‘Tis better to travel hopefully…
😀 😀 😀 😀
When middle-aged Henry Pulling attends the cremation of his mother, he meets his mother’s sister, Aunt Augusta, a woman he knows only from old family photographs. It seems Aunt Augusta was something of the black sheep of the family, her distinctly racy and unconventional lifestyle making her unwelcome. But Henry finds himself drawn towards her, her frank stories of a life full of incident providing a contrast to his own rather dull and lonely existence as a retired bank manager in the respectable little community of Southwood. And soon Augusta entices Henry to join her on some of her journeys, first on the Orient Express to Istanbul and later to South America.
This is a gentle little comedy without any of the profundity of Greene’s major works but still with a certain amount of charm. Published in 1969, at a time when Greene was in his mid-60s, it does rather read like a tolerant older man’s view of the ‘permissive’ society of the ’60s, with its focus on ‘free love’ and incessant pot-smoking. However, through Aunt Augusta’s stories, we are also taken on a light trip back through the century, though her storytelling technique makes it hard to pin down the truth of any event she is describing. From running a church for dogs in Brighton to her rather seedy career in France, from possibly having something to do with the Resistance to consorting with Nazi war criminals, Augusta’s exuberant zest for life manages somehow to overcome Henry’s normal repugnance for anything not quite respectable. The lesson he must learn from Augusta is the simple one that there is a difference between the tedium of merely existing and the joy of experiencing life.
I went restlessly out and crossed the little garden where an American couple (from the St James or the Albany) were having tea. One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and the dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.
The writing is, of course, excellent, especially the stories of their travels and the various places they pass through. It’s not a travelogue, so there are no tourist brochure style descriptions – instead, it’s a vague, impressionistic picture of the process of travelling and the places passed by as seen through Henry’s untutored, and often uninterested, eye. The reader is more likely to be told about the availability of ham sandwiches than the great architecture of a given town. This changes a little when they head off to South America – in this section, we begin to get a much clearer picture both of the natural world and the strange and rather corrupt society Henry finds himself sucked into.
When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of our long journey were picked up again: a factory was followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas-works by a modern church: the houses began to tread on each other’s heels, advertisements for Fiat cars swarmed closer together, the conductor who had brought breakfast passed, working intensely down the corridor to rouse some important passenger, the last fields were squeezed out and at last there were only houses, houses, houses, and Milano, flashed the signs, Milano.
The humour runs at a consistently gentle level throughout, never becoming riotously funny, but never getting lost either. Unfortunately a good deal of the humour is centred on Aunt Augusta’s younger lover, Wordsworth, a man from Sierra Leone, and to modern eyes his portrayal feels horribly stereotyped at best and somewhat racist at worst. In fact, given Greene’s age and the time of writing, Wordsworth is actually rather affectionately portrayed – indeed, he’s about the only likeable character, the only one with a true, warm and generous heart. But still, I found some of the dialect and his rather childish naivety made for pretty uncomfortable reading in places. Otherwise, however, the contrast between Henry’s buttoned-up mentality and Augusta’s free-wheeling acceptance of all life has to offer gives plenty of opportunity for Greene to quietly mock the society of the time.
The vicar was saying clearly, while the congregation buzzed ambiguously to disguise the fact that they had forgotten the words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, have committed…” I noticed that the detective-sergeant, perhaps from professional prudence, did not join in this plea of guilty. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…” I had never before noticed how the prayer sounded like the words of an old lag addressing the Bench with a plea for mercy. The presence of Detective Sergeant Sparrow seemed to alter the whole tone of the service.
This would not be the book I would recommend to people wanting to sample Greene for the first time. Much better to try one of his more serious novels where the depth of the subject matter tends to withstand dating a little better. In truth, I think profundity suits his style better than humour. But, overall, I found this a pleasurable if rather light read – one where the journey is more enjoyable perhaps than the destination.
(Ticking off the “Orient Express” category for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge.)