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.

72 thoughts on “The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

  1. hastanton

    I love this book …..I’m a big fan of GG and reread this ( relatively) recently at a book group . I also reread The Good Soldier recently , the similarities hadn’t struck me til your review …..but you’re right a v similar style of narrator.

    I think I read somewhere that this book was inspired by an affair that Greene had during the war .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can imagine this being a good one for book groups as there’s plenty to discuss. I think you’re right about the inspiration for the novel. The introduction to the Vintage edition mentions apparent parallels between the story and Greene’s own affair with Lady Catherine Wilson. She converted to Catholicism at some point, was reputed to have a number of lovers and was married to an ‘important’ and docile man. Plenty of interesting material there.

      Reply
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  3. sharkell

    This was (and is) my first Graham Greene – I read it in 2013 and gave it 5 stars. I really do need to read more Greene and I really must try Ford Madox Ford. I am finding that I am enjoying the classics more than contemporary fiction at the moment, although I read far more contemporary fiction than classics! Something a bit skewed there!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Greene was one of the greats. It’s been such a long time since I last read anything by him and I’d forgotten quite how good a writer he was. I’m also enjoying the modern classics much more than contemporary fiction at the moment. Some of the contemporary novels I’ve read in the last couple of years have left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied, so I’ve been veering towards older fiction and 20th-century classics that have stood the test of time. Sometimes I wonder if I was born in the wrong era! Oh, and I would definitely recommend The Good Soldier, especially given your fondness for The End of the Affair. I couldn’t help but see some parallels between the two novels.

      Reply
  4. poppypeacockpens

    Great review Jacqui! I listened to the audible copy of this last month and it was a great post op companion -especially with the honeyed tones of reader Colin Firth- you’ve really captured the essence of the story; I agree it’s one to be immersed in to appreciate the timeline shifts and full benefit of Greene’s ability to relay the intensity of feelings but with succinct text not over-egged prose. My first Greene, can you recommend others?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy! Oh. I remember you saying that you’d bought the audiobook to listen to while recovering from surgery. I hope you’re feeling much better now. It’s quite an intense story, isn’t it? I’d forgotten quite how powerful Greene can be when he gets into top gear. Of the ones I’ve read, I would suggest you try either Brighton Rock or one of his more political books – something like Our Man in Havana, his Cold War espionage novel.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s good news. :) Let me know how you get on with Our Man in Havana, I’ll be interested to hear. Deutschland 83 has passed me by so I might have to catch up. It’s clashing with War and Peace, which is part of the problem!

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear it’s a favourite. I can imagine it yielding even more on multiple readings. Once you’re familiar with the overall shape of the story, I guess it makes it easier to focus on some of the other layers in the novel.

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        Indeed. And one of the things which fascinates me about this book (as well as any really well written book which is about more than ‘the story’) is that it is possible to read it and have very individual responses to what is really going on, what the book is really about.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s so true. One of the signs of a great book, I think. If we all see the same things in a novel, then it might suggest a lack of depth or richness (to some extent at least).

          Reply
          1. Lady Fancifull

            It’s also what makes reading people’s reviews so fascinating, as you can see aspects which didn’t suggest themselves to you, because your attention was taken in a different direction

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Indeed! It’s good to see things from a number of different perspectives. This would be an excellent novel for book groups; there’s so much to discuss.

              Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review as always Jacqui. I think you’ve articulated the reservations I had about the book when you mention Sarah’s diary being a little overwrought, and it was the slightly too intense bits of the book that didn’t work so well for me. However, Greene’s prose is always wonderful, even in his lesser novels, and he conjures the atmosphere of wartime London so brilliantly. It’s obviously time I went back to his work!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Interesting to hear you felt the same way about Sarah’s diary entries. There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel (most notably the images of London in the 1940s), but I couldn’t quite bring myself to love it because of the reservations you’ve highlighted in your comments. Greene’s prose is wonderful, though, and I’m glad I finally got around to picking this one up. That’s one less gap in my reading now. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love this era, so I’m always drawn to novels set in London in the 1940s. The period is very well evoked here – you really get a feel for the backdrop, which turns out to be pivotal at a certain point in the novel.

