Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Room for "metaphysics"--"The End of the Affair"

The End of the Affair

Van Johnson, Deborah Kerr, Peter Cushing

From Columbia pictures came The End of the Affair [1955 directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson, Peter Cushing, and John Mills]: A theological study of God's relationship with man. Columbia was notorious for being the Penguin book of celluloid...those heavy, thought-provoking cinematic offerings usually based on a literary piece. In this case it was a novel by British author Graham Greene. The film operates on the theme that God is an active god and that despite the laws of physics things can be altered. And in a self-sacrificing way the admission of God's existence does not necessarily come with the concept of love of God. Ahhhh, metaphysics.


The novel focuses on Maurice Bendrix, a rising writer during World War II in London, and Sarah Miles, the wife of an impotent civil servant. Bendrix is loosely based on Greene himself, and he reflects often on the act of writing a novel. Sarah is based loosely on Greene's mistress at the time, Catherine Walston, to whom the book is dedicated.

Bendrix and Sarah fall in love quickly, but he soon realizes that the affair will end as quickly as it began. The relationship suffers from his overt and admitted jealousy. He is frustrated by her refusal to divorce Henry, her amiable but boring husband. When a bomb blasts Bendrix's flat as he is with Sarah, he is nearly killed. After this, Sarah breaks off the affair with no apparent explanation.

Twenty years later, Bendrix is still wracked with jealousy when he sees Henry crossing the Common that separates their flats. Henry has finally started to suspect something, and Bendrix decides to go to a private detective to discover Sarah's new lover. Through her diary, he learns that, when she thought he was dead after the bombing, she made a promise to God not to see Bendrix again if he allowed him to live again. Greene describes Sarah's struggles. After her sudden death from measles, several miraculous events occur, advocating for some kind of meaningfulness to Sarah's faith. By the last page of the novel, Bendrix may have come to believe in a God as well, though not to love him.

The End of the Affair is the fourth and last of Greene's explicitly Catholic novels.

e Notes...

Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair was first published in 1951 in England. The events of the novel concern an adulterous affair in England during World War II. With the war and the affair over, Maurice Bendrix seeks an explanation of why his lover, Sarah Miles, broke off their relationship so suddenly. Greene's contemporaries could relate to the setting of the story, as the war was fresh in their memories and they were living in the same postwar period as the characters. Within this setting, Greene explores themes of love and hate, faithfulness, and the presence of the divine in human lives. Critics have been generally positive in their reviews and analyses of the novel, and readers have embraced it for more than fifty years. One of Greene's early admirers was William Faulkner.

Critics consider The End of the Affair the last in Greene's Catholic tetralogy. In the first three books of the four, Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter, Greene depicts God as a source of grace in people's spiritual lives, but in The End of the Affair, Greene presents a more active, involved God who is a force in people's earthly lives (performing miracles through Sarah, for example). All four novels address the ideas of mortal sin and redemption. To many critics, The End of the Affair is the most obviously Catholic of Greene's novels, due in large part to the apparent sainthood of the heroine, whose death is followed by a series of miracles.

Graham Greene on The End of the Affair [from Ways of Escape, pp.114-115]:

Many a time I regretted pursuing "I" along his dismal road and contemplated beginning The End of the Affair all over again with Bendrix, my leading character, seen from outside in the third person. I had never previously had to struggle so hard to lend the narrative interest. For example how could I vary the all-important "tone" when it was one character who was always commenting? The tone had been set on the first page by Bendrix — "This is a record of hate far more than of love" — and I dreaded to see the whole book smoked dry like a fish with his hatred. Dickens had somehow miraculously varied his tone [in Great Expectations], but when I tried to analyze his success, I felt like a colourblind man trying intellectually to distinguish one colour from another. For my book there were two shades of the same colour — obsessive love and obsessive hate; Mr. Parkis, the private detective, and his boy were my attempt to introduce two more tones, the humorous and the pathetic.

…The story…which now began to itch at my mind — of a man who was to be driven and overwhelmed by the accumulation of natural coincidences, until he broke and began to accept the incredible —the possibility of a God. Alas! It was an intention I betrayed. There is much that I like in the book — it seems to me more simply and clearly written than its predecessors and ingeniously constructed to avoid the tedium of the time sequence (I had learned something from my continual rereading of that remarkable novel The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford), but until I reached the final part I did not realize the formidable problem I had set myself.

Sarah, the chief character, was dead, the book should have continued at least as long after her death as before, and yet, like her lover, Bendrix, I found I had no great appetite to continue now she was gone beyond recall and only a philosophic theme was left behind. I begin to hurry to the end, and although, in the last part, there are scenes, especially those which express the growth of tenderness between Bendrix and Sarah's husband, which seem to me successful enough, I realized too late how I had been cheating the reader…The incident of the atheist Smythe's strawberry mark (apparently cured by Sarah after her death) should have had no place in the book; every so-called miracle, like the curing of Parkis's boy, ought to have had a completely natural explanation. The coincidences should have continued over the years, battering the mind of Bendrix, forcing on him a reluctant doubt of his own atheism. The last pages would have remained much as they were written (indeed I very much like the last pages), but I had spurred myself too quickly to the end.

So it was that in a later edition I tried to return nearer to my original intention. Smythe's strawberry mark gave place to a disease of the skin which might have had a nervous origin and be susceptible to faith healing.

The End of the Affair was a greater success with readers than with critics. I felt such doubt of it that I sent the typescript to my friend Edward Sackville-West and asked his advice. Should I put the book in a drawer and forget it? He answered me frankly that he didn't care for the novel but nonetheless I should publish — we ought to have the vitality of the Victorians who never hesitated to publish the bad as well as the good. So publish I did. I was much comforted by words of praise from William Faulkner, and I was later grateful for the two years' practice I had had in the use of the first person or I might have been afraid to use it in The Quiet American, a novel which imperatively demanded it, and which is, technically at least, perhaps a more successful book.

No comments: