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Old 12-01-2019, 07:51 AM   #1
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December 2019 Discussion • The End of the Affair by Graham Greene



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Set in London during and just after the Second World War, the novel examines the obsessions, jealousy and discernments within the relationships between three central characters: writer Maurice Bendrix; Sarah Miles; and her husband, civil servant Henry Miles.
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Old 12-15-2019, 06:58 AM   #2
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It's time to discuss The End of the Affair. What did we think of it?
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Old 12-15-2019, 09:05 AM   #3
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I finished this a few days ago and while I was still stewing over it I scribbled down these few immediate reactions...

In a word: overwrought.

Give me murder and mayhem over adultery, any time. Adultery is one of those subjects that turns me away, most especially where it seems you are expected to sympathise with the participants ... although I don't think that's the case here. With The End of the Affair I am assuming Greene meant me to despise the narrator. How could anyone not despise the narrator? If that's what he wanted, then he succeeded admirably. I am less sure what Greene's intentions were with Sarah, there are some quotes I could give that make her seem pretty despicable. I suspect Greene wanted me feel sorry for her, but she betrayed her husband's trust with apparently no mitigating circumstances.

The supposed love affair seems to be entirely physical, there is almost no sense that the two ever actually liked each other.

Come the last third or so of the book we are pummelled with variations of how God and love and hate interrelate, but we got the point back on the first page with "So this is a record of hate far more than of love", and the surrounding whine. How much more am I expected to put up with? If I didn't value my ereader so much I would have thrown it across the room on several occasions. And Sarah for sainthood? Please, please, give me a break!

In another thread on MR, about a quote from another author, I wrote: "the excerpt was what I would describe as first-person self-obsessed, so YA would have been my first guess". Well, with The End of the Affair we have an example where my guess would have been wrong. This is a book of self-obsession, the woman is just another means by which the narrator obsesses about himself. First-person is the obvious way to present such self-obsession, so it's not really a criticism of Greene for his choice, but still, the level of melodrama means a comparison with YA seems particularly apt.


The introduction to my edition was by Monica Ali, 2004. If there had been any pips in the story this introduction smoothed the way by sucking them all out ... but having seen what she had to work with, perhaps I should be more forgiving.
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Old 12-15-2019, 03:41 PM   #4
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I thought it was very good indeed. Greene’s style is beautiful and understated. Of course Maurice is despicable, but how brilliantly Greene portrayed this. It is a story of three very damaged people whose involvement with each other was disastrous for all of them. I thought Henry came out of it as kind and decent, whose love for Sarah was deep even if not expressed physically.

More when I have a chance to look at my notes.
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Old 12-15-2019, 03:59 PM   #5
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My reactions were very close to gmw’s. Maurice was so self-absorbed, immature and blind that I felt like throwing the book too For a book about love and hate, none the relationships Greene portrayed showed much depth. Even his portrayal divine love was just superstition, possession and personal defeat.

I was immediately put off by the pettiness of the narrator and wanted to throw in the towel quite soon, but...he hooked me in with that visit to the PI.

And so went the whole book. I didn’t like the people, and thought the sentiment was shallow. The plot was weak, and much of what happened was so improbable, it bordered on absurdity. I’d think “this really isn’t worth my time!” but kept reading to see what would happen next. Does that make it a good book, or me just a fickle reader? In my defence, I did enjoy several of Greene’s general observations, and he could turn a good phrase.

Seriously, I think the strength of the book was that it somehow hooked me into a running dialogue with Greene himself. The people were mostly caricatures, but the author was present throughout the book, and somehow conned me into debating ideas with him.

PS: cross posted with Bookpossum . I do agree that Henry showed more tenderness and depth of character.

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Old 12-15-2019, 04:47 PM   #6
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I finished the book just before posting. In thinking more, I felt Greene himself was the real protagonist, and the book was primarily about the nature of people’s religious experience, which he sells a bit short. I found him to be rather reductionist in his treatment of all relationships, but the ideas are engaging.
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Old 12-15-2019, 06:15 PM   #7
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Bookpossum, I am relieved to hear you say "Of course Maurice is despicable". Some of the reviews I had read describe this as "Heart rending love story", and similar, and I was starting to think I must have picked up the wrong book by mistake*. We differ in that I don't think Greene was especially brilliant at this; it felt ham-handed to me, so far over the top as to be, as Victoria suggested, a caricature.

