The End of the Affair
These notes originally written 21 January 2006.
‘This is a record of hate far more than of love’ warns the narrator on the first page of this, one of Greene’s early novels. Perhaps it would be truer to say that it is a record of jealousy, in all of its cruel complexity, so that the narrator – and the reader with him – is never sure whether his thoughts and actions spring from hatred or from love. Yet from another angle it is unequivocally a record of love, even if the story is told from the point of view of one who hates that love.
Greene is one of my favourite writers; I think him one of the finest English-language writers of the last century. His stories, many of which would in the hands of a lesser writer have been fairly conventional spy novels or thrillers, are always thoughtful and challenging. His book The Human Factor is emblematic, for the character, motivations, and relationships of his characters are always the driving force behind his stories. His characters find themselves in difficulties – usually moral difficulties – and he writes them through to a resolution, whether for better or for worse. Few can write dialogue the way Greene did; it often seems that much of what is said is said between the lines, yet, somehow, there it is. Why it took me so long to get to this novel I don’t know. I wish that it had not, for I think it must be one of his best.
The story is told by Maurice Bendrix, a writer labouring on the near side of success. His mistress, Sarah, is the wife of Henry, a competent but dull government official. The story follows these characters over the course of the eponymous affair – but not only these, for it is also the story of ‘that other, whom I had hated without knowing him, or even believing in him’. It is set in London during the Second World War, yet, with one crucial exception, the war very much yields the foreground to the intricate interrelationships of these four characters, Bendrix even remarking at one point that ‘I had almost come to regard war as a rather disreputable and unreliable accomplice in my affair’.
Bendrix is something of a monster, so consumed by his jealousy that he can hardly tell right from left. At some level it seems he really loves Sarah, and she him, yet there is something uncomfortably desperate about their love, and of course the fact that it is an infidelity casts a sickly pall over the whole business. Sarah is a harder character to understand, perhaps because it is she who develops the most over the course of the story. A significant part of the book is given over to tracing the threads of her evolving love for all three of the other principals, and Greene outdoes himself here. Perhaps it is true, after all, that only a convert can write about conversion.
Some years ago a film was made of this book, with Ralph Fiennes as Bendrix and Julianne Moore as Sarah. I’ve seen it a few times, and it is superb. It is, however, different in several important respects from the book, particularly toward the end, so that I had some surprises while reading. In the film some minor characters have been eliminated entirely, others amalgamated or transplanted. In some ways I think the film is more economical, more tightly structured. But, as I always insist, a film can never be as evocative and precise in its storytelling as prose in the hands of a master, and that is certainly what this book offers in abundance.