Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Lessons from The End of the Affair

She had said to me--they were nearly the last words I heard from her before she came dripping into the hall from her assignation--"You needn't be so scared.  Love doesn't end.  Just because we don't see each other..." She had already made her decision, though I didn't know it till the next day, when the telephone presented nothing but the silent open mouth of somebody found dead.  She said, "My dear, my dear.  People go on loving God, don't they, all their lives without seeing Him?" 

This was my third time reading Graham Greene and my admiration and enjoyment of his writing has increased with each successive novel.  Greene wrote many books, but there are four especially "Catholic" novels: The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, and Brighton Rock.  Thank goodness I still have Brighton Rock left to read--I really enjoy Greene that much.

It is hard to say, but I believe The End of the Affair may be my favorite Greene novel yet.  Out of all the books I have read and are listed on this blog, it is this one that comes closest to my novel.  Both are first-person point of view--an intimate introspection.  Both also trace a character's conversion, and the demise of a romantic relationship.  Furthermore, the connection between love and hate is explored.

Our books share similarities.  But I wish I could write more like Greene.  He can compose a four word sentence that just hits you with its raw veracity and power.  Greene is coarse: his images are unsettling, his characters flawed and sinful.  Yet his underlying theme is refined and supernatural.  The mixture of base human emotions and actions (hate, jealousy, adultery) and the break-through of grace amidst the muck of sin is riveting. 

In The End of the Affair, Greene takes corrupt human love and from it--perhaps through it--points to the perfect love of God.

In many ways the book is based on Greene's own life.  The protagonist is an author and sometimes reflects on the art of writing.  The End of the Affair is dedicated to a certain "C," which in the United States' edition of the book is spelled out as "Catherine."  This is the woman with whom Greene had an affair for eleven years.  He wrote this book toward the very end of his own affair with Catherine.

The person who tells the story is Maurice Bendrix.  His last name points to something that is bent--what should be straight is forced into a curve or angle.  What is bent in Bendrix is his understanding of love, for his love is one crippled by jealousy.

Maurice, a writer, was studying the life of Henry Miles, a government worker, to glean background for a character in one of his novels.  Through Henry, Maurice became acquainted with Mrs. Sarah Miles, who immediately captivated him.  They began a three year affair, which was frequently poisoned by Maurice's extreme jealousy. 

"Wouldn't you want me to be happy, rather than miserable?" she asked with unbearable logic.

"I'd rather be dead or see you dead," I said, "than with another man.  I'm not eccentric. That's ordinary human love.  Ask anybody.  They'd all say the same--if they loved at all."  I jibed at her.  "Anyone who loves is jealous." 

The affair abruptly ended during the bombing of Britain in 1944.  Sarah and Maurice were together when Maurice decided to go downstairs to investigate whether they should seek safety in the basement.  A bomb hit his apartment and Maurice found himself buried underneath his front door.  Gaining consciousness, he went upstairs to find Sarah, who looked disappointed to see him alive.  It was the last day of the affair: he never heard from her again.

Maurice (and the reader) are left with a resounding question: Why?  Why did Sarah end the affair?  Did she ever really love Maurice?  

They live two separate lives, until nearly two years later when Maurice happens upon Henry late one rainy night.  They go out for drinks and Henry admits to Maurice that he suspects Sarah is cheating on him.  (Henry, naive and trusting, never had an inkling of Maurice and Sarah's affair.)  His jealousy aroused, Maurice puts into action Henry's discarded plan to hire a private detective.

What Maurice learns is that there is a new love in Sarah's life.  But it isn't who he expected.  When the private detective hands Maurice Sarah's diary, he has the key to the mystery.

Greene deftly switches from Maurice to Sarah as narrator, jumping from past to present and back again.  Sarah has the opportunity to explain the situation from her perspective, through her diary.  

The day of the bombing, she found Maurice under the door and returned upstairs, certain he was dead.  Terrified and desperate, she found herself praying, begging God to spare Maurice's life, offering to believe in God in exchange.  But that wasn't enough of a sacrifice, so to make the deal more enticing, Sarah promised not to see Maurice again.  At that moment, Maurice entered the bedroom alive and practically unhurt.

The end of their affair was the beginning of a new love for Sarah.  At first she hated God and the vow she made to him, and longed for nothing other than to be with Maurice again.

I'm tired and I don't want any more pain.  I want Maurice.  I want ordinary corrupt human love.  Dear God, you know I want to want Your pain, but I don't want it now.  Take it away for a while and give it to me another time.

To find a way around her vow, Sarah begins to visit a professed atheist, Richard, who spends his life trying to convince people that God doesn't exist.  In their visits, however, quite the opposite occurs: the man's disbelief leads to her belief.  For how could this man hate someone who didn't exist?  Doesn't hate necessitate an object for that hatred?  

Even though her visits serve to only build her faith (the faith that keeps her away from Maurice), Sarah continues going to see Richard out of pity: she feels sorry he has no one else to hear his arguments.  Her pity also leads Sarah to stay with Henry, even after preparing a letter for him stating she was going to be with Maurice.  

What Sarah realizes through these experiences is that, if she loves as God loves, she can love more than just Maurice.  She can love the boringness of her husband.  She can kiss Richard's disfigured cheek.

In fact, perhaps her love for Maurice was actually an attempt to love God.  For Maurice was the one who paved the path for this greater, perfect, unconditional love.  Maurice encouraged Sarah to search for the truth, just as he tried to present the details of his stories accurately.  Her love for Maurice led her to God.

Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved You?  Or was it really You I loved all the time?...was it me he loved, or You?  For he hated in me the things You hate.  He was on Your side all the time without knowing it.  You willed our separation, but he willed it too.  He worked for it with his anger and his jealousy, and he worked for it with his love.  For he gave me so much love, and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn't anything left, when we'd finished, but You.  For either of us...You were there, teaching us to squander, like you taught the rich man, so that one day we might have nothing left except this love of You.  But You are too good to me.  When I ask You for pain, You give me peace.  Give it him too.  Give him my peace--he needs it more. 

Sarah and Maurice's love could never satisfy.  There was constantly the poison of the realization that what they had must end.  But God's love was different.  

If one could believe in God, would he fill the desert?

After finishing the last page of Sarah's diary, Maurice realizes that Sarah has always loved him--and still loves him.  He immediately seeks her out.  She evades him, but finally he tracks her down in an empty church and promises her they will leave together to start a new life.  But before anything can happen, Henry calls Maurice a few days later to tell him that Sarah has died of pneumonia.

Now Maurice's hatred is directed to God, the lover who has finally and eternally claimed Sarah.  Little miracles, seemingly the work of Sarah, begin occurring in the lives Sarah has touched.  Maurice and Henry even become good friends.  Instead of comforting Maurice, these instances terrify him.  For if Sarah could make that leap of faith and even maybe become a saint ... could he, would he?

Hatred began the book; hatred ends the book.  Maurice closes with a prayer of animosity, telling God to leave him alone.  But the reader remembers Sarah's insight: one cannot hate someone who does not exist.  Hate and love work together and the path to Maurice's conversion, though perhaps long and filled with bitter struggle, has begun.

They say God is a jealous lover.  He will use many means to capture our hearts.  Even the evil of something like adultery can become the means to a great good: conversion.  God works through our corrupt human love and hate and, instilling His grace, raises us to supernatural height.  

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