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.

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Brace yourself, because I’m about to go on a free-associative ramble for about a thousand words.

Pachinko.JPGI just read ‘Pachinko‘, by Min Jin Lee, which is a sprawling, multi-generational epic about the Korean diaspora in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century.  It begins with Sunja, the beloved only daughter of Hoonie, a fisherman born with a club foot, and his wife Yangjin.  When Sunja is a teenager, she falls in love with, and is impregnated by, Hansu, a handsome gangster.  When she discovers that he has a wife and children back in Japan and that he cannot legally marry her, she refuses to be his kept “local” wife and, instead, marries Isak, a sickly minister who is passing through town.  Isak agrees to raise the child as his own, and the young family moves to Isak’s new ministry in Japan

Now, stay with me, because I’m going to swerve here, and, for reasons which I hope will become clear, talk about ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love ‘East of Eden‘.  It might honestly be my favorite novel of all time.  ‘East of Eden’ is also a multi-generation epic, about an American family which recapitulates the story of Cain and Abel in each generation.  It is about original sin, about the transmission of sin through generations, about whether or not great evil marks a family, and passes from parent to child, twisting and marring their lives despite their best attempts to be good, happy people. It is about whether we can be damned before we are even born.

I cannot prove that ‘Pachinko‘ is consciously modeled on ‘East of Eden‘.  I do not even know for sure that Min Jin Lee has read ‘East of Eden’.  However, the parallels are clear, right?

Pachinko‘ is also about the multi-generational consequences of wrong-doing, about the sins of the parent being visited on the child.  But in ‘East of Eden‘, the inheritance is of evil, of simple, cinematic evil.  The question is whether or not the evil is innate, whether or not we are doomed to succumb to it.  In ‘Pachinko’, the inheritance is of something more complicated, more twisted: grief.  It is about the ways the deep, life-altering grief of a parent can warp, limit, or destroy the lives of her children, even when she loves those children desperately, even when her entire life has been devoted to their happiness.

I thought about ‘East of Eden‘ a lot while I read ‘Pachinko‘.  The books are alike in scope and ambition, but I’m not sure that they are equally successful.  Maybe it’s unfair to compare a book, any book, to ‘East of Eden’.  It is one of the most profound, most moving, explorations of the human capacity for evil, of the possibility of true goodness, that has ever been written.  And I don’t think that ‘Pachinko’ is one of the most profound, most moving explorations of human grief I’ve ever read.

OK, OK, yes: I agree, that is not a fair standard.  I need to acknowledge the possibility that ‘Pachinko‘ and ‘East of Eden‘ have different goals, as works of art.  ‘East of Eden’ is an essential hopeful work: while it is about the intrinsic human capacity for evil, it is also about the possibility of true goodness which can only exist alongside evil.

Pachinko‘ is not a hopeful work.  It is imbued with a deep sadness: the sadness of women who face lives of nothing but suffering, work, and loss.  Of subject peoples, doomed to cramped lives and arbitrary violence, simply because of their race.  Of deep and profound injustice, of lives destroyed because the values of small societies could not accommodate them.  Of love lost and never, ever regained.  In this way, perhaps, its scope is even greater than ‘East of Eden‘, which was a moral tale and a moral tale alone.  ‘Pachinko’, on the other hand, is not only the story of one family’s tragedies – it is also the story of a race, exiled and embattled.

Min Jin Lee.jpg
Min Jin Lee

And while the two books are alike in structure, they are quite different in style.  ‘Pachinko‘ is written in a prose which is so simple as to be almost brutal.  Lee’s sentences are unadorned and unsparing, and I believe that she is a good enough writer that this was done deliberately.  Tragedy, I have found, is usually most effective when it is written in prose which is clear, clean, and unflinching.  Flourishes, metaphors, long descriptive passages: these things blunt the force of tragic events, distract the reader, give the attention somewhere to hide.  It also, almost always, foreshadows the pain, so that the reader can brace himself.  Plain language, on the other hand, delivers its news like a blow, and gives you no warning that the blow is coming.

I offer, by way of example, the passage from ‘Pachinko‘ which I found the most effectively devastating, which genuinely shocked and upset me, to the degree that I gasped aloud and put the book down.

Fair warning, it is a very, very spoilerly spoiler.  The passage involves the reunion of Sunja with her son Noa.  Noa had fled his mother as a young man, when he discovered that he was the son of a gangster and found that he could not endure the shame.  He had lived in secret in Japan for decades, passing as Japanese, his Korean identity unknown even to his wife and children.  After many years, now an old woman, Sunja located him.

Again, if you do not wish to have major plot points spoiled, don’t read the excerpt.

“Sunja watched her son enter his office building, then tapped the passenger door of Hansu’s car.  The driver came out and held the door open for her.

Hansu nodded.

Sunja smiled, feeling light and hopeful.

Hansu looked at her face carefully and frowned.

“You should not have seen him.”

“It went well.  He’ll come to Yokohama next week.  Mozasu will be so happy.”

Hansu told the driver to go.  He listened to her talk about their meeting.

That evening, when Noa did not call her, she realized that she had not given him her home number in Yokohama.  In the morning, Hansu phoned her.  Noa had shot himself a few minutes after she’d left his office.” (p. 385)

This is not a passage which would have been possible in ‘East of Eden‘, where everything is larded with plenty of description and big events can be seen coming miles away.

And I have enormous regard for this style of prose, when it is successful, which I think it mostly is here.  It is true, the subject-verb-object ratatat of the plain language becomes a little arduous over hundreds of pages, but, for the most part, it’s mesmerizing and upsetting, bleak and tough in deliberate evocation of the lives it is describing.

I found, at the end, not that I loved ‘Pachinko‘, but that I had enormous regard for it.  I have compared it to ‘East of Eden‘ not so that it would suffer in comparison, but because the comparison helped me understand and appreciate the project of the book.  In fact, I think that some of the places in which ‘Pachinko’ is the strongest are places, like it’s language, where it is the most unlike ‘East of Eden’.

But keeping ‘East of Eden‘ in my mind helped me appreciate the intention of this work.  It’s one thing to tell the story of a few characters (although even to do this well is very difficult).  It is another thing altogether to tell a story through which you try to tell about human evil, or human grief.  To weave those grand things into the small lives you are relating takes bravery and skill.  ‘East of Eden’ taught me to love the scale, the ambition, of the endeavor, and it is because of ‘East of Eden’ that I recognize that ambition here.