Sarah Miles is a saint. She’s also an adulterer who labels herself “a bitch and a fake.” Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair, narrated in the first-person, tells the story of how Sarah’s embittered and fanatically envious ex-lover pursues her following the end of their romance. That plot provides the opening for Greene to explore the themes that anchor his most celebrated and thoughtful novels: suffering and mercy, belief and disbelief, compassion, and conscience.
British author Maurice Bendrix befriends Sarah, the wife of a respectable senior civil servant called Henry Miles, to gain first-hand insight into the life of a government bureaucrat as copy for his upcoming book. Instead, Sarah and Bendrix have an affair against the backdrop of the World War II bombing of London. Throughout this time, Bendrix is almost pathologically insecure about losing Sarah and he’s jealous of having to “share” her with her husband, or with other lovers that he suspects she may have. It isn’t clear that Bendrix really loves Sarah at all — most of the time, he’s motivated by competitiveness and a sense that he has license to do as he pleases and obtain whatever he wants. Sarah suddenly ends the affair, although not because Bendrix is insufferable in all his entitled and controlling envy, nor because she is enamoured by her own husband — who continues to bore her and who naively believes Bendrix and his wife are just friends. She doesn’t give a reason and simply vanishes from Bendrix’s life. He more or less moves on with his life.
A couple of years later, in January 1946, Bendrix bumps into Henry along the Common that separates their London homes — Bendrix lives on the south-side and Henry on the north. Henry is a gentle, patient, consummately decent and somewhat pathetic character. Henry stands in stark contrast to Bendrix and pleasantly chats with him as they walk in the evening rain, and then enjoy a drink together, oblivious to how he had been wronged. Yet Henry is concerned now about Sarah, as she’s often away. He wonders if she might in fact be having an affair and obtains the contact information of a detective called Savage. He’s hoping that Bendrix might talk him out of his suspicion and his idea of using the services of a detective to spy on his wife. Bendrix, however, does the opposite. He fuels Henry’s fear. Then without Henry’s consent, Bendrix contacts Savage himself and hires the services of his minion, an eager-to-please man called Parkis, to monitor Sarah. He isn’t doing this for Henry’s benefit, but rather for his own. He seeks revenge against Sarah and he’s increasingly obsessed with her. When Bendrix decides to share the results of the investigation with Henry, he is horrified that his friend could have hired a detective to spy on his wife without his permission. He’s even more distraught to eventually learn of Bendrix’s previous affair with Sarah. Through all this, Henry is shown to be an exceptionally forgiving man.
This story of love, forgiveness, revenge, belief and disbelief is depicted using multiple angles. Much of the novel is narrated in the first person from Bendrix’s vantage point, sometimes confessional in tone and often representing an internal struggle with himself — a man who is vengeful and torn, capable of both hate and love. Hate seems to come first. When Sarah’s diary is stolen and Bendrix reads it, the narration shifts temporarily. We hear Sarah’s voice and see her angle, we learn the real reason why she left her lover so suddenly and we become voyeurs to her tortured letters and petitions to a God in whom she at first didn’t believe. Sarah moves from the same disinterest in religious faith that nearly everyone around her shares, to an intrinsic desire for, but disbelief in God — and ultimately to anger, exhaustion and faith in God. The third angle in the book is God. Of course, God doesn’t speak explicitly and directly — but Greene weaves His presence through the entire story in unexpected ways. Sometimes that presence comes in the form of fleeting moments of compassion and care — demonstrated even by hardened characters like Bendrix. In other instances, it’s a prayer answered — although the answer sometimes opens the door to suffering.
Thankfully for the fiction reader, Greene doesn’t write devotional pieces. That’s a valid genre, but a different one from literary fiction and best kept separate. Sarah and Bendrix don’t understand how religious belief has a capacity to grow and spread with some, while leaving others entirely untouched and uninterested. At different points in the novel, religious belief and its spread is compared to an infection and a disease. When the first seeds of faith take root in their lives, they flee, while instinctively desiring it; they are both repelled and drawn in.
What’s the turning point in Sarah moving from disbelief to belief? She stumbles upon the leader of the Rationalist Society of South London, Richard Smythe, who is giving a speech against Christianity. Sarah writes:
There were very few people in his audience and no hecklers. He was attacking something dead already, and I wondered why he took the trouble. I stayed and listened a few minutes: he was arguing against the arguments for God. I hadn’t really known there were any — except this cowardly need I feel of not being alone.
Richard Smythe is a zealous atheist. He’s also a genuine and affable man. Not for personal gain, but rather to convert the world to atheism, he offers to tutor people for free in his home. Few people are interested in his offer and many are turned off by the fact that one side of Smythe’s face is disfigured. But Sarah is drawn to him, in part out of pity and compassion for him, but also because she’s grappling with his arguments against the existence of God, hoping that he’ll convince her. God draws her closer to Himself through this atheist. One passage in her diary, when she seeks shelter against the elements in a church, depicts this particularly well:
I hated the statues, the crucifix, all the emphasis on the human body. I was trying to escape from the human body and all it needed. I thought I could believe in some kind of a God that bore no relation to ourselves, something vague, amorphous, cosmic, to which I had promised something and which had given me something in return — stretching out of the vague into the concrete human life, like a powerful vapour moving among the chairs and walls. One day I too would become part of that vapour — I would escape myself forever. And then I came into that dark church in Park Road — the hideous plaster statues with their complacent faces, and I remembered that they believed in the resurrection of the body, the body I wanted to destroy forever. I had done so much injury with this body. How could I want to preserve any of it for eternity, and suddenly I remembered a phrase of Richard’s — about human beings inventing doctrines to satisfy their desires, and I thought how wrong he is. 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.
