For some time now I’ve had a mental block when it’s come to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. No doubt this is due to the image of Ralph Fiennes’ heaving buttocks from the most recent film adaptation, which unfortunately come to mind whenever I think of the novel. But what Mr Fiennes has done is plant the suggestion of seediness in my mind, and Greene’s novel, both his depiction of London during and after the war, and Bendrix and his snatched affair with Sarah and all that follows really does read as a seedy business.
Bendrix narrates the novel, a writer by trade who can well articulate his own shortcomings as a human being. He’s aware of his own bitterness and hatred, but Greene also reveals one of the most arrogant voices I’ve read in a long time. He perches himself far above many of the people he encounters, whether it’s the humble private detective or the betrayed husband Henry. All inhabit a late 1940s world of bombsites, dark bars and darker weather; a setting that’s breathtakingly realistic. But this isn’t why I found the book seedy; it was more the people in it, and all but one of the characters I disliked. In fact the only one I was ambivalent towards, the young girl who Bendrix picks up and takes to Sarah’s funeral, is one of the few that has a lucky escape from him. Of those that suffer, particularly Henry, I tended to share the contempt that Bendrix has for them.
Like many of Greene’s other novels, the subject of Catholicism rears its head. Here, Greene treats Belief and God as something that can be caught, an infection, and just as Sarah contracts pneumonia from the dank London streets, Bendrix fears that he, too, will ultimately believe in God but it will be little more than an unwanted infection. Throughout the book there are also odd glimpses of the supernatural; a skin disease apparently healed by Faith, Sarah’s deal with God that she will not see Bendrix after she thinks he has died in an air raid.
For such a brief piece at 160 pages, The End of the Affair is incredibly dense. It drained me as a reader, and Greene continues to prove that less is more, and that the lesser writer would fail in the temptation to drag out the affair even more. But it’s a painful book to read.