I’m in the Dominican Republic, sitting on the porch of the cabin we’ve owned for six years now. We dream of the expatriate life, but there literally is no high school here and I have two teenage sons. I have no doubt that the next few years I have with them will pass quickly and so I cling to them—the years, my sons—while I have them. And yet, I know that when they have gone off to college, I’ll spend more and more time travelling and living in foreign countries. Not that my boys haven’t seen a great deal of the world—we’ve been fortunate enough to travel often with them, and they are good travelers at this point, even seasoned ones.
When on vacation, especially in the familiar comfort of my cabin, I can read a novel in a matter of days. I’ve been working hard on revising a novel that I originally wrote years ago; and it’s a satire pure and simple (and I say that ironically, as I’ve discovered there’s nothing pure or simple about satire). I’ve had to stay focused on the voice of the book, but certain books have encouraged me (I find revising very discouraging, it’s my least favorite part of the whole process). During the most intense part of the revisions I could only read bits of things. I remembered that when I was writing the book all those years ago, I was still obsessed with Philip Roth, his manic voice (that obsession lasted a long time), and, in particular, his trilogy with an epilogue (novella, really) Zuckerman Bound. I could only read bits, as I said, but those bits were outrageous, dialogue-heavy, crude, unbelievable, hilarious, and, well, satirical. I’d read a paragraph, then get to work. And maybe read another paragraph later, then get back to work. I spent a grueling (as I said, I hate revising) couple of weeks doing this, under a deadline.
But now that I’ve handed in a draft of my book (although I know I’ll have to revise more so I’m sticking to reading satire), I let myself read an entire book, the novel Travels with My Aunt, by Graham Greene, one of my favorite writers. It’s a brilliant satire, told in the first person past tense by one Henry Pulling, a cautious, inexperienced, middle-aged man, who took early retirement from a job at a bank and tends to his flowers, dahlias, like they are his children or his only friends. The book opens at his mother’s funeral, where he meets his Aunt Augusta, who has not seen him since his christening. In other words, he doesn’t know her. She proves to be a woman with quite a wild past (which she talks about constantly, making this like Zuckerman Bound, a dialogue-heavy book) and is about to take Henry on some equally wild travels, to Prague, France, Instanbul and Paraguay (and some other places as well). And, as expected, all of this traveling, and the adventures occurring within them, irrevocably change, albeit very slowly and very believably, the staid and uptight Englishman.
I’ll quote a section how distressing being away from familiar England is for poor Henry and then give you some thoughts on satire in general that Greene, the great master of all sorts of writing, taught me this past week. In France, Henry, in his hotel’s courtyard, where he also takes his meals, sees an American couple having tea. Now, remember, tea is serious business in England. He observes: “One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.”
How Henry transforms into someone who no longer misses Southwood is the meat of this book. The details pile up, forming a big messy mound, and the sway of Aunt Augusta proves a slow, relentless pull. One of the many funny things about this book is the very title itself. Travels with My Aunt sounds like it might be an uptight, British book, full of a snobby, fearful young man’s boring observations. For one thing, how many middle-aged men travel with their aunts? And while the quote of Henry watching the Americans drink tea shows him still snobby and fearful (although the observation, the language, is far from boring), this is not at all a book that lives up to the banality of the title.
Henry is a lonely man, who doesn’t really know how lonely he is until his aunt opens him up to the wide world. You might call him an unreliable narrator, but for some reason I have mixed feelings about that term, mostly because it doesn’t do justice to the great variety of voices, narrators, who get put into that category. And as much as Henry doesn’t know himself, or what’s really going on with his Aunt Augusta, how many of us actually do know ourselves or the people around us? The mystery of humanity abounds in satire; and it’s not just a cute narrative trick, the unreliable narrator.
And Aunt Augusta’s long soliloquies, throughout the novel, keep the book from the point of view of Henry exclusively. Here’s Aunt Augusta on money and youth:
I made many economies in my youth and they were fairly painless because the young do not particularly care for luxury. They have other interests than spending and can make love satisfactorily on a Coca-Cola, a drink which is nauseating at my age. They have little idea of real pleasure: even their love-making is apt to be hurried and incomplete. Luckily In middle age pleasure begins, pleasure in love, in wine, in food. Only the taste for poetry flags a little, but I have always gladly lost my taste for the sonnets of Wordsworth…if I could have bettered my palate for wine. Love-making too provides as a rule a more prolonged and varied pleasure after forty-five. Aretino is not a writer for the young.
Wordsworth plays prominently throughout this novel in a sly and straightforward ways. Here, I’ll segue into what I think makes a satire successful and not just farce. Greene, and Roth, brilliantly execute comedy, farcical comedy even, but there are always serious notions under the surface, there is always meaning. This is a sort of balancing act—too much sentiment and you lose the satire. Too much farce and the satire becomes all surface, lacks depth. Greene balances these elements perfectly. Greene chews on class, loneliness, provinciality, sin, corruption, the all-present fleetingness of life. He constructs plot much better than Roth, but Roth has his other strengths. Generally, Roth writes best about his Newark, although from the perspective of an insider who very much feels like an outsider. This is not a weakness. Flannery O’Connor, for instance, writes exclusively about one place and she may be the best writer to ever come out of America. Plus, her role as a Catholic in the Protestant South makes her very much an outsider, too. But there is something gorgeous and transporting about Greene in his ever-changing locales. His ability to knowingly describe foreign lands, from the point of view of an outsider, is unparalleled in literature. Here is a description of Formosa, a border town known mostly for its drug trafficking:
There was a pervading smell of orange petals, but it was the only sweet thing about Formosa. One long avenue was lined with oranges and trees bearing rose- coloured flowers, which I learnt later to be lapachos. The side streets petered out a few yards away into a niggardly wild nature of mud and scrub. Everything to do with government business, justice or amusement lay in the one avenue: a tourist hotel of gray cement on the water’s edge had been half built, for what tourists? Little shops selling Coca-Cola; a cinema which advertised an Italian Western: two hairdressers: a garage with one wrecked car: a cantina. The only house of more than one storey was the hotel, and the only old and beautiful building in the long avenue proved, as I came closer to it, to be the prison. There were fountains all down the avenues but they didn’t play.
Greene is forever the outsider and in this way his life informed his work. It’s a suitable stance for a writer and can be used to many effects, humorous or otherwise.
I conclude this post, back in Brooklyn, happy to see my pets (I refer to them as my zoo), finish work on some projects, not happy to do laundry nor to be in a cement ridden, filthy, hot, large city. I already miss the lush dampness of the Dominican Republic, the orchestra of frogs and insects at night, the bustle of Las Terrenas during the day, the endless parade and whir of the motoconchos, Merengue coming from everywhere—the bars, the SUVs, our own car, the warm smell of burning brush, fresh caught dorado for dinner on the gorgeous beach side restaurants, the God-like fury of a tropical thunderstorm, the dignity and beauty of the Dominican people. I don’t fit in very well there, physically or culturally, but there’s also a large ex-pat community in that particular part of the country, all there for their own reasons undoubtedly. Hopefully, someday, I can join them.