Readers of A Sort of Life, is the first volume of Graham Greene's autobiography, will recall the comical episode in which the young Greene, aged 19, set out to make a career in espionage. But they may have forgotten Greene's conclusion to that story: "I suppose," he wrote, "that every novelist has something in common with a spy: he watches, he overhears, he seeks motives and analyzes character, and in his attempt to serve literature he is unscrupulous."

Well, not every novelist, perhaps, but certainly Greene has lived a kind of spy's life -- sometimes literally (he worked for the British Secret Service in West Africa during the Second World War), sometimes by association (he sent a copy of The Human Factor to his friend Kim Philby in Moscow), and sometimes just by assumption (the Americans, the French, and the Haitians all seem to have suspected him of spying at one time or another). And he has looked at the world with a spy's cold eye: always the outsider, writing about outsiders; always observing the dark, the violent, and the criminal, the miserable side of life (what respectable spy is interested in human happiness?); always looking beneath behavior for the discreditable motive; and always detached, and a little repelled by the ugliness of human suffering. So when Greene writes in Ways of Escape that he has felt "a desire to be a spectator of history," one thinks, "No, not exactly a spectator -- more a spy of history."

To spy on history Greene has traveled over the past 50 years to most of the troubled places of the world: he was in Mexico during the '30s, in Dien Bien Phu just before it fell, in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau atrocities, in Warsaw in the '50s, in Cuba during the early days of Castro's revolution, in Israel during the fragile cease-fire of 1967, in Haiti under Papa Doc. In some cases he traveled as a journalist, but his real motive for being where he was was not strictly professional. It was -- or so his autobiography says in its title and in its text -- simply the desire to escape, from melancholy, from boredom, from responsibility, from middle age, from the life, in short, that most men live.

The word escape runs through the pages of the book like a string of false clues in a mystery novel, teasing and misleading us. For surely they are false clues, and the idea of excape in fact explains nothing. The quality of Greene's mind that has shaped his life, and has made his work distinctive and valuable, cannot be explained away as manic-depression or boredom, or as a reaction to those conditions: it is rather, a personal vision of the world that we all inhabit. And far from trying to escape it, he has sought it out all his life, and has found it wherever men engaged in killing and betraying each other (and always, somewhere, they have been doing that).

This vision of the world is so much Greene's Greene's intense annoyance. "Some critics," he writes, "have referred to a strange violent 'seedy' region of the mind . . . which they call Greeneland, and I have sometimes wondered whether they go round the world blinkered. "This is Indochina,' I want to exclaim, 'this is Mexico, this is Sierra Leone carefully and accurately described. I have been a newspaper correspondent as well as a novelist. I assure you that the dead child lay in the ditch in just that attitude. In the canal of Phat Diem the bodies stuck out of the water. . . . But I know that argument is useless. They won't believe the world they haven't noticed is like that."

There is something, though, to be said on the critic's side: they have noticed, as any reader must, that Greene hasn't written realistic novels, that indeed the world isn't like that, not all of it, not all the time. Greene has not been writing history these 50 years, but moral melodramas, for which history has merely provided the materials. This point comes up midway through Ways of Escape when Green recalls a flight that he made from Warsaw to Bussels in the company of an ex-spy. "I couldn't help smiling," he recalls, "when I thought of all the readers who have asked me why I sometimes write thrillers, as though a writer chooses his subject instead of the subject choosing him. Our whole planet since the war has swung into the fog-belt of melodrama. . . ." But Greene has chosen his subject; it is there in that last sentence: he has chosen to see reality through the fog-belt of melodrams.

To regard history, even the history of our time, as melodrama, seems to me to confess a limitation of vision. Melodrama simplifies morality, making it more dramatic than in fact it usually is. There is an obvious benefit for a novelist in doing so, but for the writer who would treat the world in moral terms, there is also a considerable price. Greene has paid the price of simplification in his novels, and he pays it again here, in his autobiography.

Being the kind of writer that he is, Greene has focussed Ways of Escape on his spy's world, not on the spy. He is reticent about his personal life (his marriage fails in a single regretful sentence, his children are scarcely mentioned and never appear, other women are no more than ghostly, nameless shadows) and he omits altogether the good times that he must have had, at Capri or at Antibes, between the wanderings. But for all its reticence, Ways of Escape could accurately be called a melodramatic episodes, brilliantly narrated -- an air raid in London, a shelling in Israel, thriller-style incidents in Havana, Saigon, Port-au-Prince.

But the book is melodramatic in another way that is less engaging: it has, as its center, a melodramatic "I". This opium-smoking, brothel-creeping Byronic hero, romantically tormented by boredom and depression, restlessly wanders the earth in search of the distractions that death and the threat of death provide. We have seen him before in romantic literature, and one can't help asking, is this the best expression of metaphysical despair that a gifted novelist can conceive? And could this character have written the novels of Graham Greene?

It is striking that this "I" has little to say about his life as a writer -- in spite of the fact that nearly half of the book first appeared as introductions to the English collected edition of Greene's works. Surely he must have spent as much time in turning his adventure into novels as he spent in adventuring, and surely there were complex compositional problems in writing them. But Greene has chosen to direct these introductions rather to the origins of the novels in his wandering life than to the composition of them. The only literary issue (aside from the existence of "Greeneland") that exercises him much is his reputation as a "Catholic writer," which he resents. In one sense, of course, he has only himself to blame: his novels are cluttered with priests and confessions and speculations about damnation, and Greene is perfectly aware that he marred some (like The Heart of the Matter) and ruined others (like Brighton Rock) by laying it on too thick. On the other hand, you could scarcely call even the most God-ridden of them "works of piety" or "doctrine" -- just try to construct a Catholic theology with only Greene's novels to guide you.

One can only say, by way of consolation, that the books survive their critics, and that if they seem Catholic, they are nevertheless heretical enough to keep their readers uncomfortable (as good books should). Greene reports with some satisfaction that the Holy Office condemned The Power and the Glory, and that Pius XII, after reading The End of the Affair, remarked: "I think this man is in trouble." So long as he goes on offending Holy Offices and worrying popes, Greene needn't fret: he is being the right kind of Catholic writer.