The End of The Affair by Graham Greene (1951)

What a dull lifeless quality this bitterness is. If I could I would write with love, but if I could write with love, I would be another man: I would never have lost love. (p.12)

This is a short (190 pages), focused and – eventually – very powerful novel. It’s told in the first person by an arrogant, sneering writer who lives by Clapham Common and describes an affair he has with a married woman during the War. Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene tells us that during the War, Greene lived in a house by Clapham Common and had an affair. Wow. Where do these writers get their plots from?

This story would be one of crushing banality if Greene didn’t give the whole thing a twist by introducing a layer of Catholic hoodoo (er, maybe I mean ‘profound examination of religious faith’) which dominates its atmosphere and builds up to its quietly terrifying climax.

The plot

The naughty couple are in a house which is bombed and, as the dust settles, the woman (Sarah Miles) prays with all her heart that her lover (the author Bendrix) is still alive; in fact, she promises God that she will break off the affair and be moral and pure, if only her lover has survived. Next moment she sees him rising from the dusty ruins as if resurrected – and from that moment onwards, resolved to keep her vow, refuses to have anything to do with him.

The narrating author is rebuffed, alienated, angry, for months and years afterwards – only discovering the truth when he gets to read Sarah’s diaries after she has died – like so many heroines of classical opera – from tuberculosis. (Not a dry eye in the house).

But – the text is lifted because her diaries are a ‘profound examination of religious faith’, an attempt to portray in diary form the slow recognition by a person of their religious faith. And after she has died and been cremated, a number of strange incidents occur – Bendrix discovers she was baptised a Catholic though she never knew it, and she appears to perform miracles: a book she owned cures the son of the private detective Bendrix had hired to tail her; a kiss (which we know from the diaries that she sincerely intended as a blessing and to take away his disfigurement) heals the scarred cheek of the militant atheist tub-thumper she had got into the habit of visiting.

These interesting and effective developments come very late in the text. Most of the novel is taken up with exploring the twisted hatred of the narrator for his lover’s other ‘lover’, the person she is ‘unfaithful’ to him with. Only slowly do we realise this ‘other’ is God.

And, as with Greene’s other ‘serious’ novels, it’s hard not to think of a good deal of the scenario as having been created less for the purpose of ‘plot’ than to give the author opportunities to write reams of Greeneprose, page after page of would-be profundities about love and hate and fidelity and betrayal and honesty and virtue; to sound off about the saints and the sinners and God and his forgiveness and his punishment and blah-di-blah, at length.

It is only really in the final pages that the book comes alive with a genuine thrill of fear as the arrogantly sceptical narrator is forced to confront the possibility that Sarah actually was – a ‘saint’.

I have no peace and I have no love except for you, you. I said to her, I’m a man of hate. But I didn’t feel much hatred; I had called other people hysterical, but my own words were overcharged. I could detect their insincerity. What I chiefly felt was less hate than fear. For if this God exists, I thought, and if even you – with your lusts and your adulteries and the timid lies you used to tell – can change like this, we could all be saints by leaping as you leapt, by shutting the eyes and leaping once and for all: if you are a saint, it’s not so difficult to be a saint. It’s something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won’t leap. (p.190)

And the novel moves swiftly to its terrible final moments where, although in body the narrator is strolling across the Common with Sarah’s husband (who he has now befriended) for their regular evening pint, in his mind he is furiously rejecting the God who took his beloved from him. Greene has prepared the way with hundreds of pages mulling over love and death and God and the Devil and saints and sinners, creating a mood and an atmosphere which lend even the most trivial actions a theological dimension – and so these last words leave us in no doubt that the narrator is condemning himself to an eternity without God, to an eternity of Hell!

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 forever. (Last words, last page)

In these last few pages the novel rises above itself to become something genuinely creepy.

Moralising

I’ve written elsewhere about Greene the Preacher. His books are crammed with sententiae, wise sayings, nostrums, thoughts and quotable quotes. But 1) they are on quite a limited range of subjects – about being a writer, of course, a fascinating subject for any, er, writer – and then a narrow range of repetitive speculations about human nature, good and evil, God and the Devil, love and desire.

