Book Review: Blessings in Disguise

blessings-in-disguise“Blessings in Disguise” is one of several autobiographical books by famed British actor Sir Alec Guinness, but it is decidedly not an autobiography. It is, instead, a series of anecdotes following a very general chronological yet overlapping sequence. As a rule each chapter sketches out his memoirs of a particular aspect of his life or career, and at least half of them are sketches of friends. Since each chapter is usually no more than a series of anecdotes fleshing out a skeletonized narrative of a relationship, the book taken as a whole gives the feel of:

An evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album)

It is as if we were invited to spend a long weekend in a quiet house with the distinguished actor, a world-renowned and lifelong story teller. We might (if were very ambitious) ask him to tell us the story of his life, and he half-eagerly and half-reluctantly would agree after a decent interval of coaxing. I suppose one cannot be an actor if one does not enjoy being the center of attention at least a little, and yet AG was very aware of that element of Ego in his makeup, and wrily wary of it.

Yet finally he agrees to tell us his story and settles down with a glass of gin and tonic, and we settle down around him. The story is not what we expect. It is not the story of him at all, but of the great actors he has worked with, the places he has seen, and most of all of the friends he has loved. The stories are dryly observant, never effusive; clear-eyed and open hearted, witty and charming, with a sly wit that catches you off guard and makes you laugh even as it moves on in all seriousness.

And yet, in full they do tend to come round to an idea of the man telling the story. Never the innermost being of him, but enough of the open soul beneath the stage persona to get an idea. The stories are told looking outwards, but from a place of acute interior awareness. He knows himself, his few strengths, his many weaknesses. He is grateful for his virtues and sorry for his vices, and begs mercy on him and his, with thankfulness for everything. All in all, I think he must have been a very pleasant and beautiful old man, and his book is like himself.

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