Sunday, 24 February 2013

The End of the Affair

After my last read was a little disappointing, I decided to go back and revisit some Graham Greene. One of my favourite authors, The End of the Affair is the work I'd always ranked highest. I've always been a little morbid where books and films are concerned; I'm a sucker for tales of woe. What greater tale of woe can you get than Maurice Bendrix's bitter narration and searing jealousy at the sudden end of his affair with civil servant's wife, Sarah?

Bendrix's love, and hatred, for Sarah is deep and twisted. His hatred stems from his possessive passion for her. He looks back on their wartime affair, which he poisoned with his insecurity, after a chance encounter with her husband. When he meets Henry, whom he had cuckolded, he is unsettled and suspecting Sarah's infidelity. It has been some time since Bendrix saw her and old feelings are awoken. Henry is considering hiring a private eye to get his answers; it's an idea he disregards, but Bendrix cannot. So we follow his present quest to see if Sarah has moved on, while he reflects on what went wrong.

I've always loved this story as a compelling take on the power of jealousy to destroy those things we treasure. Bendrix is a man who believed he had exactly what he wanted in Sarah, but he is forever in limbo while she remains married to Henry. He's aware of previous lovers and cannot disregard these niggling memories to enjoy the present. As he muses, "because I couldn't bear the thought of her so much as touching another man, I feared it all the time, and I saw intimacy in the most casual movement of the hand".

Bendrix's love for Sarah is unhealthy, and eats away at him; "I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard of course she could not love me at all". He takes it as far as wishing "I'd rather be dead or see you dead...than see you with another man", as "anyone who loves is jealous".

One day, after Bendrix's building is bombed while Sarah spends the night with him, he nearly dies; Sarah, apparently disappointed by his survival, leaves, and he does not hear from her again. Bendrix falls apart, and his bile builds. The "end of love" he so dreaded has arrived; he is a broken man and the scars do not heal well.

The second half is where Greene builds on the religious themes of his previous novels. The End of the Affair is considered to be the most Catholic of Greene's works, and as the reasons for Sarah's abandonment become clear, the story focuses more on the exploration of faith and non-belief. Bendrix is as angrily opposed to Sarah's adopted beliefs as he was about whether she loved him enough. He becomes enraged and vindictive towards the priest he encounters and Catholic views of God. Even after Sarah is out of his life for eternity, he continues his vitriol towards the deity while miracles surround those who encountered her.

The strengths of this book for me were its exploration of jealousy, and how love can be a destructive force. The religious elements were of interest, but I'd forgotten since I last read this how major a part they played.

I've read some critiques of the character of Sarah, and how underdeveloped she appears; however, I felt this to be crucial to forming some kind of understanding of Bendrix's perceptions. Arguably, he never truly knew Sarah, not deeply; he was so blinded by his passion and desire for her, he lost sight of who she was and how she felt for him. It's this tunnel vision which forms his angry, bitter voice which gives this novel its power.

I enjoyed re-reading this, and I'd always recommend Graham Greene to anyone. Immensely readable, this story is a great tap into those deep, dark emotions which rarely appear in works about love and heartbreak. It's also allegedly based on a real-life affair Greene himself had, so there's interest too in imagining the parallels with Bendrix's author character. In general, it's a reliable rush hour read which I never fail to enjoy.

(Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle and audio from Amazon)


  1. It is, I agree, a brutal depiction of the agony of wrecked love; of love as a twisted, hopeless, raging pain when it is broken off and turns inward to bitterness. I had to stop in the middle for a while (as in weeks) because I felt so oppressed by the feelings it aroused in me. And yet I loved it. Pun intended! :)

  2. Thanks for your comment! Sarah's miracles aside, it's a tale largely devoid of hope and promise, with a gaping hole where the happy ending should be. I like that we leave Bendrix when he remains despair; in my view it's one of the best depictions of how love and obsession tear you apart and those bleakest moments when the light at the end hasn't yet emerged. It's definitely a very raw experience on first reading, and was interesting to reread after a few years to see how I viewed things differently.


It would be great to hear your thoughts - please feel free to leave a comment!