Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene

Once again, this time with ‘Travels With My Aunt’ my final Greene for Gran read, Graham Greene has done that thing of writing a book which I loved, got a bit frustrated and bored with and then sat back and thought about and have decided that whilst it wasn’t my favourite read of all time it is a bloody clever book indeed. Oh Gran… why oh why can’t you be on the end of the phone anymore for me to have a good old natter with you about this book? So frustrating, thankfully I have lots of you to discuss it with hopefully.

Vintage Classics, 1969 ( 1999 edition), paperback, 262 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Henry Pulling is a retired man who is very comfortable with his life, he doesn’t really want for anything and the highlight of excitement in his life are his dahlias which he tends to in a way some might say could be bordering on obsession. No gardening pun intended on the ‘bordering’ there. That is until the funeral of his mother and the arrival of his long lost septuagenarian (a word I will be promptly adding to my vocabulary) Aunt Augusta. From their first meeting at the funeral of his mother, where Aunt Augusta announces that his mother might not have been his mother at all, and the coffee in her apartment after, where he meets her man servant/lover Wentworth who swaps Henry’s mothers ashes for some marijuana, you know things are not going to be all flowers and regularly delivered cooked favourite meals before.

“I was weeding the dahlias, the Polar Beauties and the Golden Leaders and the Requiems, when my telephone began to ring. Being unused to the sound which shattered all the peace in my little garden, I assumed it was a wrong number. I had very few friends, although before my retirement I boasted a great many acquaintances.”

Aunt Augusta is what many people would politely describe as a ‘character’, those who might want to be more base would say she was a slightly crazy woman in her seventies who isn’t against the odd illegal action along with an abundance of sex from many a lover, which as we learn has always been the way. She is brass, quite coarse, a bit vulgar and rather naughty (for which I naturally loved her) and also a woman of a certain sense of danger, darkness and mystery (which I naturally wanted to discover more of) in fact of all Greene’s characters I have come across Aunt Augusta is probably my favourite and cleverly Greene never allows her to become a farce no matter how funny or crude she is being. I did often laugh out loud at paragraphs like this.

‘I very much doubt it,’ she said. ‘My dear Henry,’ she added, ‘at my age one has ceased to expect a relationship to last. Think how complicated life would be if I had kept in touch with all the men I have known intimately. Some died, some I left, a few have left me. If they were all with me now we would have to take over a whole wing of the Royal Albion. I was very fond of Wordsworth while he lasted, but my emotions are not as strong as they once were. I can support his absence, though I may regret him for a while tonight. His knackers were superb.’   

It was strange reading this later, 1969, Greene novel as for the first fifty or so pages of the book I felt like this was an author simply writing for the pleasure of it (it was his twentieth novel after all) and it seemed much more carefree. A simple tale of a happy, but boring, man who meets a wild relative and finds himself gallivanting all over the world on her whims/dodgy dealings. Then throw in some crazy characters, like a CIA Agent who counts the amount of minutes he spends urinating every day, and lots of rather rude titillation and hey presto an entertaining romp. That would have done me fine. Yet like ‘Our Man From Havana’ Greene also has a lot more going on with the book which slowly comes to focus as the laughter started to lessen.

To hand it to Greene he fits a lot in with this book. He looks at prostitution, the Nazi regime and how WWII changed the world, the plight of third world countries and even manages to swing in some commentary on the apartheid in South Africa along with how the pill had, rightly or wrongly, changed women’s sexual awakening and responsibility. Oh and (just for a change, possibly a sign of too much of an author not always being a good thing as it really got on my wick in this book) of course the subject of religion and Greene’s favourite topic of conversation Catholicism.

With the admiration of all these ‘hot topics’ that Greene interweaves within ‘Travels With My Aunt’ also comes a slight criticism for me. I felt that Greene suddenly worried he was almost having too much fun and that actually really we should be focussed on these subjects in hand and think on. Whilst it did add meat to the book, for me it also really bogged me down. I found the final part of the book, which to be fair is only 80 pages of the novels total, a real slog until Greene suddenly stepped it up a gear leading to the ending, which I guessed part of and then had a real ‘yuck’ feeling around the final two sentences.

Greene does this too me a lot as an author, leaves me feeling like I have read something rather brilliant even if I didn’t always enjoy the whole thing, more the sum of his parts. His prose is always lush and masterful and yet his plots sometimes make me ponder. ‘Travels With My Aunt’ could have just been a really entertaining and quirky read, and in many ways it remains that, there is just a little bit of a forced feeling of an author wanting to be deemed worthy that dampens it on occasion and makes the book feel much longer than it is. Or am I being too harsh?

Gran and I would have argued the toss about this for a few hours I am sure, with me possibly having to admit defeat at some point, but then the best books inspire debate don’t they –  so thanks Gran for making me give this a whirl! Greene will certainly be an author I will be returning to… though maybe not in quite such a concentrated dose. What have been your thoughts on Greene, and if any of you have read ‘Travels With My Aunt’ did you find the deeper undertones a little too try hard, or did they make the book a more fulfilling reading experience for you?

And don’t forget to let me know if you have read any Greene’s for Gran, what you thought of them and if you reviewed them where you did so.

3 Comments

Filed under Graham Greene, Greene For Gran, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

3 responses to “Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene

  1. Reading the Orient Express and The Captain and the Enemy and have a good set of Greene waiting to be read. The Captain and The Enemy reads easily and somehow it reminds me a little of Gentlemen and Players by J. Harris.The Orient Express is like a train ride full of long stretches, navel gazing, mixed shadows and light patches with a built in rhythm . It is not as easy to read. I’m finishing them later today. Travels With My Aunt I read some time ago and I completely agree with your view of it. Brilliant writing but some parts are off putting. I must read it again though to refresh my own view.
    I can appreciate the very special connection you and your Gran had and especially the fun of sharing the love of reading . She left you a wonderful legacy. Most likely she would want you to keep thinking of her reactions and opinions, that’s love.

  2. I read this in 2010 and had to go back to my review to see what I thought, though I did remember loving it. And yes, indeed, I did — and have reprised the review in case anyone is interested. http://harrietdevine.typepad.com/harriet_devines_blog/2010/03/travels-with-my-aunt.html

  3. This is a Greene I started once and never finished, I think because I wasn’t quite sure what it was. GG’s works seem to fall into types, and this seemed more than one of his ‘entertainments’ but I couldn’t quite see where it was going. I shall have to revisit and have another think about it…..

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