Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Reading group: Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

Jenny chose this book because she wanted a laugh. One of Graham Greene's 'entertainments' (as opposed to his more serious novels), it's the first-person narration of middle-aged bachelor Henry Pulling, newly retired from his position as a bank manager and committed to his safe suburban life of tending his dahlias - until, that is, the day of his mother's funeral when he meets an aunt he hardly knows. From this point on, his life is overturned: he is hurtled into an itinerant world of hippies, smugglers and war criminals which he has hardly guessed exists.

Jenny said she had been richly rewarded: the character of Aunt Augusta is a wonderfully eccentric one, although she said with a giggle that she thought she would be a real pain to be related to in real life.

Nearly everyone else agreed that the book had been fabulously entertaining and also brilliantly written. Well, I couldn't disagree with the latter: as usual with Greene there's a clarity to the prose - a sense of everything clearly visualized - which involves you from the first sentence. But then I said that actually I had a problem with the book because it was so rightwing. People seemed surprised at my making such a serious and political objection to such a piece of light entertainment, but I said that it was precisely because the book was so light, and treated with such urbanity subjects which are actually very serious, that I found it rightwing. It's not that I think you can't treat such subjects with humour, and I certainly wouldn't have minded a savage satire - indeed, I'd have loved one - but I found the urbanity hard to take (the apparent cosy stance that this murky underworld was just a good laugh), especially when you take into account the ending, which I won't reveal here, and the treatment of the fate of one of the characters, Wordsworth.

Hans said that actually, he agreed with me, he'd had similar thoughts himself: to what end was this brilliant writing being employed? but that hadn't stopped him enjoying the book as it had me.

And then people couldn't think of anything much more to say about it, and we hadn't even been discussing it for half an hour. There was a bit of a silence and then John said, well perhaps we should consider if Greene did in fact have a more serious purpose. Maybe the book, published in 1969, was a comment on the changes in society at the end of the sixties - and indeed Henry says at one point near the end that he had been brought up unprepared for the modern world. But then someone else pointed out that the world he encounters after leaving his old-fashioned suburb is in fact even older, with its roots in the war and thirties Bohemia and back further. Or, said John, maybe it's about the way people exist unthinkingly, and that Henry who has unthinkingly obeyed the tame suburban rules can also, ironically, succumb unthinkingly to a quite opposite mode of existence.

But Clare said that maybe we were seeing too much serious purpose in the book, and I said well, in any case I still didn't find the humour savage enough, and somehow began to feel grumpy, quite the po-faced lefty, and not very sociable either, and sat and demolished a bowl of carrots instead, and Clare accused me of eating all the hummus.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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