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    Superb commentary on this book Jacqui.

    I have heard so much about this over the years and I want to read it.

    Your comment about feeling sympathy for flawed characters is telling. I think that a great writer is able to create such a connection with less the perfect characters.

    As for the overwrought passages some people really seem to become very emotional when under great emotional stress.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, I think you’re right, it’s one of the signs of a great writer, this ability to create realistic, flawed characters that elicit the sympathy of the reader. Elizabeth Taylor is very skilled in this area too, and that’s probably why I’m enjoying her novels so much. Sarah’s diary entries are very intense, but I guess that’s a reflection of her state of mind at the time. I really think you’d get a lot out of this novel, Brian – it’s your type of thing.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Lovely review. I remember the film of this with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore I have wanted to read the book ever since. I’ve only read two or three Graham Greene novels and have another one or two tbr.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen the film of this even though Fiennes and Moore are two of my favourite actors. I’ll have to remedy that one day!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent. I would be very curious to hear what you think of it. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to read this one, a question of time I guess.

      Reply
  8. realthog

    A very nice account of this book — many thanks! I always enjoy Greene’s novels, but I haven’t read this one. Guess I’d better do something to fix that . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, John. I was wondering whether you might be a Greene fan, especially given the various adaptations of his books and his work as a screenwriter. :)

      Reply
  9. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Thanks for the link, Jacqui, and thanks for reminding me of this book. Like you, one of the things I liked most about this is that you feel sympathy for unlikeable characters. (How is everything? I hope you are doing well!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! Your review prompted me to include this novel in my Classics Club list. How could I not read it after your reminder?! I’m okay, thanks. February will be a difficult month for me, so I’m not sure how the next few weeks will shape up. We’ll see. I hope February turns out to be a good month for you, better than your January! Take care.

      Reply
  10. Maureen Murphy

    Oh my. So much inspiration for comment over your last several wonderful essays. For me, “The End of the Affair” is the closest thing to a “perfect” novel I’ve ever read, in the technical sense. It is also a favorite of mine for its sheer beauty.

    I read somewhere that an aspiring novelist took this work apart, examined it bit by bit as if it was a Swiss watch, and replicated it (POV, structure, etc.) with his own characters and plot, as a giant writing exercise. He found the resulting product too mechanical to work as a published book, but used the education from that effort as the base for his own first few manuscripts, and did eventually publish. I love the private detective and his son.

    By strange coincidence, was thinking this morning while walking to the bus about a beautifully-observed scene at the end of “The End of….” Bendrix meets up at a pub with an older chap with a sharp young female acolyte in tow. In a withering observation, he notes that the man is already on a downward slope in his life journey (though blind to it), and that the young woman is well aware of this and will soon move beyond him. I wonder if Graham himself observed this somewhere in his travels and set it down in his writer’s journal for a later date.

    Well done, and best regards,

    Maureen Murphy

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Maureen. Gosh, what a story! I’m sure this novel has been the subject of much analysis at a very high level. It is a fascinating book from a technical perspective, so much of the structure, shifting timelines, POV and themes reminded me of FMF’s The Good Soldier, another novel that could stand up to a similar depth of analysis.

      How funny that you were just thinking about this book earlier today! I wouldn’t be surprised if that passage was inspired by an incident in Greene’s life or by something he observed one evening. He seems to have drawn on other experiences for the central thrust of the story, so there may be other instances as well.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It took me quite a while to gather my thoughts on this one, a novel that benefits from a certain amount of reflection. Did you review it, Caroline, or was it a pre-blog read?

