Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre (tr. Jordan Stump)

Dominique Fabre is a contemporary French novelist whose work focuses on the lives of individuals on the fringes of society, ordinary people just trying to get by as best they can. First published in France in 2005, The Waitress Was New was the first of his books to be translated into English.

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The novella is narrated by Pierre, a fifty-six-year-old barman who works in Le Cercle, a café-bar in the Hauts-du-Seine suburbs of Paris. We follow Pierre over the course of a few days as he works at Le Cercle, going about his business and tending to customers as they pass through the café.

I shook hands with a few regulars I’d got to know over the years without really trying to. They’re here, they come in for a drink, a bite to eat, they read the bar’s newspaper. They never forget what they are, or all the things they have to do, but for a few minutes, maybe an hour or two, they put themselves between parentheses, and I bear the name of that thing in their lives. (pgs. 31-32)

Pierre is a seasoned veteran, a career bartender. He has worked in bars across the Hauts-du-Seine département for most of his working life. Le Cercle has been his home-from-home for the past eight years. As such, he is sensitive, diplomatic and discreet when dealing with customers, always willing to lend an ear when someone wants to talk or offload about their lives. Equally, he seems to know instinctively when someone wants to be left in peace. Perhaps most importantly of all, he takes care never to keep a customer waiting for their bill when they’re ready to go – after all, his customers have their own lives to lead.

During the course of the novella, we see some of Pierre’s regulars, the people who flit in and out of his life on a frequent basis. Here’s one of those people, a woman who comes to the café most mornings. I couldn’t help but wonder about her life, perhaps Pierre does too.

She always used to order a cup of coffee with a little eye-opener on the side, but a few months earlier she’d got a new hairstyle, cut short and dyed blonde, and she’d given up on the calvados. I’d never seen her there with a guy, maybe there wasn’t one? I liked her better before, even if she seemed a little more worn. I thought she looked pretty good this way, but in my head she was still the woman who drank a couple of calvas before lighting her first cigarette of the day and heading off to the Asnières station for the train. She’s one of the people I know, just because of my job. Without really meaning to be, we’re kind of alike. But we keep to ourselves, we say hello and goodbye, and that’s it. Why not in the end? (pg. 76)

A few things happen while we are in the company of Pierre. The café’s boss, Henri, a married man in his early forties, disappears, leaving Pierre, the new waitress, Madeleine, and the cook, Amédée, to run the place in his absence. Le Cercle’s regular waitress, Sabrina, has called in sick, and there are rumours that she is having an affair with Henri…at least that seems to be the assumption. The boss’s wife, Isabelle, lives in an apartment above the restaurant, and so she draws on Pierre for a little moral support and reassurance now and again. There’s a bit more to it than that, but I’ll leave you to discover the rest for yourselves should you decide to read the book.

The Waitress is not a plot-driven novel; instead, the focus is on Pierre’s interior life, his thoughts and reflections, his concerns and expectations for the future. At various points in the book, Pierre touches on events in his past, and so we get to hear a little of his backstory. Many years ago, Pierre was married, but it didn’t work out; now he seems resigned to life as a bachelor, reasonably content to live alone, a situation that appears to suit him best. Here’s Pierre as he thinks back to his last girlfriend, Jacqueline, whom he broke up with some three years ago.

The last time I was part of a couple I lived in a new building, a one-bedroom apartment with all the amenities, and a built-in kitchen. We even had underground parking. But I never felt at home there. The woman’s name was Jacqueline Serradura, and for her it was a kind of triumph to be renting an apartment like that, we had all sorts of differences of that type. Still, we tried, her especially, I think. I just turned out not to be right for her. Or maybe our time was already up, and we just didn’t know it? And there were a bunch of other stupid little things that came between us. We had trouble understanding each other, we really should have tried harder. But as time went by those differences got to me, till I just couldn’t take them anymore. I tried, though. At least I think I did. (pgs. 61-62)

The Waitress Was New is a quiet, introspective novella. Fabre perfectly captures the sense of dignity and humanity in Pierre’s character as he goes about his day-to-day life. The tone is melancholy, especially in the passages where Pierre reflects on the loneliness and uncertainty that can come as one gets older. For such a slim book – 110 pages in total – I found The Waitress surprisingly moving. It’s a story that would suit lovers of low-key, understated, character-driven fiction. A little gem.

