An amusing entertainment that becomes something more ambiguous
My wife and I both had vague but positive memories of having read “Travels With My Aunt” way back in the last century so we decided to give the audiobook version a try and refresh our memories.
Tim Pigott-Smith is the narrator and he gives a wonderful performance, providing just the right voices for the very wide range of characters in the book and getting the comic timing absolutely right.
The book has a strong, humorous start, as our hero encounters his septuagenarian aunt for the first time at his mother’s funeral. She makes quite an impression, her larger than life unashamedly Boheme style serving to highlight the dreariness of her nephew’s I-used-to-be-a-bank-manager-but-they-made-me-retire-in-my-fifties-and-now-I-tend-dahlias-and-try-not-to-go-quietly-insane way of life.
It’s such a long time since I read this that I’d remembered some of the incidents from Aunt Agatha’s life as short stories, without associating them with this book. She has some great stories and has had much practice in telling them. They reminded me of sherbet lemons, brittle and shiny on the outside but with a sugary-yet-bitter centre that leaves you wanting more.
I suspect my (much, much) younger self also failed to work out what exactly our hero’s aunt did for a living until much later in the book than it became apparent this time. I was probably as slow as her somewhat dense nephew to work it out.
The first couple of journeys with his aunt, physical journeys and journeys into her remembered past, sparkled. Then we hit the 1960s version of the Orient Express and took a trip to Istambul. The train was drab and dreary and seemed to sap the energy from the chapters describing it.
The pace picked up again in Istambul but the novel never really recovered its sparkle. It is from this point on that our hero starts to lose his innocence.
In the hands of another writer, this stripping away of innocent assumptions and conclusions could have been joyous for everyone involved, with our hero being liberated from a conventional life by a life-affirming aunt. It seemed to me that Graham Greene decided to take the story in a different direction. Our retired bank manager has always followed the path of least resistance. Once this meant living up to the the expectations of his employer and his clients, now it means living up to the expectations of his Aunt. His level of agency remains the same.
While I found the ending quite credible, I also found them dispiriting and slightly sleazy. It’s as if Greene couldn’t help adding the perception of sin to what could have been innocent fun.