Travels with My Aunt

By Graham Greene

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I resisted Graham Greene for many years.

It was prejudice, pure and simple: I got it into my head that I didn’t like him, and so avoided him well into my twenties. I forget how I was cajoled into finally picking him up – probably someone gifted me the first book of his that I read, ‘The Orient Express’. Whatever happened to get me to read it, that novel changed my opinion about its author more quickly and thoroughly than any book I have read before or since.

That was more than a decade ago. In the interim, I have read most of Greene’s novels, many of them twice. My favorites I reread every year or two. I love Greene desperately; he is probably my favorite novelist. My relationship with him transcends simple enjoyment of his work: I am emotionally vulnerable to his books in some way I don’t really understand. Something in his worldview resonates deeply with me, and his work moves me more than the work of any other author I have ever read, I think.

It isn’t a happy resonance, I should state clearly. I find Greene powerful and devastating. Ever since I read that first book, I felt that he was showing me something true about the world, something terrible, something I had always sort of known but never wanted to admit. As though he were prophesying doom, I believed him and despaired.

‘Travels with My Aunt’ was, apparently, a special book to Greene. According to the Introduction, Greene described it as the only book he ever wrote for fun, and it shows. It is among the most mordant of his works, and it seems like it would have been fun to write.

‘Travels with My Aunt’ follows Henry Pulling, a former bank manager. Henry is retired; a bachelor, he spends his days rereading the books his late father loved and tending his dahlias. At his mother’s funeral, however, Henry meets his Aunt Augusta, a septuagenarian with vivid red hair who convinces Henry to travel with her. Aunt Augusta, it quickly emerges, is a slightly seedy character with a long string of past lovers and a predilection for minor crime. Henry, staid, lonely and conservative, finds that he cannot resist the company of his aunt, and will watch his life transformed by her companionship.

This is a Greene speciality, this sort of book. He has a knack for crafting caper-novels whose sense of antic fun hides a deep vein of despair. It’s probably clear even from my description that Henry Pulling is a pathetic character; you might even intuit that the character of Aunt Augusta is also poignant.

However, the most crushing figure in the novel, a character who perfectly captures Greene’s particular gift for devastation, is Wordsworth. Wordsworth, a South African exile, is Aunt Augusta’s lover and helpmeet at the beginning of the novel. A marijuana smoker and grifter, Wordsworth is devoted to Aunt Augusta, who he will refer to throughout the novel as his ‘bebi gel’, despite the fact that she is decades his senior. Though it becomes clear very quickly that Augusta is searching for the lost love of her life, the Nazi war criminal Visconti, Wordsworth remains devoted to her. His attachment to her will, of course, destroy him – attachments in Graham Greene novels usually destroy the hapless souls afflicted with them. By the end of the novel, he will be rejected, discarded, and killed.

Wordsworth is a peripheral character, and it is precisely his lack of importance (to you, the reader, to Henry Pulling, and, most importantly, to Aunt Augusta) which makes his love, and his death, so painful to read about. In a comic novel, Wordsworth is expendable; most often referred to by the main characters as “poor Wordsworth”, his death passes without grief or comment.

Greene often embroiders his stories with these brutal little tableaux. He always understood that every character suffers, even the ones who don’t get center stage. He shows the pain and despair of these bit players, but not to humanize them. No, he’s a much crueler author than that: he is not dignifying Wordsworth by showing us his degradation and pain, however briefly. He is demonstrating to us how pointless Wordsworth’s suffering is.

Graham Greene

This is a particularly Graham Greene kind of move, and it is the thing that I find so reliably upsetting about his books. Greene has seen with unusual clarity that most of us are peripheral characters; we just don’t know it. We live and love and suffer with all the intensity and sincerity of main characters, but we aren’t heroes. We aren’t even villains: we are scenery, comic relief, plot mechanisms. We are afterthoughts in the lives of others, and all our love and all our grief will vanish with us. They will not give our lives meaning – they will not redeem us. No one cares, except us.

I think that we have been trained by our culture to believe that suffering has meaning. Whether we consider it redemptive in the Christian sense, or enriching in the psychoanalytic sense, or simply a necessary development in a character arc, justified by happiness in the end, we tend to think that pain has a point. Graham Greene does not believe that. A lapsed Catholic, Greene is a nihilist: for him, the suffering of a character like Wordsworth has no point. No one learns, no one grows, no one is redeemed. We suffer, we die, we are forgotten.

It might seem strange that I love this author so much. I’m not sure I can really explain why I do. I have never finished any book of his without pain, a feeling that my heart has been wrung badly. But I have always, from that first book, believed him. If his novels are painful, they are also, in a very important sense, true. Greene saw something, something about human weakness and human selfishness and human pain, which I believe. I do not think he saw the whole picture, but I think he saw a part of it very clearly. I think he knew something, and I want to learn what it is.

Homage to Daniel Shays

Collected Essays

By Gore Vidal

Homage to Daniel ShaysSome writers possess a quality which, as you read them, makes you long more than anything else to speak to them.

