In 2015 and 2016, I listened to audiobooks of Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana and The Heart of the Matter. I was enthusiastic about both of them, despite having expectations that the plots of both would make me uncomfortable. What I knew about the plot of this one also made me uncomfortable, and in this case, that feeling remains.
In the case of Our Man in Havana I was wary that the humor was based on ridiculous, foolish figures; it turned out to be funny and clever enough to overcome that. The Heart of the Matter is the story of a man of great rectitude descending to terrible acts of betrayal. Despite my dismay at the idea of watching such a horror, I found it to be a brilliant book. I did object mightily to the message that lying in the confessional was the one unbearable sin.
The End of the Affair is another of Greene’s Catholic novels and is said to be one of his masterpieces. It is told by Bendrix, a writer, who had an affair with Sarah, the wife of a successful, but very dull civil servant. She ended the affair abruptly during the war and it was a few years before Bendrix learned why. He rages, full of hate throughout the book. First, at Sarah who he never trusted while they were having the affair. He hates Henry, Sarah’s husband, who he saw after the affair ends. Henry expresses concern about Sarah and reveals he is thinking of having her followed by an investigator.
Bendrix takes that on and ultimately acquires Sarah’s diary. He reads about the fateful night when they were together during a bombing raid and Bendrix left the flat to see whether they could go to a safer area. Just then a bomb hits the building and Sarah, convinced he has been killed, falls to her knees and promises God that if he spares Bendrix, she will give him up. This bargain seems to apply only to Bendrix; she has the occasional fling with someone else. Perhaps the message is that she truly did love Bendrix and if she can give him up, she will turn to loving God. Graham Greene’s idea of God’s plans and machinations seem awfully odd to me.
At this point we have the non-Christian Bendrix railing on about God and being to rude the priest who saw her a few times. Shortly after Bendrix read her diary, he believes he and Sarah can begin a life together, but Sarah is unwell and dies shortly after. Her mother turns up at the funeral and Bendrix learns that her mother impulsively and secretly had her baptized as a small child. There is the intimation that this event somehow bloomed into Sarah’s end-of-life conversion. Sarah’s continued presence in his life may turn his hate of God into belief, if not love.
I had imagined the appeal of this story would be the sadness of both the beloved mistress and the man from whom she withdrew for mysterious reasons. Instead I saw a hopelessly jealous man, an objectionable view of the message of Christianity, and a lot of anger. The book is dedicated to Catherine, a woman said to have had an affair with Greene.
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair, Penguin, originally published in 1951, 191 pages (I listened to the audiobook read perfectly by Colin Firth). Available at the public library in print and as an ebook.