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