It was a fictional character of Lawrence Durrell who once described an Englishman as having a horny outer shell through which two sensitive antennae, humor and prejudice, explored the world. Though the beloved and largely domestic actor, Alec Guinness, had little in common with the estranged Durrell, he possibly might recognize himself, at least in part, in the novelist’s definition. The observation seems apposite after reading Alec Guinness’s commissioned diary, published under the title My Name Escapes Me.
It was written in 1995 and 1996, when the actor was in his eighties and had already witnessed the passing of, amongst others, the autobiography and several externally-generated portraits into print and possibly oblivion. An update covering only recent times may have proved short of sufficient events to justify its length, especially if the actor chose not to change or criticize his former positions. And the reader has to be no further than a page or two into this volume to realize that this particular actor would be unlikely to change his standpoint, or suffer the mood swings needed to re-tell a story in changed form. So perhaps the only way of a publisher could approach the further marketing of this celebrity at his age was to commission a diary, deliberately create a record of the mundane for publication.
Rest assured, this diary of day-to-day experience, though it may well have been written, would surely never have been published without the backing of its author’s celebrity. But that said, it is also necessary to emphasize that this book presents a down-to-earth, especially mundane account of an eighteen month encounter with aging, personal loss, occasional illness, marital devotion, inclement weather and community involvement, despite its regular , and inevitable, name-dropping.
Humor and prejudice both feature in Alec Guinness’s approach to life, but both, as one might expect, seem understated. Though hardly a laugh a minute raconteur, nor a thigh-slapping joker, the author here presents a character used to the sideways glance at life, the mumbled aside to the audience. Through succinct comment, he is able to acknowledge entire histories, even analyze motive with sincerity and precision. The smiles are often associated with irony, or have nostalgia or even wisdom attached. And the prejudice, like the humor, is usually implied, though one feels it is ever present. Alec Guinness, like the English in general, covets certain romanticized aspects of foreign life, but distrusts everywhere except home, which he occasionally despises. He loves fine dining, but records a detestation of rabbit on the grounds that the small bones remind him of the babies’ fingers that, presumably, he must consume regularly enough to be familiar with the experience. And food, thus pre-judged, figures large in the book, as lunch or dinner is often shared with the author’s colleagues and acquaintances from a lifetime spent in theater, film and television.
But ultimately the most successful aspect of My Name Escapes Me is its record of the mundane. Mr and Mrs Guinness have numerous ailments, notably ones involving the eyes, which have consequences for what they can and cannot do. In addition, within these pages we learn such earth-shattering news as it being too wet to go out and feed the fish. At one point, she, who shall be nameless, is recommended a little sponge cake soaked in weak tea. When the author tells us that while sitting in the gazebo his diuretic pill caught him unawares in a very imperative way, we feel his observation really takes us there. Days come and days go, often approached and taken one at a time as retirement would appear to demand.
And My Name Escapes Me has much more such revealing detail of octogenarian life, prosaic content that eventually becomes the book’s strength. It doesn’t matter what name you bear, for eventually it will escape you, along with all the other trappings that once comprised your life. This book would not have been published without there existing a significant name to escape, but the overall experience approaches the universal as a simple, enduring and delightfully insistent humanity emerges to dominate in a quiet, humble and understated way, yet still carrying its humor and prejudgment.