I first read about Dominque Fabre on Guy’s blog, where you’ll find his review of this book together with a post on another of the author’s novels, Guys Like Me.

The Waitress Was New is published by Archipelago Books. Source: personal copy.

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning is perhaps best known for The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy (Fortunes of War), a set of six novels inspired by her experiences of life in Eastern Europe and the Middle East during the Second World War. Before embarking on this series in the 1960s, she wrote a number of standalone novels including The Doves of Venus, a coming-of-age story set in London in the 1950s.

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Eighteen-year-old Ellie Parsons has escaped the limitations of a dreary existence in the provinces to create a new life for herself in the city. Despite the disapproval of her somewhat bitter mother and conventional sister, Ellie is determined to make a success of her move to London, relishing her new-found independence and all the opportunities the future may bring. She has a tiny room at the top of a Chelsea boarding-house, a job packing furniture at Primrose’s (a business run by the formidable Mrs P), and an older lover named Quintin Bellot. As the book opens, Ellie is on her way home after spending the evening with Quintin, high on the first flushes of love and the excitement of new experiences ahead.

Profoundly satisfied by her adopted city, Ellie found her key, entered her house and climbed to her room on the top floor. When she reached it, she opened her window and gazed down on the windows of Margaretta Terrace. She was wide awake again and excited as though, even at this last minute of the day, life might extend some new experience. What lay ahead for her? Would she ever rap on door-knockers with the urgency of important emotions? and run round a corner wearing a fur coat? and, lifting a hand to an approaching taxi, impress some other girl named Ellie and fill her with envy and ambition. (pg. 6)

Trading on his position as a shareholder in Primrose’s, Quintin arranges to have Ellie transferred to the firm’s studio where she hopes to develop her skills as an artist. In reality, she is little more than an odd-job girl, but it’s a start, and in time she learns the craft of ‘antiquing’, treating furniture to give it an aged appearance. Unfortunately for Ellie, Quintin is not quite the knight in shining armour he appeared to be at first sight. A somewhat uncaring man at heart, Quintin has a habit of embarking upon short-term love affairs with pretty young girls, and Ellie may just be the latest in a long line of flings. At first he is captivated by her, charmed by her innocence and optimism, but he knows better than to get too involved…all good things must come to an end at some point.

He was not, as Ellie had been, disturbed by rapture, but by an irritation of the senses that exhausted him and kept him awake. He had involved himself with Ellie from habit, and it was a habit he would soon have to break. The very young, flinging their energy into the transports of love, were becoming too much for him. (pgs. 6-7)

Quintin’s life is further complicated by the reappearance of his wife, Petta. (At some point in the past, Petta left Quintin for another man as she had grown tired of her husband’s roving eye for young girls.) Petta is a complex creature: fickle, flighty, self-absorbed, but ultimately rather vulnerable and unhappy. When she is found balancing on the parapet of Westminster Bridge, Petta gives Quintin’s name as a contact and he is called to take her home. As he encounters his wife again, Quintin realises her former beauty has faded with time.

She gave him a quick, uncertain glance, then, making a movement coquettish and pathetic, turned away. She had been crying. Looking down on her head, he noticed among the filmy fairness of her hair a sort of dust of grey hairs. Her whole appearance had taken on a kind of lifeless dryness as though, during the months she had been away, she had been pressed colourless like a flower in a book. Her lipstick had come off. In this light, her lips were mauve. (pgs. 8-9)

When Quintin takes her back to his flat for the night, Petta sees an opportunity to recapture something of the past, and so she makes herself at home in an attempt to remain there as long as possible.

The central focus of Manning’s novel is Ellie and her quest to find her place in the world. As such, the book charts the various ups and downs along the way – there is at times a touch of Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude about Ellie’s story as she struggles to get by in her room at the top of the boarding house.

When Quintin makes the move to break up with Ellie, she is crestfallen and longs for him to reappear. At first she struggles to make new friends, but then another girl, Nancy, joins the artists’ studio, and Ellie finds in her a kindred spirit. But the young girl’s dreams of becoming an artist are still far from becoming a reality; and with Quintin out of the picture, who will protect her from the scrutiny of Mrs P? As the months slip by, Ellie soon realises that her attitude to life has started to change. On her arrival in London she felt there was everything to hope for; now she is a young woman with something to lose. She seems to have lost Quintin, and now her job appears to be at risk too. With all this going on in her life, Ellie’s mood oscillates between one of hopeful expectation and one of despondency.

