The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene is a dark, intense little gem of a novel, as wintry and stark as the post-war January landscape in which it takes place, its characters tortured, flawed and entangled in the kind of emotional complexities that only the thwarted quest for perfect happiness can cause.

The narrator is Maurice Bendrix, a literary novelist of acerbic style but passionate emotions. Although he writes from a perspective five years after the events he describes, the reader readily forgets this, so intense and vivid is his recounting of his experience. He is the apex of a love triangle that involves dull civil servant, Henry Miles, a man destined to be betrayed thanks to his stolid inattentiveness, and his wife, Sarah, who becomes Maurice’s lover for the length of a life-shattering affair. Sarah is a restless soul, running from one man to the next before she finally meets and falls in love with Maurice. The love between them is presented to us as profound and authentic, but Maurice’s insecurity relentlessly clouds the issues between them. He is a man whose emotions always stretch to the point of contradiction; its because he loves Sarah so that he cannot find a moment’s peace in this devastating affair. Love and hatred are the two sides of one coin that he cannot help but flip hopelessly backwards and forwards, straining against the bonds of propriety and loyalty and emotional imprisonment.

The affair is bracketed between two powerful external forces – the Second World War on one side, and the Catholic God on the other. The war is more or less on the side of the lovers; what might in peacetime look like plain old immorality becomes in war a gesture of vitality, a way of keeping faith with the preeminence of the personal over the grand march of history. God, on the other hand, is decidedly an enemy. When we join the narrative, a couple of years after the affair has ended, we find Maurice still cannot let it go. Obsessed still with Sarah and her possible faithlessness, he sets a private detective on her tail and finds out something surprising. Sarah has become fascinated by religion, and it seems to be this that has ultimately come between them.

There’s a straightforward reading of this novel that goes something like this: Maurice is a (manically) determined lover, loyal and persistent, whilst Sarah is a superstitious flake, allowing some flimsy fantasy to come between her and genuine ordinary happiness. It is fundamentally a small tragedy that we readers witness, one caused by forces beyond the control of the lovers themselves. At one level of his narrative, that’s the story Maurice is trying to sell us. But why should we believe only that topmost layer? At the start of the book, Maurice tells us about his life as a writer, and how only love managed to interrupt it:

One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends. But this hate and suspicion, this passion to destroy, went deeper than the book – the unconscious worked on it instead’.

And so writing and loving both come from the same deep pit in Maurice’s mind, both motivated and informed by impulses of which he has no conscious knowledge. I felt that this was a novel all about dishonesty, or the lack of honesty that comes from not acknowledging our internal conflicts. Maurice can only live this affair with Sarah from the perspective of its destruction. Even when they are together, as he admits, he couldn’t stop himself from tearing their love apart, being unkind and hostile and provocative. He cannot see himself that he doesn’t want Sarah; he is simply hypnotized by emotional turmoil, and it takes him to a place of intensity and significance that he cannot leave alone. When he is fighting over Sarah, whether with Henry as his ignorant foil, or God, as his even more ignorant rival, it is always about a clash for the position of alpha male that leaves the woman sidelined. Sarah is equally dishonest; she cannot live any relationship exclusively. Even her fledgling passion for a God is lived as another kind of adultery, a sneaking about behind other people’s backs, a part time love that she hesitates over. And Henry must hold onto his pathos at all costs, his lost dignity a small price to pay for his inability to actually sort out any of the relationships he’s in.

I found this a very compelling read, dark and fierce and beautifully written. But it reminded me so of André Gide’s Straight is the Gate. Is it possible Greene could have read that novella and been influenced by it? But it is of no matter. This is a tangled and far-reaching story that wants to bring in all sorts of elements beyond the reach of your average tale of adultery (many of which I haven’t mentioned here to avoid spoilers). I have never read Greene before, feeling no particular attraction for novels like Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory. But I would definitely read more of his work now, as this was a provocative and powerful introduction.

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25 thoughts on “The End of the Affair

  1. I’ve read a couple of GG’s novels fairly recently — The Quiet American and Travels with my aunt. Both excellent though very different. This one sounds like it should be the next on the list.

  2. This is one of my favorite books, though it’s one I always forget to mention in lists of favorite books, for some reason … perhaps because it’s ensconced in my literary pantheon in a place of its own, as something that is unclassifiable.

    I highly recommend Travels with My Aunt … perhaps especially because you didn’t like Candide. Greene in his humorous mode is the most joyful and loving satirist — much like Evelyn Waugh at his very best (such as Men at Arms ).

  3. I love Graham Greene’s novels so much, but it took me ages to spot the religious theme that runs through so many of them. I just like all that dark passion and guilt (Brighton Rock is great for that sort of thing). Adultery, or affairs gone wrong always seem the obvious link between his novels for me and you’ve articulated another one beautifully here ‘the lack of honesty that comes from not acknowledging our internal conflicts’. No one can admit what they do and don’t want vs what they and those around them have trapped them into.

    The Comedians is good too and The Quiet American if you’re not keen on some of the other big name titles. They’re more part of the political combined with the personal subsection of Greene’s work though, while I guess Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair take religion as the big, over reaching theme that goes alongside the personal story.

  4. I’ve not read anything by Greene before and have been curious about this particular book. It sounds really good. I guess I have to move the book from my wondering about list to my tbr list!

  5. Wonderful review, Litlov! I’ve read one Graham Greene novel way back in school, (not that I can remember the title, it was almost 30 years ago!)but what I remember of his style and themes, you have covered in your review. I wish I could remember the title! I think I was too young at the time to understand and appreciate what he was grappling with in his writing, the darker themes that are the underside of love and marriage and commitment. In his view, anyway! Now I’m older and know a little more, I might find I would enjoy his trips to the dark side more.

  6. I love this one. I think The Power and the Glory may be my favorite, or else Monsignor Quixote, which is just unspeakably lovely. His spy novels are nothing to sneeze at, either.

  7. I meant to add that he seems to have had a sense of humor about himself. In 1949 he entered a contest held by the New Statesman for parodies of his own writing style, under a pen name of course, and won second prize! (In 1965 he entered the same contest again and only got an honorable mention, which I think tells you that his style was actually evolving.)

  8. Again, I’ve enjoyed your in-depth review of the source material for a film. I saw The End of the Affair (1999) years ago, and have almost forgotten about the story. Your post has re-enacted those intense love and conflicts among the characters. The Maurice Bendrix you’ve analyzed here is a perfect role for Ralph Fiennes. But I don’t quite remember how Julianne Moore portrays Sarah Miles though. I just might watch the movie again upon reading your post. I haven’t read any of Greene’s novels, but have enjoyed two of their film adaptations: The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. For some reasons, I feel there are certain similarities between the stories of GG and W. Somerset Maugham. And I’ve always mixed up the two films The End of the Affair and Up At the Villa by Maugham. Anyway, thanks for another interesting post, litlove!

  9. I’ve had Greene at the back of my mind for many years now as someone I would like to read, assuming I would pick up The Quiet American at one point, but this sounds like it might be a more exciting introduction. I love how you often categorize a novel in terms of the characters’ psychology, Litlove. It gives such an incisive view into the heart of the novel.

  10. I haven’t read this although I have read several of Greene’s other novels, and once taught, ‘The Power and the Glory’ for A level, but all so long ago that not a lot remains. I think it very likely Greene knew Gide’s work, but I can’t say for certain. It is crazy to talk about what I haven’t read, but I find it interesting that you view Maurice’s desire for Sarah as both love and obsession with emotional turmoil. Are these parallel or conjoined emotions? Does one replace the other? I wonder because it seems for Sarah human love is replaced by love of God. Greene was a so-called Catholic novelist and was frequently comparing human states of love with love of God, exploring the relationship and differences between the two. Do you think this novel fits that approach?

