Travels with My Aunt – Graham Greene

21 January 2013
Chapter 1 to the first part of Chapter 8
Don’t people refer to these comic novels of Greene’s as ‘entertainments’? The first-person narrator, an ex-bank manager who has retired early to be with his dahlias, is catapulted into a completely different world by a few swift plot manoeuvres… and we’re there with him. The 50-odd years of his life so far have been unfeasibly barren of any interest: he has no friends, having got by on the acquaintanceship of his more reliable bank customers; and there have been no women except the wealthy daughter of one of these customers whose efforts to get him to propose marriage came to nothing. He wonders about this occasionally, but not for long.

He seems to be a stock character from a 1960s sitcom, the grey bank manager who is usually only there for the more interesting characters to bounce off. And the more interesting character is his Aunt Augusta, in her mid-70s, whom he meets at his mother’s funeral. She is full of stories – about his parents, about herself – and presents an extraordinary nugget of information: the woman whose funeral they have just attended was not his real mother…. She invites him for a drink at her flat, but really she’s inviting him for the comically unfeasible bit of plot that enmeshes him in her world. He accidentally leaves behind the package containing the ashes, but returns for it immediately. His Aunt’s Black lover Wordsworth – not his real name – brings it down the two flights of stairs and hands it over. This is witnessed, and next day his aunt telephones to tell him to expect a visit from the police. They have searched her flat because they suspect Wordsworth of being a drug dealer, and that the packet contained marijuana.

And so on. Wordsworth leaves the country immediately and Henry – that’s our man’s name – is not a suspect. The police take the ashes for examination and, later, tell him that the contents of the little urn are exactly what they suspected, with a few ashes sticking to them.

But in the meantime Henry and his aunt have been on what he considers to be a journey. Augusta travels light but, inevitably, Henry likes to pack at least one full change of clothing and woollens ‘just in case’. They go to Brighton, and we begin to get a picture of one fragment of Augusta’s past life. It’s a comic burlesque of fortune tellers, circus performers – she and the reader of tealeaves spend some time trying to remember the name of an elephant – and a church for dogs run by one of her many former lovers. Henry is constantly bemused but never judgmental. He occasionally remarks on how far removed this kind of thing is from his own life – but he also keeps telling us that this seaside trip is only the beginning of his travels with his aunt….

She wants to go on a real trip with him, to Istanbul where she lived at another time in her life. She lets Henry believe that she used to work in a travelling theatre, but it’s clearly something less respectable. There were a lot of lovers, and she often lets slip what made them sexually interesting – one of them wasn’t as ‘big’ as Wordsworth, but was more considerate, if I remember rightly – and she seems to have been absolutely everywhere. And by the point we’ve reached, a tiny bit of her boldness seems to be rubbing off on Henry. After the Brighton trip he speaks to the police in a far more robust tone than he has ever used before… and, although he is stunned by her suggestion of the Istanbul trip, he agrees to go.

What we don’t know is why she is so keen to leave in exactly a week’s time. It must be the family wanderlust, she says, and tells a story of an uncle of his – one he has never heard of – who was almost bed-bound but moved each week from room to room of a big house in imitation of travel. Henry wonders whether it is true – a lot of her stories are hugely far-fetched – and the reader wonders about that package. Was it really Wordsworth who substituted dope for the ashes? Whatever. Henry already knows she had a lover in Istanbul, Abdul, and is surprised that she only wants to go there for a single day. We wonder where she’ll take him from there.

But before I finish…. Is this more than just a holiday from serious writing for Graham Greene? Or is it, underneath the fluff, a serious contemplation of mortality? I’ve read several novels recently by men in their 60s – Greene was about 65 when this was published – with a middle-aged character engaging with someone older. Often there’s dementia creeping in, or another of the dreadful disorders that old people can be subject to. But Aunt Augusta is determined to be the opposite. I’m reminded of Jenny Joseph’s hugely popular poem ‘Warning’, written eight years before Greene’s novel and contrasting the dull dutifulness of middle age with the imagined freedoms of the aged: ‘When I am old I shall wear purple….’ Are Joseph’s sausage-guzzling future self and Greene’s fast-living septuagenarian a defiant affirmation by the middle-aged that a dull old age isn’t inevitable?

22 January
Chapter 8 (cont.) to Chapter 12
Henry is an ingénu. My spell-checker wants to add an ‘e’ to the word, but he’s the male equivalent of the naïve young woman being given an education in the ways of the world by an older person of the opposite sex. He might be 55-ish, but in terms of his experience you can knock 40 years off his age – just as in her head his aunt seems to subtract about the same number of years from her own. He’s a tabula rasa, a Candide who never imposes his own moral code on anyone else because he doesn’t seem to have given any mature thought to the idea. It’s one of the reasons his aunt likes him so much… and, I suppose, it’s why he might be such an intriguing character for the morally probing Greene.

