Travels With My Aunt, by Graham Greene
This may certainly be a late novel by Graham Greene, but it is equally certainly an enjoyable novel to read and one that can charitably be called Nathanish. Greene wrote many novels that are deeper and more intellectual than this one, but few novels that are as touching or as entertaining as this one is. Sometimes when one reads a novel by the author (and I have read a good many so far, reviews forthcoming as I write this), one can get overwhelmed by the cynicism of the author’s approach to life and literature. While there is plenty of business going on sub rosa here, the work has a lighthearted tone and the author is quite charitable to the people involved. In many ways, this novel may be considered as the zanier and kinder cousin to stories like The Heart Of The Matter and The Captain And The Enemy, and at least by my own standard of reading it makes for a much more enjoyable reading accordingly. And that enjoyment made me wonder the ways in which the author’s own life became the fodder for his writing in odd ways–did the author consider the protagonist to be someone not very much unlike himself, or did he simply view the mind-expanding aspects of travel as being something he could relate to?
The plot of this slightly more than 250 page novel is quite an intriguing one, divided into two parts. In the first part, the protagonist, Henry Pulling, a fifty-something confirmed bachelor retired bank manager who keeps dahlias as his amusement, meets the woman he supposes as his Aunt Augusta at the funeral of the woman he was raised to think was his mother. Augusta, an eccentric woman with an unusual past and some rather shady acquaintances, ropes him into a trip to the continent after getting him involved with the police when it is found that the urn containing his supposed mother’s ashes was contaminated by pot from Augusta’s African lover Wordsworth. Things only get more crazy from there, as their trip to Paris and then down the (other) Orient Express to Istanbul leads to marijauna use with a footloose and fancy free and unhappily pregnant young woman named Tooney and to some political drama with corrupt Turkish authorities. In Boulogne Augusta finds herself involved in a jealous spat with the woman that Henry’s father died in the arms of, and then there is a pause of some months as Henry takes care of Augusta’s London house and the police show continued interest in her, before the novel moves to Paraguay and gets a lot more exotic (although equally entertaining) and ends happily, for most characters at least.
What makes this novel relatively happy, for the most part, despite the usual moral cynicism of Greene’s writing? For one, the main character is someone who is quite relatable, at least to me, being someone who has lived a fairly dull life but whose life is made considerably more interesting through travel that finds himself deeply enmeshed in the politics of the places where he travels, and if he becomes less squeamish over the course of the novel, he does not become contemptible or fall into despair. He takes people as they come and makes the best of it, finding a good deal of enjoyment and a new job as well as a wife as a result of his unconventional travels. Likewise, if Aunt Augusta is not someone everyone would want for a clandestine mother, one can choose a lot worse when it comes to travel companions, and her devotion to the men in her life is striking. Indeed, the family feel of this novel is something worth appreciating as well, and that makes this a far more enjoyable book than one has any right to expect.