“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…”- Graham Greene, Travels With my Aunt
Having only read one other Graham Greene book previously (Brighton Rock) I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in this book. It turned out to be a very entertaining story about Henry Pulling, a very unimaginative, conservative retired English bachelor in his 50s who meets his eccentric Aunt Augusta for the first time in decades on the day of his mother’s funeral. Aunt Augusta is one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever come across in fiction; she’s selfish, unapologetic, and has had quite the unconventional life, especially if you consider that she’s in her mid-70s and this story takes place in the late 1960s. She takes Henry out of his boring humdrum life of tending dahlias, and they end up travelling around the world , breaking laws and meeting a motley crowd.
There was a lot of dry humour in this book which seems to have stood the test of time. While in Turkey Aunt Augusta says, “Politics in Turkey are taken more seriously than they are at home. It was only quite recently that they executed a Prime Minister. We dream of it, but they act.”
The mildly infuriating Aunt Augusta is definitely a people person and loves to tell stories. How true they are, Henry still isn’t quite sure. Yet, as he later muses:
“What does the truth matter? All characters once dead, if they continue to exist in memory at all, tend to become fictions. Hamlet is no less real now than Winston Churchill, and Joe Pulling no less historical than Don Quixote.”
In between all the shenanigans, Greene leaves some food for thought:
“Human communication, it sometimes seems to me, involves an exaggerated amount of time. How briefly and to the point people always seem to speak on the stage or on the screen, while in real life we stumble from phrase to phrase with endless repetition.”
There’s still some things I haven’t figured out about this book yet. I feel Greene packed a lot more social commentary in here than my bookclub and I had time to discuss. Firstly, I felt he was poking fun at the postcolonial, post-War era, but I don’t know enough about England at this time to confirm this. But maybe I wasn’t meant to take the novel as seriously as I did at times.
Spoiler!!!!!– Why on earth did Greene have Henry engaged to a 14 year old South American girl (they will marry as soon as she turns 16) right on the last page? What is this? I found that deeply disturbing.