Graham Greene “The End of the Affair” – book review

“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”

The End of the Affair is a deeply weird book. There is certainly monstrous egotism involved.

The narration of the novel was absolutely frantic- it’s an almost solipsistic account of Maurice Bendrix’s passionate love-affair with Sarah, the wife of a conscientious but rather boring civil servant Henry Miles.

As the book begins, Bendrix and Sarah have been apart for two years. But now Bendrix is convinced that she is having another affair.

Bendrix is a writer and Sarah’s new love-affair becomes his new obsession.

He compares his obsession of imagining Sarah with other men to the act of writing a novel. He cannot stop thinking about her. Soon, he finds himself hiring a detective to watch her movements – a comic figure called Mr. Parkis.

It is Greene’s passages on writing that I enjoyed the most. Here’s one where he explains he cannot write when he is trapped in thinking of Sarah.

“So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one’s days. 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.”

I completely agree with him on this. When something is dwelling on your mind it is almost impossible to get any decent writing done.

I had the opportunity of enjoying The End of the Affair being read aloud by Colin Firth, who is an absolutely fantastic narrator. I think he is partially the reason why I devoured the book so quickly. It was certainly not fondness for Bendrix – who refers often to his own book as “a record of hate” (or love- but, for him, the two are remarkably similar).

SPOILER ALERT

If you haven’t read the book and mind about spoilers. You should definitely stop reading now.

 

Less than halfway through the book we realize that Sarah’s lover is not a man – she has given up her love-affair with Bendrix because she believes in God – and that God has saved Bendrix’s life. Sarah becomes a Catholic, despite going to weekly lectures by a radical called Richard Smythe. Smythe’s denials convince her even more of the existence of God. In the end, she dies after having caught pneumonia. She had prayed to God for death to take her away from her temptations.

A classic “fallen woman” redeemed death, if there ever was one. The only problem is that Sarah is apparently surrounded by men who love her – and neither of them seems to have the bright idea of sending her to a doctor for that awful cough that she has – since the very beginning of the book. Both are too self-obsessed to actually bloody notice. HUMPH.

Sarah’s diary was, for me, one of the more sympathetic parts of the book.
Her belief is a 21st-century one – highly personalized. She is struck by the loneliness of her own existence, and by the miracle that happened for her. Later in the novel, we have mentions of other miracles, after her death. We hear of a child being cured of appendicitis and a man of his ugly birthmark, just by the benefit of a dream of her appearance.

Interestingly, Sarah is not in Dostoyevski’s habit of questioning God for the existence of injustice in the world. The injustice that concerns her is that she can’t be with Bendrix. The fact that God has allowed World War II bothers her very little.

Bendrix is not fond of the God that took Sarah away from him – understandably so. But he pretends not to know that she wanted a Catholic funeral – and in that case, he is spiting Sarah, personally – no matter what his personal beliefs are. Coming back, yet again, to the monstrous egotism of our narrator.

Character traits aside, the writing is excellent. The phrase “a fellow graduate from the school of human misery” (Bendrix talking about Henry Miles has stuck with me for a long time.

I was surprised by the ending of the novel. I liked the slightly strange friendship that has grown between Henry and Bendrix, and Bendrix’s strange note of resistance against the tide of miracles seemed very much in tune with his character.

I will do my best to read more Grahame Greene at some point in the near future.

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