Classics Challenge: May Prompt – Literary Movement

This month’s topic in the Classics Challenge is about literary movement and where the book you’re reading fits within the movement.

the end of the affair

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.

Sunday Selection, or what to read next?

This morning I finally finished reading A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. I enjoyed it, but it was with a sense of release that I read the final pages, because at 872 pages it’s taken me over a month to read it and I’m looking forward to reading something shorter, snappier and more succinct. I’ll write my thoughts about this mammoth book on the French Revolution later on.

So, I picked up Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death by W J Burley, which is much shorter at 192 pages and easier to read – and to handle. It’s a murder mystery about the death of Matthew Glynn a respectable bookseller.

But I’m also thinking ahead about what to read next. I have started The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, but I’m thinking of leaving it for now as it too is another long book. So, the possibilities are:

Fresh from the Country by Miss Read, (219 pages) about Anna Lacey plunged into her first teaching job in London. I’ve read most of Miss Read’s Thrush Green and Fairacre novels, but this one is new to me. Dora Jessie Saint, who wrote under the pen-name Miss Read, died earlier this month at the age of 98. She wrote over 30 books, gentle and unsentimental observations of English country and village life and I’ve loved each one I’ve read.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. This was my face-to-face book group choice this month, but I missed the meeting because it was the same day as our grandson’s birthday, and I hadn’t read the book anyway. I’d like to read it, though, because the group disagreed about the book – with some people disliking it and others who thought it was good. Maurice and Sarah had begun a love affair during the London Blitz and then Sarah had broken off the relationship. Maurice, driven by obsessive jealousy and grief sends a private detective to find out the truth. It would also be good to read it as it fits into the Classics Challenge.

And looking further ahead, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to get any of the ‘free’ books offered in newbooks magazine, which arrived recently. I’ve narrowed my choice down to two books:

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. This is set in Victorian England. Seventeen year old Phoebe takes a job as companion to Mr Samuel’s wife and encounters betrayal, loss and regret as she tries to adjust to life away from home.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, a debut novel by Wendy Jones. In 1924 Wilfred lives in rural Pembrokeshire where he runs the local funeral parlour. He fantasises about Grace, the daughter of the local doctor and on the spur of the moment he proposes to her. But then he realises that this is a mistake and tries to undo it.

Another book that has caught my eye recently is:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a debut novel by Rachel Joyce. I saw this in a local bookshop and nearly bought it then. It’s about Harold who walks from his home in Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland to see a dying friend. It’s the idea of a journey along the length of England that I find appealing, but the thought of the friend dying from cancer may be too close to home.

One thing is certain, I’ll never run out of books I’d like to read.