You know what? I was wrong and presumptuous! How could I have thought the Classics overrated? What do I know about these things anyway?! As I begin to delve into the treasure trove of Classic literature – I can see that I’m going to have to eat humble-pie so often, I may as well get it over and done with in this post 😉 Of course, that’s not to say that I’m going to be reading the Russians any time soon…an exception being Nabokov since Lolita is on my List, but Tolstoy and company are just too intimidating at the moment. The size of their works is the least of my worries although it’s also what keeps me away 😛
But back to Greene – this is my first book and I’m happy to report it will most certainly not be my last! It was highly recommended to me by dear friend and ‘maniacal’ (in her own words ;)) reader Aparna and since I was all drained out and not feeling like tackling another serious book on my List, I downloaded a free sample onto my Kindle! I knew from reading the first few pages that this would be my first e-book purchase. And boy has it been worth every penny and then some! Thanks Aparna! Will definitely read The End of the Affair sometime soon 🙂
Travels With My Aunt is the story of Henry, a retired banker and his aunt Augusta, who in her seventies is much more ‘alive’ than most people in their twenties! They meet after an entire lifetime at Henry’s mother’s funeral and from that instant, he finds himself, inexplicably and imperceptibly drawn to this woman who is both a blood-relative and complete stranger. Worse – she is everything that he is not and although he pities her initially and offers his companionship grudgingly, even condescendingly at first; he soon realizes that the ‘need’ and the ‘desire’ for company and new beginnings, are both his rather than hers!
I love Greene’s language and his writing style – layered yet simple and direct. He tells his story with a masterful, quiet confidence that makes you believe in his over-the-top characters that would otherwise have been reduced to mere caricatures. Instead he imbues them with human qualities – frailty, courage, panache, foolishness, greed, love, joy, guilt, tenderness, anger, and grief – that keep them real and relatable, even in fantastical situations. I love too the transformation within Henry as he journeys with his aunt, listening to her escapades. Augusta has had a colourful life, and although she’s had her share of the hard knocks, she’s not one to indulge in nostalgia or waste time on regrets. Indeed quite the opposite, as we see when she tells off Henry after he has been rather disparaging about Mr. Visconti – the love of her life, “Regret your own actions, if you like that kind of wallowing in self-pity, but never, never despise. Never presume yours is the better morality.” Touché!
Travelling with her exposes Henry to a life and to people it is safe to assume he would never have encountered in his previously sheltered existence and as he slowly begins to understand her passion for living, he inevitably develops a taste for it himself. Greene expresses this change subtly and very cleverly I thought, “As I began to know her better, I began to regard her as bronze rather than brazen, a bronze which has been smoothed and polished by touch, like the horse’s knee in the lounge of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, which she once described to me, caressed by generations of gamblers.”
And so a reticent, reluctant, reserved, respectable Henry finds himself embroiled in all manner of shady dealings & people, in exotic locations – Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay and Argentina, inspired perhaps by Greene’s own travels to places like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mexico. With a quiet aplomb, that reveals an underlying subconscious need for change as well as a steely strength of character in contrast to his deceptively contrite demeanour, Henry deals with the surreal situations that his aunt seems to wander in and out of with accomplished ease and considerable poise. He finds her conversations disjointed and her stories unbelievable yet fascinating, and when he returns home alone, separated from her, if only for a while, he begins to see that he has outgrown his old life. “I was afraid of burglars and Indian thugs and snakes and fires and Jack the Ripper, when I should have been afraid of thirty years in a bank and a take-over bid and a premature retirement and the Deuil du Roy Albert.”
I was terribly sad when the book wound down to its end. I’m going to miss all the fantastical characters, hapless Henry, audacious Augusta – an empress among women 😉 Curran and his Dog-Church, the inimitable Mr. Visconti, the wondrous Wordsworth, the two Tooleys, Ms. Keene and Ms. Paterson, Hatty, and even Hannibal the pachyderm! They all enriched my reading experience in ways I’m sure are yet to be revealed! This book gave me hope! Who says ‘coming of age’ stories are only for the young? They are in fact so much more interesting when they involve a 50-yr-old bachelor and his 70-yr-old aunt 😉
Witty, subtly profound, exciting and engaging – this is a MUST read!
P.S. This was also my first e-book reading experience and although I’ve enjoyed the ease with which I can highlight and increase font size and recollect my quotes later, all in one place (superb that!) – I am by no means convinced that digital is the way to go for me! The ease of reading a real book in bed, while slouching in all sorts of positions is too hard to ignore. Also, I miss the feel of paper through my fingers 😦 It’s a personal opinion of course and I will continue to read e-books in the future, but my heart and soul will always worship the ‘real’ deal 😛