The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951) Penguin Classics (2004) 160 pp
After warming up to Greene with The Tenth Man and The Quiet American I have wasted very little time figuring out what else he’s written that I should read. I know that Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and The Power and the Glory are musts, and I also found The End of the Affair highly praised. (Please let me know if I’m missing other “musts” in this list.) The End of the Affair‘s small size pushed it up to the top of the Greene TBR pile. Interestingly, while reading it, I found myself thinking back on my recent introduction to Evelyn Waugh and his Brideshead Revisited. Further research into the matter showed that I was far from the first to make this connection. It looks like Greene himself consciously used Brideshead as a jumping off point. I guess as I continue to get to know these “Catholic” authors, this coincidence of timing could be, uh, providential?
The plot is simple. Maurice Bendrix, a novelist and the first person narrator of this novel, begins the story in the middle. “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.” The moment chosen is a January night in 1946, two years after Sarah Miles inexplicably broke off her affair with Bendrix. On this night, Bendrix is walking outside when he sees Henry Miles, the cuckold, Sarah’s husband. Here is how Bendrix introduces their encounter:
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 . . . .
Bendrix is a spiteful fellow (a mean man, as Sarah’s mother would perhaps say). Through the novel we feel his anger at all three people mentioned in that passage above, and I have to say it’s easy to see why he’s not that happy. He admittedly “measured love by the extent of my jealousy,” and yet he is convinced he was truly happy during the affair. And now, two years later, he meets Henry and discovers that Henry finally suspects that Sarah is being unfaithful to him. Confiding in Bendrix, Henry explains his despair as he thinks of his unfaithful wife. Greene’s abilities shine through here as he depicts Bendrix’s bitterness at the memory of Sarah, his jealousy of her engaging in another affair, and his hatred / spite / condescending humor toward Henry (“His questions reminded me of how easy he had been to deceive: so easy that he seemed to me almost a coniver at his wife’s unfaithfulness . . . .”).
Henry is uncertain about how to move forward. He is tempted to hire out a private investigator to trail his wife but is ashamed at the thought, mostly because it would look bad for him. Bendrix offers to hire one for him. In the meantime, Sarah returns and we get a slight sense of just how physical one of the affairs in this book is going to be:
How can I make a stranger see her as she stopped in the hall at the foot of the stairs and turned to us? I have never been able to describe my fictitious characters except by their actions. It has always seemed to me that in a novel the reader should be allowed to imagine a character in any way he chooses: I do not want to supply him with ready-made illustrations. Now I am betrayed by my own technique, for I do not want any other woman substituted for Sarah, I want the reader to see the one broad forehead and bold mouth, the conformation of the skull, but all I can convey is an indeterminate figure turning in the dripping macintosh, saying, ‘Yes, Henry?’ and then ‘You?’
With subdued acrimony, Bendrix leaves the Miles’s home. But after two years of wondering why she ended their affair, Bendrix decides to hire that private investigator (from the Savage detective agency, incidentally), “a specialist who dealt in only one disease of which he knew every symptom.” What Bendrix uncovers gives him hope and reason to become even more bitter, perhaps eternally bitter. It brings to the fore his memories of their last days together, days that were seemingly happy ones, but it also brings Bendrix to a confrontation of the one whom she has chosen to love even as she used to hate.
The strength and limitation of the novel is not in this intriguing plot. Indeed, what I’ve relayed above almost makes this novel sound like one of Greene’s plot-moving “entertainments.” But Greene really is putting his own take on Brideshead Revisited‘s explicit rumination on religion, particularly Catholicism. None of the characters in the novel believe in God in 1939 but by the end of the novel all three have an uncomfortable inkling that he does exist. After all, how can one hate someone so profoundly if one doesn’t believe in him. I wasn’t quite expecting Greene to portray God as the ultimate antagonist in this novel; nevertheless, his characters can say, “I’ve caught belief like a disease.”
Just as this expands the scope of the novel, however, it also limits it. It felt to me that Greene was attempting so hard to bring God into the mix that other elements of the novel were lost in the mix. It was blatant and overshadowed much of Greene’s subtlety, or at least that’s how I felt. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed how Greene, in a way, used a novelist’s narrative technique to link to a philosophy on the eternities. While overall I felt that Greene deadened the potential resonating echoes this novel could have produced, there are still some passages resonating in me:
If I were writing a novel I would end it here: a novel, I used to think, has to end somewhere, but I’m beginning to believe my realism has been at fault all these years, for nothing in life now ever seems to end.