Even poor, much mistreated, Henry seemed like a caricature of the jilted lover. There was almost nothing about either of the men that felt real to me. Sarah was a bit more ambiguous, but her struggle was with God rather than with Maurice or Henry, and while her diary says things that seemed to indicate she loved Maurice, it was - to me - like being told that in a very flat tone; never did any of her interactions with either of the men convince me there was any real affection. This is, perhaps, the problem of first-person in this narrative, there was no way for Greene to show that affection when everything had to be reflected back against the self-obsessed Maurice.

Victoria, yes, it feels like we read the same book. This did feel like an argument with Greene, with the topic as religion. And I think this might be why the narrative is so self-obsessed, because it's not really about a human love affair. That is used as an analogy, and perhaps this is why it is so unconvincing as love.

... Even days later I am having a hard time coming up with anything nice to say about this book.


* Just a day or two ago, Kobo had the wrong blurb up against a book cover, so it's not completely unrealistic.
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Old 12-15-2019, 06:39 PM   #8
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Quote:
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I finished the book just before posting. In thinking more, I felt Greene himself was the real protagonist, and the book was primarily about the nature of people’s religious experience, which he sells a bit short. I found him to be rather reductionist in his treatment of all relationships, but the ideas are engaging.
Indeed, Greene does seem to have been the real protagonist. The dedication of the book is to "C", a married woman called Catherine (I forget her surname) with whom Greene had a long affair.

The book is also described as one of his Catholic novels. I understand he had converted to Catholicism when he married, but that he described himself as a Catholic agnostic because clearly he struggled with the teachings of the church.

I can't agree that the people are caricatures, which suggests they are simplified sketches. I think the characters are rounded and nuanced. They might not be likeable, but for me they are convincing as real people.
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Old 12-15-2019, 06:43 PM   #9
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And speaking of caricatures, what about the second-runner up, the literally two-faced "rationalist", Richard Smythe?

This felt to me like a very cheap shot at rationalism by Greene ... but then the minor miracle of Sarah healing Richard's second/ugly face (apparently removing rational thought forever) seemed like a pretty cheap shot at religion too.

The whole thing with the Smythes felt quite tacky. We knew it was going to turn out to be innocent (to the extent Sarah was not having yet another affair), but the interactions there don't paint Sarah in a very flattering light. I realise it was supposed to be yet another demonstration of her struggle to believe in God, but to invert that such that Richard is converted by his "love" of Sarah seems to suggest things about gardens and apples and women being temptresses - in this case the temptation goes the other way, but only because Sarah is dead, seemingly in the service of God. It's a messy mass of mixed messages. (Say that five times quickly. )
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Old 12-15-2019, 08:57 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
Indeed, Greene does seem to have been the real protagonist. The dedication of the book is to "C", a married woman called Catherine (I forget her surname) with whom Greene had a long affair.

The book is also described as one of his Catholic novels. I understand he had converted to Catholicism when he married, but that he described himself as a Catholic agnostic because clearly he struggled with the teachings of the church.

I can't agree that the people are caricatures, which suggests they are simplified sketches. I think the characters are rounded and nuanced. They might not be likeable, but for me they are convincing as real people.
Interesting Bookpossum. The book certainly has unresolved issues with the the Catholic Church. “C” must have had mixed feelings about having the book dedicated to her. It was a very ambivalent portrayal of a paramour.

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And speaking of caricatures, what about the second-
runner up, the literally two-faced "rationalist", Richard Smythe?

This felt to me like a very cheap shot at rationalism by Greene ... but then the minor miracle of Sarah healing Richard's second/ugly face (apparently removing rational thought forever) seemed like a pretty cheap shot at religion too.

The whole thing with the Smythes felt quite tacky. We knew it was going to turn out to be innocent (to the extent Sarah was not having yet another affair), but the interactions there don't paint Sarah in a very flattering light. I realise it was supposed to be yet another demonstration of her struggle to believe in God, but to invert that such that Richard is converted by his "love" of Sarah seems to suggest things about gardens and apples and women being temptresses - in this case the temptation goes the other way, but only because Sarah is dead, seemingly in the service of God. It's a messy mass of mixed messages. (Say that five times quickly. )
Gmw I thought there was a messy mix of roles too. We did know from the beginning that Smythe protested too much and would flip. Maurice starts as a moaning, suffering Job in the first half, and becomes Jonas fleeing God, the Hound of Heaven, in the last section. Sarah begins as temptress Eve for Maurice; evolves into Mary Magdalene for the Priest, and finishes as a miracle performing saint. Creepy Mr. Parkis seemed a bit like a Hydra - Maurice just couldn’t get rid of him.