What Henry has instead of a moral code is an idea of his own Englishness. It seems to come down to an ultra-conventional view of how things ought to be done, and we get occasional hints as to the absurdity of this: he stopped reading Punch because nobody seemed safe from its mockery, ‘even Churchill’. And he is shocked beyond measure when he realises that the cigarette he’s been smoking, offered to him by an attractive young woman, contains cannabis. (There’s an irony in the fact that he feels only a fatherly regard for her, despite the fact that she has had far more experience of sex than he has, and is very open in her willingness to discuss it.) This is happening as his aunt sleeps through the Paris-Milan section of the journey on the Orient Express, an it’s as far as I’ve read. I need to rewind a little.

Before they set off from London, Henry wonders why his aunt, who hates flying, wants to begin the journey on a flight to Paris. She fobs him off – she’s always doing this, as we’ve come to realise long before Henry has – by pretending that she hates the impersonality of that part of the train journey. Really, as she is perfectly happy to tell him after the event, it’s to take advantage of the laxity of the luggage inspection at Heathrow: a whole trailer of suitcases is detached and taken into the airport unchecked. She knows about this sort of thing, and gives him a lesson in why Heathrow is, for the time being, the smuggling capital of the world. It was Buenos Aires, then it was Havana until Castro stopped it… and so on. His life in a suburban bank, as she often reminds him, has taught him nothing of the way things work in her world.

What she seems to be smuggling in the red suitcase – ‘for danger!’ – is money. In Paris he glimpses bundles worth four (or eight? or twelve?) thousand pounds, at a time when there is a £50 limit on what could be taken out of the country. But a more important aspect of their overnight stay in Paris are the next stages in Henry’s education. As his aunt deals with the banker, if that’s what he is, who comes to her suite, he is given a lesson in sex and commerce by – guess who? It’s Wordsworth, out to show him a good time in a topless bar. Henry is appalled, makes an excuse, and leaves. Back at the hotel his aunt seems upset. And she tells the story of one of her sweetest love affairs. It ought to press all the wrong buttons for Henry – the lover, a married man, turns out to have been seeing another mistress in the afternoons while he was seeing Augusta in the evenings – but, somehow, it doesn’t. The simplicity of his aunt’s sentimental memories – she would have been more than happy to continue the affair after the discovery – make him think again of the woman he didn’t propose to. Crude sex might not do it for him, but talk of love appears to….

As they continue on their journey and travel through Switzerland, its tidy streets make him pine for his dahlias and his own tidy life. He is considering leaving the train at the next stop when the young hippie woman – no more than a girl needing a friendly shoulder – starts to tell him about her own life. She offers him a hand-rolled cigarette, and we realise long before he does that it’s marijuana. She tells him about her relationship with a young Englishman who sounds completely selfish – he seems to have left her after she’s told him she is pregnant – and she describes the orgasms she does or doesn’t have with different men. Henry is happy to listen, and she is happy to talk to him. She likes his way of expressing things, decides he’s being ‘ironic’ in a particularly English way. Ironic is good in literature, she tells him, although ‘you aren’t a novel.’

Authors can play that kind of game in an entertainment, of course. I wonder if there’ll be more reminders from Greene that he isn’t pretending any of it is real. Whatever. The girl’s attractiveness and vulnerability make Henry think, again, about the proposal that didn’t happen. This journey is becoming a sentimental education, opening doors to emotions whose existence he has never even suspected before now.

And, oh, I almost forgot to mention that the girl’s father travels all over the world. He works for the CIA… but then, this is a Graham Greene novel. And people have a habit of popping up again in this world.

24 January
Chapter 13 to the end of Part 1
I’m loving this. The broad comedy carries on for a while… and then Graham Greene does a really clever thing. For half the novel we’ve been able to laugh along with the author at the naivety of his character as he discovers that he’s spent his life missing almost everything that makes life interesting. It isn’t only the exciting world of travel through Europe and beyond that he knows nothing of, but also any meaningful human interaction. Of the two, only his aunt has loved, and can look back with affection on the men in her life. If she is occasionally unkind about her nephew’s lack of experience, well, who can blame her?

Answer: this author. Long before the end of Part 1 it becomes clear that her take on the world just won’t do. Sure, Henry is so tied up in his own inhibitions Greene can be almost as merciless as Aunt Augusta. The reply to Miss Keen’s letter that he eventually writes – she’s the woman he never proposed to, now living in South Africa and pining for news of the English suburbs – is bereft of feeling once he’s carefully edited all the emotion out of it. (Greene has fun having his hero describe the deletions as he refers to an earlier draft.) But by now, after two foreign trips, we can sympathise with him far more than before. He hasn’t come far enough yet to recognise everything about his aunt that he objects to, but there’s something about the compromises she’s made that troubles him. And Greene is careful to make sure that we’re on his side.

