• Email
  • Print

The Uncompleted Dossier

Travels with My Aunt

by Graham Greene
Viking, 244 pp., $5.95

Blind Love, and Other Stories

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 246 pp., $5.95

Mr. Greene’s new novel begins in England and ends in Paraguay. The narrator, Henry Pulling, is a retired bank manager with “a weakness for funerals” and an affection for dahlias. At his mother’s funeral he meets his aunt, Augusta, his mother’s sister, now about seventy-five years old but still going strong with a Negro lover named Zachary Wordsworth. Augusta tells Henry that her sister was not, in fact, his mother; the espoused saint, indeed, “should have had a white funeral.” Henry is reasonably curious about his origin, but he does not pester the theme, he is content to wait for disclosures.

Meanwhile the well-wrought urn which contains his mother’s ashes is seized by a police inspector called John Sparrow. Wordsworth has concealed his supply of pot in the urn and must now flee to Paris. Augusta, like Mr. Greene an inveterate traveler, brings Henry on a trip to Brighton and thence to more exotic places, Paris, Istanbul by the Orient Express, Buenos Aires, Asunción. The trips are enlivened by encounters with Hatty the fortune-teller, Tooley an American girl on the loose, her father James O’Toole a CIA man, Wordsworth free of law but hooked on love, Visconti a war criminal but still Augusta’s heart’s desire. When the scenery is dull Augusta passes the time by recalling her earlier lovers with particular emphasis upon the merits and defects of Curran, Dambreuse, Wordsworth the present incumbent, and Visconti the ultimate.

These travels make a new life for Henry, and he rises to their challenge. At the end, we see him spending cozy evenings with Maria, daughter of the Chief Customs Officer in Asunción, and they read Browning together. The last lines of the book are taken from Pippa’s first song in Browning’s “Pippa Passes,” and presumably they mean that Maria’s travels will affect Henry as Pippa’s passing affected the Asolan lovers of Browning’s poem. Maria is fifteen, so Henry will have to wait a year for his fulfillment.

The book is a comedy, then, and sometimes a farce, but it is also Mr. Greene’s De Senectute, turned upon age and death. Augusta gads about the world to prevent herself from dying, Henry’s resurrection may have come too late, the book is full of death, a thanatopsis, an anatomy of melancholy fact. In one of the finest comic interludes a character, already dying, moves himself from one room to another in his enormous house to maintain the suspense of living, and dies trying to reach the lavatory. Turned toward death, the book implies, one longs for a way of life free from the venom of morality, grim death thwarted by happy days. Reading the other Wordsworth, Henry thinks of happiness as vision, with the proviso that “in the vision there is no morality.” “Perhaps a sense of morality,” he reflects, “is the sad compensation we learn to enjoy, like a remission for good conduct.” Shades of the prison house have already closed upon him and it is nearly too late to shout for joy.

Augusta’s form of vision is to live like a Bohemian girl, and Henry finds it easy to condone her roguery. “I would have certainly called her career shady myself nine months ago, and yet now there seemed nothing so very wrong in her curriculum vitae, nothing so wrong as thirty years in a bank.” Like his creator, Henry is now indiscriminately ecumenical, there is no time for moral judgment with Death at one’s back. People are neither good nor evil, they are either interesting or dull. Henry’s lotus-land is Paraguay with its blooms of risk, chicanery, and violence, General Stroessner a happy pagan, Visconti’s garden animated by a corpse. One of the strangest things in the book is its background music, Tennysonian cadences culled from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury while a man gets a knife in his back.

Thus Mr. Greene, a happy decadent, turns thugs into rogues, and Henry, his quiet Englishman, dissolves morality in aesthetics. (Mr. Greene did this, in his own person, a year or two ago when he lifted his glass of salutation to Kim Philby, on the grounds, apparently, that the traitor told his lies handsomely, sold his country with style. To an Irish nationalist like myself, Mr. Greene’s performance was disgusting, comparable only to Philip Toynbee’s merry recital of a drunken rampage in Cairo, the narrator his own hero.) At last, Henry dares to disturb the universe, leaving dull old England to its natural inhabitants.

Such felicity is achieved by treating life as a spectacle, a movie, a travelog. Henry takes an interest in the passing scene, on condition that it passes. He narrowly avoids becoming involved with Tooley, but he can hardly compete with her boyfriend Julian, so he moves along the expressway. The Blue Mosque and Santa Sophia are next, and a visit to General Hakim. There is no question of commitment, one image is succeeded by another, novelty is all. The characters, too, are picturesque rather than obdurate, it is easy to dispose of them because they are willing to be disposed of; except for poor Wordsworth, faithful to the murdered end.