This is not the same as admiring them.  These will not necessarily be your favorite writers, or the writers of your favorite books.  These are writers who shine through their own words, whose force of personality is so clear and so strong that they essentially read their own books to you.  Grappling with them is so like being talked to by them that you want, sometimes quite desperately, to be able to answer.

Sometimes, of course, you do admire them.  Sometimes they are funny, or good – for me personally, David Foster Wallace has always had this distinction.  He is never far from his own work, even his fiction, and when I read him, I always wish I could just put the book down and query directly the mind which produced it.

But sometimes the writers are not admirable, not as a men at least, no matter their skills as writers.  Sometimes they are arrogant, or supercilious, off-putting in some way, and your desire to speak to them is essentially antagonistic: you want to be able to argue back.

And sometimes they are both: vain, haughty, but brilliant too, and if an author can win you over in this case, if their brilliance overwhelms their obnoxiousness, they are among the most joyful authors to read, because you feel as though you are indulging in a guilty pleasure: I know he’s an ass, but he’s just so good.

Gore VIdal
Gore Vidal when he was young and dreamy

H.L. Mencken is this sort of author.  Christopher Hitchens is this sort of author.  But, for me personally, the apotheosis of this category, writers whom you read for the sheer joy of agreeing with their meanness, is Gore Vidal.

Homage to Daniel Shays‘ is a collection of Vidal’s essays, published between 1952 and 1972.  These essays range enormously in content, but themes emerge: the future of the novel, other writers, politics, and sex all recur with some frequency.  Most of the essays are engaging and educating; a few are excruciatingly boring (‘French Letters: Theories of the New Novel’ is torture in written form).

Vidal is probably best remembered as a novelist (he certainly thought of himself as one), but I love him for his essays, his criticisms and his cultural commentary (he is a little like Orwell this way: remembered as a novelist, loved as a critic).  He had an excellent mind; he was brilliant, capable, especially, of summing up people or situations with devastating clarity and pith.

It’s rare that self-important men are also funny; he is an exception to this rule.  He is hilarious, usually in attack but not always.  He is crisp and can cut through hypocrisy as through butter.  More than that, the topic of the essay does not predict when humor will strike, so his wit is both amusing and surprising.  In fact, he is likelier to be funny on unfunny topics (‘Satire in the 1950’s’) than in essays in which one expects jokes (say, ‘Love Love Love’), which makes for lively reading.

“Every schoolboy has a pretty good idea of what the situation was down at Sodom but what went on in Gommorah is as mysterious to us as the name Achilles took when he went among women.” (‘Women’s Liberation Meets Miller-Mailer-Manson Man’)

“From the beginning of the United States, writers of a certain kind, and not all bad, have been bursting with some terrible truth that they can never quite articulate.  Most often it has to do with the virtue of feeling as opposed to the vice of thinking.  Those who try to think out matters are arid, sterile, anti-life, while those who float about in a daffy daze enjoy copious orgasms and the happy knowledge that they are the salt of the earth.” (‘The Sexus of Henry Miller’)

“A profound tolerance is in the land, a tolerance so profound that is it not unlike terror.  One dare not raise one’s voice against any religion, idea, or even delinquency if it is explicable by a therapist.” (‘Satire in the 1950’s’)

“It is well known that the Soviet has always had a somewhat mystical attitude toward that sine qua non of the machine age: the interchangeable part.” (‘Nasser’s Egypt’)

A large proportion of these essays are reviews of other works, and thank god: one of the best joys to be had in this collection, from the point of view of a book nerd, is reading Vidal’s opinions of other writers.  He is capable of summing up other artists in lethal epigrams which leave them not even a shred of dignity, but which are also inarguably (to my mind, at least) true.

About D.H. Lawrence:

“I have often thought that much of D.H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come from some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness.” (‘Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements’)

About Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh:

“Then there are the writers to whom neither sea nor boat exists.  They have accepted some huge fantasy wherein they need never drown, where death is life, and the doings of human beings on a social and ethical level are of much consequence to some brooding source of creation who dispenses his justice along strictly party lines at the end of a gloomy day.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

About F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“…F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose chief attraction is that he exploded before he could be great, providing a grim lesson in failure that, in its completeness, must be awfully heartening when contemplated on the safe green campus of some secluded school.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

About Anaïs Nin:

“There are two kinds of narcissist: objective and subjective.  The objective looks into the mirror and sees the lines, sees death upon the brow, and records it.  The subjective stares with rapture into the mirror, sees a vision no one else can see and, if he lacks great art, fails entirely to communicate it.” (‘The Fourth Diary of Anaïs Nin’)

Old Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal when he was older and still dreamy

Of course, an author’s greatness lies not just in language, but also in ideas.  Meanness aside, it slowly emerges from these pages that Vidal was also wise, and when he turns his mind from the petty to the existential, he produces material which is beautiful.  In these moments, his writing is so artful, so skillful and elegant, that I would stop and reread the same sentence several times, trying to understand exactly how he did it.  A few of the passages in this book, I could die happy if I had written even one of them:

