one that does not seem to realize that escape is never really possible, and that the only way to live is to face life. Greene had trouble doing so. For him escape from reality was a must, and so we have benefited to some extend from this sad need because it produced some remarkable novels.
In Ways of Escape Greene uses many of his novels as a starting point to tell us what led him to write them. He is not always pleased with what he has achieved, which is, of course, not unusual for a writer. Few feel really satisfied even with their most accomplished works.
The reason for calling this a 'wonderful memoir' is that it is really hard to put the book down once one begins to read it. This book, which can be called a primer for writers on how to write, is enlightening without being boring. Greene makes many commentaries on the craft of writing, on the reading of fiction, on how to take real characters and develop them into imaginary ones. He also gives vivid descriptions of the places he visited to do research for his stories, or the places he visited for one reason or another and then used them as background for a future novel. These places often were destinations of escape from ordinary life for him.
Greene was not only a writer of novels. He traveled frequently as a journalist for influential magazines to far off places. This offered him a chance to escape into danger, something he seemed to need as he went to Vietnam during the French entanglement there, to Cuba during the time when Castro made life intolerable for Batista, to Panama, to Africa and the Mau Mau, and other places of unrest, and behind the Iron Curtain. Consequently, Ways of Escape is a kind of history lesson for the current generation that most likely hasn't a clue about who or what many of the people and places mentioned were. He served in the British secret service during WWII, and through this association he drew some vivid pictures and characters in several of his 'spy' novels. Of course, not contend to be a journalist and novelist, Greene also wrote film scriptsthe most famous of this being The Third Manand several stage plays.
Although Greene tells his readers early on that Ways of Escape is not a book that will reveal stories about those whom he knew, we learn an awful lot about him, and his dark side. Just what that dark side entailed will not be unveiled here. There is no intention to rob the reader of this review of the impact these revelations have when read in the book. Consequently, Ways of Escape is far more revealing about the author than he might have intended when he began. That, of course, is what happens when one begins to write. A story, no matter what kind, has a way of taking over. It leads the author in a direction not always intended, which includes writing about others in a revealing tone.
What one likes about this memoir, as opposed to the memoir written recently by GŁnter Grass, is that Greene makes no effort to hide his frailties, nor does he play with his reader. Grass, who quite rightly did not want to call his book an autobiography, is less than honest with the reader, always hiding, always seeking excuses, even asking for pity. Greene, however, makes none. It is sad that although he had been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for Literaturehis body of work far exceeds that of Grasshe never received the honor, something that wasto me at leastundeservedly bestowed unto Grass in 1999. But, that is how life goes.
While Greene tells us a lot about how he came to write his books, gives us his thoughts about these bookseven the films and playsand even thoughts about various people with whom he associated, we can guess but never really know what drove the man. We know from other sources that he had an unhappy childhood, but there are plenty of other people in this world who have unhappy childhoods without being driven to some of the extreme escapes that Greene sought in his life. The importance of Ways of Escape lies in that it gives us a glimpse into his inner world, his outer surroundings, and allows us to draw our own conclusions about the man.
One thing is certain. Greene thrived on controversy, even if he did not like to be known as a 'Catholic writer' after he became more famous and his conversion to the faith became more known. Because of how he saw the world, the man who adopted the Catholic faith, also ran afoul of it. His book The Power and the Glory was condemned by the Vatican because it was "paradoxical" and "dealt with extraordinary circumstances." He refused to revise the book, and later when he met Pope Paul VI, the pontiff mentioned that he had read the book. "I told him that it had been condemned by the Holy Office," Greene writes.
"Who condemned it?," the pope asked.
"Cardinal Pissardo," Greene replied.
Paul VI's response: "Mr. Greene, some parts of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that."
Nor should we. Instead Greene fans should just be glad that his demons drove him hard enough to produce the huge body of work, some very good, some excellent, and some so, so, that has enriched our lives.
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