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Travels with My Aunt: Graham Greene
A 1969 novel that is still a firm favorite of mine
When I was studying English literature at school, on the syllabus was a Graham Greene book that I found so boring that I can't even recall its name now. But part of our task was to read other books by the same author and this is how I discovered Travels with My Aunt.
Funny and irreverent
I wasn't accustomed to Graham Greene making me laugh but this book did and still does today. It brings together two of the most unlikely characters - a middle-aged, retired bank manager and his elderly aunt. They meet for the first time in many years at his mother's funeral.
Aunt Augusta is nothing like her nephew, Henry. They haven't seen each other since he was a baby and he's shocked to find that his aunt is a flamboyant lady 'with a past'. She shocks him further by telling him that the woman he thought was his mother really wasn't and then suggests they go back to her flat; Henry carrying his mother's ashes in an urn.
On arrival at her apartment (conveniently located above a pub) he was shocked to discover her 'man-servant', Wordsworth - a large but amiable pot-smoking chap from Sierra Leone. During the visit, Wordsworth plants a stash of his marijuana in Henry's mother's urn starting a series of events that take Henry and his aunt to Paris, Istanbul and even Latin America. Wordsworth did not accompany them which was a shame, said Aunt Augusta because 'his knackers were superb'.
Wordsworth was, despite his knackers, a mere diversion for Aunt Augusta. Her real love, dating back to when she was a young woman, was Mr. Visconti, a war criminal. Mr. Visconti is now an octogenarian but that doesn't stop Aunt Augusta...
Old dogs, new tricks?
Before Henry meets his aunt, he is a man who is decidedly set in his ways. He tends to the dahlias in his garden - his only hobby.
During the course of the book, he becomes a different person as he is exposed to his aunt's adventures and stories of her past.
Below is the trailer of the film. Whilst it was a fun movie, it doesn't compare fully to the book. But you can see that Aunt Augusta's past is even more colorful than her old age.
Maggie Smith plays Augusta from a young girl though middle age and onto a woman in her eighties.
Note: The trailer starts 30 seconds into the video clip. The first section speaks about the director's other work.
I was excited indeed when I knew that one of my favorite books was about to be made into a film, especially as it was starring Maggie Smith - how perfect.
But although the film is faithful to the book in some areas, it deviates quite a lot in others. I would have preferred a more literal translation. Maggie Smith though is simply brilliant.
Travels with My Aunt was written at a time when you young were shocking their elders. It was the nineteen sixties and young men wore long hair and beards. Young women had rejected the bra and wore clothes that made them look like gypsies.
The contraceptive pill helped to foster an era of free love. Young people rejected the morals and ethics of the older generation. They protested about war and the establishment; they used illegal substances.
But in this book, the roles are reversed and it is Aunt Agatha who who shocks the younger generation, her nephew Henry.
Aunt Augusta has had a full and colourful life. She has had many lovers in countries all over the world. She worked in a profession that Henry insists on calling her 'stage career'.
Henry believes he has had a perfect, if somewhat boring, life. He has had a successful career in a safe job. He has a pleasant home and, now he has retired, a pleasant and harmless hobby.
Yet this is exactly why his Aunt Augusta pities him. She is more in line with the younger generation than Henry's.
And what about Henry's parentage?
It's at the beginning of the book that Henry learns that the woman who brought him up wasn't his mother. He then learns that the man who he thought was his father, wasn't.
So who were his parents?
As Aunt Augusta and Henry travel the world, getting into various strange circumstances, it's easy to forget this issue as we're carried along with the story and Augusta's memories of the past. But will all be revealed?
© 2013 Jackie Jackson