Nestled in a playground near my apartment is a Little Free Library, to which I frequently contribute, and from which I frequently borrow, although I’ve yet to return any of the borrowed books. The other day I found a copy of Greene’s truly funny novel about Henry Pulling’s adventures with his Aunt Augusta, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Treasure!
Henry, a retired banker, single and childless, devotes the evening of his life (at his age, more like the late afternoon) to cultivating dahlias in the garden of his quiet suburban London home. He has never traveled further than Brighton, never been in love, never done anything wrong.
But within a week of meeting his 75-year-old Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral, Henry finds himself on the Orient Express to Istanbul, smoking pot in a first class car with a pregnant American hippie whose father is a CIA agent, and wondering what his Aunt is smuggling into Turkey, and for what purpose. He’s also just learned from his aunt that his mother was, in fact, his step-mother.
Who then is his mother? A girl who refused to marry Henry’s father, is all that Augusta will say, but a clever reader will eventually put the clues together to discover Henry’s true parentage.
Aunt Augusta is one of Greene’s great characters (avoid the film version which, despite Maggie Smith’s Augusta, is a mess of Hollywood happy-ever-after). Augusta has led, and still leads, such a life that she envies no one, despite her frequent experiences with destitution. With Henry, she travels to Paris, Istanbul, Boulogne, and a small town in Paraguay. In her wake follows the faithful Wordsworth, a hotel doorman from Freetown, Sierra Leone, whom she has taken as a lover and then discarded when her one true love reappears.
Poor Henry. As he learns more about his aunt’s life, he soon realizes how she has made her way as a prostitute, smuggler, embezzler, art thief, and mistress, none of which she sees as wrong. She explains that she prefers the unsettled life, with death waiting around every corner, because it keeps her senses on edge. She belittles Henry’s yearning for his dahlias, which, for her, represent a smooth path with no mental or physical challenges. In a word, dull.
Augusta reminds me a bit of Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, who also lives on the edge of life, but without all the illegal shenanigans. But where Mame at her lowest point falls in love with a wealthy man who saves her from the worst of the Depression, Augusta falls in love with a thief and eventual war criminal who steals all her money and then abandons her. What does she do? For decades she keeps that candle burning for Mr. Visconti and puts Henry and Wordsworth in danger so that she can help her lover start his smuggling business in Paraguay.
Put that way, I find it hard to admire Henry’s aunt. But Greene makes us love her despite her amoral view of life. She is not just clever, she understands human nature, and she nearly always knows how to get herself and those she loves out of trouble.
Eventually Henry must decide if his future lies with his aunt or his dahlias. It amazed me that I wanted him to choose both.