June 28, 2009

The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair, a novel by Graham Greene, written in the shadow of the Blitz and the devastation of war, is a private drama about the lives of three individuals- Maurice, Henry and Sarah- who are bound together by ties of love and religion. Henry is a civil servant working in a senior capacity within the wartime government. His life is his work- filled with plans for pensions and provisions. Sarah is his wife- a woman who married young and who has no children, but retains her glamour- a beauty that has not faded since she married. Maurice is a writer, still unsuccessful enough to be literary but gradually beggining to emerge from the seraphical sphere that snobs look to. He had an affair with Sarah and the novel begins about two years after that moment. She walked out on him in the midst of a missile attack by the Germans and never returned again. The novel in a sense is a long explanation of that moment, she did not hate him indeed at that moment she loved him as much as she loved him before. Maurice's jealous love cannot believe it but slowly as he sets a private detective on her trail, slowly as he meets Henry in pubs on Clapham Common and surveys the wonderland of Oxford Street, he works towards that realisation.

In a sense the novel is bound up in that moment- so it is worth considering what moment that is when she leaves him. A missile, a V2, crashes into the house in which the lovers are lying in bed. It submerges Maurice's body under wreckage but Sarah survives- she survives and takes from that moment a lesson that since she prayed Maurice should survive and vowed to God that she would give up Maurice should he survive, and he does survive, that God exists and binds her to her vow. Sarah comes in that sense to the crisis of her life- she faces the alternatives that the man she loves should not exist or that the man she loves should exist but not with her and chooses. Her choice rules the fates of both Maurice and Henry. But it goes further than that for her choice is a choice to beleive- it is the invisible line that Julia speaks of in Brideshead revisited that is being reeled in, the Catholic returning to the choir. In a sense Greene's novel therefore is the otherside of Brideshead, whereas that novel is about the recall of tradition and the power of the church, the priests that appear here are pathetic but it is war that recalls a generation to the fundementals of Catholicism and to the wisdom in the traditions of Rome.

Make no mistake, this is a book about Catholicism. All of the characters are one might say afflicted with Protestant problems- with the issue of individual conscience and the desire for rationalistic explanation. Sarah who finally rises out of that, rises out of it by learning to relent her conscience, to disclaim her ability to understand and to enjoy the pain that authority- God- inflicts. In a sense this is the religion of sado-psychology- seeing in suffering the end of human nature and fufilment the idea of separation. Maurice's character in this sense is both the least and most resistant- for unlike Henry, whose suffering seems outside himself, unlike Sarah whose interior we only infrequently see, Maurice's suffering and guilt we see always. His guilt and suffering are related to her but by the end of the book we are beggining to see that he is progressing along a Platonic line, from hate of a woman to love of a woman, from disbelief in God to hatred of God to love of God. This is the progression that Greene marks out for the atheist- the end of the affair might well be titled the stairway to heaven and that would not give away its argument.

The psychology is believable because the guilt that all the main characters feel is beleivable- that guilt is directed to each other for obvious reasons. The interesting way that Greene makes it feel natural that this guilt then becomes directed to a fourth person God is really the centre of the book and the most thought provoking thing about it. The only criticism I have of the book is that- and it is fundemental- I wondered reading it whether it preached to the converted more than to those who were not converted. The Platonic stairway ultimately seems constructed- I can see the balustrades and steps- it all seems too logical and theological- and the novel in a sense becomes as it turns religious an examination rather than a portrait.


James Higham said...

You use the words logical and theological almost as a collocation. Interesting.

David Murdoch said...

Greene's novels are often talked as being catholic in tone, but capable of portraying that theme well to a non-catholic audience.

I don't know if that idea is true with regard to atheists though.

God Bless,

Gracchi said...

James I think in this account the theological is an emotional response to a situation.

David- I'm not sure about that, I found Brighton Rock worked for me as a theological novel- this didn't quite.