” It was as though I had escaped from an open prison, had been snatched away, provided with a rope ladder and a waiting car, into my aunt’s world, the world of the unexpected character and the unforeseen event. There the rabbit-faced stranger was at home, the Czech with his two million plastic straws, and poor O’Toole busy making a record of his urine. ” (Part 2, Ch.3, 202)
Ambiguously titled to suggest a non-fiction, Travels With My Aunt is a bit of an oddity consider that Greene’s other works have gravitated on espionage and wars. Set in the mid-1960s, the book centers around Henry Pulling, a retired English bank manager who has lived life so prudently, safely and meticulously that he comes to realize he has left no consequential living memory in anyone he’s ever met. Single, never been married, unburdened by an familial obligation, his interests are dahlias and literature.
I despise no one, no one. Regret your own actions, if you like that kind of wallowing in self-pity, but never, never despise. Never presume yours is a better morality. (Part 1, Ch.13, 111)
Pulling’s monotonous life all changes when his mother dies. For the first time since he was a toddler he meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta, an old lady who is neither sober nor serious. She has long been absent, traveling through Europe, doing what later crosses my mind as intelligence work. She whisks her nephew away on excursions, at her own expenses, across Europe, through Paris, Brighton, Istanbul, and on the Orient Express. Regaled for Henry are stories of her entangled romances, petty criminality, and foreign intrigue all over the world. Most shocking of all to Henry is the story of his parents.
Obviously the main point of the book is about how people choose to live their lives. Aunt Augusta in the foremost provides the most food for thought: to live for the moment (surrender to extravagance) and to pursue her heart desire. the eccentric skein of character—the hippies, the CIA man, the war criminal, the charlatan, the man who puts both mistresses in the same hotel—all takes on dimension. That said, the book is not without its flaw. It’s parts are better than the whole, with bursts of humor and sober moments full of life’s instruction. Travels With My Aunt can feel meticulous and slow, but it’s worth a read for its keen observation on human dilemmas and eclecticism. When Pulling’s unforeseen adventure runs out of steam, one realizes the novel is not as light-hearted as it seems. Pulling finally “lives” as he is immersed in the streak of anarchy. Life really is fully of ironies if not an irony itself.
265 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]