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.