She remembered those evenings when she had walked home from the art class and breathed the summer scents of flowers. Then she had believed she could achieve so much, she had been so exhilarated by the sense of the future and her own achievement, she had thought she might at any moment fly into the air. But now she did not feel like that. Sitting on the garden-seat, half-sleeping from exhaustion, she felt, even in her finger-tips, the weight of her own body. She could scarcely face the effort of moving it. (pg. 176)

There is plenty to enjoy in this rich novel which is so much more than a simple coming-of-age story. The characterisation is excellent. Naturally the three central characters stand out, but Manning’s novel includes a strong cast of minor players too – all are very well observed. With her freshness and enthusiasm, Ellie is easy to like, but my favourite character has to be Petta, probably because she is so very troubled. I often find myself drawn to ‘difficult’ characters like Petta, damaged or depressed individuals battling their own demons in life. Certain aspects of her demeanour (and her story) reminded me of Julia, the lead character in Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, as she drifts around London in a state of confusion and despondency.

She crossed the road again and escaped from the uproar into King Street. She had once lived near here: then the district had seemed to hold all the delight and fashion of the world. Now she found it repellent; trampled upon, agitated and rowdy as a bank holiday fair.

She did not know where she was going. She walked because she could not face so soon the return to Redcliffe Gardens. She would spend this evening alone. She turned a corner and made her way towards a hotel in Jermyn Street where she and her friends had met before the war. She had a curious hope that someone there might claim her; draw her from the empty and purposeless present, back to the past that in her memory held the flavour of perpetual summer. (pgs. 270-271)

Manning touches on a number of themes in this novel, most notably the contrasts between the young, the middle-aged and the elderly. There are young girls like Ellie, bursting with beauty and enthused by the prospect of what life has to offer them; there are the middle-aged typified by Petta, the faded beauty desperate to recapture her lost youth, and Ellie’s mother, Mrs Parsons, a woman hemmed in by the responsibilities of widowhood and the resentment of her daughter’s independence; and finally the elderly in the shape of Nancy’s Uncle Tom, a traditional man fully aware of his own mortality in the twilight of his life. The story also reflects on the inequalities between men and woman in the workplace, particularly in relation to opportunities and income. None of these ideas are overworked in any way; all are handled with a lightness of touch.

Finally, there are Manning’s wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of London in the 1950s. She is particularly good on both the city’s skyline and the weather, the rain fine as a web as it covers the streets.

Ahead of her, traffic lights changed in an empty world. When she reached them, she gazed down Chelsea Bridge Road to observe the infernal splendour of the Battersea Power Station. It was flood-lit. The rosy cameo of chimneys, seeming incandescent against the black sky, billowed smoke wreaths, glowing, massive, majestical as the smoke of hell. She loved them. They were a landmark of home. (pg. 4)

I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that illustrates the author’s painterly eye. In her youth, Manning studied art; unsurprisingly, her prose demonstrates an ability to visualise and capture a scene.

A pink light, strained through thinning cloud, washed the garden with a supernatural sheen. […] By the time the girls had reached the stream, the colour had gone from the air. In the milky sheen of evening the trunks of the apple trees were luminous, bloomed over with copper-green. Among the tress the water flickered, the links of a silver chain. (pg. 167)

The Doves of Venus is published by Virago. Source: personal copy.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (tr. Avril Bardoni)

The thirteen pieces in this excellent collection of Leonardo Sciascia’s short stories, The Wine-Dark Sea, were written between 1959 and 1972. Collectively, the author considered these stories – which are arranged in chronological order – as a kind of summary of his work up until that point in time. As such, the pieces are somewhat diverse in nature, and yet there is something inherently Sicilian in each and every one, a reflection of a certain aspect of the island’s soul and character. As with other collections I’ve covered here, I’m not going to review each individual story. Instead, I will focus on my favourites, the ones that made the greatest impression or spoke to me in some way.

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The collection opens with The Ransom, Sciascia’s retelling of an old folk tale he first heard during a visit to the capital as a young boy. When Don Nicola Cirino, the Procurator General of Palermo takes a fancy to a beautiful girl named Concettina, he sees an opportunity to strike a bargain with her father, Don Raimondo. If the father allows him to marry Concettina, Don Nicola will arrange for the release of the man’s son-in-law, currently serving a prison sentence for killing a peasant with a single kick of his foot. Despite the young girl’s concerns, the father agrees to the union, and so Concettina has to marry the old judge; in effect, the innocent must pay the price for the release of the guilty. However, the story doesn’t end at this point; there are further developments to come, events that add a touch of irony to this old tale.

