PRESENTING Graham Greene with a literary prize in 1963, a professor at Hamburg University praised him for his sense of “human theological adventure”. All too human, one might concur in the case of The End of the Affair, which chronicles the adulterous liaison between the novelist Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, the wife of a civil servant.
They first get acquainted because Bendrix needs to know about the life of a Whitehall mandarin for a novel he is writing. In one of the most autobiographical and self-aware novels Greene ever wrote, perhaps we should detect a wry reflection here on the invasive calling of a novelist.
The End of the Affair is the most domestic in scope of Greene’s major novels. Set in London during the Second World War, the only political situations it addresses are refracted through the wartime efforts of the government department where Sarah’s husband Henry works.
Yet war plays a crucial part in the plot, creating an atmosphere of carpe diem, and bringing about a pivotal episode when the lovers are caught in an air-raid. Believing Bendrix is likely to have been killed, Sarah vows to God that if he has been spared, she will end their liaison. He survives, and she feels obliged to keep her promise: hence the novel’s title.
Given the fact that the novel is mainly narrated by Bendrix, even the most censorious of readers shares in his anguish. We eavesdrop, too, on Sarah’s diary, which chronicles the emotional costliness of the decision, and gives a gripping account of her developing relationship with God.
Yet there is a side missing from this narrative triangle: Henry’s. Perhaps to identify with cuckolds was too uncomfortable even for Greene, given his own history of adultery. For some, this reluctance to give Henry an independent voice will damage the book. But in the 1999 film of the novel, Stephen Rea’s moving performance in the role did much to subvert the novel’s balance of sympathies.
In the end, Sarah jilts both Henry and Bendrix for God, her last and most importunate lover on the mystical journey she has undertaken. Bendrix’s growing recognition of this echoes a Roman Catholic writer of an earlier generation, Francis Thompson: “I tempted all His servitors, but to find My own betrayal in their constancy, In faith to Him their fickleness to me.”
The poem from which this is taken, “The Hound of Heaven”, describes the inescapability of God — something that Bendrix, too, experiences, but with wearied recognition of a fellow professional’s tricks.
His metaphors for divine intervention in human existence are drawn from the novelist’s craft: “We are inextricably bound to the plot, and wearily God forces us, here and there, according to his intention, characters without poetry, without free will, whose only importance is that somewhere, at some time, we help to furnish the scene in which a living character moves and speaks.”
Saints, the passage also declares, are those “capable of the surprising act or word”, and part of Greene’s aim in this book is to redefine sanctity. Without giving away too much of the ending, Sarah is identified by Bendrix and others as having the charism of touch and the power to heal.
We have seen something of this in our own time with the popular beatification of Diana, Princess of Wales — another glamorous adulteress whose instinct was to reach out to those needing healing, and who seems to have entertained the idea of going over to Rome.
In the words given to Sarah’s confidant, the Roman Catholic priest Fr Crompton: “I’ve had twenty-five years of the confessional. There’s nothing we can do some of the saints haven’t done before us.”
True enough, and Greene’s characterisation of Sarah marks a definitive, very 20th-century turn from the tendency to associate female sanctity with virginity or married chastity. Mary Magdalene, whose example is surely being invoked by Greene, is an obvious exception. Yet an even closer model for the character of Sarah is St Augustine, given his penchant for spiritual autobiography and his renunciation of his mistress on converting to Christianity.
Christianity has a long history of associating sanctity with bodily denial. In the fictions of a secular age, this can be a liability. It is only Darwinian to identify with sexually successful characters, and readers with any pretence to sophistication have long been trained to find the literary evocation of conventional saintliness unconvincing — two factors that help to make sex and sanctity a powerful combination for the novelist.
Yet it seems fair to ask how far Greene is challenging over-restrictive ideas of sanctity, how far capitulating to the novelistic taboos of his own time. Sarah’s passion for God is powerfully evoked, as is the masochistic element in her spirituality — “Make me believe. . . I’m a bitch and a fake and I hate myself” — but notions of repentance are played down.
Another reason why one might rebel against seeing Sarah as a saint is less her adulterous former life than her lack of demonstrable staying power after her conversion. Still, it is positively long drawn out compared with Lord Marchmain’s deathbed repentance in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. To query its efficacy could be seen as underplaying God’s infinite mercy.
A version of a couplet recorded by the 17th-century antiquarian William Camden is alluded to several times in Greene’s Brighton Rock: “Between the stirrup and the ground, I mercy ask’d, I mercy found.” Camden’s fiercer age would have cautioned against presumption. But perhaps, Greene is suggesting, one should trust more in God than that. Either way, this is a novel whose moral and spiritual provocativeness has few equals in Greene’s time or our own.
Dr Alison Shell is a Professor of English Literature at Durham University.
The End of the Affair is published by Vintage Classics at £7.99; 978-0-099-47844-7.
THE END OF THE AFFAIR — SOME QUESTIONS
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” How does Bendrix’s view affect his account of the affair and its aftermath?
How would things have been different if Sarah had left Bendrix for another man rather than in response to a vow?
Sarah writes to God as if to a lover. Have you ever felt this way about God? What sort of language do you use when you wish to communicate with God?
“Hatred seems to operate the same glands as love: it even produces the same actions.” How much does Bendrix’s hatred permeate the novel?
Fr Crompton says that superstition could be the beginning of wisdom. What does he mean?
Was Sarah right to keep her vow to God without explaining it to Bendrix?
What sort of God is portrayed in the book?
How would you describe Henry’s response to Sarah’s affair? To what extent was he to blame for her seeking solace elsewhere?
What part do Parkis and his boy play in the novel?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 December, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is published by Penguin at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-14-101269-8.
Jonathan Safran Foer was born in Washington DC in 1977, and now lives in New York with his wife and son. He studied philosophy and literature at Princeton University. His first book, Everything is Illuminated, published in 2002, won the National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award. In 2007, he was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He has also published articles and short stories for a number of newspapers and magazines.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was first published in 2005. The father of Oskar Schell, the book’s narrator, is killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oskar, a precocious child with an interest in inventing things, is determined to discover how his father died. When he finds a key in his father’s belongings, he begins a journey that takes him across New York and 50 years into the family’s past.
Books for the next two months:
January: The Hands and Feet of Jesus by Clive Price
February: House-bound by Winifred Peck