Whenever Greene’s characters decide to get serious about religion, they don’t turn to the Church of England, which is implicitly portrayed as too aligned with mainstream English society and with a comfortable, mostly secular culture. They turn to a more counter-cultural, intense and tormented Roman Catholic faith. Sarah is emotionally torn and then also becomes physically sick. She displays a great deal of compassion and bears the burden of responsibility for the happiness of both men in her life — Bendrix and Henry — and an accountability toward God, in whom she increasingly believes. “When I ask You for pain, You give me peace. Give it him too. Give him my peace — he needs it more,” she writes.
When she tries to explain to Bendrix, as she breaks off the affair, that they can go on having love for each other, even though can’t ever see each other again, she makes a point about love itself:
“You needn’t be so scared. Love doesn’t end. Just because we don’t see each other…” She had already made her decision, though I didn’t know it till next day, when the telephone presented nothing but the silent open mouth of somebody found dead. She said, “My dear, my dear. People go on loving God, don’t they, all their lives without seeing him?”
“That’s not our kind of love.”
“I sometimes don’t believe there’s any other kind.”
Human love can never be completely altruistic — there’s always an element of the self involved in it. Yet even in this novel, there are times when the self gives way to a desire to will the well-being of the other, in a manner that approaches altruism. Even in Bendrix’s case, there are flickering examples of that, although most of the novel is consumed by his obsessive, competitive and controlling nature. When in 1946 he pursues Sarah through the winter rain to the point where she seeks refuge in a church, and he follows her in there, he reflects while looking at the crucifix:
I was cold and wet and very happy. I could even look with charity towards the altar and the figure dangling there. She loves us both, I thought, but if there is to be a conflict between an image and a man, I know who will win. I could put my hand on her thigh or my mouth on her breast; he was imprisoned behind the altar and couldn’t move to plead his cause.
The scene is among the saddest in the book — Sarah is increasingly sick, worn out physically and mentally, pursued by her ex-lover who had become more and more dogged. It was only his sudden realization of her fragility and vulnerability in that dark church that tears him away momentarily from his selfish and even maniacal pursuit. Bendrix reflects, “Turning as I left the church and seeing her huddled there at the edge of the candle-light, like a beggar come in for warmth, I could imagine a God blessing her, or a God loving her.”
This may have been a fleeting moment of grace, but certainly no wholesale conversion. Yet Bendrix’s religious indifference does transform into anger and to furious prayers: “You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest. I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed.”
Without heading too far down a biographical tangent, as a young man Greene was agnostic. He converted to Catholicism when he married a Catholic, Vivien Dayrell-Browning. The marriage was an unhappy one and after World War II, Greene began an affair with Catholic convert Catherine Walston, the wife of a Labour Party politician. Catherine didn’t feel guilty about the affair with Greene, as she had agreed to an open marriage with her husband. Greene and Catherine travelled extensively together — enjoying numerous vacations in Ireland, Italy and further afield. Graham wrote one of his most celebrated Catholic-themed novels, The Heart of the Matter, at Catherine’s cottage, in rural Ireland. He also dedicated The End of the Affair to her. To Greene’s chagrin, their affair ended some years later. And Irish authorities banned The End of the Affair, determining that its content was lewd. The fact that the novel was turned into a movie in 1955 and was well-received by American Catholics undoubtedly softened the Irish blow.
The theological reflections are a feature of this book. Another feature is how scenes often leap back-and-forth from the past to the present. Many novels use flashbacks, but in this story the past, present and the future are more seamlessly woven into the text — so much so, that the reader needs to pay close attention at times to not get lost. It can get disorienting to follow, and that’s intentional. This isn’t a linear story, much like the past, present and future aren’t linear phenomena either. They bleed into the other. In his narration, Bendrix begins his story by noting that it has “no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses the moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
What ties together these two key features of the story — the theological reflections and a non-linear understanding of time — is Father Crompton. He’s a relatively minor character and he’s also the sort of humourless priest who eschews small-talk and speaks only when absolutely necessary. He makes for an awkward dinner guest. Father Crompton does, however, shed light on how Greene is using time in this novel, He says, speaking with Bendrix and Henry: “St. Augustine asked where time came from. He said it came out of the future, which didn’t exist yet, into the present that had no duration, and went into the past which had ceased to exist.”
Is Greene’s The End of the Affair still a compelling read, some seventy years later, when western society is generally more irreligious than was mid-century London? In some ways, readers might find the extent to which his characters struggle with faith or their lack of faith as rather exotic and esoteric in today’s secular context. But the tragic story itself — and especially the raw telling of it — is so genuine and earnest that it’s bound to appeal to a generation that is said to value authenticity.