The 1951 Club…
…is the fourth in Simon and Karen’s reading years series – and I must say, I’m looking forward to the next decades! 1951 produced a plethora of books on my shelves. I could pick from Asimov, Bradbury or Wyndham in SF&F and there was Mitford’s Blessing, Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, Taylor’s A Question of Hide and Seek, and Lewis’ Prince Caspian, for instance.
Additionally, I’ve already reviewed:
There was one novel that stood out though – a Graham Greene I’ve never read (there can’t be many left of those)…
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Unusually for one of my mum’s old books, this isn’t a Penguin. All the rest of the Greenes I inherited were, but a tacky 1967 US Bantam printing, obviously acquired second-hand by her!
Before I start the review though, I want to quote Catullus at you:
Odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.’
I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask?
I do not know, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.
Never has an ancient Roman poem applied more to a novel. In particular note the order at the beginning – it’s not love-hate, as we often say – it’s hate and then love – and it’s pure torture for Greene’s narrator, author Maurice Bendrix, who on the first page says:
If hate is not too large a term to use in relation to any human being, I hated Henry. I hated his wife, Sarah, too. And he I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me, as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love, and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah, I can be trusted. I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth even to the expression of my near-hate.
I can honestly say, that at this point – I instantly hated Bendrix too!
*** Spoiler alert – full plot synopsis in the next 2 paras. ***
Bendrix hates and loves Sarah Miles, with whom he has been having an affair. Sarah is married to Henry, a mild-mannered by high-ranking civil servant, but the physical side of things has been dead for some time between them. Bendrix knows their liaison won’t last, but he is shocked at how it ends. The story is set during WWII, and one day, the couple are caught in a bomb blast, and Bendrix is flattened by a falling door and Sarah thinks him dead. She prays to God that she’ll leave him if God will save him. Of course Maurice is alive, but Sarah remains true to her word and essentially dumps him.
Henry and Maurice had been acquaintances before the affair, and during it, Maurice had often been around when Henry returned home from work! Once it ends, Bendrix meets Henry walking on the common one evening in the rain, and Henry tells him that he thinks something is going on with Sarah. Wracked by jealousy with the thought she may have a new man, Bendrix hires a private detective. Eventually, the detective conspires with the maid to purloin Sarah’s diary, and Bendrix discovers the truth. She’d been struggling with her faith, and had tested her resolve by visiting Smythe, a rationalist who lived up the road. Maurice wants to rekindle their romance and take her away – but she dies from a lung infection. There is some squabbling about the funeral, for she had started to (re)become a Catholic. Henry and Maurice mourn her together and Henry asks Maurice to become his lodger.
*** end of plot, but the discussion below is spoilery too***
Soon we find out how Bendrix picked up Sarah at a party. She was happy and beautiful and had read his books and stirred confusing feelings in him:
For one thing, she was beautiful, and beautiful women, especially if they are intelligent also, stir some deep feeling of inferiority in me. […] I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical. (p18)
With Bendrix being a writer working from home, it’s very convenient to have a daytime affair. However, it does lead to writer’s block for him, and he quarrels and picks on her all the time. This is when he realises it won’t last, but he is obsessed by her. Of course they only see each other for one thing really, and that is driven by lust rather than love.
Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel; sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust. (p44)
That quotation had a question mark written by it in the margin – but I don’t know if it was my mum or a previous reader. He is a nasty, suspicious man even during the affair. You can almost understand it after she dumps him, but that doesn’t condone his actions in hiring a detective to stalk her on his behalf. Parkis, the detective, turns out to be a decent working chap, rather an antidote to the concentrated negativity of Bendrix.
Bendrix never misses an opportunity to rub things in with Henry, and later admits freely to the affair, but also accuses Henry of effectively pimping her out – with a new chap now in the frame they think. Henry wonders why Bendrix had stopped coming to the house, and for once Maurice tells him a truth, a variation on the quote above:
“I suppose, in a way, we’d got to the end of love. There was nothing else we could do together. She could shop and cook and fall asleep with you, but she could only make love with me.”
Coming up to halfway through the book, I still really dislike Bendrix. I don’t care much for Sarah either, but always feel sorry for poor Henry.
Greene did give me a good laugh at one point though. Bendrix is asking Parkis what his son’s name is:
‘He’s called Lance, is he?’
‘After Sir Lancelot, sir. Of the Round Table.’
‘I’m surprised. That was a rather unpleasant episode, surely.’
‘He found the Holy Grail,’ Mr. Parkis said.
‘That was Galahad. Lancelot was found in bed with Guinevere.’
Why do we have this desire to tease the innocent? Is it envy? Mr. Parkis said sadly, looking across at his boy as though he had betrayed him, ‘I hadn’t heard.’
At first I thought Greene had been very clever, making Bendrix feel superior in correcting Parkis, but letting him get it wrong himself. Surely it was Percival who discovered the Grail. I’d forgotten that after Chretien de Troyes’ 12th century version, the Vulgate cycle introduces a new Grail hero, Galahad, in the early 13thC. Greene’s faith would probably have led him to Galahad rather than Percival.
We reach the middle section of the novel, which consists of extracts from Sarah’s diary – in which her struggle with her belief in God comes out on every page. Here she is recounting her prayers when she thought Maurice was dead:
Dear God, I said-why dear, why dear?- make me belive. I can’t believe. Make me. I said, I’m a bitch and a fake and I hate myself. I can’t do amything of myself. Make me believe. I shut my eyes tight, and I pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel nothing but the pain, and I said, I will believe. Let him be alive, and I will believe. […] and then he came in at the door, and he was alive, and I thought now the agony of being without him starts, and I wished he was safely back dead again under the door.
This was the last of Greene’s overtly Catholic novels, and the guilt just drips off the pages. The End of the Affair is more than a Catholic guilt trip though, it is also rather autobiographical. Greene based Bendrix on himself, and Sarah on Lady Catherine Walston, his lover at the time, and to whom the book is dedicated. Greene also lived at Clapham Common where his house was bombed in the Blitz.
Brought up in the Anglican / Methodist tradition as I was, before rejecting it, it is always difficult to comprehend the depths of Catholicism due to the ingrained guilt that appears to be forgiven by confession and subsequent penance. This aspect, together with the hatefulness of Bendrix, whom I still didn’t feel any sympathy for by the end, made this the Greene novel that I have disliked and found more depressing than any other of his that I’ve read. That’s not to say that it wasn’t worth reading. It was, but I didn’t like it! (7.5/10)
P.S. On a happier note… This postcard from my Grandma to my parents in 1973 was slotted into the pages as a bookmark. On the back, Grandma says: “This (double-underlined) is where we live!! The irony is that Southsea is the seaside end of Portsmouth – they lived at the inland end of Portsmouth a few miles north, but went down to Southsea as often as they could to mosey around. I can remember many a visit there during the summer hols as a child, playing mini golf, ice-creams on the pier and watching the hovercraft over to the Isle of Wight while sitting on the shingly beach. (We never took the Hovercraft, too expensive, we went by ferry.)