But the last time I wrote they were only just arriving in Milan, and a lot happens after that. Most of the adventure in Istanbul is as comically preposterous as an early Evelyn Waugh novel. (I kept being reminded of Scoop, another novel in which an ingénu finds himself abroad and out of his comfort zone, surrounded by sophisticated people whose exciting lives are a million miles from his own.) It culminates in what begins as another bit of authorial games-playing to remind us not to take the plot too seriously. Henry returns from an unwonted night-time trip to see Istanbul – tell you later – to find his aunt reading a lurid detective novel. The detective is Turkish – and has the same name, it transpires, as the detective who is about to arrive to interrogate her. Abdul, the man she has been planning to meet, has been shot and wounded ‘while trying to escape’, as the detective blandly puts it. He and another officer search the hotel room for anything that would link her to a big investment scam Abdul had been planning. They find nothing, because… the huge gold ingot she acquired in Paris is cleverly disguised as the very candle she insists on having as the only light-source in the room. As in England, it’s Aunt Augusta 1, detectives nil – and, of course, we’re glad for her.

But even before now it hasn’t only been a romp. In the early chapters I was wondering what the morally probing Greene would do with Henry, who turns out to have no religious faith, and Augusta who, like Greene himself, is a convert to Catholicism. Hers was a conversion for convenience while she lived in Italy, and whilst her scathing sarcasm about the Church is often justified – she mentions episodes like the deal the Vatican did with Mussolini – she has given no more thought to morality than Henry has. Less, in fact, as becomes clear when they discuss the hippie girl and her pregnancy. Only Henry is disgusted that her parents seem to consider they have no duty of care for her, giving her money to wander around the world so that, apparently, they can forget about her. Her boyfriend is no better. It’s Henry who points out that any child would be his responsibility as much as the girl’s, an idea that seems to strike Augusta as rather novel.

And Henry is troubled in other ways. He might have frequent lapses – his eulogising of the landscape as they travel through Kent on their second trip sums up his blinkered insularity – but he is beginning to worry about his own lack of – of what? Of anything. In Istanbul he had wanted to see something of the city, had told a taxi-driver to take him somewhere interesting… and has in reality what the hippie girl had used as a stock phrase, a dark night of the soul. It comes about when he sees Turkish men in a kind of communal dance, from which he is entirely excluded. It’s a stark metaphor of his life – in a novel that I’d initially taken for an entertainment – as he confronts the meaningless of his own existence.

Greene lightens it after this with the episode with the detective in his aunt’s room – and in the next chapter Henry is safely back in England. So all’s well? Not at all. Something has been stirred up in him, and they go on another trip. It’s only to Boulogne to see the grave of his father – it’s typical that such a project has never occurred to him before, although he’s the one who suggests it now – and Greene moves things on a bit more. We get more stories of Augusta’s past loves, particularly ‘Mr Visconti’, whose son they’d met in Milan, and who called her ‘mia madre’. (I’ve been wondering almost from the beginning whether she’s Henry’s mother as well. Henry has recently discovered a photograph of her that his father kept secretly, taken at around the age she would have been when Henry was born. I’m just saying, because delinquent parenthood is turning into a theme.) Visconti was a collaborator during the war, and treated Augusta like shit, but she still speaks of him as one of her great lost loves….

Anyway, they meet a woman at the graveside. It’s a former lover, but the opposite kind of lover to Augusta. There was no sex, apparently, and she’s kept the faith ever since by visiting his grave on the anniversary, which is what this is. Augusta is contemptuous of the idea of visiting graves – and, in fact, she treats the former lover with something approaching contempt throughout. Greene is making her less attractive as a character, and Henry feels confident enough to tell her off. She doesn’t like that at all. She likes to call the shots, and when he returns to England she stays in France.

Henry is even more troubled when he gets back to England. The landscape seems nothing but grey to him now, and at home he realises that his suburban existence has left him lonely and empty. He doubts that he has as much reality as the people in his aunt’s stories – Visconti, Curran, the French double-crosser – and feels so insignificant he is almost surprised that he can see his own reflection in a window. It’s an existential crisis and it comes to a head at Christmas, when he goes to a local restaurant for Christmas dinner. The Admiral and the Major, former bank clients, are also there and seem to represent the future for him. Greene doesn’t spell it out because he doesn’t need to, but Henry finds the meal hard to eat. Only ‘Peter’, the lesbian Maître D who seems happy in her relationship with her mousy partner, offers any solace. But then…

…the police call. They need to search Augusta’s flat, again, and blithely tell him about a call from Interpol regarding ‘the viper’ Visconti. They know all about Abdul in Istanbul and the investigation there, and mention half a dozen other names he hasn’t heard of. Sergeant Sparrow, in his affable good-cop way, lets him know that his aunt has kept some pretty low company in her time. Henry has realised some time ago that she travelled the Continent as a high-class prostitute, and he seems to have taken that in his stride. But he is becoming less convinced by her way of seeking to persuade him that no harm is ever done by the secret deals she does. And she’s been missing since early October. Henry hasn’t seen her since they parted on cool terms in Boulogne.

