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"The End of the Affair", Graham Greene

June 19th, 2009 · No Comments · English, Literature, Nihilist

endoftheaffairSynopsis: A deeply bitter writer reflects on his aborted affair with a married woman during WW2 London when years after the conclusion of their relationship, he runs into the woman’s husband. Hatred and contempt for self, women and God flows freely.

My Take: I have mixed feelings about Graham Greene. One the one hand, he’s an extremely talented writer and a very sharp observer of the human condition. No one does world-weary cynicism as amusingly, or as insightfully as Greene. But on the other hand, his outlook on life is just too bleak for me to really embrace. I mean the guy is so curmudgeonly that he defamed Shirley Temple. Further, the source of a lot of Greene’s cynicism – Catholic guilt and the reaction against it – isn’t exactly a resonant theme to someone of my decidedly agnostic/protestant upbringing.  As a result, I find the experience of reading Grahame Greene to be almost equal parts head nodding and eye-rolling depending on the prevailing bitterness of his writing.

The End of the Affair is definitely one of the more misanthropic of Greene’s books. The story of the end of the relationship between the writer Maurice Benedrix and the married Sarah Miles has the kind of evocative bitterness that can only come from personal experience. In this regard, it’s interesting that the British edition of the novel is dedicated to ‘C’ and the American version to ‘Catherine’, dedications that are widely viewed as referring to Lady Catherine Walston, a married Catholic woman with whom Greene carried on a long-term affair. What Lady Walston felt about having a book dedicated to her that at times borders on the misogynistic in the strength of its hatred I have no idea – but it really gives Greene’s writing in this book a real intensity of emotion.

At this point, I’m sure lots of Greene fans are saying “You’re missing the point – the book wasn’t about hatred – it was about exploring the conflicts between love of another and love of God”. Well yes, I appreciate that. And the novel certainly succeeds in posing these philosophical questions in quite a challenging way. But it’s not a conflict that speaks to me. I don’t feel the presence of God intervening to bring me joy or sadness in any of my relationships. I’ve never blamed God for the rejection of a girl, thanked Him for the love of a woman or felt the need to choose between Him and another. I appreciate that it sounds shallow – but it all seems like pointless angst to me. If God can make you hate someone as much as Benedrix hated Sarah in this book, I know who I’d chose to end my relationship with.

Highlights:

“I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever.”

….

“I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.”

….

“Hatred seems to work on the same glands as love: it even produces the same actions. If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?”

“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. When she left the house I couldn’t settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. 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.”

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  • becks

    Why do you read? Do you read to identify with a character or situation? Or do you read to learn something about the human condition? Your response to this books seems to indicate that it’s all about you. I’m just wondering what your intention is. Because you’ve given the book a very narrow reading, even with your concession that Greene fans might say you’re “missing the point.” Is what you identifed as the point really the point? Is there just one? And do you really think Bendrix hated Sarah? I don’t know why I’m commenting. I’m sure I won’t come back to see if you have a response. I guess I’m just a little piqued that I don’t see you saying much of anything interesting about a very interesting book other than it doesn’t apply to you. But why should it?

  • Tim

    Hi becks,

    I appreciate what you’re saying – the book certainly doesn’t have to apply to me to be either interesting or important. All I was saying is that for me at least, the book wasn’t full of revelation and insight because the questions it posed weren’t relevant to my life. It was an interesting read, but not one that had an impact on the way I life my life.

    As you mention earlier, learning about the human condition is a big part of what makes reading important. I guess what I was trying to say here was that I didn’t think that the insights in this book were universal. The questions the book posed were challenging for some, but less relevant for others. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t interesting on an intellectual level – just that it didn’t connect with me on an emotional level.

    Anyway, I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert. The point of what I’m doing here isn’t to offer objective literary critic – just to reflect on what the books said to me. I don’t mind if that doesn’t apply to you…

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