The end of the Affair by Graham Green reads like an Opera!

Subtitle: The end of the affair – Graham Greene, 1951, a long and rambling book review by Emily

 

This classic 20th century novel documents the story of two characters in love and how they are afflicted by Catholicism. The plot weaves around a doomed love affair, culminating in an untimely death through a sudden illness. Sarah – the wife of a civil servant, and Maurice Bendrix – skilled author and man next door have an affair during the war. 
On account of the dominant theme of religion this is known as one of Greene’s ‘Catholic novels’, but I think it also has the flavour of 19th Century operas such as La Traviata and La Boheme, and of Amadeus, the operatic play by Peter Shaffer. I say this because of the inevitability of the tragic outcome but also because… it just feels like an opera.
Although there is no reference to music, The End of the Affair could be imagined on stage in four acts, with the language and interactions reminiscent of passionate arias, and interminable recitatives. The structure has an operatic arc, but we begin in loathing and we look back rather than beginning in love and careening forward. Let’s remember that any Catholic questions grappled by an author will often set human desires and agency against the Catholic requirement for will power and restraint. I’m not Catholic so I’m really just interpreting what I read from Greene. 
Maurice (working as an author) begins his account of the affair with Sarah as a book of hate. Hatred towards Sarah whom he believes has cut him down as one in a long line of meaningless lovers, as one dissatisfied man representing a dynasty of adultery. The story charts the violent transformation of love to love confused with hatred, possibly real hatred and back to love for Sarah. Maurice’s transfers he hatred from Sarah to God, and even that transforms to love – for all of Maurice’s hatred in the end is just a form of love – and not in a sloppy mushy way. This powerlessness to hate what destroys him is the source of his misery. 
The author right off the bat claims that “a story has no beginning or end, arbitrarily one chooses a moment of experience from which to look ahead”, which seems to be an acknowledgement of the infinite power of teleology, of God, and of change. I think this powerfully sets up the notion of narrative as a carrier of the inevitable – and the writer as an impotent pawn in these affairs. During this early perspective Maurice believes his legacy from this dynasty will be only hate and impotence. 
Through the change that rips through this book, several lives converge on new perspectives toward religion and belief, whatever pain and condemnation that belief may bring. The torture of this change is hammered repeatedly and viscerally; the idea of the body as a weapon, as a piece of detritus and as a giver of and denier of pleasure is forced through the language as well as through the visual aspects of Catholic worship:
I came into that dark church in Park Road and saw the bodies standing around me on all the alters – the hideous plaster statues with their complacent faces, and I remembered that they believed in the resurrection of the body, the body I wanted destroyed for ever. I had done so much injury with this body … If I were to invent a doctrine it would be that the body was never born again, that it rotted with last year’s vermin.
In the first moments of the novel there is heavy rain – a device used sporadically throughout the book as a sign of the battering of God against the atheist stronghold. Each character tries to develop in a stronghold of atheism. Each sees his house begin to leak and be battered by storms, and by blasts: it is the time of V1 rockets and in 1944 one rips through Bendrix’s house, while Sarah prays and bargains with God for his life upstairs. Greene’s God is an Old testament God who, like Amadeus’s god, will bargain, and he returns Bendrix from – if not the dead – from a universe in which love could ever have existed for them. 
From that moment on Sarah turns away from Bendrix: upholding her part of the bargain – which is to shun her lover, and commences her journey of hatred of and then love – and acceptance – of God. 
The battle that rages during the exposition (or the 2nd and 3rd acts) of this novel is able to happen due to the free will of humanity and the ability to deny God. If the house of atheism is a stronghold, the house cannot fall without the tenant signing off. 
Fully one third of the book and a major part of this exposition is written by Sarah, as Maurice discovers her diary. He read her thoughts, he reads about her love, and her as yet unwelded but creeping beliefs. She writes clumsily –  the voice sometimes reminiscent of a neurotic child. That child’s voice belongs to a woman who has loved, and through that process grew to possess wisdom as old as ageing itself. She knew completeness, in fleeting moments, when time seemed to stop. But when time abandoned her to a mental desert, what alternative was there but to shrink back to a child form, and let her thirst cry out shrilly? 
The rhythm and the mood of this period of the book is reminiscent of an operatic recitative in its predictability and repetitiveness. We get a lot of passages like this: 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. When I was a child I could hate the wicked queen in Snow White, but Richard didn’t hate his fairy-tale Devil.
 
The barrage of direct emotional outburst and moral wresting continues for the entire third book, as we witness Sarah’s pendulum swinging back and forth and violently searching truth at a mid point. Actually it’s not that great of a read at this point. It’s just hammering and hammering again and again.  
 
‘It’s strange how the human mind swings back and forth, from one extreme to another. Does truth lie at some point of the pendulum’s swing, at a point where it never rests, not in the dull perpendicular mean where it dangles in the end like a windless flag, but at an angle, nearer one extreme than another? If only a miracle could stop the pendulum at an angle of sixty degrees, one would believe the truth was there. 
After 2 years in the ‘desert’, Sarah makes a choice. She chooses to meet Bendrix – just to see him again, to sit with him. Greene’s God is cruel, and his response is final and swift. We know that she has broken the bargain, but for readers, at last we experience something close to an aria – the scene in the church where dying Sarah rests her head on Bendrix’s shoulder – one experiencing ignorant joy, the other facing a cruel finality – is a flying emotional scene. It evokes soaring music, a duet of opposite emotions; someone should write an aria for this. The entire set up of the previous sections of the book amplifies the relief and emotion of what we experience here, finally. 
In the recapitulation, each character finally makes a choice – both Sarah and Bendrix have faced the option to turn away from a form of safety (denying God and entering the solid house of atheism), to roam a desert and face a hateful blazing sun in order to still acknowledge god but give up everything they have previously lived for. 
Bendrix hangs on the longest and even refuses to grant a burial of Sarah’s body. The choice he faces is between allowing himself to love the dead but denying God, or hating God and therefore accepting him, and therefore accepting Sarah’s spirit (since the spirit can only exist in a religious world). The finale gives God one further, final stroke of power and seals Maurice’s misery in the knowledge that he denied a proper catholic ritual to his lover and her spirit does live on.
The End. I absolutely know that no one made it this far.Rating: 7/10?

I love GG but this isn’t my favourite (I like The Power and the Glory).

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