Love or something like it....

Spoiler alert
The end of the affair is Graham Greene's most personal novel reflecting his life as a writer, his Catholicism and his relationships. It also happens to be my favourite Graham Greene. And yet, in many ways it's an odd book. There are certain truths that he writes about here - about the human condition, and how we deal with love and loss that remain universal and eternal, and every bit as relevant today as in the early 1950's when he wrote the novel; but the late twentieth century has not been altogether kind to this book, and the religious slant can feel at times as remote and alien as the belief-systems of Chaucer's fourteenth-century pilgrims.

Dedicated to "C" - Catherine Walston, Greene's long-term mistress, the novel centres around the relationship of Sarah, the wife of a high-ranking civil servant, and Bendrix, a novelist. Bendrix is closely based on Greene, he has his passion for writing, and his own quirks of tradecraft - Greene, in common with his creation had a strict daily writing routine with a quota of 500 words a day, and Bendrix too has Greene's shard of ice embedded firmly in his authorial heart. Bendrix meets Sarah during his research for a novel about the civil service, cold-bloodedly seduces her, and ends up by falling in love. The relationship's not exactly perfect, but Bendrix is devastated when Sarah unexpectedly and suddenly terminates the relationship. Several years after the "end of the affair" Bendrix is drawn back to Sarah when he meets her husband who, ironically, asks Bendrix for advice fearing that Sarah has embarked on an affair. The truth however is to prove a lot stranger....

The love scenes are well written, and the relationship is portrayed honestly and convincingly as is Bendrix's solitary life as a writer. I even found myself believing wholeheartedly in Sarah's anguished reason for estranging herself from Bendrix (a promise she made to God when she believed Bendrix was dying), but where the novel falls down generally is in its depiction of religion. There's plenty of Catholic angst in this, much of it, especially when relating to Sarah, well portrayed, but in Greene's haste to bring the novel to a satisfactory conclusion, a series of unconvincing miracles are also brought into play, and these lack both reality and conviction - Greene himself, I was relieved to see, also had problems with them : Greeneland.

Where the novel is truly brilliant though is in its depiction of a passionate relationship, with all the difficulties that can involve; but even more so, he writes dazzlingly about loss - not just the loss caused by the break-up of a relationship, but the finality of death, and how that impacts on the survivors. At times unbearably moving, this is a very sad tale - it also has some great moments of truly cynical black humour, which made me yelp with delight. It's impossible not to be moved by The end of the affair, but I suspect that most readers, unless of a very naive disposition, will be alternately moved and irritated. Try to blank out the superstition and the rather phoney dialogue of the "lower orders" (Parkis, the private detective, sounds as though he has strayed out of the pages of Dickens, while the slimy Smythe remains resolutely wooden), they don't work - even Greene admitted that there were problems with the former - but do read, because there are some moments when The end of the affair is truly glorious. It may be patchy, but at its best it reveals Greene as the great writer he was.


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