Tuesday, September 04, 2012

1950s- The End of the Affair (1951)

I was already late writing up this one, and then I found that the draft of the post I'd been writing has disappeared, so that is partly my excuse for such a long blog silence. I have run so far behind schedule on this project but I haven't given up, in fact I'm already reading my 1960s book. Hopefully I will post on that in a more timely fashion! But I digress, back to The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and hopefully I haven't forgotten too much of it...

I haven't read any Graham Greene before, but when I noticed this book in the bookshop while looking for something completely different (The Door in the Air by Margaret Mahy, but that's another story) and realised it was written in the '50s it seemed like the perfect time to start. When I started reading the book my feelings of serendipity diminished somewhat. It wasn't what I felt like reading, it was too ironic feeling, too much emotional distance, the kind of book that makes me want to start grumbling that all contemporary literature is the same- all infidelity and unsympathetic characters. The 1950s was clearly not long enough ago to escape this.

I tend to feel that such a reaction reflects badly on me rather than the book, and means that either I need to take a bit of a break from the genre or read something exceptional that makes sense of the genre again. It bodes ill for writing book reviews. But! The story does not end there. I kept reading and eventually the book turned around for me. I was reading along, grumbling at how unbelievable the love between two characters often seems in books that are centered around being in love, and thinking about manic pixie dream girls, and generally not getting along with the central character, when Sarah's diary started, and everything just made much more sense to me. Then the story moved into the tragic, and I thought it was the better for it.

Short digression for a plot summary: Maurice runs into Henry in the park, and is reminded of his ended affair with Henry's wife, Sarah, which ended when a bomb fell on his house and Sarah inexplicably left him. This reminder reawakens his obsession, and he set about trying to understand what happened, and following Sarah's movements by hiring a private detective to follow her, and eventually to steal her diary. And I don't think it's too much of a spoiler (though look away if you want) to say that Sarah ends up dying- Maurice attends the funeral and then falls into a strange sort-of friendship with Henry, who is rather a pathetic figure.

It's funny reviewing books by your reactions to them rather than what they are trying to do, but then it's not easy to do anything else. Maurice introduces his story by saying "this is a record of hate far more than of love", and yet what I want is a story of love, and it is for the parts of it that made sense of the book as a love story that I particularly liked it. Sarah's diary did that for me, because she was able to express love, because through her voice I understood how Maurice could be loveable. Maurice, on the other hand, is clouded by pain  and insecurity and obsession. He goes on from the sentence I quoted before to say "... and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near truth, even to the expression of my near hate." But to the reader, or to this reader anyway, this sentence only underlines how much he cannot be trusted, his hate is complicated by his love. The way the love affair plays out seems very real, and really underlines this complication- the obsession and the insecurity and the tedium of it. But for me, the tedium and the negativity of the affair only made sense once I could see the love.

The book goes on to talk more about the relationship between love and hate, not only in terms of the relationship between Maurice and Sarah but also in terms of their relationship with God. Both start out as confirmed atheists, but have to confront what they actually believe over the course of the book. Whether they believe in God, and what they believe about God, turns out to be the destructive force in their affair.

Towards the end the tone changed again, from the tragic to the more everyday, and it lost me a little bit again. But it seems unfair to try to make a book that is trying to undermine in some way the idea of a grand love affair into a grand love affair. It's just that with the loss of Sarah, just when I had come to find her so important, I lost interest a bit.

So a lot to think about there, clearly! All in all I really enjoyed this book, despite feeling less than excited by it to begin with, and maybe I will look up some more Greene in future. In the meanwhile I'll be reading Slaughterhouse Five and hopefully this blog will not be neglected for so long again!

4 comments:

  1. I read this a while back and really enjoyed it. Well, enjoy is perhaps not quite the right verb, but I did find it poignant and intriguing and moving. If you'd like to try a very different side of Graham Greene, read Our Man in Havana, one of his spy novels with a more humourous vein. I always feel in very safe hands with his work as he really knows how to write to put you right in the situation.

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    1. Oh yes- I found it very poignant too, at least once I had gotten past my initial reservations. And thanks for the recommendation- it sounds good and I would be interested to see a different side of Graham Greene.

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  2. Hello Catie, I loved this novel when I read it, a while ago now and with my poor memory I don't remember much of the detail. Your lovely review really brought it back to me, thank you! I seem to remember that the novel felt more personal than those of his others I've read, although they are all I think pretty intense. I haven't read Our Man in Havana though.

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    1. Thank you! I wonder if Our Man in Havana would be more or less intense if it is in a more humourous vein?

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