Thursday, January 15, 2009

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

I kissed her on the tough and knotty hair, and coming away I found her lips, smudgy and salt, on the corner of my mouth. 'God bless you, ' she said, and I thought, That's what she crossed out in her letter to Henry. One says good-bye to another's good-bye... and it was an involuntary act when I repeated her blessing back to her, but turning as I left the church and seeing her huddled there at the edge of the candle-light, like a beggar come in for warmth, I could imagine a God blessing her: or a God loving her. When I began to write our story down, I thought I was writing a record of hate, but somehow the hate has got mislaid and all I know is that in spite of her mistakes and her unreliability, she was better than most. It's just as well that one of us should believe in her: she never did in herself.

The term "Greeneland" is often used to describe the setting of Greene's books: hot, foreign places where British men deal with their inner spirituality against the backdrop of some strange otherworld. As much as I love Greene, this does unnerve me a bit--can a man who hops around as much as he does truly depict Mexico--and Cuba, and Africa, etc.? But The End of the Affair is a book that takes place much closer to Greene's own environs, so close that it seems as if it might be Greene's own story. The narrator, author Maurice Bendrix, even has the same five-hundred-word-a-day quota as Greene.

And so the question arises--is the titular affair, which obsesses Bendrix, drawn from Greene's own experiences? Bendrix's severe and crippling jealousy, as well as his conflicted feelings toward his ex-lover Sarah and her husband Henry--"This is a record of hate far more than one of love," he tells us--ring true, though one supposes that brokenheartedness is a near-universal emotion. One definite difference between the two is that while Greene is an ardent and thoughtful Catholic, Bendrix is a staunch non-believer--though his intense resentment toward God calls his own feelings into doubt. It is almost as if Greene created Bendrix as a mirror image of himself, the atheist struggling with his own demons of doubt as the believer does.

But Bendrix seems pale in comparison to the Whisky Priest of The Power and the Glory or the psychopathic Pinkie of Brighton Rock, men whose religious doubts were complicated by their own propensity for sin and outright evil. Bendrix is dull, and, unfortunately, so is Sarah. As a result, the misery seems real but the relationship doesn't, and the book suffers. But perhaps it's no coincidence that the book seems most convincing in despair:

The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.

I guess that shows me--even in banality Greene is brilliant. But I've got to say that when all is said, without Greene's voice to drive the book's philosophy, this book is pretty boring. I don't think I could watching Ray Fiennes sit around in a London flat and mope anymore than I could watch him lie crippled in a bed and mope. That is to say, I've seen kitchen sponges more excitingly plotted. On to The Heart of the Matter.