I’ve made it sound rather solemn, but some of the comic episodes made me laugh out loud. At his best Greene really does compare with Evelyn Waugh. Just, somehow, less cruel.

25 January
Part 2 – to the end
Did we know where this was going all along? Was it bound to end like this? Part 2 forms roughly the final third of the novel, and Henry is even more of a Gulliver than in Part 1. Decades ago, when I first read Swift’s novel, I loved the way the author was in cahoots with the reader, watching the first-person narrator wandering into quagmires we recognise before he does. There’s more of this in Part 2, as Henry finally has to begin making choices. It becomes quite stark for him: go back to his dahlias and the small pleasures of the suburbs and Miss Keen? Or stick with his supposed aunt – he calls her ‘Mother’ near the end and she doesn’t correct him – and the man who admits to sending an Italian prince to his death at the hands of the Gestapo? (‘He was a very old man,’ the octogenarian Visconti pleads in mitigation.) Reader, what would you do? What would Greene do? And, well, is it ‘a serious contemplation of mortality’ as I wondered right at the start?

It’s the fact that Greene invites us to ask such questions that appeals to me so much. Most modern novelists are content with more trivial matters…. But never mind about all that. Six months have passed since Part 1 and, never one to avoid stock situations, Greene has Henry on his way to where Nazi collaborators always go. He’s going to Paraguay. Who should he meet on the boat but the local CIA man, and who would he be but O’Toole, known as Tooley, the name used by the girl on the Orient Express? And there are some of the other people we’re not a bit surprised to find in a Graham Greene novel: the failed manufacturer, the shadowy businessman in ‘imports and exports’. Henry is at last beginning to understand that nobody in this world can be relied on to tell the truth. Tooley pretends to be in social research – but at least his anxious, seemingly powerless concern for his daughter seems genuine. He may be an inadequate father but at least he feels bad about it.

Once in Paraguay, the crisis comes fairly quickly for Henry. He learns, accidentally, about the importance of influence after he’s arrested on his second day. It’s taken shamelessly from Greene’s stock of situations in banana republics – Henry blows his nose on what appears to the local heavies to be a party flag – and it takes a desperate blurting of Tooley’s name and the American Embassy to get him out of jail. His aunt is in a big house she’s paid for, waiting for the furniture to arrive. She’s also waiting for Visconti, off on exactly the kind of smuggling trip that Tooley described on the boat. On the say to the house Tooley tells him she might have a long wait: Visconti has been arrested, in Argentina or Panama or wherever. But guess who’s there waiting to greet his long-lost lover’s nephew, having ‘reached an understanding’, as he always does, with the police?

Before this, on his first day, Henry has asked Augusta about why she stays with Visconti the double-dealing crook. Her answer is, as it always is in this novel, to do with the approach of death. She compares her own life with his if he goes back to marry Miss Keen. Soon, as he lies in bed facing the wall, he’ll realise there’s nothing left to look forward to. Her life, like his uncle’s in the 52-room house (one for every week), is about pushing back the wall. Ok. So what’s he going to do? Stay and be Visconti’s messenger-boy and accounts manager? Or use his return ticket?

I was guessing that Visconti’s offer, however beguiling, would be unacceptable to him. The war criminal is completely without any moral sense, is only concerned with how he can present a plausible enough face to the world to let him strike the next deal. Lie detectors can be fooled, people can be fooled – we even see the plausible way in which he persuades Augusta to do his bidding as nobody else has ever achieved. But the death of the Italian prince, the dismissal of Wordsworth – Augusta coldly tells Henry that it’s easy to replace staff – and his death, un-mourned despite his being the only man who ever truly loved her… surely Henry expects more moral fibre than that? All that fruit falling from the trees: he’s never tempted to pick it up – so surely the serpent’s tongue can’t persuade him?

Hah. Greene had been living away from England for a year or more by the time he was writing this, and this satire of Little Englanders – for that’s what it is, in part – is not going to end with his main character returning to the living death on offer there. Henry decides the devil has the best tunes, rather likes the idea of marrying the 16-year-old daughter of the chief of Customs – she does quote Tennyson, after all – and stays. Well.


2 Responses to Travels with My Aunt – Graham Greene

  1. Jonathan says:

    Enjoyed your insights into this book. I am doing it with my Book Group and you have given me lots to talk about

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