Amurph11’s CBR4 Review #25, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” -Graham Greene
As should be obvious if you’ve read some of my past reviews, I grew up in a Christian home. Like any upbringing, there were upsides and downsides. On the upside, the value my family placed on the Bible was the first lesson I got on the transformative nature of reading. If your family believes that God’s primary expression on earth is a book, chances are they’re going to place a high value on books in general, and such was the case with my family. The downside to this is that most of the books we were exposed to growing up were Christian books, by which I mean the type of books that are usually purchased at Christian bookstores. And while you can find some great books at Christian bookstores – C.S. Lewis is a fantastic writer, regardless of whether or not you fall in with his religious beliefs – you have to search through a pile of themed Bibles (the Bible – now for pre-teen girls!), Christ-themed trinkets (Testamints – they’re a thing) and what my cousin John used to call Christian harlequin romances (basically the same writing quality and troubling gender roles as harlequin romances, but with no sex and a whole lot more self-righteousness) to find one A Grief Observed.
For this reason, it took me almost to adulthood to realize that there were writers other than C.S. Lewis that wrote eloquent fiction about God. I remember being shocked the first time I read Crime and Punishment at my Christian high school. It was centered around a grisly murder and its two main characters were a sociopath and a prostitute respectively, and yet without shying away from these things, it presented a redemption story that was somehow more human and more divine than anything I’d ever read. You can’t find Dostoevsky in a Christian book store, though – even Brothers Karamazov.
You can’t find Graham Greene either, which is a real shame, because his writing puts a uniquely human face on the God problem (the problem in this case being, does God exist or doesn’t he, and if he does than what the hell is he doing to us?). The End of the Affair mirrors Crime and Punishment in the way it chooses to explore this problem: by contrasting two characters, one who believes himself to be above God, and one who cannot live without God. That’s where the similarities end, however; there is an impenetrable layer of cynicism in Greene’s work that does not exist in even Dostoevsky’s darkest fiction. Greene is very much a product of his age. His writing has a stiff-upper-lip quality to it, which makes it all the more appealing when his characters are unable to maintain theirs. Both protagonist Maurice Bendrix and his romantic heroine Sarah Miles begin the story as worldly pragmatists, with a cynical charm untouched by even a world war. Even an intensely passionate affair doesn’t change this entirely; it is only the end of it that causes both of them to abandon themselves to the throes of love and/or belief, changing both of them dramatically and irreparably.
The interesting thing about The End of the Affair is that Sarah and Bendrix aren’t that likable, as human beings. Bendrix is almost universally selfish, even in love, and Sarah has a flighty thinness of character. Neither are even charismatic enough to make lovable antiheroes. But what they both are is intensely, profoundly relatable. Despite our tendency to define ourselves by our best moments, most people spend the majority of their time indulging their worst, most small-minded traits. Sarah and Bendrix are no exception, and Greene explores their bad habits unabashedly, cataloguing their flaws with the meticulousness of a museum curator. It should be off-putting, but it’s not. Instead, it is revealing, at times uncomfortable, often poignant, and always profoundly, recognizably human.
It should go without saying that the story doesn’t end well. It is called The End of the Affair, after all. But the tragic, anticlimactic and altogether crappy ending did more for me than a thousand manufactured happy endings. Belief, after all, does not secure happiness – whether it be belief in God or belief in love. Belief in love doesn’t mean your spouse won’t die of cancer way too early. Belief in God doesn’t mean you won’t die of cancer way too early. There are no guarantees, and it is this one truth that makes the problem of God so problematic. We reach out for God because often we want a guarantee. Sarah reaches out to God for this very reason, and though she gets her wish, it comes at an incredibly high cost. And Bendrix, devout atheist that he is, wants the opposite: he wants a world without God, a world that is random and meaningless and can be therefore enjoyed in that way, without consideration of a higher power or the guarantee of a tomorrow. He depends upon this belief to function, in the same way many Christians depend on their belief in God to function. He depends on there not being a God because if there is, and if he has a plan, than that means Bendrix’s happiness is being intentionally denied, instead of as a result of random happenstance.
Bendrix’ attitude toward God shifts throughout the novel from disinterest, to active disdain – “I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist” – to finally, bitter acceptance. When he finds to his dismay that his great love affair is over and that he has come out of it alive, still having to live and breathe and feed himself, he says only this:
“O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever.”
This, the very last line of the book, could have come straight out of the Psalms (right down to the h-less “O”), and for me it got to the heart of why Christian bookstores suck so hard. Christian bookstores are to God what fluffy romantic comedies are to love. They only focus on the good parts – the falling-in-love montage, the wedding, the make up sex after a misunderstanding that could have been cleared up with a phone call instead of an hour and a half of manufactured story line. Similarly, look in any Christian bookstore, and you’ll find a hundred books on miraculous cancer survival stories, but you’ll have to really look hard to find one about someone losing their faith after praying for their spouse to survive cancer, only to watch them die a horrible, lonely death. You’ll find lots of trinkets inscribed with Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”), but none with Psalm 22 (“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). But the thing is, you can’t have Psalm 23 without Psalm 22. You can’t experience love without also at some point experiencing loneliness. You can’t have faith in anything without first staring into the abyss of fear. And what’s more, discovering either of these things – love, or faith – is no guarantee of never again experiencing the other – loneliness, or fear. The choice of whether to love or believe is essentially an arbitrary one, because both are choices that you have to make again and again, every day.
The End of the Affair focuses on the good and the bad of both love and belief, and despite it’s profoundly depressing ending, I found it uplifting. I wish I’d read it when I was a teenager, struggling with what seemed to me a very linear choice of whether to accept or reject the beliefs of my childhood. For those who have grown up in such a strictly black-and-white environment, walking away can seem like a strictly black-and-white choice. And for many, it is. But for me, someone who is most comfortable traversing the grey, middle areas of human experience, it would have been helpful to this bit of stoic, brandy-and-cigarette-tinged wisdom from Graham Greene: “a story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
Read When: You’re at the end of something.
Recommended For: Depressives and romantics, believers and atheists. There’s something for everyone.
Listen With: Edith Piaf, Cole Porter, Charlie Parker. Really any sad, sexy music from the World War II era.