The tone of these transitions is genial, especially by comparison with Mr. Greene’s treatment of characters in May We Borrow Your Husband, his last collection of short stories. There are some compassionate stories in that collection, notably “Cheap in August” and “Two Gentle People,” but most of the stories execute their victims for no graver crime than that of wearing an orange toque. To be the recipient of compassion in Mr. Greene’s fiction you must be flawed in one of a number of ways congenial to his temper. If you are flawed in some other way, you are needled to death.

Still, there is very little venom in Travels with My Aunt. The general tone is easy, the comedy liberal, the attitudes might even be described as generous if they were embodied in characters about whom we were invited to care. But most of these figures care so much for themselves that they do not need our concern. They are figures in a moving landscape, no more. They exist in latitude, not in depth. Perhaps this is the comic version of Mr. Greene’s tendency, in the tragic novels, to leave his characters somewhat incomplete. In In Search of a Character he mentions that he first thought of calling A Burnt-Out Case by another name, The Uncompleted Dossier, because he wanted a mood of mystery: the central character, Querry, must never “put up a case for himself,” and there must always be something unexplained. This is the mark of a tragic character. But comic characters have no business remaining in shadow; such as they are, they are clear, there is no aura of imprecision around them.

In his new novel Mr. Greene keeps the characters clear by keeping the movie moving and the atmosphere, on the whole, light. But it is light in a special sense. Chesterton said of Kipling that he was a master of “that light melancholy with which a man looks back on having been the lover of many women.” Mr. Greene’s new atmosphere is light in that sense, too; there is also the light melancholy in which an aging man like Henry gathers rosebuds. Augusta has a wonderful passage about the walls of a room, and how they come to meet us in death. It is proof of Mr. Greene’s power as a novelist and as a comedian that a book of farce contains with ease such doom-laden moments. The dark, astoundingly, is light enough.

I have an impression that a good deal in this new book, by the way, can be explained by reference to a story in nearly every respect entirely different, Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.” This story has always meant a lot to Mr. Greene, and he has quoted from it on several critical occasions, especially in The Lost Childhood. Spencer Brydon has come back to New York at the age of fifty-six, after spending thirty-three years in Europe. He owns two houses in the city, one of them has been knocked down and replaced by a skyscraper, the other is standing empty. Brydon begins to feel that in the empty house he will meet his second self, his secret sharer, the man he would have become if he had stayed in America and taken up his commercial responsibilities. One night he meets this ghost in the house, and he is overwhelmed, the stranger is hideous. Fortunately, there is a woman, Alice Staverton, and she has been active in her own imaginative way upon the same question. Brydon is overwhelmed, but she is not. She has seen the same monstrous vision, but she has contained it. That is, her imagination has devised a form in which the evil stranger is received, as evil is received in a Shakespearean tragedy. Speaking of the monster to Brydon, she says that “to me he was no horror, I had accepted him.” Brydon himself has no form, except the form Alice’s imagination gives him. She has not disowned the monster, and Brydon is saved by her strength.

Now it is not surprising that “The Jolly Corner” has impressed Mr. Greene: he has always been drawn to evil as the substance of tragedy, and to the imaginative sense in which evil is accepted. Like his master Conrad, he has been engrossed by doubles, second selves, figures held together by pity or compassion. To be brief, I read Travels with My Aunt as a comic translation of “The Jolly Corner,” an attempt to be light in dealing with similar gravities. The case does not depend upon symmetry. There is no Alice in Travels, although Augusta’s Bohemian gallantry might be considered her comic counterpart, taking lightly what Henry, at the start, takes heavily. Henry’s sense of his new life becomes a search for his dead father, and success in this enterprise is a matter of acceptance. Augusta leads him by the nose until eventually he finds himself.

The final beauty of James’s stories, Mr. Greene says in The Lost Childhood, lies in their pity, the poetry is in the pity. “His egotists, poor souls, are as pitiable as Lucifer.” The comic equivalent of pity is the acceptance of people, the consent to take them as they come. Henry does not ask anything of the people he meets, he does not ask his mother-aunt to be honest, Tooley to give up pot, Wordsworth to be sensible, Visconti to be straight, Paraguay to be pure. In the end, according to the aesthetic of the book. all is well, God’s in his Heaven.

Perhaps the book is too episodic, the cake too full of plums and cherries, the pâtissier too much a virtuoso. Mr. Greene, kicking over the traces, sees no reason to be discreet, he is on holiday. Hobbes allowed that in an epigram or sonnet “a man may vary his measures and seek glory from a needless difficulty”; as Mr. Greene seeks his own pleasure from a needless luxury. It is enough to report that the novelist has struck a new note, and that the comedy is enjoyable.

