This is my review of Travels with my Aunt (Twentieth Century Classics) by Graham Greene.
Henry Pulling, a staid former bank manager, is induced to accompany his eccentric Aunt Agatha on her travels, only to find himself shaken out of his dull rut of retirement and gaining a new perspective on the moral values he has always taken for granted.
Despite references to smoking pot and Andy Warhol, this book seems a little dated even for the sixties when it first appeared. It reads more like an Evelyn Waugh type novel from the 1930s. Farcical and light-weight, it entertained me for a while, being very funny and imaginative in places, with the fluid style with which Greene made writing appear deceptively easy.
By the middle, I was growing bored with Aunt Agatha's endless recollections of past lovers, all of whom seem implausible and two dimensional. The details of her tricks to get money through the customs are somewhat tedious and confusing. She began to seem an unsympathetic character, manipulative and callous in her treatment of the loyal caricature Wordsworth, and vindictive towards the woman who has remained faithful to a former lover they have both shared. I could never quite believe in Agatha's enduring relationship with the unappealing Visconti.
The story builds up well to quite an effective climax, in which the darker side of Greene's writing reveals itself – the preoccupation with Catholicism, and a cynical view of human nature, as conveyed by the party to which Visconti invites former enemies and potential business associates but no real friends.
Some of the travel writing, such as the description of Asuncion is quite vivid and interesting.
I like the way Greene uses the story as a vehicle to expound his own insights, observations and theories about life. For instance, his views on tea bags:
"one of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing point I felt very far away from England".
Or, the following exchange:
"Surely that's only a legend."
"There speaks a protestant…Any Catholic knows that a legend which is believed has the same value and effect as the truth. Look at the cult of the saints."
I sensed that Greene himself may have grown bored with the novel before completing it but he is such a skilled writer that it's still worth reading, if not as good as it could have been.