  11. I think this is the only Greene I have read so far as well but I still want to read The Comedians as it is one of the most famous non-Haitian novels on Haiti (Brian Moore’s No other Life is another one)and at one point I tried to read them all. Whatever. The strange thing is, I did like The End of the Affair but have forgotten everything about it and only remember that in my reading Sarah was much more central than Maurice. Reading your review it is clear that the point of view is that of Maurice. What you say about her dishonesty is interesting.I saw her turning towards religion as an atonement. I saw the movie but I did prefer The Quiet American, especially because of Craig Armstrong’s music. Julianne Moore was a wonderful Sarah but then again Julianne Moore is always wonderful.

  12. I sort of like tortured, flawed characters–it makes the reading so much more interesting! I’ve not yet read anything by Greene, but I really need to and am adding this to my list. I wonder if I would pick up on the religious themes–Muriel Spark and Sigrid Undset also both converted to Catholicism and that influenced their works as well, though I don’t know anything about Greene. I wonder how many affairs must have gone on during WWII–I suppose when the world is turned upside down like that you are willing to take so many more chances…

  13. I’m surprised at the comments, and how few of the people who responded had read Greene. When I was younger, he was essential, and The End of the Affair was one of his best, a mesmerizing account of the struggle between human and divine love. I’m far from a Catholic, but when you read the book you have to entertain the possibility that Sarah is indeed a saint.
    And of course the affair was based on Greene’s long-time affair with a married woman who never quite left her husband.

  14. Harriet – thank you so much for those recommendations. I’d like to read more and had no idea where to start.

    David – I do the same thing with Rilke, who transcends all classification for me. And I even own Travels with my Aunt! Say no more – I am quite convinced and will pick it up next.

    Bookgazing – he’s very upfront about the religious dimension in this one, so the reader really has to confront it. I would love to read more of his work now so thank you so much for those excellent suggestions. I am definitely going to order The Quiet American now, and perhaps another one, too.

    Lilian – I know! If only! But consider trying him – he writes with tremendous finesse.

    Stefanie – you know what a proprietory interest I take in your tbr pile! :) Always glad to add to it….

    Susan – I can’t imagine trying to read this novel as a teenager. It would just be dreary, I’d think, or offputting. My feeling is that you have to have lived a little to read Greene, and know what it is to have guilt and doubt and the dreadful sense that despite adult competences, one still does not have the answer. I’d love to know what you think of him if you return to his work.

    Jenny – how hilarious to think he could send himself up in that way! I wouldn’t have guessed it from this novel, but I’m delighted to know it. And thank you for the recommendations – I’d very much like to read more now, and had no idea where to start.

    Arti – funnily enough, the narrator of The End of the Affair has a little joke at his own expense about how he is always being judged against Somerset Maugham! I actually possess the DVD of The End of the Affair, but wanted to read the book first. You think it’s a good film, then? I had heard positive things about it, but not got around to watching it. I always find time to read, but can never seem to assure myself the necessary hours to watch a film!

    Michelle – ah now, I think you would be a good reader for Greene – sensitive to his big themes as well as their unfolding within the specific narrative. I love character psychology and always began there when discussing a book with students. Somehow it’s always something definite and distinct you can hang onto and use to explore the story.

    Bookboxed – you do ask good questions. To take the one about love and obsession first, I think that the way Bendrix loves is through the filter of obsession. And the deeper and more complex his obsession, the more intriguing and engaging his love becomes. It’s a bit along the lines of Rochefoucauld who said that nobody would know what love was unless they had read about it. Well, that’s my feeling – Bendrix’s model of love is an obsessive one. I definitely think this novel fits the pattern of comparison between human love and love of God. Sarah certainly makes the deal that it’s one or the other, although this is a purely personal and idiosyncratic deal to make. Again my feeling with this novel is that God is treated like another male in the race for affection and loyalty – Sarah can’t free herself from the belief that her love to him should be exclusive, like the marriage she didn’t have, and Bendrix treats him straight out as a rival. Do read it, if you’re in the mood sometime. I’d be very interested to know what you think of it.

