Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

And with this book, I declare all my reading challenges for 2012 completed!

Graham Greene Reading Challenge 2012

Travels with my Aunt is my third and final installment for the Graham Greene Reading Challenge hosted by Carrie of Books and Movies. My previous two titles are The Quiet American (1955) and The End of the Affair (1951).

Here they are. Look at the book covers, all from the Penguin Classics Graham Greene Centennial Edition (2004), trade paperbacks with French flaps. It’s a delight to just hold them in my hands:

Graham Greene Books

Travels with my Aunt (1969) is my first taste of Greene humor. Compared to the other two I’ve read, which are intense and deeply serious, this one is a light comic relief.

A conservative, retired bank manager Henry Pulling found a new relative at his mother’s funeral, his Aunt Augusta. She is everything he is not, an eccentric and liberal seventy-five-year-old sets to open a whole new world for his nephew. Upon Aunt Augusta’s insistence, Henry accompanies her travelling in Europe. In the process, she widens his contacts with some shady characters, opens his eyes to an underground world he has never imagined, leaves his trails with police investigations, and overturns his carefully guarded self into disarray.

The humor in Travels with my Aunt reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and makes me think that, if it were written as a play, probably it would have been more effective and enjoyable.

I mean, considering it takes Greene only 180 pages to tell the complex story of The Quiet American, and 160 pages to depict the deeply conflicting The End of the Affair, why would he need 254 pages to jot down some travel notes. That’s right, he narrates in details and often digresses to leave us with some clever one-liners along the way. But, if he had picked up the pace a bit, and tightened up like the two previous books I read, I would have appreciated it much more. Okay, it’s selfish wishful thinking on my part, me being a very slow and easily diverted reader.


Ireland Reading Challenge 2012


And earlier in November, I’d finished The Ireland Reading Challenge 2012 also hosted by Carrie at Books and Movies. I aimed at the ‘Shamrock Level’ and read four books of at least three different genres. Here are my selections and links to my reviews:

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden (Novel)

Everything in this Country Must by Colum McCann (Short Stories)

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (Play)

Dubliners by James Joyce (Short Stories and Novella)


No plans for taking up any Reading Challenge for 2013 yet. However, I do have two Read-Along’s planned for the coming year. Hope you can join me then. Will post soon.


The End of the Affair: Book and Movie

It’s a bit ironic to post this on Valentine’s Day. It’s a story of an extramarital affair, and it doesn’t end well. But then again, maybe this is the best time to talk about it.

This is my second instalment to meet the Graham Greene Challenge hosted by Carrie of Books and Movies. Spoiler Alert here. But since it’s a classic, I’m sure many of you have read it or seen the movie.

The End of the Affair

The book opens with a meeting between novelist Maurice Bendrix and civil servant Henry Miles on a cold, rainy night in 1946 London. Miles’ wife Sarah had ended an affair with Bendrix 18 months earlier. Bendrix has not seen them since. In this chance meeting on the street, Bendrix observes that Miles is heavy-laden, suspecting Sarah has ‘secrets’. Volunteering to hire a detective to tail the wife for the husband, Bendrix is in fact acting out of jealousy, for he too wants to find out who Sarah is seeing now. “Anyone who loves is jealous.”

Again, in just 160 pages, Greene has intricately explored the depth and complexity of the human psyche, love and hate, trust and insecurity, faith and lameness. Yes, the lameness in Bendrix’s leg can well be a metaphor for his numbness of unbelief. Isn’t there such an argument: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted?”

Love with all its smothering, blinding passion, its persistent, burning desire, its all-consuming emotions that distill into pure jealousy and hate… Graham Greene is a master of such incisive descriptions. But here’s the rub, they’re all found in an adulterous affair.

Isn’t that a pity that such intensity of love is often depicted outside of a marriage. Why, we see them all the time in literature and movies. And, don’t we tend to cheer for the romantic heroes and heroines? Guinevere and Lancelot, for example, to whom Bendrix in the book alludes when he talks to the detective Parkis, who has named his son Lance. Readily come to mind are some others: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and in the epic cinematic versions like The English Patient, in a more restrained way Out of Africa, and the near success in The Bridges of Madison County…  didn’t you wish Meryl Streep would have gone with Clint Eastwood? I’m just thinking, if Ralph Fiennes were the one beckoning her, she’d probably had jumped out of her husband’s truck.

O the fantasy of romance vs. the mundane reality of a marriage. The forbidden fruit seems sweeter, for it arouses excitement, it entices with adventure. Bendrix accuses the oblivious and dull husband Henry Miles as an accomplice in Sarah’s affairs, calling him ‘an eternal pimp’:

“You pimped with your ignorance. You pimped by never learning how to make love with her, so she had to look elsewhere. You pimped by giving opportunities… You pimped by being a bore and a fool…”

There might be some truths in his rants. But then again, are these reasons enough to drive one to discard the marriage vow and seek other allurements? Alas, it seems like boredom is the major impediment to fulfilling that commitment… “If I could love a leper’s sores, couldn’t I love the boringness of Henry?” Sarah tries to reason with herself.

But of course, here, the key is the End of the affair between Bendrix and Sarah. What causes the end is none other than God Himself according to Sarah. A bomb drops near Bendrix’s home while they are both there, striking him dead. Sarah, in her horror and desperation, prays to a God she doesn’t believe to exist, but pleads for the life of her lover just the same. She makes the promise that if God gives Bendrix back his life, she would stop seeing him. As she’s still kneeling by her bed praying, Bendrix walks into the room, injured but very much alive. Thus begins the agony of keeping a promise to a God whose existence now has become an inconvenient truth.

