Last night I finished reading Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene. Things being what they are in the world, I’ve been having a bit of trouble focusing on anything more challenging than Big Bang Theory reruns, so I was looking for something light and maybe even funny. This popped up as a dollar ninety-nine special on #BookBub, and it had dozens of five-star reviews so I thought it would suit my mood. For some reason I mistakenly believed this book to be the basis for the movie “Auntie Mame” (and subsequent musical “Mame”), but that was actually inspired by a book called Auntie Mame (duh.)
Graham Greene authored over 25 novels, many based on his time as a journalist, most notably as a war correspondent. I’ve only read The Quiet American, an amazing book that sheds insight on French and American intervention in Viet Nam. You may read my review here on Goodreads.
When you start reading The Quiet American, you think it’s going to follow a predictable path, and then—wow!–it doesn’t. It appears Greene is attempting something similar with Travels, but I don’t think he pulls it off as well. At any rate, I discovered this book did inspire a film adaptation, made in 1972 and starring Maggie Smith. Now that looked fun. Not just because it would be fun to see a movie with Downton Abby’s dowager countess in her prime, but because the trailer had that kind of big splashy look to it. It reminded me of a childhood of movie-going at the Fox and the Crest on K Street in Downtown Sacramento, before they started building the multiplexes in suburban shopping malls. It was an event to go see something, usually made by Disney, or a musical starring Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn. The technicolor always looked deeper and richer than reality, giving the entire experience a kind of Fantasy Land feel. Mid-Corona Summer, couldn’t we all use a little of that?
As you can see, this is turning out to be less a review than a ramble, so expect some spoilers. I’ll warn you when we get close, but be vigilant. You can keep reading for now, because I’m going to talk about something completely different for a minute or two.
Shortly after we all went into hiding in March, a few friends and I started at book club on Zoom. The four of us have known each other a very long time, and in fact we actually did this before, back in the 80s, before careers heated up and children arrived to divert us from anything as leisurely as reading. Now we’re all retired, and like I said, it’s the Year of the Corona, so we’ve got some time on our hands.
We decided to get an anthology of short stories. After a tour of Amazon we decided on 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane, compiled in 1952, all published in the 19th or first half of the 20th centuries. Mostly well-known authors. Some we’d read in high school or college. But mostly not. It’s been fun.
As the writer in the group, I’m the one who’s always pointing out point of view, and speculating on choice of narrator. In many—maybe even in most—of the older stories, I’ve been surprised to see how the narrator will often be some ordinary guy who starts out saying, I was at a dinner party, or convalescing from influenza at Bath, or riding on a train from Calais to Berlin, when I encountered this strange little man, or a chatty middle-aged woman, or a random military colonel traveling home on leave, blah blah blah. And then he tells us the story that the person tells him. In the better constructed stories, the narrator will end up playing some role in the story as well, or the story affects him somehow and changes his life. But in some, the author doesn’t even tell us who this narrator is. How do we know if we can trust him or not? Sometimes he seems like such a nosey busybody! Other times, like he’s missing the main point. Maybe it’s just me. It seems to have been just a common literary device and maybe I’m making more of it than the author intended. Anyway, if you don’t recall encountering this before, remember The Great Gatsby, narrated by Nick Carraway. And if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, my goodness, where did you go to school? You’ve got to read it! It really is beautifully written, and quite poetic. And if you did read it in school, read it again. Yes, it was tedious in high school, but you’ll love it now.
It may seem I’m digressing here because Travels With My Aunt isn’t written by a seemingly uninvolved narrator. Travels With My Aunt is narrated by Henry Pulling, a staid retired banker in his 50s, confirmed bachelor, whose greatest passion is raising dahlias. At his mother’s funeral, who shows up but his Aunt Augusta, whom no one has heard from since Henry’s baptism, lo these many decades before. Aunt Augusta is 75 years old, a lovable rogue who has been getting herself into all kinds of trouble since her teens. She insists that Henry come have a drink with her, and he cannot find a way to refuse. She takes him to her apartment where he meets a man she calls Wordsworth, a young African from Sierra Leone, whom Henry assumes is her servant. When she gives Henry a tour of the apartment, he notes that there are a lot of glass Disney figurines in Wordsworth’s bedroom. “I wouldn’t want to wake up to those,” Henry says, and Aunt Augusta replies, “He seldom does.” So Aunt Augusta is a lot of fun, though it apparently goes right over Henry’s head.
When Henry leaves, there’s a bit of a mix-up, and Henry gets home to discover that Wordsworth has hidden his cannabis leaves in the urn with the ashes of Henry’s mother. I dunno, it just wasn’t as funny as I wanted it to be. Nonetheless, Henry and I both persevered, as he heads off with Augusta, first to Paris, then onto the Orient Express and finally Istanbul. She tells such amusing stories about the various men who have, shall we say, kept her over the years. Greene never comes right out and says she was once one of the wares a gentleman might sample at a brothel, but we do get the impression that her talents lay in that direction.
