Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

I'd like to thank Josh for recommending The End of the Affair and my mom for thinking it would make a good gift (it did). I would also like to thank Graham Greene for existing and writing books. And now that I've made it clear how very unbiased I am...

There were so many things to love stylistically about The End of the Affair, I'm not going to try to cover them all. Greene's narrative within a narrative was deftly employed. Greene's style is so tight, so refined, it appears almost accidental. One of things I most appreciated about The End of the Affair was Greene's ability to take the complexities of theme and characters one expects from literary fiction and combine them with the suspenseful plot structure of genre fiction.

I tend to have a hard time relating to characters in novels about affairs (and a large percentage of literary fiction involves characters having affairs), but I didn't have this difficulty with The End of the Affair. As a writer, I enjoyed Maurice Bendrix's (often wry) observations about the life of a novelist (he acts as a stand-in for Greene). As a reader, I related to him in ways I didn't expect. Bendrix is a selfish, almost cold, narrator, but I immediately understood his self-editing tedencies, his habit of admiting to certain flaws in order to distract from other failures, his ego, etc. From the opening paragraph, I was drawn to Bendrix's character.

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 say 'one chooses' with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who--when he has been seriously noted at all--has been praised for his techinical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, 'Speak to him: he hasn't seen you yet' (1).

But the true kudos go to Greene for writing a believable female character (I'm reading Joyce and Dickens right now--I've definitely felt a need for this). In Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Sons and Lovers--I could appreciate the authors' redendering of certain psychological types, but I didn't really feel like I understood why (outside of a dry, textbook explaination) they did what they did. Through Sarah Miles' journal, I felt I could understand her affair because I could understand her.
But there's not a single person anywhere to whom I can even say I'm unhappy because they would ask me why and the questions would begin and I would break down. I mustn't break down because I must protect Henry. Oh, to hell with Henry, to hell with Henry. I want somebody who'll accept the truth about me and doesn't need protection. If I'm a bitch and a fake, is there nobody who will love a bitch and a fake? (75)

Moving beyond style and plot, I do question how important The End of the Affair would be to me if I didn't already accept the claims of Christianity. Greene's stretches, particularly at the end of the novel, seem acceptable to me because I was enchanted by his ideas well before I arrived at his last chapter.

Michael Gorra, in the introduction of my copy of The End of the Affair, claims, "[T]his book challenges the particular kind of truth-claims on which fiction conventionally relies. The End of the Affair does not simply ask us to suspend our disbelief. It instead demands that we do believe, and believe in the religious sense of the term" (vii). A friend of mine remarked, after reading a Greene novel I haven't tried yet, that Greene seemed a bit heavy-handed to her. To which I could only respond, "Yeah, he is sometimes."

Without giving away too much, I'll admit that in the last section Greene pushes belief on the reader in ways I doubt I could if I was writing the same sort of novel. I think the conclusion seems particularly "difficult" because it flips the typical question "Why does/should one believe?" to "Why does/should one doubt?" In this way, Greene's novel reminds me of C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces--the reader is faced with the assertion that doubt is no more rational or cool-headed than belief, that we doubt with the same blind desperation we attribute to those who believe.

(Image from Jalopnik.)

P.S. I apologize for the disjointedness of this post--I finally stopped waiting till I had a clear enough mind to do The End of the Affair justice and just gave up and wrote this silly thing.


  1. It is that "believable female character", I think, that makes this his best book. Most of his female characters seem, at best, like afterthoughts and plot devices. Sarah Miles stands out as not just his best female character, but certainly one of his best characters altogether.

  2. Absolutely. One of my favorite lines (I can't find it at the moment) is when Bendrix talks about how he doesn't describe characters' physical appearances, only giving scant details overall so that the reader creates his own image of a character (which seems, in my small experience, to fit Greene's sparse style). But he hates the thought of trying to describe Sarah only to have the reader imagine someone who isn't exactly her.

    I think that's what makes Sarah Miles such a sucessful character. She isn't a type. And even though she's presented so "simply" (for lack of a better word); she's exactly herself.