Every year, my reading group aims to do at least one classic – usually something from the nineteenth century – but this year someone suggested Graham Greene. Yes, we all responded, why not? But which one? For reasons I don’t recollect, Travels with my aunt was suggested and given none of us had a burning desire to do another, it was scheduled. This suited me as I hadn’t read it before.
It surprised me a little. I was expecting something lighter because I’d understood that it was a comedy, a bit of a romp, and it is – but I found layers too. Wikipedia says of Greene’s work, overall, that “he explored the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world, often through a Catholic perspective”. Travels with my aunt might be a fun book but this description is relevant to it too – though I’m not an expert on “the Catholic perspective” bit.
Anyhow, let’s start with the plot. It concerns middle-aged retired banker Henry Pulling’s travels in Europe and South America with his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta whom he only gets to properly know after his mother’s funeral. Henry is a bachelor whose hobby is growing dahlias. It’s a quiet, English sort of life. His aunt, though, is a completely different kettle of fish. She appears at her sister’s funeral, whisks Henry off to her flat where she lives with her valet-cum-lover, the black Wordsworth. She tells him that his mother was not his mother, but had married his father and faked pregnancy in order to take on his care when he was born to… Well, of course, we can guess who the birth mother is can’t we? From this point on, she engages Henry in her various travels which, it has to be said, become increasingly morally suspect. When she says that “sometimes I have the awful feeling that I am the only one left anywhere who finds any fun in life”, she’s not joking, but her fun can have a more than questionable edge.
The story is told first person by Henry. I’d call him a naive, rather than an unreliable, narrator – I think there is a subtle difference. This is one of the jokes of the book. We know or suspect things that Henry, in his inexperienced not to mention conservative British way, doesn’t immediately cotton on to. Part of the story’s enjoyment is the tension Greene creates between Henry and his free-wheeling Aunt. This tension provides one of the layers I referred to.
Another layer I’ll tentatively suggest was inspired by discovering that Greene’s full name was Henry Graham Greene. This made me wonder whether there is a little of the autobiographical in the book. There’s certainly not in the literal sense, because Greene, who left his wife and the associated traditional, domestic, settled life, led a peripatetic and adventurous life, one closer to Aunt Augusta’s. But the ending, which I won’t give away, poses some interesting questions when looked at from this perspective.
Other layers relate to various issues Greene refers to or hints at along the way, such as American imperialism, particularly in South America; World War 2 and the actions of collaborators; the impact of the pill (resulting in pregnancy now being the girl’s fault); Catholicism and its role (or not) in personal value systems; and, I think, some critique of “Englishness”.
However, I don’t want to make it sound too serious. The book is a romp. There’s no doubt about that, as we follow Henry and his aunt to Brighton, France, Istanbul via the Orient Express and, eventually, to Paraguay. The activities his aunt engages in, not to mention the stories she tells Henry about her past shenanigans, are funny, outrageous, sometimes farcical, and not always legal. You do have to keep up with a rather large cast of colourful characters, including the young Tooley and her is-he-a-CIA-operative father O’Toole, the Nazi war criminal and love of Augusta’s life Mr Visconti, various policemen and military personnel, and the put-upon Wordsworth who calls Augusta his “bebi gel”.
Greene’s writing is frequently funny. Here is a description of an American tourist having a cuppa in Europe:
One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.
Then there’s Aunt Augusta on her plans to fund their trip to Istanbul:
“I hope you don’t plan anything illegal” [says retired banker Henry!]
“I have never planned anything illegal in my life,” Aunt Augusta said. “How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?”
And there’s this on the is-he-CIA O’Toole:
“Are you in the CIA like Tooley told me?”
“Well … kind of … not exactly,” he said, clinging to his torn rag of deception like a blown-out umbrella in a high wind.
There are also many delightful set-pieces, such as the description of a Christmas lunch for the lonely, and some ridiculous confrontations with various policemen.
This book is too well-known for me to write something more comprehensive, so I’m going to leave it here, and let you tell me what you think.
Meanwhile, I’ll conclude on a quote from early in the book. It’s Henry reflecting on his mother’s life:
Imprisoned by ambitions which she had never realised, my mother had never known freedom. Freedom, I thought, comes only to the successful and in his trade my father was a success. If a client didn’t like my father’s manner or his estimates, he could go elsewhere. My father wouldn’t have cared. Perhaps it is freedom, of speech and conduct, which is really envied by the unsuccessful, not money or even power.
Without going into what he meant by “successful”, I think this notion of freedom – particularly “of conduct”, which is an interesting take – is what’s at the bottom of this book, the freedom to choose how you will live your life. In the end, Henry realises he is free to choose. Whether he makes the “right” or “best” choice is up for discussion, but it’s the freedom that’s the point.
Travels with my aunt
London: Vintage Books, 1999 (Orig. pub. 1969)