Many of the stories in this collection are underscored by a sense of rivalry between factions, whether it be clashes between husbands and wives, conflicts between separate branches of the Mafia or tensions between local neighbourhoods. This quote from The Ransom captures it nicely as Sciascia reflects on the differences between two neighbouring towns, Grotte and Racalmutto.

In truth, the two towns, although only separated by a couple of miles, were as different as could be. Grotte had a Protestant minority and a Socialist majority, three or four families of Jewish descent and a strong Mafia; it also had bad roads, mean houses and dreary festivals. Racalmuto staged a festival that lasted a whole week and was splendidly colourful and extravagant; the people of Grotte flocked to it in their hundreds; but for the rest of the year the town was tranquil and trouble-free, being electorally divided between two great families, having a handful of Socialists, and army of priests and a Mafia  divided against itself. (pg. 5)

Perhaps somewhat inevitably, the Mafia feature in quite a few of Sciascia’s stories. In Philology, two men discuss the origins and meaning of the word ‘mafia’, but their reasons for doing so only become clear as the story unfolds. Another story, the aptly named Mafia Western, features two rival Mafia cells that have been in conflict with one another for many years. When a third cell is suspected of killing several members of both factions, not even the patriarchs of the Mafia hierarchy can solve the issue through the usual declaration of a truce; so they leave it up to the two cells to resolve things as swiftly as possible.

The mafiosi of the town began to make their own investigations, but fear, the sense of being the objects of an inscrutable vendetta or homicidal whim, and finding themselves suddenly in exactly the same position in which they themselves had placed honest people for so long, left them bewildered and robbed of much of their will to act. They were reduced to imploring their political members in their turn to implore the carabinieri to mount a real, thorough-going and efficient investigation—even though they suspected that the carabinieri themselves, having failed to smoke them out by legal methods, might have resorted to this shadier, more secure one. (pg. 169-170)

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, The Long Crossing, a group of peasants board a ship on the promise that they will be taken from Sicily to New Jersey, where life in the land of hope and glory beckons. The story opens with this wonderful passage which sets the scene perfectly.

The night seemed made to order, the darkness so thick that its weight could almost be felt when one moved. And the sound of the sea, like the wild-animal breath of the world itself, frightened them as it gasped and died at their feet. (pg 17)

Several of the men have sold virtually all their possessions to pay for the trip, a journey they understand will take twelve days, give or take a day or two, But when they arrive at their destination, all is not quite what it seems at first sight. This is a mournful story of faith and duplicity, one that will stay with me for quite a while.

Betrayal also rears its head in another excellent story, A Matter of Conscience, in which a woman who has committed adultery with a relative is wracked with guilt at the thought of continuing to deceive her husband, a loyal and loving man. Even though the affair is now over, the woman, who loves her husband very much, feels the urge to confess everything to clear her conscience. With this in mind, she writes a letter to a woman’s magazine asking for advice. When the letter is printed, it catches the eye of one the local lawyers. Consequently, it’s not long before the men of the town are caught up in the process of trying to guess the identity of the woman (and therefore the husband) in question. When one man, Favara, becomes the focus of attention, he is both amused and anxious:

Amused, because the bachelors, the widowers, the old men and those fortunate enough to have a wife without relatives, could afford to feel highly entertained; anxious, because those who fulfilled Don Luigi’s conditions were now seriously alarmed and were studying Favara’s reactions minutely as if he were offering a kind of sacrifice on their behalf which, once accomplished, would restore their shattered sense of security. (pg. 148)

Like a number of the stories in this collection, A Matter of Conscience ends on understated but poignant note.

Interestingly, I found Sciascia’s stories more humane than I had anticipated. When I think back to my previous readings of Sciascia’s novels Equal Danger and The Day of the Owl, it’s the biting combination of crime, corruption and political intrigue that I remember rather than a sense of compassion. Perhaps the best example of this feeling of humanity is encapsulated in the titular story, The Wine-Dark Sea, in which Bianchi, an unmarried engineer from the North of Italy is travelling to Sicily by train, sharing a carriage with a husband and wife and their two boys. The family, who are returning from a wedding in the capital, are accompanied by a relative, an attractive young girl named Dina. As the journey progresses, Bianchi – a man who has never been particularly fond of children – finds himself warming to the young boys despite their rather unruly behaviour. Further, Bianchi is clearly attracted to Dina, a girl of few words and profound feelings. As a consequence, these two developments prompt him to re-examine his own life. At just shy of forty pages, this is the longest story in the collection and deservedly so. It touches on the joy of family life, the tensions between the people of the North and those of the South (the Sicilians, in particular), the values of society, so many things. It’s my favourite piece in the collection.

