Finally at the end of Simon's Greene for Gran month, here's a reprise of what I wrote about this novel three years ago.
Not content with joining one book club I have now joined a second one, very different in character from the first, though they both happen to meet in the same pub. The first is small and select and meets downstairs, and the second proves to be large and lively and meets upstairs, though luckily on a different night. It's so large, in fact, that it functions a bit like I imagine speed dating -- there are several tables of people, and after a while the groups get disbanded and moved around. That's the theory at least -- I didn't see much of it going on, though I did move once rather early on.
I've been joining book clubs for much the same reasons most people do, I suspect -- first of all I've only been living in Oxford for six months so it's nice to meet new people, but above all it's good to be made, or at least encouraged, to read books you might not otherwise read. I was almost the only person at either of my tables last night to have read any Graham Greene before -- a couple of others had read Brighton Rock and I read The Quiet American not long ago, and blogged about it here. But I'd never even heard of Travels With My Aunt. I really loved it. I haven't read enough of GG's novels to judge for myself but I'm guessing it is uncharacteristically lighthearted, though it does touch on some serious issues.
The novel is narrated by Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager in his fifties. To say that Henry has lived a quiet life hardly encompasses the crashing boredom of his everyday existence in suburban Southwood, tending his dahlias and conversing with the Major next door. He has never married, and the only woman in whom he has had even a stirring of interest has moved to South Africa. But all this changes when, at his mother's funeral, he meets his Aunt Augusta, "dressed rather as the late Queen Mary of beloved memory might have dressed if she had still been with her and had adapted herself a little bit towards the present mode". Aunt Augusta is in her mid seventies, but, as her brilliant red hair suggests, has never lost her joyful, expansive approach to life. She insists on dragging Henry with her to London, where he meets Wordsworth, a large middle-aged black man who, she says, "attends to my wants" (in every imaginable sense), and who proves to be both devoted and highly jealous of possible rivals in Aunt Augusta's affections. Soon Henry finds himself travelling -- something he has never done in his life -- first to Brighton and later to Paris and to Istanbul on the Orient Express. Along the way he gradually learns about Aunt Augusta's extremely chequered career, encompassing among other things running a church for dogs in Brighton, working in various brothels in Paris and Italy, and being the mistress of a variety of shady but colourful characters. Also along the way Henry learns to broaden his own closed mind, smoking pot for the first time on the Orient Express and aiding Aunt Augusta in some currency smuggling operations. In the last part of the novel Aunt Augusta has moved to South America, and Henry joins her there for some more mind-expanding adventures...
Really this seemed to me like a bildungsroman -- a novel of education or of growing up. Yes, Henry is in his fifties but he has never really lived. Travel is said to broaden the mind, of course, but Henry's mind is also broadened by his relationship with Aunt Augusta, a relationship that opens him up emotionally in unexpected ways.
Graham Greene was a traveller himself, and a member of MI6. Here's something he wrote about the experience of travelling:
There is so much weariness and disappointment in travel that people have to open up — in railway trains, over a fire, on the decks of steamers, and in the palm courts of hotels on a rainy day. They have to pass the time somehow, and they can pass it only with themselves. Like the characters in Chekhov, they have no reserves — you learn the most intimate secrets. You get an impression of a world peopled by eccentrics, of odd professions, almost incredible stupidities, and, to balance them, amazing endurances.
A very enjoyable read. Do try it.