    Caroline – absolutely agree that Julianne Moore is always wonderful. I think that it’s perfectly possible to see Sarah’s turning to God as an atonement, but in the first instance it is a bargain she strikes in a supernatural fashion. So there’s a lot of animistic thiking bound up in it. Whilst that doesn’t preclude atonement, it also means that Sarah thinks she can control events by her superstitious involvement with God, but then it gets messier, and she seems to fall for the romance of God, too. It is a complex book, I think, and that’s what I like about it. :)

    Danielle – oh my I am so sure that was the case in the world wars. People didn’t know if they’d still be around tomorrow, so it made choices very different. I think you’d like this one – it’s really well written and very accessible. But it is dark and painful in places. I nearly didn’t read it in January (you know I tend to stick to sunnier books in the dark months!) but I did enjoy it.

    Irene – I’m intrigued by that notion of Sarah as a saint. The narrative certainly wants to suggest it strongly, but I wonder how bound up it is with Bendrix’s views on Sarah and his glorification of their affair. Being ‘rescued’ from a sexual encounter he doesn’t really want after the funeral isn’t really such a miraculous event, nor is the recovery of Perkins’ son from his stomachaches. They are both coincidences, and the interesting thing is that Bendrix should imbue those coincidences with religious meaning. I’m not quite sure what I think about all that, although it is an enticing question!

  15. I read maybe three Graham Greene novels quite a long time ago and liked them all. But I had a different relationship with Christianity at the time (at least two of the novels I read were strongly Catholic), so I’m not sure what I would think of him now, at least if I picked up something like The Power and the Glory.

  16. What a great review! I watched the movie and loved it, but never read the book. I would be curious to hear your take on the Quiet American, which fascinated me some years ago. Also dark and intense, not your everyday comfort book.

  17. Dorothy – it would be very interesting to know what you made of them now, having had a change of heart in the meantime! I’m not particularly religious, although I am interested in spirituality in all its forms, so I found that aspect of the books intriguing but unaffecting. I did like Graham Greene, though, far more than I expected.

    Smithereens – The Quiet American has come up several times as a recommended read so I will undoubtedly get around to it at some point now. I’d love to know what you make of the book – and I must watch the movie. We have a DVD of it! But I always tend to pick up a book in the evenings and hence films rarely get seen…

  18. I have had this on my list to read every since I read The Quiet American and enjoyed it so much. That too was a simple and short book but rich with meaning (at least for me). I look forward to reading this one sooner, rather than later.

  19. litlove,

    I took the DVD out from the library and watched the movie again. In the liner note, it says: “The End of the Affair” is arguably GG’s most autobiographical novel, taking as its inspiration his adulterous love affair with American Catherine Walston, who was married to a wealthy farmer. The book, published in 1951, is dedicated to her. Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry, called their relationship “the greatest literary affair of this century.”

    I never knew about this before.

  20. This makes me want to re-read The End of the Affair with an eye to this Sarah-as-saint line of questions. But I’ve so enjoyed all the Greene I’ve read*, I need to get much more of him under my belt before I start re-reading.

    *Something somewhat unexpected, considering what I knew going into it of his religiosity (and my extreme lack thereof). Even this one, with all its Catholicism, I loved.

  21. If you are ever in the mood for a good chuckle, Greene’s Our Man in Havana can be great fun. He alternated between his little comedies and his more serious books, and this is one of the better of the fun ones.

    The 2nd time I read the End of the Affair I saw it in terms of his acceptance of Catholicism. Maurice seemed, in that light, almost artifically “bad” to me — a character created to be the intelligent atheist or agnostic, a foil of sorts for Greene’s goal. Doesn’t detract, and it’s still a good story. The most sympathetic character for me was the private detective, and also his son.

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  23. I’d never read Graham Greene when a friend lent this one to me. (Catholicism was a put off that made me stay out of his path, like Claudel)
    I loved The End of the Affair though.
    I wouldn’t know which Greene to read after this one.

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