A similar humane quality comes through in The Test, a story in which a Swiss engineer named Basler travels across Sicily from town to town, recruiting young women to work in a factory producing electrical goods. On the engineer’s arrival in an isolated village, his driver is approached by a young man whose girlfriend is one of the candidates. The young man wishes to marry this girl, and so he implores the driver (a fellow Sicilian) to help him by persuading the engineer to reject her, thereby ensuring she remains in the village. This story touches on several things: the economics of life in a small town; the dignity that comes with work and being able to provide for a family; questions of trust and loyalty. It’s another fine story.

Other stories worthy of a mention include:

  • Demotion, in which the head of the local Communist cell berates his wife for joining a demonstration against the removal of a statue from the local church, the statue of a saint whom the priests have now declared as never having existed in the first place. This is a story with an ironic sting in its tale, best left for readers to discover for themselves.
  • End–Game, the story of a man who is sent to eliminate a woman. But who holds the balance of power here? Is it the assassin, his potential victim or the man who commissioned the kill (the husband of the woman in question)?

In summary, this collection of stories would make an excellent introduction to Leonardo Sciascia’s Sicily, a place characterised by a compelling fusion of raw beauty, dignity, suspicion, brutality and sly irony.

Update: Grant (1streading) has reviewed this collection – click here to read his excellent review.

The Wine-Dark Sea is published by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.

The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue (tr. Michael Emmerich)

Yasushi Inoue’s career as a novelist began in 1949 when at the age of forty-two he published the novella The Hunting Gun. This was closely followed by another novella, Bullfight, which I reviewed back in November 2014. Inoue went on to write 50 novels and more than 150 novellas/short stories, making him one of the leading figures in the world of Japanese literature. Sadly for those us in the English-speaking world, only a handful of Inoue’s works appear to be have been translated. All credit then to Pushkin Press for publishing English translations of three of his books in the past few years (the third is a collection of three short stories, Life of a Counterfeiter).

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The opening chapter of The Hunting Gun is narrated by a writer, a man who relates the story of a prose poem he has composed for inclusion in a magazine titled ‘The Hunter’s Friend’. The narrator, no fan of blood sports himself, was originally approached by the magazine’s editor, an old classmate from high school, with the suggestion of contributing a piece. Following the publication of his poem (titled ‘The Hunting Gun’), the narrator receives a letter from Misugi Jösuke, a man who believes he is the central figure depicted in the work. Misugi suspects that the poet may have seen him when he visited the hunting grounds on Mount Amagi in early November. When the narrator casts his mind back to that time, he recalls seeing a figure in that very spot, a tall, middle-aged man who seemed to radiate an aura of solitude.

He had just stepped off the path onto a road that led through a dense wood up into the mountains, and as I watched him go, treading cautiously, one slow step at a time, taking care that his rubber boots did not slip on the surface of the road, which was fairly steep, something in his figure had suggested the profound loneliness I had described in “The Hunting Gun”.  (pgs. 16-17)

Misugi goes on to explain that he would like the narrator to understand the ‘desolate, dried-up riverbed’ he glimpsed within him that November morning. He has in his possession three letters – which he will forward to the narrator under separate cover – each one addressed to him personally, each one composed by a different woman in his life. Together these three letters tell quite a story, and their contents form the remainder of Inoue’s novella.

The first of the three letters is from Misugi’s niece, Shōku. From the opening page, we learn that her mother died fairly recently, and she is writing to her uncle to thank him for his help with the funeral arrangements. That said, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Shōku is now aware of the secrets her mother, Saiko, had been keeping until her death, secrets that concern Misugi, information she could not bring herself to discuss with her uncle face-to-face. Consequently, her letter is infused with a deep sadness, a sense of melancholy and numbness as the words flow across the page.