There didn’t seem to be a coherent picture or message in the book. At the risk of over analyzing things, Greene seemed to be grasping rather wildly at archetypes to try and sort out his own religious beliefs. He says at the beginning of the book that the story has no beginning or end. And by the way Maurice behaved at the end, it seemed that Greene wasn’t any closer to a personal resolution by the time he finished writing the book. It makes me a bit curious about his other Catholic novels, and wonder if he ever found a comfortable landing zone.

Last edited by Victoria; 12-15-2019 at 09:23 PM.
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Old 12-15-2019, 10:57 PM   #11
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I really enjoyed this book. I initially listened to it back in March and then did a skim of the ebook. I did a lot of research and took notes at the time. As Bookpossum said the autobiographical and Catholic components are critical to its interpretation. I am busy the next fews days at work but will be able to comment further after Wednesday.

Here is what I wrote in the audiobook thread for my first impression back in March:
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I am almost finished with The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Colin Firth does an excellent job on the narration and captures the emotional angst of the characters well. The book won the 2013 Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year. This book has a great first line, “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look forward.” That sums up the problem I had with this audiobook. It was too difficult to follow the non-chronological, shifting timeline while listening via audiobook during my daily commute or exercise. I definitely plan to read this one via ebook in order to fully delve into the Greene’s beautiful writing and character development to appreciate the many layers of this book.
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Old 12-16-2019, 12:07 AM   #12
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I'm afraid I come down on the side of gmw and Victoria. I found it overwrought, self-absorbed, and pretentious. I'm sure it's autobiographical, which is, I suppose, some minor justification. But it didn't make it any more enjoyable.
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Old 12-16-2019, 06:30 AM   #13
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I can't see too much agreement happening on this book! We seem to be divided between those who dislike the story, and those who admire the style and skill of the author.
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Old 12-16-2019, 06:31 AM   #14
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So, as I mentioned earlier, the introduction to my edition by Monica Ali, was less than inspiring. Why they insist on including this sort of stuff (full of spoilers etc.) at the front, rather than at the back where it belongs, I do not know. But to my point...

Monica says:
Quote:
Greene, of course, must donate flesh (and vital organs) to Bendrix. How else should a writer go about creating a writer?
Say what? How does she think a writer creates characters that are not writers?

Greene may have donated elements of his own self to Bendrix, or he may have donated someone else's (I'm pretty sure Greene must have known one or two other writers), or Bendrix might be made up from assorted pieces of many people (this seems most likely).

Monica does go on to say:
Quote:
But this does not make Bendrix the man (as opposed to the writer) Greene’s alter-ego.
But if she can acknowledge this, why must she assume Greene has donated his own flesh to the character? It is possible, but it is not something we can safely assume.

That said, I do think that a large degree of obsessiveness is part of a writer's make up. So I'm guessing Greene may have been well qualified to write about obsession.


I have little doubt, from what I've read, that some of Greene's personal experience has contributed to this story, but I think it is too large a leap to go from that to assuming it is autobiographical. Even authors that do it less obviously than this must draw from experience - we all do, in whatever it is we do - but imagination means it may end up fiction rather than biography.

Also, I hope it's not closely autobiographical because I'd rather think better of Graham Greene than I do Maurice Bendrix.

No, I think Bendrix was a construct. One of five different exaggerated characters (four men all watching one woman struggling with, and eventually for, her life) that Greene created to thrash out his own problems with religion. And it failed, he resolved nothing (or nothing that he reveals in this novel). As far as I can see, he exposes nothing new to add to the debate, so all this novel has is the struggle. The struggle might make for compelling reading if I had sympathy for any of the protagonists, but I did not.
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Old 12-16-2019, 06:46 AM   #15
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At the beginning of Book 2, Maurice writes:

Quote:
I sometimes wonder whether anything that I am putting down here is true.
We are dealing here with a man who feels inferior to Sarah, because she is both beautiful and intelligent. He tells us this near the beginning of the book:

Quote:
I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical.
His own deep inadequacy leads him to abuse and ill-treat the woman he professes to love. She in turn does not believe herself to be worthy of love - it's the perfect recipe for domestic violence.

Then comes the struggle with belief after the seeming miracle of Maurice's survival. It doesn't matter whether we believe in miracles or not: what matters is how Sarah struggled with the need to keep the vow that she made when she prayed for him to survive.

ETA: Sorry gmw, this crossed with your post, and wasn't meant to be a response to it!

Last edited by Bookpossum; 12-16-2019 at 06:49 AM.
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