Remember in the dim and distant past when Simon S organised a #GreeneForGran reading week, in commemoration of Granny Savidge who prized Graham Greene so highly? It was keenly taken up by bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers etc., and I was one of the number who joined in, picking up The End of the Affair (1951). And then my blog break happened, and now it’s months late… oops. But I thought the novel was amazing, so I’m going to write about it now.
And, first, can we talk about how great this Penguin cover is? It’s a 1962 edition, and it is those 1960s Penguin covers, with layering and elements of the surreal, that I love the most.
The End of the Affair is the third Greene novel I’ve read – you can read my review of Travels With My Aunt, should you so wish, but apparently I never got around to writing about Brighton Rock. In broad brushstrokes, they were funny and violent respectively. I loved the former, and didn’t enjoy the latter. Well, The End of the Affair is neither funny nor violent, but I am ready to state (even without having read almost everything Greene wrote) that it is his masterpiece. I don’t see how he could have done better – at least not in the line which the novel takes, which is melancholia. Except it’s altogether too British for that word, which conjures up images of dreary French novels like Sagan’s Sunlight on Cold Water; despondence is perhaps a better description.
The novel concerns, as you might have guessed, a love affair. Maurice Bendrix is the narrator, and his affair was with the wife of a friend, Sarah Miles (based, apparently, on the woman Greene himself had an affair with.) The title suggests that the novel documents the end of this affair, but, as Bendrix says towards the end:
If I were writing a novel I would end it here: a novel, I used to think, has to end somewhere, but I’m beginning to believe my realism has been at fault all these years, for nothing in life now ever seems to end.
I usually hate it when novels include the ‘If I were writing a novel’ gimmick, but I’ll forgive Greene this instance because it raises a useful point – The End of the Affair does not document the end of an affair, but rather the aftermath of an affair – and, in flashbacks, the affair itself. There is no clean break; there is uncertainty and longing and Sarah continues to dominate Maurice’s mind throughout. Sarah’s husband Henry asks Maurice whether he thinks Sarah is having an affair (at this point Maurice’s affair is over); in response, Maurice hires a private detective to follow her, and report back. He is driven, of course, by possessive jealousy – but there is little rage and bluster in him; he is no Othello. Instead, he is simply unhappy.
The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.
Books about lovers usually bore me to tears, as do books about unhappiness, perhaps because both have been written about so very often that it is difficult to write anything original, but Greene’s prose is quite astoundingly good. Par example…
She had often disconcerted me by the truth. In the days when we were in love, I would try to get her to say more than the truth – that our affair would never end, that one day we should marry. I wouldn’t have believed her, but I would have liked to hear the words on her tongue, perhaps only to give me the satisfaction of rejecting them myself. But she never played that game of make-believe, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, she would shatter my reserve with a statement of such sweetness and amplitude… I remember once when I was miserable at her calm assumption that one day our relations would be over, hearing with incredulous happiness, “I have never, never loved a man as I love you, and I never shall again.” Well, she hadn’t known it, I thought, but she too played the same game of make-believe.
Every page of The End of the Affair was written exquisitely, which meant it couldn’t be a quick read – and, similarly, its depiction of despondence was too well done to make for easy reading. Somehow unhappiness is woven into every word, and the tone is heavy-laden but realistic. No histrionics or wailing, simply stating, recording, responding.
And yet, in the midst of this, is a fantastic comic character – in the shape of the hired private detective, Alfred Parkis. The End of the Affair contains one of the most wonderful detectives I’ve encountered in fiction, and had Greene chosen to take that route, I could envisage a fantastic series of novels featuring Parkis (note to self: craft a spin-off series). He is delightfully dim, and a curious mixture of eager, officious, and melancholic. It is a dark comedy, because he is continually afraid of looking foolish in front of ‘his boy’, who trails around silently after him at all times – and invariably he does look foolish. But he is also a very sympathetic character, and I would have loved more of him in the novel.
I am aware that I am one of the last to the party on this one, and that I’m hardly uncovering a forgotten classic, but I was bowled over by how tautly good The End of the Affair was. The blurb to my copy says that it is ‘distinct from any other major novel by Graham Greene’, which is a curious way of phrasing things and gives me hope that perhaps some of his minor novels (whichever they might be) run along similar lines? I’ll certainly try more Greene, waiting to see what else he can do – and will metaphorically raise a glass, or literally raise a book, to Granny Savidge when I do so.
Others who got Stuck into it:
“[It] is a dark, intense little gem of a novel, as wintry and stark as the post-war January landscape in which it takes place” – Victoria, Tales From the Reading Room
“This is an incredibly moving story that brims with pathos and anger throughout.” – Kim, Reading Matters
“Greene is often bleak but not often this bleak.” – Catherine, Juxtabook