Friday, 17 April 2015

'The End of the Affair' - Graham Greene

I thought I'd make a return trip to Greeneland, having read 'Brighton Rock' some months ago.  And it was a odd experience.  At times, as I read, it was a visit I did not want to repeat, for they do things differently over there.  And in it's underhand, sly sort of way it was quite repellent.  At times.  And I write as a christian, although not a terribly good one.  So you would think I would be on side.
For the want of a clever sound bite I thought I could define 'The End of the Affair' thus: 'a meagre work for a meagre time'.  I mean that it is a novel set just after the war (published 1951) in a time austerity and rationing, and somehow that is reflected in the story - and I don't mean in an obvious "Where's my ration book?" sort of way.  I think I mean it's a bony, awkward read.  I should rephrase my soundbite: 'an austere novel for an austere time'.  In a way it's a novel about poverty, not a lack of money per se, but a general sort of shabbiness and down-at-heel in a nation that had fought itself to exhaustion.  Perhaps I could even substitute 'drab' for meagre.  Because it's that too, set as it is in what sounds a very drab suburb of London.  (Greene lived for a while on the north side of Clapham Common.) The poverty this novel is interested in is of the spirit.  It's not just an attitude that infects the characters: Greene, the writer, seems to have to interest in, say, food, or decor, or any of those telling little details such as you might find in a much better religious novelist as Francois Mauriac. At least none caught in my memory.
'The End of the Affair' is about a novelist, Bendix (He has a Christian name which is hardly used.  The use of the surname is enough to suggest all sorts of alienation) and a husband and wife, Henry and Sarah Miles.  Henry is a high minded civil servant who is busy building Jerusalem.  What historians refer to as the 'Post War Settlement'.  Perhaps we are to contrast husband and wife - a hint of W B Yeats poem 'The Seven Sages' -his 'A leveling, rancorous, rational sort of mind / That never looked out of the eye of a saint / Or out of drunkard's eye.'  Sarah, obviously not the Whig in that relationship, does, in her own way, both.
As the title suggests the novel deals with the aftermath of an affair; an affair between Bendix and Sarah that occurred a year or so beforehand in the last months of the War (and shadows Greene's own affair with Lady Caroline Walston); an affair that was like the sudden flare up a firework, though not a particularly ostentatious firework as far as I can remember, or, if I were to be really honest, care.  And that is the problem (my problem) with this novel; I ended up not really caring about any of the characters.  There seemed little in the way of redeeming feature in any of them.  In the end I felt the whole thing false, unnatural.
It was a struggle to get to the end though thankfully there were times when the book suddenly did splutter into life.  Firstly there was the point when the  narrator changed from Bendix to Sarah, when the reader is presented with  excerpts from Sarah's diary.  Then there was suddenly an immediacy of language that hitherto the novel has lacked.  It is the narrative of Sarah's transition from 'drunkard' to 'saint' as she wrestles with her nascent faith, when she turns from Henry's earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly one.  Left bereft by Henry's vocation, and unsatisfied with her affair with Bendix, she makes her own in God.  And I suppose that is it: Greene was happiest when writing to, or about, God.  We see  this later in the novel in the scene with priest who comes to Henry's for dinner.  Thirdly, and unconnected with the previous two, there is the meeting between Bendix and Waterbury, when Greene allows us to contextualize Bendix in the wider world of literary London.  Indeed the novel until that scene is particularly narrow, claustrophobic.  It may explain the poverty of spirit I mentioned above: Bendix is a man obsessed, certainly riven with jealousy, with no eye for anything else.
Oddly that dinner scene invoked in me a number of similarities with Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited', published in 1945 - not at all obvious I suspect - but they are there never the less: the hard fought rearguard action against God, the clash over the wishes of the deceased/dying.  Both books, one suspects have the same didactic purpose - both, after all, are about conversion.  Both narratives are circular - are about revisiting the past.  And both, of course, are novels about War - both the historic event and the war within ourselves between faith and sin as witnessed by Sarah Miles in 'The End of the Affair' and Lady Julia in 'Brideshead Revisited'.
As a result of reading this book I suspect that Greene was a thorough going Augustinian with a poor view of humanity after the Fall and it's 'harsh necessity' of committing sin.  And I suppose that must be at the heart of my dislike for this novel.

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