The End of the Affair tells the story of Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles’ illicit love affair in wartime London. One stormy night several years after the war, Bendrix unexpectedly crosses paths with Sarah’s husband, Henry, standing in the rain, looking utterly miserable. On impulse, Bendrix invites Henry to have a drink at the nearby pub, and they get to talking. Henry eventually confesses that he is uneasy about Sarah, and that he suspects her of hiding something from him, perhaps even of having an affair. Bendrix is immediately on the alert: convinced that Sarah was insincere in her declarations of love for him and that she left him for another man, all his old jealousy is reawakened by Henry’s suspicions. Under cover of setting Henry’s mind at rest, he suggests hiring a private detective to follow Sarah and learn the truth.
While Henry recoils in horror from the idea, Bendrix does not long allow his conscience to overrule his curiosity, and a detective is soon watching Sarah’s every move. At the same time, Bendrix renews his acquaintance with her, hoping to surprise the truth from her. His jealousy quickly turns into a full-fledged obsession, and he broods constantly on the past, picking over every detail of their affair in his efforts to prove Sarah’s guilt. Just like in Rosamond Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove, with which The End of the Affair has a lot in common, the context of the Second World War serves to throw into relief the sufferings of the lovers: Bendrix’s unappeasable jealousy destroys their relationship as effectively as the Blitz destroys London. The gathering sense of doom that pervades the novel finally crystallizes the night one of the first V1 bombs explodes outside Bendrix’s lodgings, trapping him beneath his own front door, and foreshadowing the psychological effect on him of Sarah’s subsequent break-up with him.
In fact, the scene of the V1 explosion constitutes the crux of the whole story. Just as Bendrix thinks that he has obtained irrefutable evidence that Sarah is in love with another man, he makes a discovery that overthrows everything he thought he knew about her. For the night of the explosion, in her grief at what she believes to be Bendrix’s death, rationalistic Sarah finds herself for the first time turning to God and praying: as proof of His existence, she begs God to save Bendrix’s life, and in exchange, she makes a vow to give him up. When Bendrix appears, covered in plaster and blood, but alive, Sarah’s joy is mingled with sorrow at the knowledge that she must now respect her vow. What follows is Sarah’s long and painful struggle to come to terms with her new-found faith. Discovering that Sarah never ceased loving him, Bendrix rushes over to see her, but true to her vow, Sarah refuses to grant him an interview and flees into the cold wet night. Already ill, her late-night sortie proves fatal, and she dies several days later. Bitterly jealous of the God who supplanted him in Sarah’s affections, Bendrix persuades Henry to ignore Sarah’s dying wish to be buried according to the Catholic rites.
Both the story of a love affair and the story of a conversion, The End of the Affair is also a story about writing. Maurice Bendrix is a writer (though not as yet a very successful one), and the reason he embarked on an affair with Sarah in the first place was because he was writing a novel about a civil servant and he wanted to pick her brains about Henry. That he would end up falling in love with her was certainly not part of his plan. In the end, it is his obsession with the failure of their relationship and what he calls his hatred of Sarah, which drives him to tell their story. Again and again, he draws the reader’s attention to the workings of fiction: to the bias his own feelings and role in the story inevitably give the narrative, and to the way his being in possession of all the facts from the very start enables him to manage the plot and manipulate the reader as he sees fit. In a striking passage in the second half of the book, he compares the power of the novelist to that of God, showing how both, by the sheer power of their will, can breathe life into even the dullest and the most recalcitrant of subjects. Small wonder that he should refuse to give up this power to be the puppet of a God he does not recognise or love!
In The End of the Affair, Graham Greene once again reveals the preoccupation with Catholicism that eventually led to his own conversion. But the novel is far from being a mere vehicle for religious theories. Greene’s writing is neither didactic nor proselytising: the tension between human love and faith remains unresolved, and though at the end of the novel Bendrix himself begins to question his atheism, his hatred of Sarah’s God and his struggle to resist Him are still very fierce. It is left to the reader to determine whether or not his conversion will ever be effected. More then, than the religious message, more, even, than the tale of an ill-fated love affair, it is Maurice Bendrix’s forceful personality which makes the book memorable. Greene’s characterization is brilliant: Bendrix’s corrosive jealousy, his wilful cruelty to Sarah, and later to Henry, his passion and his bitterness are brought vividly to life – they breathe fire into the narrative and turn the deeply flawed Bendrix into something truly great.
© Florence Berlioz 2011