Ever since I read Mother’s diary, I’ve started noticing that maybe two or three times a day, or sometimes even five or six, the whole natural world, everything around me, is suddenly awash with a sad colour, as if the sun is setting. All I have to do is remember you and Mother and my world is completely transformed. (pg. 23)

Next we have Midori’s letter. Midori is Misugi’s wife, albeit in name alone. Unbeknownst to her husband, Midori has known about Misugi and Saiko’s secret for thirteen years, having observed them from a distance at various points in time, a fact she now makes clear in her letter. Midori’s letter exposes the depth of her pain. The tone is cool and detached, and her distaste for her husband is plain to see.

You live, I think it is fair to say, a life entirely free of loneliness. You are not one to yearn for companionship the moment you are on your own. You may sometimes look bored, but never lonesome. And you have a tendency to see things in an oddly clear-cut fashion, and to be absolutely convinced of the superiority of your own views. You may say this is merely a sign of confidence, but watching you one is possessed somehow by an urge to seize you and give you a shake. In a word, I suppose one might describe you as a man utterly intolerable to women, completely devoid of an endearingly human side, who in no way makes it worth the trouble of doing you the favour of falling for you. (pg 48)

Finally, we have Saiko’s letter written shortly before her death, a letter she leaves for Misugi to open once she has gone. This is a poignant missive of love, the act of loving another and being loved in return. It is punctuated with beautiful images, the landscape and mountains, the leaves on the trees.

It was a sort of trick of the season, perhaps, that moment in November, and of the time of day, shortly before dusk. An effect of the particular atmosphere that day in late autumn, after an afternoon of intermittent drizzle—an array of colours so rich it was as if the whole mountain were dreaming them, colours so beautiful they made us afraid at the thought that we were going to climb up there, up the side of the mountain. Thirteen years have passed since then, yet the touching beauty of those leaves, on all the different trees, rises up before me as if I were there at this moment. (pg.79)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, each letter reveals further details about Misugi’s story, his relationship with Saiko and the events leading up to her death. It’s a technique that works very well here as each new revelation casts a little more light on the situation, thereby enabling us to see things from a range of different perspectives. As the story draws to a close, we return briefly to the narrator for his reflections on Misugi, the figure who, when he glimpsed him that day in late autumn, seemed to capture something of the solitude of the human condition.

The Hunting Gun is a very affecting little story of illicit love, deceit, secrets, loneliness and loss. As young Shōku observes in her letter to Misugi, love isn’t always the shimmering, sparkling emotion she had previously believed it to be; there are other kinds of love, too, such as the love that stretches out secretly ‘like an underground channel deep under the earth’ .

Distinctly Japanese in its themes and style, this is a book that would suit lovers of quiet, introspective fiction. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Yasunari Kawabata, whose novella Beauty and Sadness I’ve reviewed here.

A couple of other bloggers have reviewed Inoue’s novella – here are links to reviews by Tony Malone and Tony Messenger.

The Hunting Gun is published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

It’s been a very long time since I last read one of Graham Greene’s books, maybe twenty or twenty-five years. My copy of his 1951 novel, The End of the Affair, has been languishing on the shelves for what feels like ages, so when I compiled my reading list for the Classics Club back in December, it seemed a natural fit for the project.

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The End of the Affair is narrated by Maurice Bendrix, a moderately successful single writer living in London. Under the guise of conducting some research for his latest novel, Bendrix forms a connection with Sarah, the wife of a government official and neighbour, Henry Miles. Bendrix’s latest book features a character who works in the civil service; hence he has a semi-legitimate reason to ask Sarah to have dinner with him – what better way to find out about the working life of a public servant than to talk to his wife? By the end of their dinner date, it is clear that Bendrix and Sarah are deeply attracted to one another; and so their love affair begins, a liaison that seems blighted virtually from the outset.

When I began to realize how often we quarrelled, how often I picked on her with nervous irritation, I became aware that our love was doomed: love had turned into a love-affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. (pg. 25)

In many respects, the relationship is characterised by the tension between obsessive love and obsessive hate. Bendrix is wracked with insecurity and jealousy. Even though he loves Sarah very deeply, Bendix has a certain self-destructive streak, a character trait that drives him to hurt his lover in an attempt to hasten the pain.

