Travels with My Aunt
Blind Love, and Other Stories
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 …
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