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[598] Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene

aunt

” 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]

Greene

aunt

Travels With My Aunt (sounds like a memoir but it’s a novel) reveals a Graham Greene I’m not familiar with. It’s a very fun read, although I’m not saying I don’t enjoy The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, which are heavy on espionage and warfare. “A journey from suburban London to Brighton to Istanbul to South America, it also explores recent history – with a compassionate overview of the sorrows of war, a hilarious send-up of 1960s counter culture, and surprising revelations about Henry himself. Graham Greene described his most enjoyably straightforward comedy as ‘the only book I have written for the fun of it’, and it’s easy to reciprocate his pleasure.” Aunt and nephew got the the Orient Express en route to Istanbul. Aunt Augusta, however, at the age of 75 is anything but serious and sober. She belongs firmly to that most formidable breed of the English eccentric, the maiden aunt- the sort of part that in the cinema is always played by Margaret Rutherford or Dame Edith Evans.

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?

They think my mother’s ashes are marijuana.

God … created a number of possibilities in case some of his prototypes failed — that is the meaning of evolution.

One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have been conditioned by what we have read, and if I had never known love at all, perhaps it was because my father’s library had not contained the right books.

Despite the lighter side of the story and drak sense of humor, there is still a sense of seriousness in this book. But I cannot help thinking from time to time that this is the mature equivalent of Auntie Mame! I’m so glad I’ve found this in a used bookstore in sleepy San Luis Obispo.