      Reply
  11. Naomi

    Your review, as always, makes me want to read this book pronto. Graham Greene is an author that I keep meaning to read. I own one of his novels, but I can’t remember which one (I just went to look for it, but couldn’t find it. I have many odd places around the house where I stash my overflow.) I get the feeling, however, from people who have read his books that any of them would be a good place to start. Do you have a favourite?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you – I’ll take that as a compliment! I read quite a few or his novels when I was younger, but not this one for some reason. My favourites are Our Man in Havana (an espionage novel set against the Cold War) and Brighton Rock. Whichever one you have, I’m sure it will be worth reading. He’s a great writer, probably undervalued these days.

      Reply
  12. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock

    Thank you for a lovely review of a book that would definitely be on my desert island list. I read it young, and when I didn’t realise authors could be so clever and so insightful, and I really should read it again to see what I think at a very different point in life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I’m glad my review brought back a few memories. As you say, it would be interesting for you to reread it now to see how things have changed – I’m always fascinated by the impact age and life experience can have on our responses to certain books.

      Reply
  13. Bellezza

    First, two totally trite comments. I love the covers of Vintage books! My edition of The Magic Mountain just came in for March’s read, and the Vintage cover far outweighs any other in my opinion. I’m sure that’s half of why I bought that particular copy.

    Also, I have not read The End of The Affair in a long time, but I remember thinking the film very powerful. Perhaps it was because at that stage of my life, when I was single and in love with a man I could not have. It is at those foolish stages that one is able to relate to the foolishness of those one reads about. If we can call it foolishness. Still, I love Graham Greene’s writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, your comments are not in the least bit trite. Covers can be so influential, shaping our impressions of a story before we even begin. I must admit to being a huge fan of these Vintage editions, too. They are so smart, and the cover images often convey a certain mood or style – Richard Yates’ novels are a perfect example.

      I must catch up with the film, especially as Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore are two of my favourite actors. It’s a very powerful story, so I wonder how I would have reacted if had I read it when I was young and impressionable. It’s often easier to see things more objectively when one is older (and hopefully wiser). :-)

      Reply
  14. Donald Whiteway

    What an intriguing review! I have read only one Greene novel (and cannot for the life of me remember which!). This is a familiar title for me and now it is on my soon to read list, thanks to your review. Thank you for sharing. Enjoy your day!

    Reply
  15. Grab the Lapels

    That quote you provided–about Sarah being so kind and protective of her husband when she is wronging him so bad, and then hating his guts when she’s ended her affair–cuts straight to a really ugly place. As a married person, I can’t imagine a worse deceptive thought!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s tough to read, isn’t it? She doesn’t love her husband but ends up staying with him out of sense of duty. There’s a bit more to it than that, but it’s hard to say anything more without revealing the crux of the novel. It’s a tricky one to describe without going into more detail about something which would be better for readers to discover for themselves. :)

      Reply
  16. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cleo! I really enjoyed your review of this novel. You were absolutely right about Greene’s writing – the quality of his prose shines through.

      Reply
  17. Gemma

    A great review, Jacqui. It’s made me want to reread the novel! When I first read it I too was struck by the idea of how thin the line can be between love and hate. The whole novel is intimate and intense, and Greene’s pared down prose just works wonderfully with this. Glad you enjoyed the novel, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gemma! Yes, I wasn’t quite prepared for the level of intensity in Sarah’s diary entries, but they definitely added another dimension to the story. It would be a good one to reread at some point…I’m sure I missed some of the subtleties in the story.