Just as I went home that first evening with no exhilaration but only a sense of sadness and resignation, so again and again I returned home on other days with the certainty that I was only one of many men—the favourite lover of the moment. This woman, whom I loved so obsessively that if I woke in the night I immediately found the thought of her in my brain and abandoned sleep, seemed to give up all her time to me. And yet I could feel no trust: in the act of love I could be arrogant, but alone I had only to look in the mirror to see doubt, in the shape of a lined face and a lame leg—why me? (pgs. 36-37)

Sarah, on the other hand, is tormented by feelings of guilt. She doesn’t love her rather dull husband Henry but stays with him out of sense of duty. Henry has never been able to make love to Sarah, certainly not in a meaningful or fulfilling way; but despite his failings, he is a good man who offers his wife a degree of security. Bendrix wants a love that will endure, but Sarah knows that she cannot commit to this on account of her marriage to Henry. When a dramatic event forces Sarah to confront her faith, she breaks off the affair with Bendrix, ending all contact with him in the process. As a result, Bendrix is left feeling a potent mix of confusion, bitterness and pain.

The novel opens in January 1946, eighteen months after the end of the affair, when Bendix happens to run into Henry on the rain-soaked Common one evening. This meeting revives Bendix’s feelings for Sarah, so he employs a private detective, the superbly-drawn Mr Parkis, to follow his former lover and report on her activities. The story is then pieced together from a combination of Bendrix’s memories and reflections, together with excerpts from Sarah’s journal, charting the demise of the affair and her feelings during the months that follow.

Last night I looked at Henry when he was asleep. So long as I was what the law considers the guilty party, I could watch him with affection, as though he were a child who needed my protection. Now I was what they called innocent, I was maddened continually by him. (pg.82)

It is only by reading Sarah’s journal that Bendrix discovers her true reasons for ending the relationship so suddenly.

In many ways, The End of the Affair reminded me very strongly of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Like Dowell in Ford’s novel, Bendix is narrating his story from the future, a standpoint that enables him to decide exactly when and how he will reveal certain pieces of information to the reader. As Monica Ali writes in her introduction to the Vintage Books edition, ‘[Bendrix] chooses to pull us all the while through the dark labyrinths of his connivings and imaginings so that we too are at the mercy of a superior power: that of the writer.’

The action takes place partly in 1946, when Henry and Sarah came back into Bendrix’s life, and partly in the early 1940s when the affair itself was underway. As such, we are constantly moving back and forth in time. The ever-shifting timeline adds a level of complexity to Bendrix’s narrative, but not in an unnecessary way – it’s more a case of Greene adding depth to the story. (I suspect this is a book best read in one or two sittings rather than in short snatches of time here and there.)

Overall, I liked this novel very much, especially Bendrix’s reflections on his affair with Sarah, a relationship played out against the background of WW2 and the bombing raids on London. The 1940s setting is wonderful evoked through Greene’s prose – I loved this description of the Bristol, a hotel by the side of Paddington Station, which serves as the venue for Bendix and Sarah’s first night together.

It had been the Bristol; there was a potted fern in the hall and we were shown the best room by a manageress with blue hair: a real Edwardian room with a great gilt double bed and red velvet curtains and a full-length mirror. (People who came to Arbuckle Avenue never required twin beds.) I remember the trivial details very well: how the manageress asked me whether we wanted to stay the night: how the room cost fifteen shillings for a short stay: how the electric meter only took shillings and we hadn’t one between us, but I remember nothing else—how Sarah looked the first time or what we did, except that were both nervous and made love badly. It didn’t matter. We had started—that was the point. There was the whole of life to look forward to then. (pg. 34)

Greene sets the tone of this novel on the opening page: ‘So this is a record of hate far more than of love…’ Despite the strong sense of bitterness in much of Bendrix’s narrative, there are touches of bleak humour dotted throughout the story, especially in the portrayal of the dedicated and humble private detective, Mr Parkis.

Despite their individual faults and failings, I felt a great deal of sympathy for each of the central characters, Bendrix, Sarah and Henry. All three have to face up to their personal demons, their own individual losses in life. As well as charting the demise of the aforementioned affair, the novel also explores questions of belief and faith; the second half, in particular, weighs heavy with the burden of religious guilt. Some of the passages from Sarah’s diary are, perhaps, a little overwrought, although I’m willing to accept this was a conscious move on the part of the author – an accurate reflection of Sarah’s mind, so to speak.

As the novel drew to a close, I was left with one over-riding thought: how thin the line is between love and hate.

Other reviews include these by Cleopatra and TJ (My Book Strings).

The End of the Affair is published by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy.