There’s a story I love about Graham Greene. In 1949, the New Statesman held a contest for parodies of Greene’s writing style. Greene himself entered the contest under a pseudonym, and won second (!) prize. Sixteen years later, in 1965, Greene entered a similar New Statesman contest, and this time he only got an honorable mention. Don’t you think this says that his real writing style had evolved during that time, and that those holding the contest hadn’t noticed? In any case, it speaks to a certain cocked-eyebrow, self-deprecating irony, and this makes itself felt in his books.
The End of the Affair doesn’t seem to have much of that reserved irony at first. Maurice Bendrix, the narrator, begins his tale two years after his married lover Sarah has thrown him over with no explanation, and he’s still in a snarling place of pain and hatred. He runs across Sarah’s husband Henry, and discovers that Henry — innocent Henry, who never suspected Maurice and Sarah’s adulterous affair — now thinks Sarah may have taken a lover. Maurice instantly launches an investigation to find out who Henry’s (and, as he sees it, his own) rival may be.
He expects to hate his rival. What he doesn’t expect is to be utterly perplexed. When Maurice eventually reads Sarah’s journals, he discovers that all along, his rival has been God, in whom he doesn’t believe — and neither does Sarah. After a bombing that left Maurice pinned under a door and apparently dead, her love of Maurice led her to make a bargain with this nonexistent God — let him live and I’ll never see him again — and when Maurice turns up with scarcely a scratch, she knows she must keep her vow.
She keeps it, but she keeps it in agony. She rationalizes in her journal, backward and forward:
A vow’s not all that important — a vow to somebody I’ve never known, to somebody I don’t really believe in. Nobody will know that I’ve broken a vow, except me and Him — and He doesn’t exist, does He? He can’t exist. You can’t have a merciful God and this despair.
She rants at God: “I don’t believe in You yet, I don’t believe in You yet,” and she hates him — “While I loved Maurice, I loved Henry, and now I’m what they call good, I don’t love anyone at all. And You least of all,” just as Maurice begins his account by saying that his is a story of hate. The words don’t ring false; this isn’t a case of protesting too much. Both Maurice and Sarah are saying precisely what they feel. But can you hate someone who doesn’t exist? Can Maurice be furiously jealous of a delusion? Hate, like its sister love, must have an object. And that object infuses the pages of this book, patient and silent.
One tremendously interesting thing about this book — and this is Greene, through and through — is how physical it is. Maurice and Sarah are in love, but they are driven by desire, an unmistakably physical, sexual relationship. Even at the moment they are separated forever, it’s just after sex:
No, the V1s didn’t affect us until the act of love was over. I had spent everything I had, and was lying back with my head on her stomach and her taste — as thin and elusive as water — in my mouth, when one of the robots crashed down on to the Common and we could hear the glass breaking further down the south side.
This physicality, this embodiment, is about God, as well. This is an incarnational book, and it’s thoroughgoing about it:
So today I looked at that material body on that material cross, and I wondered, how could the world have nailed a vapour there? A vapour of course felt no pain and no pleasure. It was only my superstition that imagined it could answer my prayers. Dear God, I had said. I should have said, Dear Vapour. I had said I hate you, but can one hate a vapour? I could hate that figure on the cross with its claim to my gratitude — ‘I’ve suffered this for you’, but a vapour… And yet Richard believed in even less than a vapour. He hated a fable, he fought against a fable, he took a fable seriously. I couldn’t hate Hansel and Gretel, I couldn’t hate their sugar house as he hated the legend of heaven… The Devil didn’t exist and God didn’t exist, but all his hatred was for the good fairy-tale, not the wicked one. Why? I looked up at that over-familiar body, stretched in imaginary pain, the head drooping like a man asleep. I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too? Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?
Not only can Sarah not love if there’s no one there to love, she can’t love (or hate — tomato, tomahto) if there’s no body there to love. Greene is that specific.
But hate and love and jealousy are not the only tangles in this book. Greene leaves us wondering about faith and doubt as well. Was Sarah really converted? Her journal entries imply that she was won over to faith, but the last one leaves us in uncharted seas, still longing for “ordinary corrupt human love” and asking for peace. And Maurice echoes Sarah at the end of the book, speaking to the God he doesn’t believe in:
O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and too old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.
I’ve read some complaints about the neat-and-tidy miracles in the book. I’m not so sure that they are as neat and tidy as they appear. Each one appears more obvious than the last, but isn’t that because we are seeing things through Maurice and Sarah’s eyes? Both faith and doubt make us interpret events in certain ways.
And this brings me to the narrative structure, something Teresa brought up in her outstanding review from last year. Maurice is a successful writer. Never forget that he’s arranging events as he sees fit. Even when he shares Sarah’s journal, he doesn’t share it in order: he reveals the last two entries first, and then goes back to the beginning. The very first line of the novel tells us,
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.
If we see miracles in this book — if we move from doubt to faith to doubt again and then call an end to the story — it is Maurice’s choice. Never forget the storyteller, and his craft, and the way his pain is a filter for the story — or rather, is the story itself. What is seen is what is real, like the way Maurice’s private detective misinterprets what he sees and makes a new reality from it. Here is the irony I was talking about at the beginning. What is true? What is false? We are never quite certain; there is a wryness here that I love.
This was a wonderful book: ambiguous, angry, often heartbreaking. It left me thinking long after the last page. Teresa had me read it for our yearly book swap, and now I recommend it to you.