      Reply
  18. BookerTalk

    It’s years since I read this but I will return to it since its on my classics club list too.. Have you seen the film with Ralph Ffienes? so far my favourite Greene is Heart of the Matter

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll be curious to see your review of it, especially if you’re able to comment on how it stands up to a second reading. I haven’t seen the film, but as you’re the third person to mention it, I’ll have to track it down.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I couldn’t help but think of The Good Soldier, probably because it’s still fairly fresh in my mind as I only got around to reading it towards the end of 2014. It’s funny how these stories of torturous affairs can linger in the imagination for months on end…

      Reply
  19. Séamus Duggan

    It’s also been a very long time since I read any Greene, after an obsessive period, almost an affair. Maybe this is the year to read some and look back. This was one of my favourites, although there were many – Heart of the Matter; Brighton Rock; Keep the Aspidistra Flying; Down and Out…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha – a worthy nod to the title of this novel! I went through a bit of a Greene phase as well when I was much younger, but he seems to have dropped out of fashion these days. I haven’t seen much coverage of his books across the blogosphere recently, only a couple of reviews of this one, but little else. I think he’s ripe for rediscovery. Brighton Rock shocked me to the core when I first read it…

      Reply
  20. Emma

    Great review Jacqui. Thoughtful and balanced.

    I read this a long time ago and I remember I liked it a lot. Your comparison with The Good Soldier. The relationships are unhealthy and the proximity of the people in the love triangles makes every problem bigger.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I’m glad you liked this novel too. Even though I didn’t love everything about it, I’m very pleased to have read it – there’s a lot to enjoy here. That’s a good point about the proximity – it’s virtually impossible for Bendrix and Sarah to take an objective view of the affair as they’re caught up in it all. It must be difficult to put your emotions to one side in a situation such as this…

      Reply
  21. areaderofliterature

    I remember really enjoying this little novel. The aspect that fascinated me most was Bendrix’s love for Sarah. It’s almost a deconstruction. I can’t help but feel that Greene is mocking romantic conventions somehow. The jealousy and insecurity of the man, clinging and hoping that he’s the only one.

    Especially this quote: “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?”

    This is almost the fantasy of the overly dreamy romance reader.

    Yet Greene didn’t treat Bendrix’s love in a wholly negative manner. It’s still love, but Greene never minced the unhealthy obsession part of Bendrix’s love.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I see what you mean! Yes, you’re right – I think there is an element of mocking in Greene’s approach. I hadn’t really considered this aspect before you mentioned it, but yes, it’s there in his portrayal of Bendrix. The unhealthy streak comes through very strongly – there’s a self-destructive feel to his love for Sarah, as though he wants to sabotage any chance of happiness from the start.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this novel as well – it reminded me just how good a writer Greene was in his day.

      Reply
  22. Scott W.

    I’m obviously quite late to reading your review, but kudos on your ability to make me want to re-read a novel I did not like very much when I read it some 15 or 20 years ago. I suspect that some of my distaste for it came from its close and malign atmosphere, as well as its non-exotic London setting, rather unusual for a writer whose characters always seem to be off in far-flung places around the globe.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I shall take that as a compliment, Scott! It’s a strange story in some respects. I loved the first half of the novel, really loved it, but Sarah’s diary entries were a little too intense for my tastes. I think I know what you mean by your description of the atmosphere – “malign” is a good word for it. I must admit to loving the London setting, though…all those wonderful descriptions of rainy evenings were right up my street. That said, I think I preferred some of his others to this one, novels like Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American to name but two.

      Reply
  23. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve read a lot of Greene, but oddly not this one. He’s a huge talent so it’s a definite oversight. A lovely review Jacqui, one that hopefully will inspire me to correct the omission here in my own reading.

    I often think of Greene as the master of the gut-punch last line. Our Man in Havana, which turns from comedy to something much bleaker; Brighton Rock which is more a horror story than anything featuring werewolves or vampires. Extraordinary writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max – yes, another brilliant writer. It’s been such a long time since I read him that I’d forgotten quite how good he could be. I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this one before, but I guess we all have books that just slip through the net for one reason or another.

      That’s an interesting observation on the gut-punch endings. I hadn’t thought about his work in that way before, but you’re right (Brighton Rock scared me witless when I read it all those years ago). I’m not sure The End of the Affair has that same kind of denouement, but he does modulate the tone at various points in the story. I would definitely recommend you read it at some point.

      Reply

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