Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The End of the Affair....Again

Towards the end of last year I read The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. For many reasons, I spent a lot more time with this story than I do with most books. I even watched the 1999 version of the film (which was terrible). I wanted to eventually watch the 1955 film and I finally had a chance to do it this past weekend. I was surprised to find the film sticking with me over the past couple of days, since I felt like I already knew this story to death. I enjoyed the 1955 film a lot more than the 1999 one...I felt like it was a more faithful adaptation thematically even if not structurally.

Anyway, something about the film touched me and I was trying to figure out exactly what it was. The End of the Affair is about many things, but one of the things it illustrates is how the very nature of an affair erodes the necessary foundation of a relationship. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Bendrix goes home with Sarah for the first time and he wonders if Henry, her husband, will hear them. She assures him that they'll know because there's a step that always creaks. This doesn't reassure Bendrix, though, because he wants to know how she knows about the squeaky step and realizes he is perhaps not the first lover she has taken. Bendrix never really trusts Sarah and lives in constant fear that their love will end. Sarah on the other hand, believes that love goes on even if they aren't together.

When I read the book, there were these parts that really moved me about Bendrix and Sarah's relationship. At the time, I chalked them up to the book's even handling of the affair--it wasn't just depicted as dark and toxic WAS those things but despite all of that it was deeply meaningful to both Bendrix and Sarah, there WAS love. It's too simplistic to say it was all one thing. So I really appreciated these parts of the book that talk about what Bendrix was getting out his relationship with Sarah besides sex. For example:

"'Me too' for loneliness, griefs, disappointments, pleasures, and despairs, the claim to share everything." and also, "A week ago I had only to say to her 'Do you remember that first time together and how I hadn't got a shilling for the meter?', and the scene would be there for both of us. Now it was there for me only. She had lost all our memories for ever, and it was as though by dying she had robbed me of part of myself. I was losing my individuality. It was the first stage of my own death, the memories dropping off like gangrened limbs."

The film managed to work this idea in a little bit when Sarah says to Bendrix, "Remember when..." and Bendrix expresses his pleasure that she could even do this because it means they share a past, that they are more than just today. It runs up against Sarah's constant "let's just go day by day" mantra which needles Bendrix's insecurity, his certainty that their love will eventually end and his displeasure with this reality. He is unable to live "day by day" because he is unable to bear the thought of Sarah falling out of love with him and ever being with anyone else.

But it was this part about memories that affected me...this idea of shared memories and what that means to the individual. Bendrix is fighting against his own isolation as a human being through his relationship with Sarah. And while there are so many things about their relationship that are wrong, so unhealthy and much to doubt about their actual love for each other, the idea of sharing your life with someone and sharing your memories is powerful and universal. And sometimes...sometimes we don't get it right in life. We mess up and ruin relationships, friendships fade, and memories don't last forever. We don't always have a constant in our life and when a relationship is illicit, like Bendrix and Sarah's those memories are even more insular--at a death you are almost robbed of the right to have them.

While Bendrix and Sarah's relationship is obviously very hurtful to them both and they lack the ability to love each other freely and healthily, I can relate to the longing for shared experiences and for my memories to mean as much to others as they do to me. I can even relate a little bit to the sadness of the knowledge that the moment something begins you are also welcoming in its eventual end.

I read Dirt by David Vann today and I didn't really like it, but there's this one part where Galen is talking to his grandma who no longer remembers. And she asks him if he knows what it's like not to remember anything. When he answers that he doesn't, she responds "It's like being no one, but still having to live anyway." Our memories are powerful parts of our identity and it's possible that in sharing them we give them more truth.

The End of the Affair is not an epic love story, but it is a story about the struggle to defeat the isolation that surrounds us however that may be achieved...through seeking to possess another or believing in God or teaching others to stop believing in God. It is an honest and raw look at some of the complex ways we as humans seek to understand all of those, God, faith, each other, ourselves. Apparently I liked it well enough to visit the story three times, albeit in three different ways.


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