Graham Greene is considered by many to be one of the most important 20th Century English writers. His novels are always highly masculine and usually carry a complicated but unambiguous Catholicism. For me, either of these “types” of literature could be highly repellant, but there is something about Greene’s ability that draws me in, something about his works that speak to me – even though I’m appalled by the misogyny and unreceptive to the religious overtones. The End of the Affair is, as its protagonist states at the outside, a story about hate. This, of course, means it is really about love – but a love which causes pain and heartache. The story takes place in England during the bombings of World War II, so there is always a sense of the uncontrollable – the powerlessness of man and the fleeting nature of life. The main character and narrator, Maurice, is a writer who falls in love (which, for him, means possession – sex!) with a woman named Sarah, who just happens to be another man’s wife. The two have a torrid affair which ends (not a surprise, considering the title of the book), but in a rather unconventional way. When it is over, Maurice and his lover’s husband become strangely close, almost coupling in a transitive way through Sarah.
The story is narrated in the first-person, from Maurice Bendrix’s point of view. Maurice’s anger and biases, as well as his own admission that he will choose what to include and what to leave out of the story, make his narration somewhat unreliable. That being said, he does come to an ultimate truth at the end and, despite his anger, admits to himself, to Sarah, and to the reader the very thing he had hoped to avoid throughout the story. Sarah, the love interest, as well as her husband, Henry, and a private investigator (Parkis), plus an atheist leader (Smythe) are all very well imagined and executed. They each have distinct personalities and their own parts to play in the story (as do other of the minor characters, such as the Catholic Priest and Sarah’s mother). For those interested in masculinity studies, for instance, one can clearly find representatives for the four principal categories of Hegemony, Complicity, Subordination, and Marginalization.
Like much of Greene’s work, The End of the Affair is a story about power and its prose matches that theme. Greene’s style and language are strong, direct, and highly “male.” He struggles a bit, I think, with the first-person narration. This was his first novel written in first-person P.O.V. and the story is also based on his own affair – the book was dedicated “To C”, which refers to his mistress, Lady Catherine Walston; so, given the first attempt coupled with the very personal nature of the story, it is not surprising that Greene may have been a bit uncomfortable. Still, the story would have been very different in the third-person – the anger may not have come across as genuine, the jealousy filtered through a narrator might not have been as raw, and certainly the condescension Maurice hold for all other males would not have been as pronounced.
What I enjoyed most about the book was its purity of sentiment. What I mean by that is, in this book, anger is anger. Jealousy is jealousy. Kindness is kindness. The book is like one raw, exposed nerved, pricked in different ways by different characters. It is also a good example of modernism, particularly in its structure (starting the story not at the beginning, but after everything has happened, the narrator trying to make sense of it all after the fact – reminding me of The Great Gatsby and The Good Soldier). Ultimately, I responded well to this book, as I did to The Power and the Glory. And, I must say, this troubles me greatly.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Adultery, Catholicism, Religion, Jealousy, Sin/Redemption, Power, Masculinity.
“What happens if you drop all the things that make you I?”
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
“I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.”
“I refused to believe that love could take any other form than mine: I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard of course she could not love me at all.”
“It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death: I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.”
“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”
“Pain is easy to write. In pain we’re all happily individual. But what can one write about happiness?”
“Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel; sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust.”
“I measured love by the extent of my jealousy.”