The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (1951)
What it’s about: Disaffected novelist Maurice Bendrix recalls his doomed affair with a married woman, Sarah Miles, set against the London Blitz in World War II. When a bomb blasts Maurice’s flat as he is in bed with Sarah, he is nearly killed. Sarah breaks off the affair with no apparent explanation and returns to her husband, and Maurice is consumed with jealous rage. Maurice meets Sarah’s husband Henry, who shares his suspicions that Sarah has been having an affair. Maurice volunteers to visit a private investigator to investigate Sarah, to avoid being found out and to satisfy his own curiosity about Sarah’s fidelity. He reads Sarah’s private diary, and discovers that she believed he had died in the bomb blast, and promised God to give up the affair if he lived. After following Sarah to a church, Maurice discovers that she has become a Catholic. Sarah dies suddenly after catching cold walking in the rain. Maurice and Henry console each other in the wake of her death, and eventually share a house together. At the novel’s conclusion, Maurice appears to have made steps towards acknowledging the existence of God
Why it’s a classic: Despite its modest length (clocking in at a lean 160 pages), a small cast of characters and the tawdry wartime setting, The End of the Affair has the insight and scope of a major classic. Known as Greene’s most autobiographical novel – he sets the action in Clapham Common where he lived in the 1940s, and indiscreetly dedicated the book to the married woman he’d had a wartime affair with – it’s a masterful study in jealousy, obsession and the ugliness of male sexual desire that resounds with the hard-won truth of lived experience. It’s also a satisfying work of literature – tautly constructed, psychologically well-observed, and with a lean, economic use of language that packs a sharp emotional punch. For a book about wartime, rationing and bad sex in public places, The End of the Affair is very funny, in a brittle, despairing way, with witty character sketches of a very British type of passive-aggression and stupidity.
It’s always surprising how novels written in the 1950s can feel so modern, and Greene’s unsparing, brutal descriptions of Maurice’s jealous despair are still sandpaper-sharp and even shocking. It’s a bracing experience encountering Maurice’s misogynist rage: boiling over with his contempt for Sarah, with casual comments about her husband “needing to learn to control his wife better“. Maurice’s sexism will, I suspect, cause problems for many readers, and our initial view of Sarah through the narrow prism of Maurice’s desire makes her a distant and sometimes unbelievable character. Greene’s attempt to level the playing field – giving us access to Sarah’s “true voice” via Maurice reading her diary – doesn’t quite work, feeling too much like a man’s fantasy of a woman hopelessly devoted to him to the detriment of her own life There’s also a caustic thumbnail sketch of Sarah’s mother late in the piece that strikes an unnecessarily harsh note, providing an overly simplistic Freudian explanation for Sarah’s erratic behaviour. That said, describing The End of the Affair as misogynistic is both stating the obvious and missing the point. Sexual jealousy is the engine that fuels the plot. I’m minded to credit Greene with more insight than his lead character, who realises too late that he’s misread Sarah’s motivations and under-estimated her love for him.
One of the most famous themes of the novel – Sarah’s 11th-hour conversion to Catholicism and Maurice’s tug-of-war between religious faith and his own angry doubt – also feels laboured and not entirely convincing. This is partially, I think, because the social landscape of the novel – adulterous fumblings in doorways, private detectives grubbily obtaining evidence so warring couples can sue for divorce – seems so alien to modern readers. There’s a deeper problem, though, in that Sarah’s religious conflict and Maurice’s “conversion” seem more like narrative devices (and platforms on which Greene can expound Important Themes) than anything emanating organically from the characters. While it’s plausible that deeply unhappy people might turn to religion as a quick fix for personal problems, Greene didn’t quite convince me of Sarah’s conversion or Maurice’s fumbling towards religion. It’s here that the brevity of the novel works against its aims, holding up less well than Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a much more satisfying and deeply-plumbed study of Catholic guilt and last-minute conversion.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A very British round of applause. This is the first Greene I’ve read (apart from his delightful comic novel Travels With My Aunt), and I was set to hate him for being a dreary Dead White Male who was a horrible Tory snob and didn’t understand women. He may well be all those things, but By Jove, the man can write. His prose is razor-sharp and emotionally vivid, and he’s unafraid of burrowing into the ugliest impulses in human nature while still retaining empathy with his deeply damaged characters. His flinty realism recalls the best of Hemingway and Orwell, without the same machismo or proselytising, with a nod to the satire of Evelyn Waugh that never lapses into camp or nostalgia. Greene is that most rare of writers – a quintessential Englishman who seems genuinely disgusted by the awfulness of being English – which makes me like him much more than I ever imagined I would.
Quotable Quote: Too many to mention. I wanted to stand up and applaud at the elegant ferocity of his sentences, landing like well-aimed daggers on the page.
“How twisted we humans are, and yet they say a God made us; but I find it hard to conceive of any God who is not as simple as a perfect equation, as clear as air…. 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.”
“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.“