“Do you know what you’ll think about when you can’t get to sleep in your double bed? Not of women… You will think of how every day, you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you from coming closer and closer to it every night while you try to sleep.”
Travels with My Aunt could have been renamed Graham Greene’s Carpe Diem without doing injury to its themes and ideas. It opens at a funeral, where Henry Puller meets his long lost Aunt Augusta. Her first words to him are, “I was once present at a premature cremation.” After the funeral, they get together for a cup of tea and she convinces him to travel with her. The rest of the novel is concerned with their movement from one place to the other, as Henry tries to figure out exactly what kind of man he is.
Aside from a fairly obvious twist near the end, Travels with My Aunt isn’t terribly concerned with plot. It is, however, populated with some of Greene’s most memorable characters: the irascible Aunt Augusta, seventy-five and not ready to slow down yet; Visconti, the Italian lover who sounds like Al Pacino but looks like Danny DeVito; Wordsworth, Augusta’s black lover; the two Tooleys, father and daughter; and dozens more, some appearing in the main narrative, some existing only in the stories told to Henry by his aunt.
The real emphasis of the novel is the inner life of the protagonist, Henry. When the novel opens, Henry is a recently retired banker whose only hobby is raising Dahlias and whose only romantic interest is a somewhat dull, matronly woman named Ms. Keene. During his time with his aunt, Henry’s attitude turns from disbelief and disdain of his aunt’s dissolute and somewhat illegal lifestyle to admiration and, finally, embracing it. As he says near the end, “I have been happy, but I have been bored for so long.”
It’s interesting, then, to look at Travels with My Aunt in comparison with Greene’s other novels. In his most famous works, the Catholic books, his protagonists are driven by something higher than themselves. Whether they believe in God or not, their lives revolve around the bigger questions in life. In Travels, God hardly makes an appearance—though Aunt Augusta claims to be a Roman Catholic, she says, “I just don’t believe the things they believe”—and big picture issues are hardly considered at all. On the one hand, Travels is clearly a comic novel, and such themes might not work in context; on the other, Aunt Augusta and Henry are well-developed characters and share poignant moments. It seems somewhat disappointing then that the ultimate theme of the book seems to be the ephemeral “live for the moment”, when the themes of Greene’s best works could be characterized as “live for the world to come.” However, it’s these contradictions that make Greene such a fascinating man and author, and I’d recommend Travels with My Aunt to anyone wanting a lighter-hearted visit to Greeneland.