“What happened to the general?”
“He was captured by the Allies, I believe, but I’m not sure whether or not he was hanged at Nuremberg.”
“Mr. Visconti must have a great deal on his conscience.”
“Mr. Visconti hasn’t got a conscience,” my aunt said with pleasure.
Graham Greene, Travels with My Aunt
It might be a thousand miles to the nearest beach, but, still, August meant doing some “beach reading” in my easy chair. I plucked two classics off my shelves of ready-to-read books: John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt (1969), two books born under the long shadow of World War II.
Consuming them back to back bought into sharp focus the uncertain moral landscape of the 1960s. Greene, a professional foreigner, always seems happiest when sending his characters upriver to a seedy outpost far from everyday morals. The central trope of Travels with My Aunt is that of countless movies and novels – the amusing introduction of a naive retired banker to the seductions and corruptions of the world (drugs, prostitution, smuggling). Greene’s characters abandon dear old England for the Third World, where there are often real wars still taking place, to try to recalibrate their own moral compass. At the end of Travels with My Aunt, the once meek banker Henry Pulling finds himself happily ensconced in Paraguay, making a good living as a professional smuggler and on the verge of marrying the sixteen-year old daughter of the Chief of Customs. Le Carré’s cynicism is deeper. He prefers to send his characters into the no-man’s-land of spy-craft (facetiously called “intelligence”), where everything from passports to morality are counterfeit. Those who work for British Intelligence turn out to be every bit as cold-blooded and calculating as their Eastern Bloc counterparts. Alec Leamus (the spy trying to come in from the cold) claims to believe in absolutely nothing, although, in truth, he believes in old-fashioned morality. While Liz, a British working-class Communist, believes in History. Both end up shot to death at the foot of the Berlin Wall, disposable pawns of East and West alike.
After the exhaustion of the Second World War, it’s as if – at least in the eyes of Greene and le Carré – a morally-spent and bankrupt Britain had nothing left to fight for beyond the petty comforts of middle class lifestyle. Asked what philosophy drove the members of British Intelligence, Leamus can only suggest “I suppose they don’t like Communism.” In all of le Carré’s George Smiley novels, those who make up British intelligence and political circles are half-heartedly fighting their mean-spirited, petty Cold War as a poor substitute for the clarity of a real war.
Just as a final tidbit, in Travels with My Aunt, Greene (an avid book-collector) offers an interesting piece of advice on the importance of a well-rounded library.
One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have all been conditioned by what we have read, and if I had never known love at all, perhaps it was because my father’s library had not contained the right books.