My list of sleeper prospects to jump on to the 2013 top 100 is now up for Insiders.
Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt falls somewhere in between his two styles, serious novels and “entertainments,” by layering a spy-novel veneer on a story of a lifelong bachelor and banker who finds his staid village life interrupted by an imperious, independent aunt who drags him on several trips out of England. The spy story aspect, and the mystery about the narrator’s biological mother, are superficial and slightly silly, but they open up the narrator to the kind of ruminations that reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (reviewed here). (Greene’s book was adapted (and altered, it appears) for the screen in 1972, with Lady Vio— er, Dame Maggie Smith playing Augusta, a character a good 30-40 years Smith’s senior.)
The narrator, Henry Pulling, has just lost his stepmother, who raised him from birth with his biological father, as the novel opens, and the funeral reunites him with an aunt he hasn’t seen in half a century. Aunt Augusta, who would likely fit well between Aunt Dahlia and Aunt Agatha on the Wooster continuum of intimidating aunts, has, unbeknownst to Henry, lived a peripatetic life of adventure, and intends to have at least one more go before she finds herself alongside her late sister. Pulling is so stuck in his narrow life that he can’t quite accept that his aunt’s servant, a Senegalese man nicknamed Wordsworth, is actually her lover.
Unlike Greene’s “entertainments” – his own term for his popular novels, typically spy stories – the intrigue of Travels isn’t all that intriguing, and not even all that important beyond its role in forcing Henry to adjust his worldview. He worked in a stodgy industry, formed no permanent attachments to friends or lovers, and in retirement has taken up growing and breeding dahlias (perhaps an allusion, along with the Augusta/Agatha similarity, to Wodehouse). Augusta is trying to shake him out of his psychological torpor through exposure to her life of adventure, or misadventure, while also gradually showing him that things he long held to be true may not actually be so.
Greene’s dry wit comes through in some of the more ridiculous events, like Pulling inadvertently smoking pot while traveling the Orient Express, but those are just brief lulls in the increasingly serious meditations in which Pulling indulges as the book and his travels progress, on lost opportunities, life and death, and of course the difference between a safe, predictable life, and a more dangerous one with some actual upside.
I’m a huge fan of Greene’s novels, having now read fourteen of them, but would place this in the middle to the back of the pack. I’m still quite partial to Our Man in Havana (#27 on the Klaw 100), another half-serious “entertainment” novel that revolves around a vacuum cleaner salesman who is mistaken for a spy by the British government, only to find himself filling their absurd demands by sending mechanical drawings of vacuum cleaners while claiming they’re future Soviet weapons.
I mentioned on Twitter last month that I was reading Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, receiving responses from a large number of you who absolutely love Carver’s work. I’m afraid, then, that I’ll be disappointing you to confess that the collection left me cold; I found no attachment to the work, no emotional involvement, no obstacle to reading (the prose is pretty easy to get through) but no strong motivation to keep the book in hand. Even ignoring the controversy over how much of the finished product was actually Carver’s and how much was his heavy-handed editor’s, the stories seemed to me to depict realistic situations without getting anywhere below the surface of the characters’ outer behavior. I know his work is highly regarded; it just didn’t speak to me.
Next up: Italo Calvino’s The Baron In The Trees.