Travels With My Aunt is the first of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” I’ve read, and it’s as wonderful as his serious novels. This book doesn’t just have one good story, it has about fifty. The first excerpt here tickles my funny bone the same way Dan Rhodes’s writing does, and the second is taken from a great story which I have unfortunately had to truncate, and which is much funnier in its completeness.
* * *
Tooley sat with me and drank one of her cokes. I asked her what her boyfriend’s project was.
“He wants to do a series of enormous pictures of Heinz soups in fabulous colours, so a rich man could have a different soup in each room in his apartment – say fish soup in the bedroom, potato soup in the dining-room, leek soup in the drawing-room, like they used to have family portraits. There would be these fabulous colours, all fauve. And the cans would give a sort of unity – do you see what I mean? It would be kind of intimate – you wouldn’t break the mood every time you changed rooms. Like you do now if you have de Stael in one room and a Rouault in another.”
The memory of something I had seen in a Sunday supplement came back to me. I said, “Surely somebody once did paint a Heinz soup tin?”
“Not Heinz, Campbell’s,” Tooley said. “That was Andy Warhol. I said the same thing to Julian when he first told me of the project. ‘Of course,” I said, “Heinz and Campbell are not a bit the same shape. Heinz is sort of squat and Campbell’s are long like English pillar-boxes.’ I love your pillar-boxes. They are fabulous. But Julian said that wasn’t the point. He said that there are certain subjects which belong to a certain period and culture. Like the Annunciation did. Botticelli wasn’t put off because Piero della Francesca had done the same thing. He wasn’t an imitator. And think of all the Nativities. Well, Julian says, we sort of belong to the soup age – only he didn’t call it that. He said it was the Art of Techno-Structure. In a way, you see, the more people who paint soups the better. It creates a culture. One Nativity wouldn’t have been any use at all. It wouldn’t have been noticed.”
I was badly out of my depth with Tooley in terms of culture and of human experience.
* * *
Mr Visconti was a good catholic, but he was very very anti-clerical, and yet in the end it was the priesthood which saved him. He went to a clerical store in Rome, when the Allies were coming close, and he paid a fortune to be fitted out like a monsignor even to the purple socks. He said that a friend of his had lost all his clothes in a bombing raid and they pretended to believe him. Then he went with a suitcase to the lavatory in the Excelsior Hotel, where we had given all those cocktail parties to the cardinals, and changed. He kept away from the reception-desk, but he was unwise enough to look in at the bar – the barman, he knew, was very old and short-sighted. Well, you know, in those days a lot of girls used to come to the bar to pick up German officers. One of the girls – I suppose it was the approach of the Allied troops that did it – was having a crise de conscience. She wouldn’t go to her friend’s bedroom, she regretted her lost purity, she would never sin again. The officer plied her with more and more cocktails, but with every drink she became more religious. Then she spied Mr Visconti, who was having a quick whisky in a shady corner. “Father,” she cried to him, “hear my confession.”
So off went Mr Visconti with the hysterical girl – he remembered just in time to put down his whisky. He had no choice, though he hadn’t been to confession himself for thirty years and he had never learnt the priest’s part. Luckily there was an air-conditioner in the room breathing heavily, and that obscured his whispers, and the girl was too much concerned with her role to pay much attention to his. She began right away; Mr Visconti had hardly time to sit on the bed, pushing aside a steel helmet and a bottle of schnapps, before she was getting down to details. He had wanted the whole thing finished as quickly as possible, but he told Mario that he couldn’t help becoming a little interested now she had got started and wanting to know a bit more. After all he was a novice – though not in the ecclesiastical sense.
“How many times, my child?” That was a phrase he remembered very well from his adolescence.
“How can you ask that, Father? I’ve been at it all the time ever since the occupation. After all they were our allies, Father.”
“Yes, yes, my child.” I can just see him enjoying the chance he had of learning a thing or two, even though his life was in danger. Mr Visconti was a very lecherous man. He said, “Always the same thing, my child?”
She regarded him with astonishment. “Of course not, Father. Who on earth do you think I am?”
He looked at her kneeling in front of him and I am sure he longed to pinch her. Mr Visconti was always a great pincher. “Anything unnatural, my child?”
“What do you mean unnatural, Father?”
Mr Visconti explained.
“Surely that’s not unnatural, Father?”
Then they had quite a discussion about what was natural and what wasn’t, with Mr Visconti almost forgetting his danger in the excitement, until someone knocked on the door and Mr Visconti, vaguely sketching a cross in a lop-sided way, muttered what sounded through the noise of the air-conditioner like an absolution. The German officer came in in the middle of it and said, “Hurry up, Monsignor. I’ve got a more important customer for you.”
It was the general’s wife who had come down to the bar for a last dry Martini before escaping north and heard what was going on. She drained her Martini in one gulp and commanded the officer to arrange her confession. So there was Mr Visconti caught again. There was an awful row now in the Via Veneto as the tanks drove out of Rome. The general’s wife had positively to shout at Mr Visconti. She had a rather masculine voice and Mr Visconti said it was like being on the parade ground. He nearly clicked his feet together in his purple socks when she bellowed at him, “Adultery. Three times.”