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Travels With My Aunt'

July 21, 1991|JOHN ESPEY

Graham Greene himself divided his novels into two main classes: those that undertook the examination of moral and religious issues, and those that he thought of as thrillers and "entertainments." Among the latter, "Travels With My Aunt" was his favorite, for he discovered that what he had originally thought of as a series of short stories naturally connected and shaped themselves into a longer, comic entertainment that put into immediate contrast the world of individual desire and the world of approved convention.

Geoffrey Palmer's satisfying narration of "Travels With My Aunt" puts us in the company of middle-aged Henry Pulling, who has taken early retirement from his job as bank manager, and his redoutable 75-year-old Aunt Augusta with her insatiable appetite for love and adventure.

These sharply defined characters meet after a long separation at the funeral of Henry's mother, and Aunt Augusta's first move in liberating Henry from his conventional middle-class English life of tending his dahlia garden and worrying over his lawn mower is to inform him that the person in the coffin that has slid smoothly into the crematorium's fiery center was not his true mother but his stepmother.

This first step is followed up by a visit with Augusta to Brighton, which gives Henry's aunt the chance to tell of her first love affair with a man named Curran, a circus impresario who founded a church for dogs. The trip to Brighton serves as a gentle breaking in of Henry for not merely taking the fabled Orient Express to Istanbul but also eventually leading him to Paraguay, at Augusta's summons, and to the discovery of his true mother. This picaresque pattern gives Augusta, an accomplished raconteuse, ample opportunity to review the high (most of which are by normal standards low) spots of her own life in pursuit of pleasure and love, against which Henry is forced to recognize how conventional and essentially boring his own life has been.

Greene, who died this spring, was born in 1904 into a conventionally comfortable middle-class family living near London. When his father became headmaster of the local school, Graham entered it as a boarder, forbidden to go through the green baize door that led to the attached house where his family lived. This severe break between two aspects of his life accented the ordinary problems any headmaster's son would experience in attending his father's school, and it was a break that would recur not only in his novels but in his life. After more than one suicide attempt in his adolescence, Graham spent six months in London under the care of a psychoanalyst. The physical move itself released him from some of his stresses, but he was to experience throughout his life emotional swings between depression and mania.

At the age of 22, Greene was received into the Roman Catholic Church. This was to provide him with the spiritual and moral themes of his more "serious" novels, treated with what some may feel the typically exaggerated intensity of a convert. His conversion also made his marriage possible, though he and his wife eventually separated, but without a divorce, and he was later to call himself "a Catholic agnostic."

Aunt Augusta, created in one of Greene's manic swings, also has opted for Roman Catholicism, but her faith is a comfortably adjustable one that exempts the most excessive human indulgences, so long as they are undertaken in a spirit of adventure and enjoyment, from anything so dull as sin. She tells with particular zest the story of Uncle Jo Pulling. In his old age, when he was no longer physically able to travel, Jo moved into a country house outside of Venice, a house of 52 rooms, including the loo. This lets him pack up his suitcase and move each week into a new atmosphere, making life bearable to the end.

By now it must be clear which side of Greene I most enjoy, and I haven't told even the half of this "entertainment." I leave the rest of it--the smuggling, the forgery, the mysteriously heavy candle, the CIA agent and his wandering daughter--for your discovery.

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