Greene: The End of the Affair

August 29, 2011

The End of the Affair
Graham Greene
(Penguin, 1951)
192 p.

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.

6 Responses to “Greene: The End of the Affair”

  1. Janet Says:

    Wonderful, wonderful book! It’s a record of grace, isn’t it?

    With regards to the war, when you have some time look through it and see how the movement of the book coincides with the action of the war. God’s offensive against the characters parallels what was going on at the same time in the war. I only noticed this the second time I read it when I was preparing to lead a book club discussion.

    The movie! Ack! The director takes a book about the action of grace in the life of the characters and turns it into a profession of disbelief.


  2. cburrell Says:

    But I like the movie! It is a record of grace for her, yes, and for him, but they respond so differently to it. I liked the dramatic flourish at the film’s end: a profession of disbelief, but hardly a triumphant one!

    I did not pick up on the war parallels. That is something to watch for on the next reading — which ought to be soon.

  3. Janet Says:

    In the movie she runs off and has an affair with Maurice after her promise. Doesn’t that bother you?

    And the way they conflate Mr. Smith and the priest. Also, in the movie Sarah knows that she has been Baptized. It is very important that she doesn’t know.


  4. cburrell Says:

    It bothers me a little, but she’s a work in progress. (It would bother me more if she was my wife, so maybe I’m being too accommodating.) You have a very good point about the baptism; I had actually forgotten that detail.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    At that point, I think she was almost completed. When she says that she can’t fight Maurice anymore–a line which the movie places before their flight, but which she really says when she’s dying–I think it’s more a kind of prayer asking for death. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Well, I’ve certainly spoiled the book for anyone who hasn’t read it.


  6. cburrell Says:

    Yes, anyone who has not read the book yet should go up a few comments and stop reading there.

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