Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

It's strange how the human mind swings back and forth, from one extreme to another. Does truth lie at some point of the pendulum's swing, at a point where it never rests, not in the dull perpendicular mean where it dangles in the end like a windless flag, but at an angle, nearer one extreme than another? If only a miracle could stop the pendulum at an angle of sixty degrees, one would believe the truth was there.

Not all love stories are positive ones and not all loves are healthy or right. The End of the Affair is the kind of book that demonstrates just how poisonous and destructive an obsessive and possessive love can be. And it's not overly dramatic in any way nor does it romanticize or endorse the love between the main characters. It just is. And in all honesty, I really appreciate that because I think it can be really easy to romanticize those kinds of feelings of passion but also to go to the other extreme and forget what is real about them. So I think The End of the Affair finds the right balance.

But it's not just about this destructive love affair between Bendrix and Sarah but it's also about belief and how we use it in our lives and also how we sometimes hate the very thing we previously thought we didn't believe. In order to discuss this book I'm just going to assume you don't mind being spoiled on all the plot details. It's a really short book but packed with ideas and I think the general idea of it is well known, it's not like one of those books where's there's a twist and you'll hate me for spoiling it.

So the story starts with Bendrix and is told from his perspective. He's walking home and he meets Henry who just so happens to be the husband of his former lover. He's kind of surprised but they get a drink together and Henry tells him that he's worried Sarah's seeing someone. This causes all the old jealousy and possessiveness to flare up in Bendrix once again. After all, Sarah simply cut him off without telling him why and he has a lot of unresolved feelings. Henry confesses he's considered hiring a private detective to look into it and Bendrix encourages him, but Henry ultimately backs down. Bendrix sees Sarah for a brief moment and it sets off all his old's been nearly a year and a half and once she's back in the forefront of his mind and this idea that's she may have begun another relationship with someone else haunts him. And so he ultimately decides to take matters into his own hands and goes to the private detective on his own to find out about Sarah's new affair.

The set-up is in many ways interesting--an affair is a betrayal to begin with so his lack of trust in Sarah makes a certain kind of sense, like the first time they are together in her house, she notes the squeaky step to him, and it haunts him--how does she know about the squeaky step? But it goes far beyond that...even when they were together he would constantly badger her about her love for him, certain there was no way it was real and no way it could last. As he says, "Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel: sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust." He's rabidly jealous of her and sees his jealousy as proof of his love and as such is unable to see her love for him, because she is not jealous of him in the same way. He would prefer to see her dead or to be dead over ever seeing with her another man, even though she only wishes for him to be happy. This way in which he loves her is far more of an obsession, he does not value her well being. And his paranoia creates cracks in their relationship, he is verbally cruel and there is no possible way she can assure him of her love enough. She even says, "He is jealous of the past and the present and the future. His love is like a medieval chastity belt: only when he is there with me, in me, does he feel safe."

The private detective turns up many things including Sarah's actual diary, which provides Bendrix with both insight into Sarah's feelings (yes she really loved him) and why she cut him off. So what happened is that this all takes place during the war and there was an air raid one night and Bendrix happened to be hurt right after he and Sarah were together. And Sarah saw him lying there after the bombing she thought he looked dead and she was overcome with grief. And so she prays to God and she tells him that if he lets Bendrix live she'll believe in him even though she doesn't now. But she realizes that belief isn't much of a sacrifice to make, she's not actually offering God very much, so she vows that she'll give Bendrix up if he lets him live. And she says, "People can love without seeing each other, can't they, they love You all their lives without seeing You." And lo and behold Bendrix is alive and Sarah feels determined to keep her vow. She isn't particularly happy about it, though, she in fact feels dead inside.

The thing about Sarah is that the book suggests she loves Henry but she is not in love with him. Their sex life is passionless, she's had many affairs, but Bendrix is the man she falls in love with and she promises she loves him more than she's ever loved anyone and that holds true in the diary. But also she doesn't think much of herself, she rather hates herself, and wishes that she could find someone who would accept her fully for who she is. And you can't help but look at the way the men in her life loved her, as if she were a possession, (when her husband tells her he loves her, she says it's as if he's laying claim to her) and a third man she meets and discusses God with says that love can be explained away as a "desire to find another mother or father." If there was such a thing as unconditional love for Sarah from God you could see how appealing it would be.

Sarah struggles with her vow, she hadn't had much faith in God before, but now she's made this vow and she feels as if she must keep it. She befriends a man who does not believe in God and she considers their conversations. She wonders why her friend, Richard, hates the God-fairytale but does not hate the Devil-fairytale. And she wonders is it's possible to have love without hate. (the love/hate of it all is a theme in the book) and that leads her to realize, "Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?"

Sarah isn't steadfast, though, she's tempted to leave Henry for Bendrix but her plans are thwarted. And once Bendrix reads the diary, he believes they can be together, because after all, he does not believe in God so he thinks the vow is meaningless. And then some other stuff happens, I'll leave a little discovery to you if you decide to read the book.

But it's amazing to me how this book manages to both detail maybe...the worst way in which human love can go? And also at the same time an interesting perspective on faith, Sarah's faith is born out of unusual circumstances and equated with suffering. Faith is suffering, but once she has it she doesn't let it go. She longs to return to Maurice, but believes at the same time she will pay some sort of price breaking her vow. So once she makes the vow, once she opens herself up to the idea of belief, she's actually created a barrier between herself and Bendrix that can never be crossed.

And there's some other interesting ideas in here as well about the relationship between the material and the divine, the physical and the spiritual. Bendrix believes he can only love Sarah by physically being with her, the act of sex itself the ultimate act of love, but Sarah believes love can continue even if they are not physically together, as we love God even though we have no physical knowledge of him. Bendrix actually considers his love with Sarah to be superior to any love she had for God in the end, because he was the one who was physically with her.

Sarah's belief forces Bendrix to consider his own belief. And he doesn't believe in God and yet he hates him and is jealous of him. And it's interesting because he asks the reverse of Sarah's question, she wondered if one could hate without love, and Bendrix wonders if one could both hate AND love. And Bendrix himself feels most human, most normal when he manages to forget Sarah or not think of her.

I don't know, it's a pretty fascinating read. I think there are all these other ideas in the book as well, but the relationship between Bendrix and Sarah and the way the vow disrupts their lives and forces them to examine their beliefs is interesting. The intense jealousy and possessiveness of Bendrix is both troubling and enlightening. The amount of self-loathing both characters feel is so sad. And yet...there are these other things, like how "me too" signifies to them how they've shared their journey, and they're not alone and how when Sarah dies Bendrix feels as if he's lost half of his memories that bring a degree of universality and understanding to this twisted relationship. Oh and it's pretty easy to read, jam packed with ideas but not with antiquated language. I think it's well worth a read if you have the time and these ideas interest you.

Fun notes! The Vampire Diaries Season 3 episode 3 is titled "The End of the Affair" and Gossip Girl's next episode in January is titled "The End of the Affair?" I think based on the preview GG's is likely to be a more direct reference.

Rating: 4.75/5
Things You Might Want to Know: the sex is like, barely there
Source of Book: paperbackswap I think
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition


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