Saturday, March 5, 2011

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

I was sunk deep in my middle age. All the same I laid my head against her breast. 'I have been happy,' I said, 'but I have been bored for so long.'

One of Graham Greene's most consistent peculiarities is that his heroes and heroines are irreligious types, or at best believers impoverished in their faith, confined to religious novels. Something in him seems to harbor a great sympathy for the unbelieving, and I have long thought his books were written in part of exorcise the demons of his own conflicted faithfulness.

Henry Pulling, the protagonist of Travels with My Aunt, is an interesting variation on this archetype, Greene's anti-Greene: a homebody. Greene's obsession with travel seems almost colonialist, and his books, like his life, flit back and forth between continents. Henry, on the other hand, is a creature of habit, confined to his home and his routine, whose only interests are in cultivating dahlias. His experiences are hand-me-downs:

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.

That sounds like something straight out of the Fifty Books Project Manifesto, but here it only serves to make Henry seem more like a naif. His routines are shaken when he meets his Aunt Augusta for the first time at his mother's funeral. They strike up a friendship, and soon Augusta convinces Henry to accompany her on her travels, stretching from France to Istanbul to Paraguay.

Unsurprisingly, Augusta opens Henry's eyes to the virtues of the adventurous life. This is less sentimental than it sounds, and less so in that it quickly becomes a typical Greene novel, wherein Augusta is endeavoring to find her old lover who just happens to be wanted by Interpol for collaborating with the Nazis. Travels makes no bones about the danger of international living--Henry is savagely beaten and imprisoned for thoughtlessly wiping his nose on a red handkerchief on Paraguay's national day--but also extols the value of danger and the hollowness of suburban living. One of my favorite passages follows Henry's train of thought on the train to Istanbul with a young girl:

She leant against me in the carriage. I liked the smell of her hair. I suppose if I had known more about women I could have identified the shampoo she must have had in Paris. Her hand was on my knee, and the enormous wrist-watch stared up at me with its great blank white face and its four figures in scarlet, 12 3 6 9, as if those were the only important ones to remember - the hours when you had to take your medicine. I remembered Miss Keene's minute gold wrist-watch like a doll's witch Sir Alfred had given her on her twenty-first birthday. In its tiny ring it contained all the figures of the hours as though none were unimportant or without its special duty. Most of the hours of my life had been eliminated from Tooley's watch. There were no hours marked for sitting quietly and watching a woman tat. I felt as though one night in Southwood I had turned my back on any possibility of home, so that here I was shaken up and down between two segments of Bulgarian darkness.

This is the orderly, conservative Greene's idea of stream-of-consciousness. It doesn't quite work as a whole, but I love the pieces themselves: Henry's need to cling to things as trivial and domestic as the brand of Tooley's shampoo; the missing hours from Tooley's watch, as Henry becomes aware of the dwindling of his own short life; the contrast between the ordered and the unordered life; the wonderful phrasing of "shaken up and down between two segments of Bulgarian darkness." What makes the darkness Bulgarian? Even without the ability to see what lies beyond the train window, Henry perceives the newness of his experiences: this darkness is different from English darkness.

In the end, Henry has to decide between following his aunt and returning home. Even if he embraces the new life, it confirms Greene's self-abnegation, forcing us to ponder the value of books as a substitute for experience, and risks the legitimacy of his own works. After all, aren't we indicted for living out Henry's experiences "second hand?"

Other Reviews:

Stuck in a Book


Brent Waggoner said...

This is a good review, but I'm surprised you didn't mention the actual ending--that is, (SPOILER) that he ultimately decides happiness in pursuit of a sort of nihilist hedonism is the best thing he can do. Contrast this to most of Greene's heroes, who find that, while religion might not make them very happy, it's the only thing that can really make them work at all.

In most of his novels, the bigger picture is all that makes life worth living, even if that living is mostly miserable. I read Travels as coming from a far more bitter, cynical Greene than penned The Power and the Glory. You should definitely read Monsignour Quixote.

Christopher said...

I didn't read it as nihilist or hedonistic. I read it as a character devoting himself to more difficult, less stable pleasures. Why do you think it's nihilistic?

Brent Waggoner said...

I'll have to see if I can track down my copy. I think I touched on it in my review, maybe?

Brent Waggoner said...

Also, nihilistic might be too strong, but i thought hedonistic, definitely. I'm open to reassessment.