Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene (1969)

I was sunk deep in my middle age. All the same I laid my head against aunt Agatha’s breast. ‘I have been happy,’ I said, ‘but I have been so bored for so long.’ (p.256)

This is quite a long (260 pages), slow, calm, easy-going comedy, very relaxed, very funny, very enjoyable.

Greene’s periods

Looking back over Greene’s career to date, it falls into roughly three periods:

  • the hyper-production of rackety thrillers and entertainments in the 1930s
  • the classic period from the Blitz to the mid-1950s when his tortuous private life and the refinement of his writing and structuring skills helped him write the Big Three: The Power and The Glory, The Heart of The Matter, The End of The Affair (and his most successful films eg The Third Man)
  • and then, from the mid-1950s, a less intense, more comic tone begins to emerge: in the outright comedies Our Man In Havana and Loser Takes All, or mingled with tragic elements in A Burnt-Out Case and The Comedians

In this book you have the sense that the intense emotion and unhappiness and Catholic guilt which produced the tragedies of Matter and Affair have burnt themselves out leaving a kind of calmness and equableness, an acceptance of life’s absurdity and that – new for Greene – life might actually be for enjoying rather than an arena for tormenting oneself and others.

The plot

Henry Pulling is a middle-aged, retired bank manager. He never married, he has no children. He lives in a nice suburban house in Southwood, grows dahlias and attends the Conservative club every Tuesday night. At the funeral of  his agèd mother, into his life sweeps the powerhouse which is his unconventional Aunt Augusta. Immediately she reveals that Henry is not his mother’s son, he is the son of a woman his father impregnated but wouldn’t marry, but his ‘mother’ stepped in to marry his father and raise him. This shocking revelation is still sinking in as aunt Augusta takes Henry to her flat above a pub and introduces him to a large, virile black from Sierra Leone named Wordsworth, who he slowly realises is his aunt’s lover. How unconventional, how 1969, how very unlike the dull life of his own parents.

But aunt Augusta is bored and restless, subjecting Henry to an unstoppable torrent of stories about her outrageous escapades during a long eventful life. She drags him down to Brighton to look up an old friend Hatty with whom she proceeds to reminisce at length about their days in a traveling circus and then working for a fraudster who set up a church for dogs (!)

Aunt Agatha then conceives a grander scheme and commands Henry to accompany her on a trip on the Orient Express to Istanbul. They meet a young American woman who bemoans her rich, indifferent parents and introduces Henry to the pleasures of ‘pot’. At the Italian stop aunt Augusta meets the son of the one great love of her life, Mr Visconti, before they continue on to Turkey where, to his astonishment, Henry realises his aunt has been smuggling gold bullion in her luggage, with a view to investing with crooks. Their hotel room is visited and searched by the ageing Colonel Hakim (maybe it’s a common name, but maybe this is an affectionate nod to the Colonel Hakim who appears in several of Eric Ambler’s classic pre-war thrillers). The police have uncovered the whole plan and are prosecuting the Turkish end but have no evidence against Agatha who stands up to their search and questioning with old-fashioned British sang-froid.

The Turkish authorities do, however, deport them on the next flight back to London. Henry doesn’t hear from his aunt for several months and settles back down into the peacefully watering his dahlias, chatting to the colonel next door, and wistfully remembering the one possible love of his life – Miss Keene, daughter of one of his best customers at the bank, who he came within an ace of proposing to 25 years earlier, and who still writes wanful letters to him from South Africa where she emigrated, with a permanent undertow of sadness at what might have been.

It’s as if he faces two alternative futures: replying to Miss Keene’s sad letters, inviting her to return to Southwood, to the sound of the bells of the local church, the dahlias, the annual fete; or his aunt’s amoral world of adventures, of foreign lovers, smuggling and criminal exploits, con-men, fraudsters and fun.

In Part Two of the novel he receives a letter from his aunt informing him she is in South America and never plans to return to England, commanding him to sell her flat and all its contents, apart from a handful of items including a framed picture, and fly to Buenos Aires. After a little hesitation he obeys, then finds a message to take a boat up the river to Asunçion in Paraguay.

All kinds of sinister characters are aboard the boat and Henry is astonished to meet Wordsworth, his aunt’s black lover, in the middle of nowhere: he is loyally following aunt Agatha but heart-broken that she has abandoned him for the Italian. For at Asunçion, Henry discovers that aunt Augusta has been reunited with the famous Signor Visconti, the great love of her life of whom she has told so many stories. Unfortunately, he seems to have fallen on hard times and Agatha has spent all her money bailing him out. Initially Henry thinks this is a colossal mistake and that the crook Visconti has absconded with the money and left his aunt impoverished.

There is a flicker of trouble from an American named Tooley (who it slowly emerges is CIA) and who points out that Visconti was a war criminal, and a burst of definite trouble when Henry blows his nose on a scarf aunt Augusta lent him, a red scarf she’d given him to wear on the Paraguay national day, and it turns out he’s just blown his nose on a scarf of the national colour of the ruling party outside their party headquarters. He starts a small riot, is beaten up and is lucky to escape with his life, ending up in gaol. The CIA man Tooley visits Henry in gaol and fixes his release, in exchange for which he wants Henry to broker a meeting with aunt Augusta and Visconti.

At this meeting Visconti hands over a priceless sketch by Leonardo da Vinci which he nabbed during the War when he was working closely with the Gestapo to ‘export’ Italy’s art treasures. In exchange Tooley agrees to drop US harassment of him. At first deeply sceptical of Visconti, who is not at all the tall elegant man he’d imagined but a short fat bald man with bad teeth, Henry slowly comes to like him and, after his aunt and Visconti hold a grand party for everyone who is anyone in Asunçion – the chief of police, the head of customs, leaders of all the poliical parties – Henry realises that, with the right bribes to the right people, they can probably make a real success of the ‘export-import’ business they’ve been discussing ie smuggling whiskey and cigarettes at a massive profit.

The big house they’ve bought is now grandly furnished, aunt Augusta is happily in love, the money starts rolling in and Henry takes his place using his bank manager expertise as head accountant for the new crime syndicate. It is only a detail or afterthought that he finds the body of poor Wordsworth, Augusta’s abandoned black lover, in the large gardens, where he had (presumably) been bumped off by Visconti’s bodyguard. His death is unlamented, there is no mention of a funeral, even.

Right up to the end Henry has been hankering after returning to Southwood and domesticity. But in an abrupt paragraph on the last page we leap 6 months into the future, after the Grand Party, to discover that Henry has made his decision, choosing his aunt, adventure and Life!

Style

The hippy girl they meet on the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul and then on the hippy trail to Kathmandu, introduces Henry to pot and mentions acid. Back in England he hears Beatles songs drifting through open windows from radios.

But in fact the style of the first-person narrator, Henry Pulling, sets its face against 1969, and is deliberately staid, old fashioned and conventional.

Greene’s prose style is not great: it is nearly always concise and efficient but, if it occasionally rises to sudden aperçus, descriptive or psychological insights, it just as often appears a bit slapdash and clunky. His OK style of the 30s and 40s has lived on into another age, and I wonder if the germ of the plot came as much from the insight that his style was out of date, as the notion that his character was; as if the lead character is less a human being than an embodiment of old-fashioned grammar, syntax and vocabulary come to life.

Related links

The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 1972 and dominated by an over-the-top performance from Maggie Smith, for some reason pretending to be Winston Churchill.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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