We learn at the end, Sarah has attempted to shift her love from Bendrix to God, albeit with much searing pain. She has gone to a priest and converted to Catholicism. In the crucifix she knows that God Himself is a suffering God too. If only she can see the scale of the pain in the nail-pierced hands in a greater cosmic proportion compared to her own…


The marvellous cinematography, the diffused lighting of many scenes, all work to cast a romantic veil over an adulterous affair. Two Oscar noms in 2000 included one in cinematography and one for Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles. Ralph Fiennes plays Bendrix, a suitable choice. He is in his element. Since The English Patient (1996), Fiennes seems to have mastered the persona of the romantic tragic hero and obsessed lover.

While the screenwriter is understandably free to invent more scenes for the visual storytelling and change some plot points, one alteration I feel  is definitely unacceptable and that’s the character Richard Smythe. In the book, Smythe is an atheist whom Sarah visits several times to discuss views about atheism. Ironically it is Smythe’s atheistic stance that drives Sarah into believing God. She then confides in Father Crompton her wish to convert to Catholicism. But in the film, Smythe is the priest, and what more, he is implied to be another of Sarah’s lovers. I think here is where integrity to the source material should have given priority over dramatic effects.


And what does Colin Firth have to do with The End of the Affair? Well, for all you Colin fans, he is among some A-list stars to have signed with the UK audiobook provider Audible to record their reading of their favorite classic novel.

Audible’s founder, Donald Katz, told the Observer: “Colin Firth could read me the back of a Marmite jar and I would listen.” Well, Colin has chosen, not Marmite or Cornflakes, but for more flavour, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. CLICK HERE to read the announcement and see what other stars are reading for Audible’s recordings.

Now we have another portal to appreciate Colin, and, another channel to enjoy a Graham Greene book.

Update May 7, 2012: The Audiobook The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth is released today.


The Quiet American by Graham Greene: Book and Movie

This is my first selection for the Graham Greene Challenge hosted by CarrieK at Books And Movies.

I watched the film The Quiet American some years back, but not read the book. And my memory is vague. Only remember Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, the setting in Vietnam, in the early 50’s, a complex fusion of political thriller, murder mystery, and a love triangle.

But now that I’ve read the book I’m thoroughly intrigued, thanks to this Penguin Classics Graham Greene Centennial Edition (1904 – 2004), with the intro written by American novelist Robert Stone. Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers about the Vietnam war and its effects won the 1975 National Book Award. From his introduction, I’ve come to appreciate how intricate and multi-layered the conflicts are, and, how political the novel stands.

Interesting to learn from Stone about the joke embedded in the title: the only quiet American is a dead American. In the midst of a colonial war between the French and the communists in 1950’s Saigon, American Alden Pyle’s subversive brand of democracy satisfied none other than his own idealism. A Harvard grad, armed with naiveté and book knowledge, a CIA under the guise of the American Economic Attaché, Pyle’s involvement might well represent American meddling in other country’s affairs in the name of spreading democracy.

We see all these through the eyes of the narrator, the British reporter Thomas Fowler. Much older, more experienced, and having been posted in Vietnam for some years, Fowler has grown to love the humanity therein, but is plagued by bitter cynicism. He doesn’t take sides, he just writes his story as an observer, smokes his opium pipe prepared by his young mistress Phuong, and lies in bed with her. But Fowler’s noncommittal stance comes to a breaking point at the end:

… one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.

The Quiet American is noted for its divergent from Greene’s ‘Catholic’ novels. But the existential issues are very much in the forefront. Fowler is a man of conscience, albeit aloof in his outward stance. The climax comes as he resolves a moral dilemma. Guilt is his nemesis, regarding his wife in England, regarding Phuong, and much more acutely at the end of the novel, regarding Pyle. The book ends with this line:

I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.

And then there’s Phuong, manipulated by her older sister, weaves herself between the two foreigners whom she sees as her ticket out of the country and into a dream future. I find her reaction to Pyle’s death most disturbing.

In a short 180 pages, Greene has brilliantly depicted the political complexities of the conflicts at the time, and addressed the internal war waged within a man’s conscience, ironically, a man whose outward creed is noninvolvement. I’m thoroughly intrigued by the story that is told with depth, eloquence and skill by a master storyteller.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


The Movie: DVD

I watch the film again after finishing the book. It has altered some characters, and taken a more sympathetic view of Phuong. But the overall story and perspective remain intact. Upon this second time viewing, I find several interesting facts that I wasn’t aware of before.

Michael Caine was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe in 2003 for his role as British reporter Thomas Fowler. He has portrayed the character convincingly. Brendan Fraser as the young American I feel is a miscast. If they’re making the film today, James Franco would be my choice for Alden Pyle.

Director is the award-winning Australian Phillip Noyce. (Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002). One of the two screenwriters is Christopher Hampton who got an Oscar nom for his adapted screenplay Atonement from Ian McEwan’s novel. He is also the screenwriter for the current film A Dangerous Method. Executive producers were two personalities whom I highly respect, Anthony Minghella of The English Patient fame plus some more, and Sydney Pollack whose credits are too numerous to mention. It was a great loss that they both passed away within two months in 2008.

The DVD comes with a resource of special features. Other than all the interviews and making-of, there is a useful “Vietnam Timeline”, outlining the history of Vietnam from 1940 to 1980. Further, I appreciate the inclusion of original book reviews. One line particularly stands out. From the 1956 review of the book by John Lehman of The New Republic: 

The Quiet American is one of the most icily anti-American books I’ve ever read.

Oh…  the wealth of information one can gather from watching these special features.

~ ~ ~ Ripples