Greene is writing in an older tradition where the Writer is meant to be some kind of Moral and Philosophical Guru, whose masterful insights into human nature fall to us mortals from on high. 2) For me, almost all of these sophisms, whether one liners or entire paragraphs of speculation, turn out, on examination, to be high-sounding but empty rhetoric.

Jealousy, or so I have always believed, exists only with desire. (p.42)

The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. (p.47)

Distrust grows with a lover’s success. (p.48)

We are not hurt only by tragedy: the grotesque too carries weapons, undignified, ridiculous weapons. (p.52)

I can imagine that if there existed a God who loved, the devil would be driven to destroy even the weakest, the most faulty imitation of that love. (p.59)

Hatred is very much like physical love: it has its crisis and then its period of calm. (p.61)

We are possessed by nobody, not even by ourselves. (p.144)

It needs a God outside Time to remember when everything changes. (p.145)

Indifference and pride look very much alike… (p.150)

Grief and disappointment are like hate: they make men ugly with self-pity and bitterness. (p.156)

It is the destiny of a lover to watch unhappiness hardening like a cast around his lover. (p.167)

The narrator can’t even say sorry to someone he’s offended without moralising about it.

‘I’m sorry, Henry,’ I said. How easily we believe we can slide out of our guilt by a motion of contrition. (p.66)

Five words of ‘plot’. 16 words of moralising. An editorialising-to-action ratio of three-to-one.

And Greene’s characters consist of this moralising speculating discourse. The quotable quotes I’ve quoted are the white tips of the waves of the great ocean of Greene’s endlessly rolling lucubrations and divagations.

Of course the characters do perform some activities (though not much). The external, visible ‘action’ of this, as of most Greene novels, is in fact crushingly banal and dull and everyday. Writer has affair; meets lover; makes love; discusses affair; thinks about affair; goes to the pub; goes to restaurants; thinks more about the affair, etc. No, the drama is in their heads or, in the case of this first-person narrator text, in the protagonist’s head. (With the important exception of Book Three which consists of excerpts from Sarah’s diary and where we see into her mind.) But at bottom even Sarah’s supposedly ‘other’ mind is strangely similar to the narrator’s mind and both are remarkably similar to Greene’s – overflowing with high-minded but rather inconsequential speculations about God and the Devil and love and hate and saints and sinners.

Just as in The Heart of The Matter the drama is psychological ie it is about watching the main character, Major Scobie, be driven to despair and suicide; so, in Affair, the ‘action’ is almost all in the mind of a sceptic who is painting himself into a corner, refusing God’s love, consciously choosing damnation.

What constitutes the text of a Greene novel, what gives it substance, what fills the page, what makes up the characters, is not their actions but their thoughts – is the hundreds of sentences and paragraphs dedicated to their thoughts about this very narrow range of subjects: the writer; love; God.

Greene’s appeal must rely to a great extent on these lucubrations and their supposed profundity. I guess people who like this kind of thing, and think the Writer is some kind of Moral Teacher (as opposed to a suicidal adulterer) constitute Greene’s fan base, the people who are outraged he never won a Nobel Prize. But I’d guess he never won the prize because a) he never produced the One Definitive Work which transfixed his generation b) all his ‘profundity’ all too often melts like dew after a few moments’ reflection. ‘Hatred is very much like physical love.’ No, it isn’t.

Despite having read over a thousand pages of Greene’s prose I can’t think of a single one of his apothegms which stands up to scrutiny, which has informed or enlightened me, which I can remember. Sometimes the ways Greene juggles with this very narrow range of subjects can be interesting and amusing. Rarely does it give genuine insight.

The narrator as writer

In this novel, it’s true, a lot of the verbiage can be justified as dramatically appropriate, since the narrator and author is an arrogantly superior writer much given to sneering at lower mortals (‘…all my latent snobbery was aroused by that name…’ – p.75) and anti-religious vapourings.

Nonetheless, justify it how you will, it is gruelling to have to read so many pages of cod theology – at times it feels like being smothered with a pillow. Only the final pages deliver a Grand Guignol kind of thrill, the kind of genuine burst of horror you feel on reading Dr Jeckyll’s final letter or maybe even one of Poe’s Gothic stories.

If you are religious, then maybe you could find this book a ‘profound examination of religious faith’. If, like me, you’re not at all religious, you can still admire the skill and craftsmanship which has gone into creating this dramatic climax.