“While it is perfectly true that any instant in human history is one of transition, ours more than most seems to be marked by a startling variety of conflicting absolutes, none sufficiently great at this moment to impose itself upon the majority whose lives are acted out within an unhuman universe which some still prefer to fill with a vast manlike shadow containing stars, while others behold only a luminous dust which is stars, and us as well.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

“It is natural for men to want power.  But to seek power actively takes a temperament baffling to both the simple and the wise.” (‘Barry Goldwater: A Chat’)

“Nor is it unnatural when contemplating extinction to want, in sudden raging moments, to take the light with one.  But it is a sign of wisdom to recognize one’s own pettiness and not only to surrender vanity to death, which means to take it anyway, but to do so with deliberate grace as exemplar to the young upon whom our race’s fragile continuity, which is all there is, depends.  I should have thought that that was why one wrote – to make something useful for the survivors, to say: I was and now you are, and leave you as good a map as I could make of my own traveling.” (‘John Dos Passos at Midcentury’)

“And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to the terrified man but disastrous for an artist.” (‘Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements’)

You may not always agree with his conclusions (I didn’t), but he’s never, ever stupid, and he turns his critical eye on himself not infrequently.  In these essays, Vidal proves to be ahead of his time on many of issues which remain contentious today: feminism, gay rights, taxes, personal liberty, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence of the electorate.  I wish he were still here – he died in 2012, before I had really discovered him as a writer, and I wish that I had been quicker off the mark.  I need his eye now, to help me understand the world, as I need George Orwell’s.  In fact, this is the highest complement I can give a writer: I am lost without you.

But he’s gone, can’t be questioned, so all I can do is go back with him, rewind the tape, and watch his world through his eyes.

A Handful of Dust

By Evelyn Waugh

All posts contain spoilers.

Waugh Collection
My Waughs

Evelyn Waugh has always epitomized, for me, the kind of arch, precise English literature which I love most in the world.  His best books, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘, ‘Scoop‘, or ‘The Loved One‘, are masterpieces of dry, unsparing social observation.  ‘Scoop‘, for example, is satire, dark and snide, but ‘Brideshead‘ is more complicated, and more melancholy, a story about love and its slow dissolution.

It’s my opinion that ‘A Handful of Dust‘ is not one of Waugh’s best, but Waugh is like sex, or Graham Greene: even when he’s mediocre, he’s still the best thing going.  It’s the story of the happy but boring marriage of Tony and Brenda Last, which becomes disrupted when Brenda begins an affair with the deeply ordinary and romantically unconvincing John Beaver (who lives with his ghastly mother).A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust‘ is a novel of social and moral derangement.  Set after the First World War, the population of this novel have lost an essential decency, and so, under their lovely English manners, they act with complete ethical incoherence.  Waugh often imbues his novels with this sense of polite dissonance, which, when it works, makes them bleak and devastating in the best possible way, but, when it doesn’t work, makes me feel vaguely panicky.

My sense of foreboding is learned, because in many (most?) Waugh novels, people meet terrible ends, and they meet them unremarked and unmourned.  Waugh, better than anyone else, captures for me the sense of unreality which must have characterized life in Europe after World War I: all the daily motions, the little rituals of life, undercut by a sense that you might be swallowed up at any time by a chaos unimaginable by your father’s father.  People pretended to get back to normal, but how can you be normal when you know that life is meaningless?  And how can life be anything but meaningless, when you have watched most of the young men of your generation ground into muddy, disintegrating death by the machine of total war?

Waugh communicates this meaninglessness by the juxtaposition of his fine manners with the complete amorality of his universe, all of which is explicated in his punctilious prose.  His characters inflict grave injury on each other in the calmest manner, and I think it is this calm which makes me so anxious when it goes awry.  I’m not sure that the characters in ‘A Handful of Dust‘ are well-elaborated enough to carry his nihilism, so their bad behavior simply feels unrelenting.

However, at the end of the day, I don’t read Waugh for his characters; the point of Waugh is his beautiful language, and he can always be counted on to serve up some consummate prose.  And, in fact, the same emotionlessness which makes his characters hard to bear makes his writing effective and funny; his flat affect is what makes him so droll.

For example:

“Aunt Francis, with acid mind, quickly discerned the trouble and attempted to reassure her, saying, ‘Dear child, all these feelings of delicacy are valueless; only the rich realize the gulf that separates them from the poor.'” (p. 71)

Or:

“The fourth weekend after Brenda’s departure from Hetton was fixed for Tony’s infidelity.  A suite was engaged at a seaside hotel (“We always send our clients there.  The servants are well accustomed to giving evidence”) and private detectives were notified.  “It only remains to select a partner,” said the solicitor; no hint of naughtiness lightened his gloom.  “We have on occasions been instrumental in accommodating our clients but there have been frequent complaints, so we find it best to leave the choice to them.'” (p. 157)

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Evelyn Waugh: It would be difficult to look more English.

Or, in what is my favorite sentence from the novel:

“All over England, people were waking up, queasy and despondent.” (p. 16)

Sentences like that, presented almost entirely without context and yet elegantly encapsulating an entire worldview, are why I love Waugh, why I will always read him, and re-read him.  For dismal precision, he has no equal.