This month’s topic in the Classics Challenge is about literary movement and where the book you’re reading fits within the movement.
I’ve recently read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, published by Penguin as one of the Twentieth Century Classics. It was originally published in 1951.
It’s very difficult, or at least I think it is, to place this book within a ‘literary movement’. I’m not the only one because William Golding wrote:
Graham Greene was in a class by himself – He will be read and remembered as the ultimate twentieth-century chronicler of consciousness and anxiety.’
So maybe he fits into the ‘stream of conciousness’ movement, because The End of the Affair is full of Maurice Bendrix’s thoughts and feelings, but I don’t think it’s quite that. It moves backwards in time recollecting past events, but it certainly reveals what is going on in Maurice’s mind.
Maurice’s love affair with his friend’s wife, Sarah, had begun in 1944 during the London Blitz. They had met at a party held by Sarah’s husband, Henry. The affair had ended suddenly after his house had been bombed by a V1 and Sarah had not explained why. Two years later Maurice, still obsessed by Sarah employed Parkis, a private detective to find out the truth. So it’s maybe a romantic novel, inspired by Greene’s affair with a married woman ‘C’ (Lady Catherine Walston), but then again, maybe not. The story is narrated by Maurice but includes his reading of Sarah’s diary, which reveals her increasing fascination with religion, specifically with Catholicism. Some describe The End of the Affair as the last of Greene’s Catholic Novels (the others being Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter), but Greene didn’t like that label. Nevertheless, The End of the Affair is a study of love and hate, of desire, of jealousy, of pain, of faithfulness, and of the interaction between God and people.
At the beginning Maurice states that: ‘this is a record of hate, far more than of love’. He struggles to believe in God and is full of desperation and anger. He is tormented by his efforts to understand:
But I don’t want Your peace and I don’t want Your love. I wanted something very simple and very easy: I wanted Sarah for a lifetime and You took her away. With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed. (page 191)
It’s a powerful novel that, for me, defies being categorised. Emotional, passionate and intense it’s a dark and compelling book, with more emphasis on character than on plot. God, whether the characters believe in ‘him’ or not, has a major part. I knew before I read this book that Greene was a convert to Roman Catholicism, but the doubts about belief and the depth of criticism of Christianity both surprised and interested me, more than the question of the affair.
Here’s a selection of passages that I noted as I read:
- Maurice is in Henry’s study, a room Maurice feels Henry never uses: ‘I doubted whether the set of Gibbon had once been opened, and the set of Scott was only there because it had – probably – belonged to his father, like the bronze copy of the Discus Thrower. And yet he was happier in his unused room simply because it was his: his possession. I thought with bitterness and envy: if one possesses a thing securely, one need never use it.’ (page 13) How true is that I wondered? – to me the unread books on my shelves are less my own than the read books.
- Maurice is a novelist. Throughout the book he ponders on the nature of writing, characterisation and so on. In this passage he considers his habits of working and he effects outside events have on his ability to write, listing all the obstacles that had never affected him before, concluding that: ‘So long as one is happy one can endure any discipline: it was unhappiness that broke down the habits of work.‘ (pages 34-5)
- I wondered how much of this novel is autobiographical – not just the affair, but Maurice’s own character and beliefs seem to be based on Greene’s own life and personality. Maybe that’s an unfair assumption, but I do think it’s true for his passages on writing. Another passage reveals: ‘So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious: in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.’ (page 35)
- And on the existence of God/Devil: ‘I have never understood why people who can swallow the enormous improbability of a personal God boggle at a personal Devil. I have known so intimately the way that demon works in my imagination.’ (page 59)
I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel, but it is well written, full of ideas and questions packed within its pages – a tragedy about conflict and doubt.