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The End Of The Affair (Vintage Classics) Paperback – 1 Mar 2012
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Set in London during and just after World War II, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is a pathos-laden examination of a three-way collision between love of self, love of another and love of God. The affair in question involves Maurice Bendrix, a solipsistic novelist, and a dutifully married woman, Sarah Miles. The lovers meet at a party thrown by Sarah's dreary civil-servant husband, and proceed to liberate each other from boredom and routine unhappiness. Reflecting on the ebullient beginnings of their romance, Bendrix recalls: "There was never any question in those days of who wanted whom--we were together in desire". Indeed, the affair goes on unchecked for several years until, during an afternoon tryst, Bendrix goes downstairs to look for intruders in his basement and a bomb falls on the building. Sarah rushes down to find him lying under a fallen door, and immediately makes a deal with God, whom she has never particularly cared for:
"I love him and I'll do anything if you'll make him alive... I'll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance... People can love each other without seeing each other, can't they, they love You all their lives without seeing You".Bendrix, as evidenced by his ability to tell the story, is not dead, merely unconscious, and so Sarah must keep her promise. She breaks off the relationship without giving a reason, leaving Bendrix mystified and angry. The only explanation he can think of is that she's left him for another man. It isn't until years later, when he hires a private detective to ascertain the truth, that he learns of her impassioned vow. Sarah herself comes to understand her move through a strange rationalisation. Writing to God in her journal, she says:
"You willed our separation, but he [Bendrix] willed it too. He worked for it with his anger and his jealousy, and he worked for it with his love. For he gave me so much love, and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn't anything left, when we'd finished, but You".It's as though the pull toward faith were inevitable, if incomprehensible--perhaps as punishment for her sin of adultery. In her final years, Sarah's faith only deepens, even as she remains haunted by the bombing and the power of her own attraction to God. Set against the backdrop of a war-ravaged city, The End of the Affair is equally haunting as it lays forth the question of what constitutes love in troubling, unequivocal terms. --Melanie Rehak --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Singularly beautiful and moving" (Evelyn Waugh)
"One of the most true and moving novels of my time, in anybody's language" (William Faulkner)
"In a class by himself...the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man's consciousness and anxiety" (William Golding)
"Devastating study of the collision of different kinds of faith, betrayal and commitment" (The Times)
"This novel had a great effect on my life... This is not a sentimental book, or one full of the kindness of God, in that both the man and the woman suffer the pain of loss and feel the heat of hell. This novel persuaded me to become a Catholic" (Beryl Bainbridge Guardian)
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This is a book of two halves for me. The first half is quite wonderful. It's a study of how jealousy and insecurity can lead someone to destroy the very love that is causing those emotions, and how easily a failed love can turn to bitterness, even hatred. Bendrix, the first person narrator, is arrogant and can be cruel, but he is also self-aware, which makes him tolerable if not likeable. The writing is fantastic from the very first sentences – lean and direct. Greene never tells us anything – he lets his characters speak for themselves, though we see them mostly through the filter of Bendrix's jumble of emotions. Greene understands the vulnerability that comes with love, the weakness and insecurity that can cause us to seek excuses in advance for love's failure, and, by doing so, create that failure through our own actions. There are occasional passages of pathos, done with a simplicity that makes them deeply moving without ever verging on the mawkish.
I listened to Colin Firth's narration of the book and he does a superb job, making it feel both tense and intense. He doesn't 'act' the dialogue, but uses the subtlest shifts in tone to convey the different characterisations. All the anger and bitterness is there on the surface, but he lets us hear the sorrow and love that still underlie those emotions. It's not at all surprising that he won the Audie Award for Best Solo Narration for this in 2013.
Unfortunately the second half fell away sharply for me and I'll have to be vague about the reasons why in order to avoid spoilers. Many of Greene's books reflect his own personal struggle with faith and his strange relationship with the Catholic Church, and this book is no exception. But whereas in other novels – The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory – I've found that both interesting and moving, in this one somehow it all feels forced and rather... OK, I've tried to think of a better word, but the one that suits is... silly. I hold my hands up – I'm a life-long atheist and that may have affected how I felt about it. But I actually don't think it's that – it seems to me the way Greene handles the religious aspects in this one is crass, and I think I'd feel that way even if I were a believer.
So, in short, what starts as a wonderfully truthful depiction of love, jealousy and grief, turns into a superficial and incredible account of some kind of religious revelation. My real problem with it is that I have been saying for many years that The Heart of the Matter is one of my favourite books, and now I'm scared to re-read it in case Scobie's struggles with his faith strike me in the same way. In other words, perhaps it’s this book, or perhaps I’ve just become too cynical for this kind of shallow, sentimental mysticism.
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