Friday, 18 January 2008

The End of the Affair

Title: The End of the Affair

Author: Graham Greene

Number of pages: 160

Started: 15 January 2008

Finished: 18 January 2008

Opening words:

A STORY has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all— has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’

For why should I have spoken to him? If hate is not too large a term to use in relation to any human being, I hated Henry—I hated his wife Sarah too. And he, I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me: as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love, and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hate.

Plot summary:

The novel focuses on Maurice Bendrix, a rising writer during World War II in London, and Sarah Miles, the wife of an important civil servant. Bendrix is loosely based on Greene himself, and he reflects often on the act of writing a novel. Sarah is based loosely on Greene's mistress at the time, Catherine Walston, to whom the book is dedicated.

Bendrix and Sarah fall in love quickly, but he soon realizes that the affair will eventually end, as quickly as it began. He picks fights with her out of jealousy, and she remains patient. He is frustrated by her refusal to divorce Henry, her amiable but boring husband. When a bomb blasts Bendrix's flat as he is with Sarah, he nearly dies. After this, Sarah breaks off the affair with no explanation.

Two years later, Bendrix is still wracked with jealousy when he sees Henry crossing the Common that separates their flats. Henry has finally started to suspect something, and Bendrix decides to go to a private detective to discover Sarah's new lover. Through her diary, he realizes that she has made a promise to God not to see him, because she promised it when she thought he was dead after the bomb hit his flat. Greene describes Sarah's struggles with Catholicism, though it is an odd version of the faith, more like Jansenism. After her sudden death from pneumonia, several almost-miraculous events occur, though it is not clear what Greene expects the reader to think. By the last page of the novel, Bendrix has come to believe in a God as well, though not to love him.

The End of the Affair is the fourth and last of Greene's explicitly Catholic novels, and is widely regarded as his best work. Though Greene disliked being referred to as a Catholic writer, his most powerful novels were about Catholic themes. He discusses faith in an unusual way in the novel, often referring to it as an infection or a disease, something one can catch like a cold. Unlike his other Catholic novels, there is no talk of damnation, only a kind of salvation. The introduction of supernatural elements is also new for Greene.

Taken from Wikipedia

What I thought:

I really liked this book. It was so well written and engaging and drew you in. I was left a bit stunned by it at the end and will read more of Graham Greene’s books when they won’t seem pale by comparison.

I also wrote some further thoughts on this book, over at my other blog, which I repeat here:

I finished reading The End of the Affair on Friday. What an excellent book. It was so well written and just so easily evoked the thoughts and emotions the characters were going through and took you back to the moments when it unfolded. It was very 'English', very thought provoking and challenging. Some have said that Bendrix is a character that is not very likeable, but I didn’t find that. He isn’t someone who you would particularly like, but that isn’t the same as disliking him. I think he came across as a troubled man who was looking for answers – and perhaps he was more honest than most about what he really felt, which was not always very palatable, and maybe that is difficult for people to deal with.

Sometimes it’s good to read someone else’s account of circumstances to which you can in some ways relate. Whilst the book is fiction, it is actually based on real events in Graham Greene’s life and you can feel the depth of emotion that was poured into it. The book tells the story of two people, Sarah Miles (a married woman) and Maurice Bendrix, who had a relationship and the aftermath and self-questioning that came when Sarah broke it off unexpectedly with no word of explanation. Bendrix was left with unending questions and no real understanding of why that was – did it mean that the relationship meant nothing and that Sarah had just moved on to her next ‘conquest’ with no thought of him? The questions continually haunted him until one day, some years later, he saw her briefly and from there his questions took a new course.

“I cannot say how many days passed. The old disturbance had returned and in that state of blackness one can no more tell the days than a blind man can notice the changes of light”

An idea was inadvertently planted in his mind by Sarah’s husband – that a private detective might be able to help find the answers. So Bendrix contacted one and one of the things that the detective uncovers is Sarah’s diary. There laid before him is the truth of what happened. One night during the war they had spent the night together and a bomb had flown overhead and landed nearby. When Bendrix went down to survey the damage another bomb came over which was a direct hit. Sarah rushed downstairs to see what had happened and there he was lying ‘dead’ on the floor. She went back upstairs distraught and made a bargain with God, a God in whom she did not believe, that if Bendrix would live then she would learn to believe in God.

“Let him be alive and I will believe. Give him a chance. Let him have his happiness. Do this and I’ll believe. It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up for ever, only let him be alive with a chance, and I pressed and pressed and I could feel the skin break and I said, people can love without seeing each other, can’t they, they love You all their lives without seeing you, and then he came in at the door, and he was alive, and I thought now that agony of being without him starts, and I wished he was safely back dead again under the door.”

Despite moments of weakness she never did make contact with him and Bendrix was left not knowing that it was because she loved him that she had let him go. When he did finally find out the truth he was elated, but by then, it was too late, as she died before they could be reunited.

“I sat on my bed and said to God: You’ve taken her, but you haven’t got me yet. I know Your cunning. You take us up to a high place and offer us the whole universe. You’re a devil, God, tempting us to leap. But I don’t want Your peace and I don’t want Your love. I wanted something very simple and very easy: I wanted Sarah for a lifetime and You took her away. With your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed.”

Sometimes I wish that there was some great meaning behind A having broken off contact with me all that time ago. That somehow there were something that would make sense of it all and help me to understand. I can look at it on the surface and offer explanations, but they’re not really the answer because they are my answers, not A’s. But somehow I think it would be so painful to hear the truth that perhaps I am better off not knowing. I had thought that anyway, but a while ago G said to me that a mutual friend had given the impression that A did not have a good account to tell of me. A hard thing to hear.

When I met up with my friend K on Friday she asked me about A and I just said I hadn’t heard anything. K said to me “the problem with you is that you take people at their word. If someone says they will do something, you believe them and assume they will do it. A promised not to let you go and that your friendship would survive, promised to be in touch with you when you bumped into each other a while back, swore to you that the two of you would come out the other side of this. You believed those promises and you still do. All you can do is be disappointed in A for not honouring them”. I shrugged my shoulders and just said that it is my nature to believe people. K then said “You also have to accept that A will probably never believe that you are honourable in your intentions and that the friendship in itself matters enough without their being some other strings attached.” I just nodded my head in agreement.

I woke up in the early hours of Sunday morning and was dreaming that A and I did finally get back in touch and were on decent terms with each other and it felt like such a relief. But then I remembered that it was just a dream and the moment was lost. Maybe one day.

“I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

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