Structure

I admire the careful structuring and pace of the novel. As with all Greene’s books it is divided into sections – in this case into five books (like the acts of a classical tragedy), each of which contains a number of short, precisely-written chapters, mostly only around 4 or 5 pages long, a few as short as one page. One senses that these sections have been pared down, that each short chapter says something, paints a scene, delivers just this part of the plot – and stops. Even though a lot of the ‘plot’ consists of his purely psychological understanding of Sarah’s behaviour and motivation, and a lot of quasi-theology which can be hard reading – nonetheless I admired the craft with which they said just the right amount – and stopped.

Time scheme There is a sort of interesting time scheme ie it doesn’t dominate the text, in fact it makes it a bit confusing to begin with: The entire novel is being narrated from a ‘now’ which is long after the affair ended, Sarah has died, and the narrator has read her diary and learned her secret love of God. Therefore he is able to jump between key moments in the plot: the moment they first met; first kissed; numerous occasions when they made love; then the fateful page where the V1 bomb destroys their house, she makes her promise to God, he stumbles back into the room; then her refusal to see him; and his malicious decision to confront and talk to her husband on the Common, to hire a private detective, to have her watched; which leads to the stealing and reading of her diary. And so on round.

In other words, the story is not told in linear fashion. Or, if the underlying plot is Bendrix’s slow realisation of what happened in Sarah’s mind and that has a basic linearity, nonetheless much of the incidental events are told out of sequence. This adds interest for the reader to what is, otherwise, quite a simple story. More importantly, since the events are retold as the narrator’s reflective mind mulls them over, this approach opens the door to Greeneprose, to the quotable quotes about love and faith etc, which are used to embellish this particular memory, or to adorn that particular scene and which, since the ‘action’ is so minimal, constitute a lot of the text. Lots of mulling. Pondering. Wondering. Speculating.

Style

Greene’s style is admirably abbreviated and clipped; his contemporaries admired his style and, on the whole, I do too.

But it always a little formal and correct and therefore its datedness is never far away. It has one especial besetting sin which bugs me: his tendency to invert word order to embed adverbs and prepositions in the main body of the sentence rather than leave them dangling at the end. Instead of saying, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of’, he follows the rule he’ll have been taught at school never to end a sentence with a preposition, and thus (to our modern eye) disfigures the whole sentence by writing, ‘That is the stupidest thing of which I have ever heard.’

The theatres she had been to with Henry, the restaurants, the parties – all that life of which I knew nothing had still the power to hurt. (p.90)

His style is like a ‘modern’ art deco building but with the Victorian foundation showing through. In the same way his mind is a would-be twentieth century one – and it obviously inhabited and responded to twentieth century events – but you read a few paragraphs and quickly become aware of the Victorian taste for moralising which he inherited from his headmaster father and public school upbringing. The worldview he’s preaching may be one of disenchantment and horror at the squalor of life, with the lurid light of melodramatic Catholic superstition thrown across it – but it is still preaching. Are these novels – or sermons?

Untransgressive transgressions

Possibly, in 1951, this novel broke a load of taboos and crossed lots of lines and this made Greene an ‘important’ and a ‘modern’ novelist. Maybe describing adultery in quite such vivid detail was novel. Probably the repeated mentions of the actual act of sex – of orgasms, of her arching her back and crying out – were pushing the envelope in 1951. And possibly the intimate linking of sex and adultery with Christian piety, with what is, basically, Catholic propaganda, rattled a lot of cages in 1951.

But it is 2014, the era of gay priests and Fifty Shades of Grey. These ‘transgressions’, like his dated prose, are now of chiefly historic interest.

Related links

Movies

Greene has been lucky with movie adaptations of his novels which have generally been very good. The End of The Affair has been filmed twice:

  • The 1955 black and white version was directed by Edward Dmytryk and starred Deborah Kerr as Sarah Miles, Van Johnson as Maurice Bendrix, John Mills as Albert Parkis, and Peter Cushing as Henry Miles.
  • The 1999 version was directed by Neil Jordan and starred Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles, Ralph Fiennes as Maurice Bendrix and Stephen Rea as Henry Miles.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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