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.
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.