Archive for Thursday, August 11, 2005

Travels’ provides enjoyable journey for classics readers

August 11, 2005

Graham Greene's "Travels With My Aunt" is typical of the author's novels in that the story involves travel and takes place in many different locales - a London suburb, Paris, Vienna, Istanbul, Argentina and Paraguay, among others - but the plot's similarity to his other novels pretty much ends there.

The late English writer, whose centennial was celebrated last year, wrote most famously about ordinary people who happened to be agents of the British Secret Service, as in his most popular novel, "Our Man In Havana." The book was made into a 1959 movie by director Carol Reed, who also directed a more successful 1949 movie, "The Third Man," which was written by Greene and starred Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

"Travels" is the story of Henry Pulling, a middle-aged, early-retired bank manager living in a London suburb who meets his colorful aunt for the first time since he was a teenager at his mother's funeral. Aunt Augusta, it turns out, had been kept away from the narrator for several reasons. Augusta tells him one - that his mother was in fact his stepmother - at their first encounter.

Despite Henry's bourgeois outlook and skepticism of his aunt's revelation, he finds himself drawn to the ribald woman in her late seventies who keeps her red hair in a huge pile atop her head.

Soon, the two take a short excursion to the seaside, which Henry will recall as the most memorable of their many, subsequent travels together. After even that first brief jaunt, Henry finds himself dissatisfied with the lone enthusiasm his life had previously revolved around: his dahlia garden. Soon Henry embarks with Augusta again, this time on a longer voyage aboard the Orient Express to Istanbul.

Greene described "Travels" as "the only book I have written for the fun of it," and the sources of his pleasure are evident throughout the book. There are picaresque characters aplenty, from Wordsworth, a middle-aged black man from Sierra Leone whose role as Aunt Augusta's devoted lover at first shocks Henry, to Tooley, a troubled American hippy girl he meets on the Orient Express.

Augusta herself, Gloria Emerson writes in the introduction, was unlike any of Green's previous female characters, who were typically "young, small-breasted with a slight body, helpless : obliging, maybe even obedient, and certainly self-denying." Augusta is none of those adjectives.

She at first unnerves and befuddles her nephew with endless, digressive stories about her life working numerous shady-to-illegal careers. Augusta's natural lack of shame and her offense when Henry presumes to judge the characters in her stories eventually rub off on him, and he loses his priggishness as the story progresses. Henry comes to enjoy not only her stories, but to adopt her nonjudgmental and roguish outlook.

Augusta prefers, she says, "men who have a bit of the hound in them," and tells Henry her disappointment that he has no hound in himself. (Spoiler alert) By the end of the story, we see that she will not long be so disappointed. Another plot twist, easily visible in the second chapter, is only fully revealed in the last pages. But, as Augusta says of travel, the pleasure of this novel is not in finding out what happens at the end; it is for the pleasure of the journey itself.

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