In the second half of the book, there is a bit of cloak and dagger intrigue. I found it confusing, but I also didn’t think it was all that important that I understand it completely. The emphasis was on Henry, and the effect Augusta’s amoral pursuit of happiness was having on him. Would Augusta succeed in prying Henry out of his shell, so he might live a little before it’s too late? Of course the answer is yes. I’d been expecting this of course, but I have to admit I was shocked too, and I don’t think an ending quite like this one would fly today. SPOILER ALERT: I’m gonna do it; I’m gonna tell you exactly what happens right now in the next paragraph.
Aunt Augusta is reunited with the favorite of her old lovers, and they decide to marry. Henry is happy for them, seeing that they remind him of any elderly couple who have loved each other well over a long long time. Their reunion has come about after some smuggling and money laundering and bribery and thievery, but what cost happiness? You cannot put a price on it. At their insistence, Henry agrees to leave his quiet life and his dahlias in England and join Augusta and her new husband and their quest for wealth as they start up a new business smuggling cigarettes and liquor from Panama into Paraguay. Okay, so let me be clear. This didn’t shock me. This is all rather mild. But at the very end, Henry comes across poor Wordsworth (who still loved his cougar of a lover) dead on the lawn! And nobody seems to care all that much. “Yes, dear, all in good time,” Augusta says when Henry tells her of Wordsworth’s death. But in his final paragraph, Henry tells us how much he enjoys his new life—again, not shocking—but in a few years—when she has turned sixteen—Henry will wed the Police Chief’s daughter!! When she turns sixteen. Yeah, I had to read that twice. May I remind you that Henry is in his mid-fifties? Okay.
Oh, one last spoiler, although this is not, in my humble opinion, much of a spoiler. Anybody who doesn’t figure this out in the first couple of chapters isn’t paying attention—not in the book, but in life! At the beginning of the book, at the funeral, Augusta tells Henry that his mother was not his birth mother. This was news to Henry. Augusta refuses to tell him who actually gave birth to him, but c’mon. We all know. Greene doesn’t confirm it until the last page, but it certainly was no mystery.
So now, before I tell you about the movie version, I want to tell you about one of the short stories in the anthology I mentioned earlier. It’s called “A String of Beads,” and it was written by Somerset Maugham. It’s another of these tales where the narrator tells us someone at dinner told him this story, and here it is, dear reader! But in this one, Maugham almost seems to be making fun of this literary device. I even wonder if this actually happened to him at a dinner party. A woman sits down next to the narrator at dinner, and says, oh, I have a story for you, and it’s so good you will want to write it up. It’s the story of a lovely young governess and a mix-up with her necklace, and in the end she is given a reward of three hundred pounds for returning the more expensive necklace that was accidentally given to her. Her employers caution her to save the money, but instead the governess decides to go on holiday and spend the whole thing. She tells them she knows it is unlikely she will ever have an opportunity to experience such luxury again, so for a few weeks she wants to live like a duchess. However, she was a very clever young woman, and on holiday she meets a rich Argentinian who is happy to help her maintain an opulent life style, until she throws him over for a Greek man who takes her to Paris, and buys her a mansion and a Rolls Royce. Rumor has it, she has already moved on to someone else, probably someone even richer.
In other words, the young woman in this story is a just like Aunt Augusta.
But the aristocratic woman telling the story to the author makes it clear she is thoroughly scandalized by the choices of this gold-digging young woman. If she wrote the story, she says, she would give it a different ending. She would give the governess a hopelessly poor young fiancée who has few prospects, so it seems unlikely they will ever be able to afford to marry, but then—surprise—she is given the three hundred pounds as a reward, and they can afford a very small house outside the city, and if they are very careful with their money and their love-making (children are expensive, you know), they will be able to eke out a modest living. She admits that this story might be boring, but at least it would be moral.
And that’s what I need to tell you about the movie. It was made at a time when Hollywood exercised a form of self-censorship under the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of rules that discouraged any hint that illegal and/or immoral behavior might go unpunished. Like the lady at Somerset Maugham’s dinner party, Hollywood could not let Aunt Augusta’s wild life result in a happy, comfortable old age with the love of her life. The movie has a very different ending—an ending that is silly in its ambiguity, but the screen writer makes sure we understand that a woman like Augusta is not going to end up happily marrying the man who ruined her reputation so many decades earlier. She still has her nephew/son, played by Alec McCowen, who is younger and more charming than the Henry of the book. Loyal Wordsworth, played by a young, handsome Louis Gossett, Jr., is still alive, and also still eager to be at her side. So she’s not left totally bereft.
I knew it would have to be different than the book since Henry tells us repeatedly that Aunt Augusta is 75, and Maggie Smith was in her late 30s when the film was made. But she is made up to appear older, and they’ve got a dozen flashbacks to her wilder days with one man or another, even back to when she was a teenager on a school trip to Paris. It’s kind of a fun movie, if you like that kind of thing. I think I’d actually recommend it over the book. Plus I haven’t ruined it for you with spoilers. I told you what doesn’t happen, but not what does happen, so there you go. Btw, I rented it on Amazon Prime for a dollar ninety-nine, just like the book.
As you can see, this post is a bit more rambling than my usual fare. I’m going to take next week off, and hopefully I’ll get focused enough to get a few weeks ahead of the curve. Or I may take the entire month of August 2020 off. We’ll see.
If anybody has any suggestions for light funny books or movies, I would be very grateful!
Photo by Josh Applegate at Unsplash.