Alec Guinness once again: simple magnificence


"A Positively Final Appearance," by Alec Guinness. Viking. 256 pages. $23.95.

That he starred in "Oliver Twist" and "Star Wars" is almost beside the point. That he published "My Name Escapes Me," a well-received, very similar book of observations and old-age free-associations just two years ago is neither here nor there.

Alec Guinness, now the knighted, Sir Alec, of 85, writes with such unfussed dignity and unshowy erudition that I would gladly embrace "A Positively Final Appearance" -- a journal that picks up where his previous book left off in 1996 and continues through 1998 -- just to find out what he has to say about rereading Trollope, restocking his Hampshire fish pond, admiring his dogs and burying his friends.

And that's even if the man hadn't once played Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Of course, that Guinness, the most professionally protean and personally opaque of the 20th century's Grand Old British Thespians, can write familiarly about John Gielgud, Albert Finney, and Marlene Dietrich (a "sophisticated, worldly-wise hausfrau") is a reader's good fortune.

Like Simon Callow Stephen Frey among the current crop, he's an actor-author whose literary talent is sharpened by his very English, exterior-oriented theatrical training.

Slightly acidic and prone to orneriness disguised as gentlemanly disengagement, Guinness is the antithesis of a confessional writer (his imperturbable wife of over 60 years, Merula, for instance, appears here little more than a silhouette beside him, bent over her needlework.)

But that reserve suits him well: When Guinness does allow us momentary access to matters more consequential than dinner dates and summer vacation plans -- I'm thinking of his various health concerns, or his quiet convert's passion for the Roman Catholic church -- the simple intensity of his emotion is quite magnificent.

And never overplayed, since the author reverts so seamlessly to genial reserve. Here's a portion of his account of being bamboozled into meeting a fan waiting at the back of church in a wheelchair one Sunday after Mass:

"I went up to him all smiles, like a baby-kissing politician, and exuding the sweet benevolence of a hospital-visiting princess. I took him warmly by the hand and made one or two fatuous inquiries. He suddenly said the dreaded words -- 'Star Wars!'

" 'Ugh -- hugh -- uh-ha-hm,' I said, but I kept up my smile.

" 'Obi-Wan Kenobi,' he nodded at me and, for good measure, 'May the Force be with you.'

" 'And also with you,' I replied, to ecclesiastical merriment."

With moments like these, interlarded with close readings of deep bits of poetry and Shakespeare, light bits of shop talk and an evocative description of a holiday taken by Mr. and Mrs. G to France's exotically marshy Camargue region, 2 1/2 years flies by awfully fast. I'd be happy to read Sir Alec's jottings even as he saunters towards 90. "My compulsion for the limelight is not all that strong," he writes. "Besides, pride played a part in my decision to retire -- I don't wish to be seen as I am now when I know there was something better on offer thirty years ago."

That may be true of the actor's physical instrument, inevitably wearing down. But the writer's unclouded eye and strong grip on narrative tells another story.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a regular contributor to national magazines and critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was previously feature writer at the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

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