Mr. Pritchett’s stories are invariably written in search of a character. They end when the character has been disclosed. Usually the story presents the character at one revealing moment, and it rarely concerns itself with other possibilities, later chapters, for instance, in a character’s life. The short story is a happy form for Mr. Pritchett because he identifies character and nature; a man’s character is his nature, and it may be disclosed in a flash, the significant circumstance of a moment. The relation between a character and his environment is deemed important, and it is sketched with significance in mind, but the character is not seen as determined by his environment. It is his nature to be himself. What happens in a story is character, translated into sequence and time.

Many of Mr. Pritchett’s stories give the impression that he is not interested in a character until the occasion of revelation, he does not look before or after. But this is deceptive. Saxon, for instance, in “Our Oldest Friend” is nothing but his doomed love for Tessa—who is nothing but the form of Saxon’s doom. It may be felt that Mr. Pritchett is not interested in the process (if it is a process) by which these two characters have become what they are, but this is merely another way of saying that what they are is their nature, not their history. In his novels, Mr. Pritchett treats his characters more extensively, of course, but even in the novels character is nature rather than a function of society.

A social historian would find Mr. Pritchett’s fiction extremely suggestive, but the novelist does not think of his fiction as social history. Fiction is revelation. One of Mr. Pritchett’s finest achievements is the presentation of his father in A Cab at the Door, and indeed that book contains a great deal of before and after, but it is all in the cause of revelation, and what it reveals is a man’s character as his nature. The characters are rarely as large as this in the fiction, they are persons rather than personages, but they justify themselves by the human meaning they reveal. One recalls from earlier volumes Harry (in “Many Are Disappointed”), who has a weakness for Roman roads, the sick woman in the same story, the wife in “The Landlord,” who calls her husband “father” because he has failed in that capacity, Jill in “Things as They Are” who asserts, “At my age I allow no one to strike me.” In the new collection one thinks of Charles in “A Debt of Honor,” who has a weakness for republics. These people are not explained by environment, they contain their own nature and release it under the writer’s gaze.

But if we agree not to expect the relation between society and man to be a matter of cause and effect, Mr. Pritchett responds with an abundant sense of that relation as a liaison; between a house and its inhabitants, between London and its people. A place is important because, having its own character, it makes a vivid setting for character in others. It is worth mentioning that many of Mr. Pritchett’s stories place themselves in the England of 1945 and after, when Londoners still talked of the Hun, conchies, brilliantine, petticoats, M. and B., spivs, and Queer Street. I cannot recall any story which tries to catch up with swinging London, the plastic conceit of the 1960s. It may be enough to say that his imagination has not been stirred, his heart is still in the old place. But it is probably better to say that Mr. Pritchett’s imagination committed itself to a time and a place in which the validity of character and action was still unquestioned. Meditation upon the novels of Virginia Woolf would at any time yield intimations of the fragility of character, the ambiguity of action, but meditation upon the Battle of Britain would produce a different conclusion.

In any event, the new stories are continuous with the old. I recall the word “chichi” in one of them, but no idiom more modish than that. Some of the old themes recur. Smith, a secondary character in the title story, is in some ways a revised version of the religious Mr. Timberlake in “The Saint.” There are continuities of feeling between the title story and the novel Mr. Beluncle, especially in certain aspects of the central character, Armitage. At one point the blind Armitage goes to a quack healer, as if to seek humiliation. He abases himself. When his mistress rebukes him, he explains:

We’re proud. That is our vice. Proud in the dark. Everyone else has to put up with humiliation. Millions of people are humiliated: perhaps it makes them stronger because they forget it. I want to join them.

This is true not only to Armitage’s life but to a great deal in English spiritual history, as A Cab at the Door makes clear. It is crucial to Mr. Pritchett’s fiction.

The new collection comprises ten stories, samples of Mr. Pritchett’s work over the past few years. The title story is much longer than the other pieces, and I prefer it to its companions for a certain grandeur in its relationships, a sense of what James in “The Jolly Corner” calls “the old baffled forsworn possibilities.” Some of the shorter stories seem content to make a point rather than to reveal a character. But it is a vivid collection, on the whole. Mr. Pritchett is lavishly gifted, and he respects his gifts enough to care for them and to make sure that they are scrupulously employed. He is not an experimental writer, except in the sense that he is fascinated by the persistent possibilities of a common form, but his best work is a critique of experiment, shows experiment what, in the form of continuity, it has to challenge.

  • Email
  • Print