A POSITIVELY FINAL APPEARANCE

A Journal 1996-98

By Alec Guinness

Viking. 246 pp. $24.95

In this age when acting has gone Hollywood, with vacant minds hiding behind pretty faces and "dark glasses [worn] for conspicuous anonymity," Alec Guinness is a creature from another planet. Now in his mid-eighties, he has closed off his career. But in many splendid performances preserved on film, he is the very model of the self-effacing actor of the old school, one who shapes himself to fit the role instead of--as is the rule when the actor is a "personality"--vice versa.

Not merely that, but there is much more to Sir Alec than the roles he has played in the theater, the movies and--less frequently--TV. Since he turned his hand to writing in the 1980s and began to publish works of reminiscence and idle commentary, this most unassuming of men has revealed himself to possess unsuspected depth and breadth. Not merely does he know the literature of the stage inside and out, he is also an avid and astute reader of just about everything else, from biography to history to hard-boiled thrillers. He is a connoisseur of all the arts, a habitue of galleries and museums, a lover of animals and nature, a devoted husband and friend, and a mean man with an anecdote.

All of these interests and talents are on display in "A Positively Final Appearance," which one can only pray is not what its title claims it is. As no one knows better than its author, it is an odd, "ramshackle" little book, presenting itself as "a Journal and yet it doesn't quite aspire to that and it isn't a diary." Call it, Sir Alec modestly suggests, "a sort of sluggish river meandering hopefully towards the open sea but diverted by various eddies, pools or tangential tributaries," which is fair enough but scarcely hints at the pleasures it contains.

In some measure it is about "the humiliations of age," recording as it does various eye surgeries, skin-cancer removals, bouts of arthritis and the like, but in the face of these tribulations the author is (mostly) cheerful and fatalistic, so don't go looking for any self-pitying moans about the downward path to the grave. Yes, there are lamentations for lost friends--"John is the second friend to have died in the past three weeks. That doesn't augur well for 1998. I pray it is not going to be the Year of the Reaper"--but invariably they are ameliorated by happy memories and gratitude for the lives now ended.

In some measure it is about Guinness's animals, mainly his dogs, though there is an affecting farewell to a cat named Michaelmas, "a good, clever cat--adept at opening sliding doors." As these journals begin, Sir Alec and his wife, Merula, have acquired a 7-month-old named Flora, a "beautiful small lurcher" (Brit for mongrel) who offers not merely joys of her own but conjures memories of other dogs past and present:

"All our dogs have been loved for their individual personalities and treated as unique beings. All have been affectionate but with very different temperaments; some comic, some serious and some self-consciously beautiful. At least two of them have understood simple English, more or less, or at any rate have put on an intelligent expression when spoken to. . . . Flora is going to follow suit; she cocks her head to one side, fixes one with her luminous almond eyes, furrows her brow into puzzlement and seems to say, 'I would understand you thoroughly if you could speak more clearly. And, incidentally, have you got a biscuit on you?' "

In some measure the book is about the passing world scene as seen through Guinness's lens: the self-inflicted tribulations of Bill Clinton, the rise of the self-manufactured Tony Blair, the latest action in the Persian Gulf, the war in the Balkans, the death of Princess Diana, this last leaving him with "feelings of inertia and depression," not "just sorrow for the loss of a remarkable personality, who gave generously so much of herself to sad causes, but a sense of malaise throughout the country."

Mainly though it is about words: words spoken onstage or in films, words written by poets and memorized (if imperfectly) years ago, words read in the piles of books with which Guinness is forever surrounded. In one paragraph alone he ticks off his responses to an excessively literary novel, P.G. Wodehouse, Patrick O'Brian, the journals of Woodrow Wyatt, three books by Robert Nye and ends the list as follows: "Hilary Spurling's biography of Matisse awaits me, but, dear, oh dear, it looks bulky and very detailed."

There is much in here, finally, that is simply, deliciously funny. A couple of anecdotes about Luis Bunuel and Claude Rains are strongly recommended, but let us close on this note, Sir Alec's response to the "orgasmic absurdity" of athletes piling all over each other in celebration of scores and other triumphs. "It struck me that actors might be encouraged to attempt the same sort of thing," he writes:

"After a round of applause, awarded by a simple-minded audience to the actor who had really worked hard for it (assisted of course, albeit negligibly, by the playwright), the actor should clench his fists aggressively, bend his knees and spring round the stage, mouth wide open, screaming and punching the air. This would be the cue for the rest of the cast to tumble him to the ground, sit on his face, derange his wig and generally knock the wind out of him. The audience would be encouraged to renew their applause, clapping their hands above their heads as if at a pop concert. It would be highly enjoyable. Drama critics could have a field day. 'Dame Flora Robson was sat on by the entire cast five times. I predict this will run and run.' "

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.